Mittwoch, 20. Dezember 2017

Panel 1: “Cognitive Theory in Art and Archaeology”

A Weblog Entry by Katharina Zartner and Sonja Speck

Aims and initial questions 

The first panel “Cognitive Theory in Art and Archaeology” at our international workshop was organised by the PhD students Sonja Speck and Katharina Zartner with the kind support of Prof. Dr. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser. The main focus of the panel lay on iconographic and archaeological sources, as well as on the cognitive concepts embedded within them. In order to represent the broad spectrum of the theme and to mirror the particular interests in concepts of humanity and nature in our Research Training Group, we devised some thought-provoking questions as initial impulses for the invited speakers, as well as for the comprehensive and conclusive panel discussion. These questions were: 

  • What are possible applications of visual cognition in the field of art and visual studies?
  • How do shape, texture and colour of objects display their cultural meaning? 
  • What role do abstraction and simplification play in the production of images? 
  • How can cognitive sciences contribute to the understanding of the development of concepts of representation? 

The three invited speakers dealt with particular aspects of these and related questions as they were linked to their respective fields of research: 

From the psychological point of view 

The first contribution in the panel came from Prof. Bob Kentridge from the Psychology Department of Durham University who read a paper entitled “Can factors in the psychology of visual perception account for stylistic regularities in Palaeolithic art?”, which had been co-authored by his colleague Prof. Charles Heywood. 

At the beginning of his talk, Prof. Kentridge pointed out that there are certain consistencies in Palaeolithic rock art that persisted over several millennia, using horse depictions as an example. There are various theories why this might be the case, e.g. it could have been art for art´s sake or boundary markers, it could have been connected to some kind of hunting magic or shamanic rituals or psychological and neurophysiological factors could have played a role. Afterwards, Prof. Kentridge focused on the latter explanation. For the Palaeolithic hunter there were two main tasks linked to visual cognition: firstly, to detect prey in the landscape, and secondly, to differentiate between different types of prey. By explaining how the human eye works and how small our field of direct vision is, he demonstrated that the hunter is only able to discriminate his prey once it is fixated. With the help of a few simple graphics it was illustrated in a fascinating way that a certain oddity in single features (such as brightness, colour, motion and so on) attracts attention and – in case of a hunter – directs the gaze to a possible target. In contrast: oddity in combinations of different features does not attract special attention. 

The aim of the current research of Prof. Kentridge and his colleagues is to detect salient features of different prey animals with the help of photographs (where are primary and secondary fixations of a human observer?). In a second step, these results can be compared with the representations in ancient rock art to check if there are any correspondences between important salience points and the striking and recurrent features in the depictions. This might bring us one step closer to solving the puzzle why some features in rock art are depicted in a certain way and stay consistent over such a long period of time. 

On the origins of art 

The second speaker of the panel was Prof. Paul Pettitt from the Archaeology Department at Durham University who gave a lecture on “Cave art, cognitive style. Materials and methods for the scientific investigations of the origins of art”. 

In the beginning, Prof. Pettitt presented three different phases of the earliest art: The first one is the “Peripersonal phase” (~500.000 BP) during which art focuses on the body or on objects that are intimately associated with the body. The origins of art lie perhaps in body decoration practices. In the following “Extension phase” (~100.000 BP) art becomes extended to smaller and portable objects which are not closely associated with the body but can be carried around. Finally, in the third and so-called “Extrapersonal phase” (~40.000 BP) art is transferred to places and landscapes with increasing elaboration. 

While interpreting early art, one may be easily misled by symbolism – that is, we try to read too much into early “art” which might be nothing more than plain babbles and scribbles. Prof. Pettitt stressed that we should not look for symbolic or non-symbolic behaviour when interrogating the archaeological record. Full symbolism is intended when we can detect underlying evidence for some kind of cosmology or mythology or, more neutral, when material culture is used to make an explicit statement in the form of a coded message. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options why, for example, a certain set of colours may have been used, e.g. for decoration purposes or to enhance something, but there is not necessarily a symbolic meaning behind the colour. As another interesting example, Prof. Pettitt showed “pierres figures”, stones that naturally resemble the form of a human body and that have been intentionally modified to enhance those features. The phenomenon of pareidolia (to see human features in objects) is common in prehistoric art but the enhancement of the mentioned features may just be a hint to those resemblances rather than an expression of any symbolic meaning. This and other examples made it clear that we should be very careful when interpreting early art and that we tend to see too many symbols from time to time. 

After this fair warning, Prof. Pettitt raised the important question “Why cave art?”, or in other words: Why is cave art suitable for the study of the origins of art? Firstly, unlike in the case of archaeological excavations, we can still study the three-dimensional environment of the cave art which most closely resembles the original experience the creators of these artworks had. Secondly, a cave is a psychologically stimulating environment which may provide strong examples of cognitive effects due to the complexity of its visual resolution. This makes it possible to use methods from the field of visual psychology (e.g. as presented by Bob Kentridge). And last but not least, it is possible to study cave art over a long period of time which allows us to have a diachronic perspective to detect developments and changes. 

Principles of prehistoric art 

The panel’s third speaker, Prof. Christoph Huth from the Pre- and Protohistoric Archaeology department at Freiburg University, presented a paper titled “The many faces of prehistoric pictorial representations” which focused on how prehistoric pictures work and why. 

Prof. Huth identified a set of characteristics that seem to be effective in most pictorial depictions of prehistoric cultures and are clearly distinct from those of literate state-like societies. Prehistoric depictions of wagons illustrate those characteristics very well. They are made in the same way everywhere from Europe to China in not following the rules of projective geometry, but using changing views in foldout pictures and not being able to show overlapping features and depth. It can be concluded that these pictures are not derived from a view. In fact, they are constructed by the mind. That is why they contain what is known and thought to be essential about the subject. 

The characteristics of prehistoric images correspond with some pictures produced by younger children. That does not mean that the people of prehistoric societies were childish, but rather adjusted to the requirements of life in small-scale agricultural communities. As Prof. Huth stated, acquiring different levels of pictorial skills happens in the same order for all humans and in accordance with the development of cognitive abilities in that area. So, conclusions about the level of cognitive abilities underlying the production of prehistoric images can actually be made. 

Another important property of pictures in prehistory is the notion that they work the same way as the depicted subject. Therefore, the pictures possess effectiveness, also vitality and agency is ascribed to them. In this context, Prof. Huth referred to the very essence of a picture as the “agens”. It is a fundamental property of an image that remains effective even when an image is copied, abbreviated or again substituted by the actual object. A perfect example can be found in Bronze and Iron Age situla art. To the South of the Alps in close proximity to the Etruscan civilization, situlae are decorated with a coherent pictorial sequence, while north of the Alps the same pictures occur but in an abbreviated manner as single motives rather than a whole story. According to Prof. Huth, in the context of prehistoric societies the “agens” of a picture alone is important. 

Composite beings 

Following the lectures of the invited speakers, the PhD students Sonja Speck and Katharina Zartner gave a brief lecture related to common aspects of their PhD projects to initiate the comprehensive panel discussion. Titled “Composite Beings – Mental Images in the Material World”, the lecture focused on images first formed in the mind through the human creative imagination by combining several elements known from previous sense perceptions and then transported into the material world as terianthropic representations. 

Composite beings are present amongst the earliest figurative art representations as demonstrated by the 35.000 to 40.000 years old so called “Löwenmensch figurine" from the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave in the Lonetal and remained part of human imagery in most cultures ever since. That is also the case for Neolithic Upper Egypt around 3700 to 3300 BC. From this period Sonja Speck presented a group of highly stylized anthropomorphic clay figures with the lower body fashioned in a solid pointed block and a small head formed like that of a bird. 

PhD students Sonja Speck and Katharina Zartner delivering their short presentations (photo by Sandra Hofert).

In her PhD project Katharina Zartner deals with a figure – the so-called hero with six curls – that we also see as some kind of hybrid, not because it is therianthropic but because it combines human and supernatural aspects. The major differences from concurrent human representations indicate the supernatural part of the composition. In the case of the hero with six curls these are an extraordinary hairstyle, nudeness and the face depicted en face. 

The aim of the brief lecture was to close in on the apparent popularity of composite beings in so many cultures and periods and the concepts lying behind them, as well as the effectiveness of those images in the visual communication process. In this light, hybrid forms were looked at with regard to their minimal counter-intuitiveness as stated by Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, that is, the merging of only two categories like human and animal. Their minimal counter-intuitiveness makes the hybrids more memorable and attractive to human attention. Therefore, it was assumed that minimally counterintuitive elements can be vehicles for essential concepts in images that are to be transported in the process of visual communication. 

Today, we lack the background knowledge to understand concepts that were transmitted in ancient art. That is, questions such as “how to decode concepts in ancient images” and “how significant the observations of the modern researcher can actually be” were asked to spur the comprehensive panel discussion. 

Discussing cognitive theory in art and archaeology 

Falling in line with the questions asked, it was discussed how we can verify that a present-day observer is actually able to identify the correct animal elements in prehistoric and antique representations of hybrid beings. It was shown that through perceived similarity various associations can occur. Those associations can be ranked as more or less likely only by comparison with other contemporary representations. 

It was shown that through similarity there could be many different associations, that can be more or less likely only informed by other contemporary representations. 

On a more important note, it was asked what we mean, when we use the term “art”. A view shared by many is that art can be understood as visual culture in the sense that it is “an imposition of form or a physical realization of a concept” as phrased by Prof. Pettitt. If that is true of an object, may it be as simple and practical as a hand axe, it is part of visual culture and therefore art. Another argument put forward by Prof. Kentridge was that whenever there is a tension between sensation and perception, which are naturally different from each other, it might be the point where art comes into play. As perception is nothing else than becoming acquainted with the properties of the things in the world, subsequently we cannot help depicting these properties, rather than depicting what we actually see. This tension is essentially an artistic problem. 

Hence, as an example, pictures of chariots with the body folded up and four wheels represented, as we know them from many prehistoric cultures, are depictions of what people know, not what they see. It is very likely that this also applies to paleolithic art. Especially the highly accurate cave paintings of animals seem to represent the very sophisticated knowledge of their makers. 

Creating a link to panel 2 "Cognitive Approaches to Natural Phenomena and Landscape”, the discussion also moved to the relation of outdoor art and its correspondence to the surrounding landscape. This type of representation often holds information about the landscape itself and what happens in it. It shows the crucial importance of context for the interpretation of representations. Context, in this case, does not only include landscape, but also the medium, effort and organization needed for making the representation, the receiver of signals and many other aspects connected to the planning, making, using and perceiving of images.

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