October 14, 2019 — Ribadesella, Spain: Tito Bustillo Cave
Discovered in 1968, the main gallery of this cave contains some of the most stunningly beautiful and important Paleolithic paintings from human pre-history.
Analyses and comparisons with other caves in Northern Spain (like the Altamira Cave) indicate that the artistic activity here continued over an extensive period from before 20,000 B.P. until about 13-12,000 B.P. The most intense activity having been between 15,000-14,000 B.P. [B.P. means “Before Present”; “Present” was defined as AD 1950 because that year was the standard astronomical epoch at the time.] Ergo: This art was created tens of thousands of years ago.
The main panel is made up of more than a hundred paintings that include animal figures (bovine, horses, and deer) and used techniques of simple lines, multiple lines, fluting, and scraping. The most significant works are the gracefully painted horses and reindeer that combine red, black, ochre, and violet colors with scraped outlines, washed pigmentation to give a polychromatic effect, and use of natural contours of cave surface to give an impression of volume and three-dimensional realism to the animals. Other panels have bison, a whale, and even sketches of female sexual organs; hence, this is one of the most spectacular examples of cave art in the Cantabrian Coastal area.
Like all prehistoric cave drawings, these magnificent figures and symbols were executed within a deep, interior part of the cave — dark and dangerous to access — indicating they were secret (thus important) places. Plus, the peoples of the time wanted no torch smoke to mar their creations, so they cleverly used bone marrow which burns slowly without smoke to light their work and gathering spaces.
What was this art for? Anthropological theories abound from animal totem worship to religious rituals to education. No matter. The main point to be derived from the phenomena is that the art was for serious purposes and for communication of essential information and values that served the population’s survival physically and/or spiritually.
October 15, 2019 — Bilbao, Spain. Guggenheim Museum.
Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and devoted to modern-contemporary art, this museum was inaugurated in 1997.
The building is massive with an exterior sheathed in approximately 33,000 extremely thin titanium sheets; the two other materials providing structural support are limestone and glass. The design evokes an eerie ship-like image: it has a stationary but appearing-to-be-lifting drawbridge at one end and is largely surrounded by shallow water. But it sits like an enormous tin toy in a tiny little pond, so this “ship” is marooned. The entrance requires climbing up hundreds of stairs and then walking down hundreds more steps to reach the ticket booth, so the architect clearly requires visitors to make physical effort to see exhibits. When exiting (unless one discovers the gift shop’s street-level door), visitors must repeat the exercise of climbing and descending in reverse. The interior is spacious and the “art” is huge and imposing.
This museum’s exhibitions are the ultimate example of Tom Wolf’s brilliant 1970s book "The Painted Word" — a Must Read. The “art” is nonobjective and mostly unintelligible. Audio phones are necessary to even attempt deciphering, and the narrative is hysterical to any rational mind. To wit: A man with an English accent intones about a de Kooning painting (nearly verbatim): “Willem de Kooning was not an abstract painter such as many of his contemporaries like Jackson Pollack. He related to nature, so his work is realistic. Here he depicts the grass, the sky, and the sun.” The gigantic canvas is smeared horizontally with three colors: green (bottom), blue (middle), yellow (top).
Richard Serra’s eight 12-14 ft high, torqued ellipses made of continuously rusting steel provide narrow corridors winding through them for walking and physically experiencing the installation. The series takes up a seemingly-football field length of space as one after the other repeats itself with varying paths inside each one.
Jeff Koons’s long and lumpy steel bouquet of “Tulips” lies on its side bright and colorful but utterly inert atop a stone slab outside the building. If these are flowers, they are petrified.
Jenny Holzer’s "site-responsive installations" of words flashing up, down, and all around in neon lights is, well, visually blinding.
And much more of the same. The audio verbiage is fantastically inventive to explain the visual presentations.
So what is communicated by this museum? Both building and “art” appear to be a big middle finger aimed at insecure or frivolous people without artistic knowledge, taste, or judgment. Or, perhaps, a thumbing of the nose toward people who find the experience a fun-romp or something to chat about on social media — or just another famous venue to take “selfies.” This architect and the so-called artists exhibited are laughing all the way to the bank or (worse) they are fooling themselves as well as the public.
Art at its best is created to communicate life-serving values beautifully as did the pre-historic cave painters and as serious contemporary representative artists do today; thus, art can afford a spiritual experience as well as an aesthetic one. Good decorative (abstract) art is valid as an aesthetic experience but communicates nothing more. “Art” as nonsense or novelty is absurd or offensive to any mature individual.
Contemplate the grave intent and careful execution of Tito Bustillo’s cave art from thousands of years ago to the contemporary gimmicks of the Guggenheim. The first displays paintings rendered meticulously with the best primitive tools and skills of the day. They were sincere and important. The second — with every advanced technology — is a senseless joke or madly narcissistic or commercially motivated. The first draws hundreds of historically and artistically appreciative visitors. The second draws millions, proving the poverty of contemporary “culture.” Seeing these two museums one after the other was mind bending.
What will future folks wonder about us and our “art” thousands of years from now?
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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