[NOTE: There was a great deal of interesting back and forth in the comments section here about how art has developed over the centuries, and what our greater ability to create lifelike representational art means. That's what sparked this post.]
There’s art I like better than other art, and art I don’t much care for. There’s good art and there’s shlock, and there’s even good art I like better than other good art.
But each style of art (except for some recent art that is little but a series of ironic statements or commentary) is a self-contained, fully-developed thing, at least when at its zenith. There are trends—for example, towards more realism for a while, and then away from it—but the best artists of each era were masters of a certain esthetic that characterized that particular era. Is one “better” than the other in some objective way?
The first time I ever saw reproductions of the Lascaux cave paintings from about 17,000 years ago, I was stunned by what I considered their sophistication of form and beauty and even elegance, and especially line. These were not “primitive” in any sense of the word that I could understand, except perhaps the medium (cave walls, ground natural pigments, limited palette) and subject matter. But otherwise it astounded me how these very early humans were able to conjure up the movement and the essence of an animal with just a few strokes, while illuminated by torchlight in a damp, dark underground hole.
You think it strange that I call them “sophisticated”? Do you think they look like children’s drawings? Well, not to me. They are deceptively simple, but not childlike. In Altamira, where the paintings have been dated to around 14,000 to 16,500 years ago:
The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity and creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect.
The paintings were so astoundingly wonderful and of such “supreme artistic quality” that they initially were met with profound skepticism, and thought to be forgeries.
The cave paintings have long reminded me of these Chinese ones, although no one could ever call the latter primitive:
Note, by the way, that the Chinese artists have made the error (or was it an esthetic choice?) of artists everywhere (before photography, anyway) in painting the running horse with feet flying, the perception discussed here (it was only when a movie was made that the error was corrected). Here is a flying-footed horse from Lascaux (although I’m not sure if it’s showing the horse’s back feet to be completely off the ground):
And here is that very first film of a horse. Note that all four of the animal’s legs are off the ground at one point, but in a furled rather than outstretched position. However, the back legs then touch down while the front stretch out—very much as in the above cave painting, rather than the Chinese ones. Of course, as I said earlier, that does not mean the cave painting is better art:
Each type of art is complete in itself, with its own esthetic and purpose, and yet universal in its appeal. If the criterion for greatness is near-photographic lifelike resemblance, then of course later developments would be greater. That’s not my criterion, although others may differ. One sense in which I think later art is “greater” is in its tremendous variety of purpose, subject, and style—if “greatness” is measured in variety. I’m not so sure it is, however; when I look at those cave paintings, they seem undeniably great, although the artists focused on a very narrow number of themes and styles.
I’ll close with a relief I studied in my college Introduction to Art History class. I found it very memorable, and so I remembered it. It’s another animal, interestingly enough—the wounded lioness, an Assyrian work of the seventh century BC. Pretty realistic, and pretty great, and pretty early in time, although compared to those cave paintings its realism is positively futuristic: