Cormac McCarthy vs. Catalhoyuk

Hands in negative with a red painted background at Catalhoyuk.

I listened to the Science Friday episode featuring Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog, and another guy (why didn’t they have Meg Conkey or someone who could actually address art and human origins?) after being sent the link by several people. Here it is, if you are interested:

http://www.sciencefriday.com/program/archives/201104085

Probably the most interesting segment to me (other than Herzog predicting the ultimate doom of all humanity) was Cormac McCarthy talking about the stylistic continuity of cave art. People who have been following this blog for a while might remember that I used to excerpt bits of fiction for writing inspiration by writers such as Jack Gilbert, Orhan Pamuk, and Mr. Cormac McCarthy himself. So I was particularly interested in hearing his take on Chauvet. An extended quote, transcribed from the audio:

“Well, the interesting thing about the caves to me is the longevity of this school of art. The oldest we know of (by no means are we to therefore say that the Chauvet Caves are the oldest there are, just the oldest we’ve seen) going back 32,000 years and then you come up all the way through the Magdalenian period to 11,000 years ago, this is 20,000 years and the paintings are the same. The perspectives they use, the style they use, the things that they use to show that the leg of an animal is not in the foreview but in the rearview is they disconnect it from the body, all these things persevered. If you look at the cave paintings at Chauvet, they’re really just the same; the same school of thought, the same school of art, the same type of work, that’s astonishing to me that you can have the same school of art unchanged for 20,000 years. I’ve never heard anybody’s view about that, I’d be interested to know what the people who study this what they think about that. Obviously there’s a culture here. Artifacts come from cultures, you have to have the cultures first. Obviously there’s a very strong and a very rich culture that endured for thousands of years and nobody seems to know anything about it. That’s astonishing.

When you get to the earliest so-called cities or communities like Catalhoyuk the first thing you see are paintings of bulls on the walls. They’re not as good, we’re already in a state of decline, but that’s amazing.

There is a lot going on with this quote regarding the “school of art” of the cave painters reflecting an ongoing, unchanging culture (I think more interesting parallel questions are why would the paintings change? why would they see or represent animals in a different way and why does this appearance of verisimilitude not extend to humans? But I’m not a rock art person….) but the last part of the statement is something with which I have more direct experience.

To call the art at Catalhoyuk indicative of “a state of decline” is to remove the context of the art into an art-historical vacuum where Turkey and France aren’t tens of thousands of years and over 2,000 miles away from each other. I don’t really feel the need to defend the artfulness of the material culture at Catalhoyuk, but to hear it being cited as a sign of a society that is anything but flourishing was startling.

It’s tempting to see parallels in ancient art–after excavating the above hands at Catalhoyuk, I always enjoy seeing hands and handprints in art from around the world. There are handprints at Chauvet Cave that are actual handprints – the hands in the Catalhoyuk painting above were styled after hands, but the fingers are all the same length. One could argue that this move toward more figurative painting indicated an advancement rather than a decline–if I were inclined toward drawing large, “just so” conclusions about the meaning of these hands and handprints in different contexts.

I appreciate the inspiration I can draw from auteurs and authors such as Cormac McCarthy and Werner Herzog in their creativity, but I really wished a proper archaeologist would have been there to challenge them, to push back on their assumptions and to contribute to the conversation.

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7 responses to “Cormac McCarthy vs. Catalhoyuk

  1. “La longe duree” is just one of those concepts, like light-years and Earth-masses, that are fundamentally tough for people to grasp, including archaeologists. We all want to see a pattern of development (either upward or downward or both) in human activity, but its entirely possible that the only thing the art of Catalhoyuk, or Greece, or anywhere else, has with Chauvet or the Magdalenian is that they’re the results of human cognition.

    But anyway, it’s probably more the role of an author than an anthropologist or archaeologist to say what art’s good and what art’s bad, employed as they are in the business of making art people think are good.

  2. I have to agree that “a state of decline” is an extraordinary statement.
    I think archaeologist are less inclined to make such value judgments, certainly on a cross-cultural basis, as it has no relevance to understanding the evidence.

  3. Thanks so much for this. I had exactly the same reactions. My estimation of Mr. McCarthy has slipped a few notches as a result of his performance on this program, I’m afraid. (He also evinced some rather spectacular ignorance regarding “complexity,” which is what SFI studies, where he apparently has a research home.) I’m all for deconstructing the art/science dichotomy, but Flatow might just as well have invited an archaeologist on the show to be queried regarding her/his opinions on…say…novel writing.

  4. It seems even Cormac McCarthy isn’t immune to the American ideology of progress. As a blooming archaeologist, it is difficult to separate individual cultures and objectively visualize them in their own contexts instead of side-by-side on a timeline of ‘progress’.

    By the way, I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, after lurking and reading “Where in the hell am I?”. I’ve finally put enough focus into actually logging onto WordPress so that I could comment. :)

    • I don’t think it’s necessary to “separate individual cultures and objectively visualize them” – there is much to be learned from looking at how cultures flow into and out of one another. The important thing is to recognize that what looks from our modern perspective to be “bad art” (probably) wasn’t seen that way when it was made.

  5. I think archaeologist are less inclined to make such value judgments

    Devil’s advocate: aren’t such art-historical judgements the very basis of stylistic dating of artefacts? And even if they aren’t now, I think it’s still possible that these ideas reach people from the kind of archaeological writing where they were (much of which is now of course making its way onto Google Books et al.).

  6. YES there is a PEOPLE that know alot about that Culture…they were called MAYANS AND “HOPI”. ASK THEM. COMPARE. I do research and i came from the cherokee/ tsalagi line!

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