Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


The Web and the Horse in the Cave: New Technologies and the Meaning of Art

Peter Walsh, Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College

My late father was a clergyman and preacher of some skill. Perhaps because I follow his example, I like to begin my talks with a reading, which I then follow with a lesson.

The reading for this talk comes from the classic book, Primitive Art, by the pioneering anthropologist, Franz Boas:

"The process of reading in is not at all unfamiliar to us," Boas writes when discussing the origins of symbolism. "We see realistic forms in the shapes of mountains and clouds and in marks on rocks, and we enjoy the play of fancy that endows natural forms with new meanings... Koch-Grünberg... tells us that the [South American] Indians, when camping at a portage... , take up accidental marks on the rocks and by pecking develop them into forms suggested by the natural outlines, or that they take up the lines left by a preceding party who amused themselves in the same way... We have also ample evidence to show that curiously formed rocks are not only compared with animate beings, but that they are actually considered as men or beasts transformed into stone. Thus the Pueblo Indians tell in their migration legend that a person or an animal became tired on account of the fatigue of the long travel, sat down and was transformed into stone."

Let's look at the first images:

[LEFT: Spotted Horse Frieze; RIGHT: Pech-Merle Gallery]

On the left is the "Horse in the Cave" from which this talk takes its title. This is the "Spotted Horse Frieze" from the Paleolithic cave complex of Pech Merle, in the Lot Valley of Western France, a work probably made somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago[2]. It is one of the most famous works from the rather long period of time now considered the dawn of art. The hand silhouettes you see besides the painting are also common in Ice Age art and were probably made, like the horse itself, by spraying or spitting paint onto the rock face. They have been interpreted as pre-literate versions of signatures.

This image does not really do the original justice, I'm afraid. For one thing, it omits the setting[3], which was clearly important to the artist of this work[4]. 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. [5]

Here, and in other cases, I would suggest that the result reflects a particular kind of magic[6], 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. [9]

Let me jump ahead now several thousand years to the fourth century B.C.

[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.[10]" 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 [11]

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. [13]

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 the work.

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:

[Louve 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...

[Mona Lisa Webpage]

... 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 well.

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 fruit.

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), p. 120.

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, p. 90.

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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