Discovering Prehistoric Art
Early Questions and Explanations
Developments in the theory of art have rarely been motivated by what was happening in art theory itself. As we have had ample occasion to see in the preceding volumes, the problems and tasks of art theory were usually posed by events and processes taking place either in the world of the artists or in the society for which their works were made, the world of the spectator. Whatever the exact stimulus to new discussions, it always came from beyond the confines of aesthetic reflection itself. Likewise, conditions and movements in the outside world that determined which way art theory turned in search of solutions. This general truth is particularly evident in the reception and assimilation of primitive art. The discovery of prehistoric art and the attempts to come to terms with it show as in a flash the impact of historical developments and of accepted beliefs and notions about the theory of art.
The stories of how the prehistoric age was discovered, and how prehistoric man's culture and the works of art he left behind were seen and understood by the modern students who were first faced with them—these stories have been told more than once.1 We need not repeat them here. But it may be useful to make a few comments about those discoveries and the attempts to explain them, that had a direct bearing on reflection on art.
Ever since the Renaissance, vague assumptions were made to the effect that humanity was much older than conventional wisdom had it. Students who could not accept the calculations of biblical chronology or solve other difficulties resulting from the biblical text, often turned to the so-called “Pre-Adamite” theory, a heretical belief found among some learned men in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But these few scholars of independent mind did not waste a thought on early man's ability to create art. So when was prehistoric man's ability to produce works of art recognized, and when did this awareness enter cultural consciousness and become part