Art or Bust

The Hohle Fels Venus.

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Move over horse head, water bird, and lion man. At 36,000 years old, a busty broad unearthed in a cave in Germany is now the oldest sculpture ever found. Indeed, Busty beats those other sculptures, also discovered in a Southern German cave and carved from mammoth bone, by around 5,000 years.

Dubbed the “Venus of Hohle Fels” she is only about 6 centimeters tall. Her most prominent feature is the aforementioned rack, though her shapely gams come in a close second. This has led to a certain amount of snickering. The oldest sculpture in the world is basically a pair of breasts that hung on a string from some cave person’s neck. As The Economist opined, “this discovery adds to the evidence that human thinking—or male thinking, at least—has hardly changed since the species evolved.”

The more uptight among us—i.e. the scientists—are trying to keep it clean. Professor Nicholas Conard from Tübingen University danced gingerly around the topic, noting to the BBC that, “We project our ideas of today on to this image from 40,000 years ago. I think there are good reasons to emphasize sexual interpretations, but we really don’t know whether it is coming from a more male or a more female perspective. We don’t know very much about how the artifact was used.” Others have retreated to the relatively safe territory of cognitive and cultural development. Paul Mellars, an archeologist at Cambridge, in his commentary on the sculpture for Nature, wrote “How far this ‘symbolic explosion’ [the emergence of representational art like the Venus] associated with the origins and dispersal of our species reflects a major, mutation-driven reorganization in the cognitive capacities of the human brain — perhaps associated with a similar leap forward in the complexity of language — remains a fascinating and contentious issue.”

I’m not sure the two points (the sex and the cognitive development) are really all that different. Sometime around 35,000 to 40,000 years ago homo sapiens started acting strange. Language, perhaps, was born. A peculiar form of self-consciousness took form. We truly became the tool-using, socially complicated, language-having, ritual-creating creatures that the world has come to love ever since. All we need to add to that list of special characteristics now is the creation of porn.

One of the annoying things about most animals is their indifference to intercourse. There are fishes, for instance, that deposit semen on a riverbed and leave it for a fish of the opposite gender to flop around in. There is simply no erotic payoff in that kind of arrangement. That’s why we’re more interested in excitable creatures like the Bonobo monkey. Those little guys can’t keep their hands off themselves or each other. Now that is an animal we can understand. That humans of 40,000 years ago with roughly the same cognitive apparatus as ourselves would be far more interested in the business of nooky ought to come as little surprise. To be human is to be concerned with screwing. Not just to do it, but to be concerned about it. That our earliest examples of art would reflect sexual obsession is downright poetic. It fits in quite nicely with all the other developments, the “major, mutation-driven reorganization in the cognitive capacities of the human brain,” that were happening around the time that the Venus was carved. Having more complicated brains and caring about sex are not, all joking aside, conflicting developments. To the contrary, it would be hard to imagine calling any early hominid truly human without thinking of it as a sexual being.

Whoever carved the Venus of Hohle Fels is a friend of ours. We know what that person was thinking. He or she was thinking, “This thing is finally going to get me laid.” Across the ages we can have only one thought in response: “We hope it did, old friend, we hope it did.” • 27 May 2009

 

Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at morganmeis@gmail.com.

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