This image does not really do the original justice, I'm afraid.
For one thing, it omits the setting,
which was clearly important to the artist of this work.
The Pech Merle complex is a stalactite cave and, long before the
painting was made, was filled with spectacular limestone formations,
as in the image from Pech Merle on the right. The Spotted Horse
is at the center of a enormous cave chamber, surrounded by hanging
stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and other formations that make
the chamber look like the nave of a fantastic cathedral.
At the far left of the Spotted Horse you can make out the head
of the horse, which is, in fact, a natural rock formation that the
artist recognized and incorporated into his work. The archaeologist
Paul Bahn has pointed out that incorporating natural forms into
art works is common in Ice Age cave art, as it seems to have been
common among the Native Americans Boas describes. 
Here, and in other cases, I would suggest that the result reflects
a particular kind of magic,
one which must have been extraordinarily important to the artist.
The magic, I would say, is something very real and something we
can still appreciate thousands of years later. The magic begins
with a combination of perception, which sees the illusion of the
horse's head in the rock, and human consciousness, which simultaneously
recognizes that the illusion exists yet the rock is somehow not
an actual, living horse. Finally, human skill completes the spell,
because the artist is able to elaborate on this awareness of illusion
and reality by covering the rock with a painting memorializing it.
In other words, the magic of the Horse in the Cave is nothing
less than the ability to put meaning into inanimate objects through
art. What precisely the Spotted Horse meant to its creators can
no longer be reconstructed, but that the meaning was there, and
was powerful, seems hard to deny. This translation of meaning into
stone and paint is so powerful that it is even now hard to comprehend
or explain away. So it is not so difficult to see how the Pueblo
Indians, among others, imagined that the stones they found full
of meaning were once living beings magically transformed.
"Magic" has become a degraded word in contemporary culture, a
synonym for superstition or trickery. (The English word magic comes
from a Greek word, based in turn on the Persian magus, which meant
"someone versed in the secrets of nature.") Yet one of the main
points of this paper is that the magic of the image is still very
much with us, despite our attempts to rationalize it away.
"And magic?" Boas argues in Primitive Art:
"I believe if a boy should observe someone spitting on
his photograph and cutting it to pieces he would feel duly outraged.
I know if this should have happened to me when I was a student...
I should have done my level best do to my adversary in natura what
he had done to me in effigie and I should have considered my success
as a compensation for the harm done me... I do not believe that
my feelings would have differed much from those of other young men."
Other writers, most notably David Freedberg in his book, The Power
of Images, have made similar observations.
"We may be quite happy to believe that images in primitive
cultures are felt to partake of the life of what they represent,"
Freedberg writes. "But we do not like to think this of ourselves,
or of our own society."
In fact, what the Horse in the Cave teaches us is that image-making
is an essential part of being human, demonstrates, as the British
anthropologist Desmond Morris has but it, "...that the aesthetic
urge in Homo sapiens is not some recent refinement of civilization,
but part of an ancient, deep-seated need of our species. The study
of prehistoric art not only informs us about our Stone Age past
and the way we lived then, it also tells us about what kind of species
we are not and have always been. 
Let me jump ahead now several thousand years to the fourth century
[LEFT: Roman copy of the Aphrodite of Cnidus]
This is a damaged, much reduced Roman version of what was once
the most famous work of art in the world. The artist was Praxiteles,
one of the great sculptors of the Golden Age of Athens. Praxiteles
created, according to legend, two sculptures, one draped and one
nude of the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, and offered them
to the city of Cos. Cos chose the draped figure; the nude version
was snapped up by the neighboring city of Cnidus, to the ever lasting
chagrin of Cos.
By Praxiteles' day, civilization had invented writing, travel,
tourism, and, as a combination of the three, fame. Pliny described
the Aphrodite of Cnidus as "the finest statue not only by Praxiteles
but in the entire world."
The Cnidians set it in shrine open on every side and the statue
became so famous that, two centuries later, King Nicomedes of Bithynia
tried to buy the statue by paying off the enormous Cnidian national
debt. The Cnidians refused, preferring misery to losing the one
thing that had put them on the map. In another famous story of the
image, the statue so aroused one young man that saw it that he visited
the sculpture by night and assaulted it sexually 
By this time the fame of images has added to their magic, added
to them in such a way that the original work has a special power
that copies only enhance. By the first century B.C. in the closing
years of the Roman Republic, when Rome already ruled most of the
classical world, Greek originals had become intensely valued and
an essential part of both the identity of their cities and of the
tourist trade. The conquering Romans, in fact, had to be legally
constrained from carrying these treasures off with them. The citizens
of Sicily even engaged the celebrated Cicero to prosecute their
Roman governor, Verres, for pillaging both their private collections
and their public buildings and even their temples of celebrated
art works. Cicero raged against Verres in his court statements,
listing the art treasures of the civilized world underlining how
important such original art works had become.
"What do you think that the Rhegians, who now are Roman
citizens, would take to allow that marble Venus to be taken from
them? What would the Tarentines take to lose the Europa sitting
on the Bull? or the Satyr which they have in the temple of Vesta?
or their other monuments? What would the Thespians take to lose
the statue of Cupid, the only object for which anyone ever goes
to see Thespiae? What would the men of Cnidos take for their marble
Venus? or the Coans for their picture of her? or the Ephesians for
Alexander? the men of Cyzicus for their Ajax or Medea? What would
the Rhodians take for Ialysus? the Athenians for their marble Bacchus,
or their picture of Paralus, or their brazen Heifer, the work of
Myron? It would be a long business and an unnecessary one, to mention
what is worth going to see among all the different nations in all
Asia and Greece; but that is the reason why I am enumerating these
things, because I wish you to consider that an incredible indignation
must be the feeling of those men from whose cities these things
are carried away."
This intensity of feeling for original art works continued long
after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century
AD. Throughout the Middle Ages, the veneration of religious images,
such as the Madonna of Rocamadour, was as intense as the veneration
of saintly relics, and, like the relics, inspired pilgrimages to
behold them and perhaps be touched by their miraculous powers. 
We move ahead now several centuries to the nineteenth century,
in which a sudden outburst of inventions created new ways to reproduce
art works. For our purposes, the most important of these was the
chromolithograph, which made it possible to photographically reproduce
works of art and mass produce thousands cheap copies. Commercial
chromolithographic art reproductions became a lucrative business
in Europe, and these cheap chromolithographs quickly spread to the
humblest of homes, even to people who would never have been able
to afford art of any kind before.
One artist who became especially well known through chromolithographic
reproductions of his work was Jean François Millet, who painted
these two works in the late 1850s:
[LEFT: Millet, The Angelus,; RIGHT: Millet, The Gleaners]
On the left is The Angelus of 1859, and on the right is The Gleanders
of 1857; both are now in the Louvre. In fact, I remember framed,
sepia-toned lithographic versions of these paintings hanging in
the back of my six-grade classroom.
The enormous celebrity the wide distribution of chromolithographic
reproductions created for certain paintings like these of Millet
did not lessen popular interest in the originals. On the contrary,
they increased the interest, although mass popularity had unexpected
side effects, as the Impressionist Camille Pissarro pointed out
in a 1887 letter to his son, Lucien:
"I went to the Millet exhibition yesterday with Amelia...
A dense crowd---There I ran into Hyancinthe Pozier, he greeted me
with the announcement that he had just received a great shock, he
was all in tears, we thought someone in his family had died---Not
at all, it was The Angelus, Millet's painting which had provoked
his emotion. The canvas, one of the painter's poorest, a canvas
for which in these times 500,000 francs were refused, has just this
moral effect on the vulgarians who crowd around it: they trample
one another before it! This is literally true-and makes one take
a sad view of humanity... These people see only the trivial side
of art...What animals! It is heart-breaking!"
Pissarro is distressed by the strange effect that fame tends to
have on an original work of art: they make into a quasi-religious
object, almost a fetish. The qualities that Pissarro values in a
work-- taste, innovation, color, composition, moral qualities-have
been completely overwhelmed by the reproduction-induced fame of
Hereafter, reproductions of art do not so much stand in or replace
the originals, they become a kind of symbol pointing to the original.
Thus, in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisted, the narrator, Charles
Ryder, hangs a reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers in his Oxford
rooms as a sign of his advanced but somewhat geeky taste as a freshman
undergraduate. In the recent Oscar-winning movie Titanic, versions
of Millet and Picasso paintings, standing in for the originals,
are symbols of the independent spirit and cultural superiority of
the heroine who owns them (unfortunately they go down with the ship).
Via these reproductions, universally available, the "magic" of
the Horse in the Cave has been translated into the status, prestige,
individualism, and the nonverbal communication of these to mass
audiences. But does this vulgarization really trivialize or neutralize
powers of the original? I think not.
[LEFT: Gallery View of the Louvre]
This is a photograph I took some years ago of a gallery at the
Louvre in Paris. The box-like object that is attracting the attention
of the crowd is a special case containing Leonardo's Mona Lisa--
the Aphrodite of Cnidos of our own times. Ironically the case, with
its heavy protective glass and its intermittent lights, make the
painting almost invisible: something like a postcard stuck inside
a toaster oven. Still, everyone in the room is fixed on this one
object and is ignoring the much more visible and perhaps more important
paintings on the left, which include Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks
The point I am trying to make here is that the endless reproductions
made of the Mona Lisa and other famous pictures have not dulled
or lessened interest in the originals, as you might at first expect.
Instead, they have intensified the inherent magic of the object,
making the original into a kind of religious icon which becomes
the focus of cultural pilgrimages almost as intense as the medieval
ones. Although we flatter ourselves that we no longer believe in
the superstitions that say objects are able to work miracles, this
photograph, I think, may suggest we are not so modern and scientific
as we think.
Which brings me, at long last, to the Web.
[Exploratorium Mona Lisa Webpage]
I probably don't need to tell you that the Mona Lisa has a rather
high profile on the World Wide Web. The topsey-turvey Monas I show
you on the screen are from the Exploratorium in San Francisco, and
use the painting to paint a point about the psychology of perception,
as you can see as I scroll down the page..
[Modern Day Mona Webpage]
Here is "Modern Day Mona" from a website having to do with an
elementary school art curriculum. This student drawing shows Mona
Lisa in what I take to be contemporary riding costume with horses
prancing in the background.
[Mona Lisa Banana Webpage]
Here is one of my favorites. This is the Mona Lisa Banana Webpage,
presenting the banana logo with the motto, as you can see, "It'll
make you smile too!" This webpage includes such gems of information
as "Mona Lisa has a nice fruity flavour," "Mona Lisa's skin is thicker
and softer than the Cavendish's. Even when it looks bruised and
has dark patches, the fruit inside is still firm and perfect."
I won't show you the Mona Lisa Café Webpage, or the Mona Lisa
Pizza Webpage, or the "Adult XXX Film Star Mona Lisa's Fantasy Pit"
Webpage. But, lest you think that art museums are above trading
in famous images, let me show you this:
Paintings Dept. Webpage]
This is the official webpage of the Paintings Department of the
Louve, watched over, as you can see, by the enigmatic eyes of its
most famous possession. Click on the eyes, and you are transported
at last to...
... the true, official, honest-to-goodness Mona Lisa Webpage.
There has been much talk since the advent of the web of the "dematerialization"
of art objects. One of the points I am making here is that this
hasn't happened and isn't likely to happen. This is the good news.
What is actually happening is that the meaning of the original
art is being modulated by its reproductions, in ways it has in the
past by technological developments. The intensification of the "magic"
of the original object, which may have more to do with basic human
biology than anything rational or scientific, is likely to continue.
But, I would submit, other more unexpected things are happening
As we have seen in the Mona Lisa webpages, the Web makes it possible,
for the first time, for meaning about a single work of art to be
expressed by many different people simultaneously to the entire
world. This results in a huge overlayering of meaning for these
images, a layering that begins to stretch and eventually distort
the way people relate to the work itself. None of the meanings we
just saw correspond to what Leonardo intended for this work and
some of this layering results in bizarre incongruities. The amusement
we feel at something like the Mona Lisa banana is, I think, the
natural result of the incongruity of seeing an image as simultaneous
a beautiful woman, a great painting, and the logo for a type of
The idea of the museum as a place of refuge and contemplation,
insulated from the frenzy of the world, is out of fashion these
days. It has, however, roots in what I think is an intuited sense
of protection: protection for the meaning of the work and protection
from the viewer from cultural overload.
The web, as anyone knows, has become probably the most frenzied
medium ever invented, as this web site should remind us.
[Clinton scandal webpage]
What does it mean to put powerful art images into an environment
filled with gossip, sensation, and Clinton Sex Scandals, not to
mention "Adult XXX Film Star Mona Lisa's Fantasy Pit"? Does putting
great art work on the web invite a variety of Schiller's disease,
the strange psychological malady, named after the Romantic German
poet, first noted in tourists to Florence. The confusion and disorientation
of Schiller's disease suffers has been attributed to just such an
overload of cultural meaning as the web provides in abundance.
No, I am not advocating an end to museum websites. I am, however,
urging a certain amount of caution and suggesting that some psychological
and aesthetic space be built into such websites. Since the dawn
of history, art images have had a power, a magic, that we nowadays
tend to ignore. We should be sure to remind ourselves of this magic
when we entered the still uncharted territory of Cyberspace.
1. Franz Boas, Primitive
Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1955 (reprint of 1927 edition),
2. Dating prehistoric art
is notoriously difficult and controversial-many important discoveries,
including the famous Altamira caves in 1879, were originally dismissed
as hoaxes. The natural entrance to Pech-Merl, however, collapsed
around the end of the last Ice Age, sealing the cave art for some
9,000 years until they were rediscovered, via man-made tunneling,
in the 1920s, some years before the more famous paintings at Lascaux
were revealed in 1940.
3. "Parietal art-predominantly
on walls and rocks but also on ceilings and floors-is still precisely
where the prehistoric artists put it and meant it to be. This is
a factor of major importance in the study of its content and significance,
not only in terms of landscape but also from the point of view of
where on the rock it was placed..." Paul G. Bahn, The Cambridge
Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998, p 99.
4. In talking of Pech-Merle
and other prehistoric creations, I use the word "artist" collectively.
No one knows who created works such as the "Spotted Horse" or how,
but research has suggested that many large and important works were
created by more than one hand, perhaps over many generations.
5. "In Europe's Ice Age
cave art, the incorporation into images of natural rock or stalagmite
forms is common-most famously in the bulging bison bodies on the
Altamira ceiling or the spotted horse panel of Pech Merle-while
all over the world one can see rock art fitted to natural rock surfaces
of different shapes and sizes and images continuing over edges or
around corners or linked to cracks and cavities in different ways."
Bahn, loc. cit.
6. Bahn carefully points
out that, since the prehistoric cultures that made them have long
since disappeared, there is no clear scientific way to confirm or
deny any interpretation that may be laid on them by modern observers.
He does suggest that certain aspects of these works, including their
careful placement and their use of natural features, are so obvious
that their significance cannot be ignored.
7. Boas, Primitive Art,
p. 3. Boas was one of the first anthropologists to discard the idea
that human beings in twentieth-century Western societies had mental
apparatus more advanced that humans in other cultures. "Some theorists
assume a mental equipment of primitive man distinct from that of
civilized man, I have never seen a person in primitive life to whom
this theory would apply. There are slavish believers in the teachings
of the past and there are scoffers and unbelievers; there are clear
thinkers and muddleheaded bunglers: there are strong characters
and weaklings." Primitive Art, p. 1.
8. David Freedberg, The
Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 32.
9. Desmond Morris, "Foreword,"
in Bahn, Prehistoric Art, p. viii.
10. Quoted in John Barron,
Greek Sculpture, New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1970, p. 120.
11. Freedberg relates
this and similar stories in his chapter, "Arousal by Image," in
The Power of Images, pp. 330-31.
12. Marcus Tullius Cicero,
The Prosecution of Verres, The Fourth Book of the Second Pleading,
translated by Charles Duke Yonge, Ottawa, World Library, Inc., 1995,
13. Freedberg discussed
the Madonna of Rocamadour, which remains a venerated object to this
day, in The Power of the Image (pp. 27-28). He also discusses iconoclasm,
a kind of counter-movement to the veneration of images, and devotes
a chapter to "Image and Pilgrimage."
14. Camille Pissarro,
Letters to His Son Lucien, edited with the assistance of Lucien
Pissarro by John Rewald. Third edition, revised and enlarged. Mamaroneck,
NY: Paul P. Appel, Publisher, 1972, pp. 110-111.
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