Lessons from Cave Art

Why does art have to be an afterthought?

In my way of thinking, all art is a discipline related to our calling in life, both as individuals and as a community. Art is a means to express our values, engage our neighbors, and pursue our sense of the things that matter most.

It may seem strange to think about cave art as a discipline integrally involved in realizing a full life;  but, like all art, even cave art expresses a worldview and creates means for achieving that worldview over time. In her article, “Cave Art,” Izzy Wisher visits three specimens of this ancient phenomenon, and offers some views about the meaning of it all (Aeon, December 11, 2020).

There is a good bit of projecting backwards here, of course, since the people who created this art didn’t bother to provide captions or other forms of explanation. In our day, Wisher explains, art is primarily a luxury item “or a commodity more or less isolated from other aspects of society.” We do art when all our other needs are met, or if we have the time or are so inclined. She observes, “it’s rare to see art that is intrinsically woven into, and ultimately shapes, the very fabric of society.”

But art has always been a part of human society: “This desire to create and to represent appears to have been embedded within our genus and intertwined with our evolution; as human evolution progressed, artistic behaviours became more complex and diverse.” Art helps us establish identities; enshrines for the future our values and interests; and gives us means of participating in community values and activities in our own day. Wisher explains some examples of cave art – which I have always found not only fascinating but remarkably beautiful – and offers some views on the importance of this art for those people.

As with all descriptions of such art, Wishers expresses wonder and admiration, and rightly so. She sees cave art as essential to survival, since it speaks to the community about the things that are most important for life. It seems to have been an activity engaged even by children, as seen in the finger flutings that remain in some caves. She writes, “Art was far more than a pleasant pastime that our distant ancestors indulged in; it was interwoven within the function of these Upper Paleolithic societies and was integral to their way of life.”

Art should be no less important to us. I agree. We are the image-bearers of God, and making beautiful things to enshrine our values, victories, fears, hopes, and life experiences should have a more important place in our lives than at present. And, given our long and glorious heritage of artistic achievement, this should be especially so for us in the Christian community.