Sunday, May 24, 2009

Is Anyone Wondering If The 35000 Year Old Statue Is a Self-Portrait? by Anthony McCarthy

A nod to Echidne.

I was going to research this but didn’t need to get farther than the first Google search page that came up.

35000-year-old figure of 'sexually charged' woman unveiled

Obsession with Naked Women Dates Back 35000 Years | LiveScience

Sexy "Venus" may be oldest figurine yet discovered - Yahoo! News

Sexy Figure Sculpture May Be 35000 Yrs Old - ABC News

I haven’t been following this very closely, but has anyone speculated that the sculptor might have been a woman? Or that she might have been making a self portrait? Or that the sculptor might have been making a portrait of her mother? Everything I’ve read or heard seems to take it for granted that it was made by a man, most seem to assume, for erotic reasons.

Other than the location, approximate age and material its made of everything that has been said about this ancient art is mere speculation. We don’t know who made it, why it was made, even if it is part of a cultural tradition. We have no way to know if it was even what they, themselves, would consider their best work. We don’t know if the artist liked their work or if they were considered to be a good artist by their contemporaries. This could be the equivalent of pre-historic kitsch, for all we know. Any remarks about the pattern of cuts along it is likely to be a misinterpretation. Tattoos? Body painting? Cultural cutting? A striped body stocking? Disfigurement by a later hand, perhaps even the woman depicted who just hated it? The earliest known graffiti made fifty years after the artist died?

Like all attempts to recover a lost cultural past, everything being said about its meaning and what it tells us about the person who made it and their presumed culture, tells us only about ourselves. No amount of other “cultural material” from that area and time can tell us much other than if this was a common theme in their culture. Even with a large number of objects, most of what we might want to know is irretrievably lost to us and always will be. We can’t ask them to answer those questions. We shouldn’t pretend we can know what they were thinking. We can’t even recreate their aesthetic sensibility with reference to our own. We can't even know if the artist had a single "message" or "meaning". Maybe if asked they would say that was the viewer's job.

Almost everything I’ve read talks obsessively about the size of the breasts and thighs but no one seems to be very concerned that the head is way too small, or, perhaps, missing. The conclusion someone could draw about the gender of the people making the comments from that is of more certain reliability than any speculations about what the statue meant to whoever made it. The comments made since its discovery are the only record of its meaning we have.

The desire to fill in for information we can’t get seems to be irresistible, especially among scholars who are eager to get into print or interviewed. And if they don't make one up, the "journalist", steeped in the social science assumptions learned in college can be counted on to fill it in. But that’s just story telling, it's not fact. We should stop pretending it means anything.

Update: OK, Let me show you what I mean.

Sciency explanations for why the 35,000 year old woman’s head is so small.

#1. The sculptor wasn’t very skilled and didn’t leave enough room for a head that was proportional to the body. You see this all the time when you watch kids drawing. Alternatively, the sculptor had problems depicting proportions.

#2. The sculptor intended that a separate head would fit over what is there, the head was either never attached or got lost

#3. The part of the ivory that was going to be the head broke off when it was dropped and this was the best that could be done with what was left.

#4. The figure was carved by a male breast fetishist who didn’t have much respect for a woman’s intelligence or who just wasn’t a face guy.

#5. The figure is actually a malicious caricature made by a woman of a rival, she was calling her a “pea brain”. Only in her culture that would have been “you have the intelligence of a sloe fruit”.

#6. You can go on making up stories all day if you want to. Just don’t be surprised when someone points out you’re just talking about yourself and not the sculptor when you do.