Being a professional naturalist and amateur anthropologist who loves art, I am especially fascinated with Pleistocene paintings in European caves. I believe the artist that painted on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France (http://tinyurl.com/36vmdgs) was a genius of ability comparable to recent artists.
I have to admit, however, that the prints on desert rock walls in Australia and the American Southwest seem to me to be little more than palm prints and stick figures. I realize they actually represent much more than that, that they are significant to their cultures and are worthy of the highest degree of protection, but I do not consider them art for three reasons. First, an artist must master his medium before he can make art, whereas these primitive applications of pecking, charcoal and red ocher hardly compare to the talent that Lascaux and Chauvet Caves illustrate existed in ancient times. Second, art transcends culture, whereas this genre has meanings specific to particular cultures. Third, its creators may or may not have had “art” in mind when they drew the images, thus eliminating it from consideration as art by definition. Australian Aborigines call it “gwion gwion,” and perhaps that (or the single word, “gwion”) is a better name for it.
But now comes a scientific discovery involving Western Australia’s Bradshaw rock art that gives a new dimension to those paintings (http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/pettigrew326/). It turns out that in some cases the paint has been replaced naturally by “a biofilm of living, pigmented micro-organisms whose natural replenishment may account for the longevity and vividness of these paintings.” Some gwion gwion, however, are not infected, so their colors fade. These may be repainted several times over the centuries.
I can imagine going back in time to visit a gwion gwion long, long ago, right after it was painted by a shaman and revealed to his tribe. For a time, the colors were bright and the characters distinct, but after a while they began to fade. The old shaman noticed this and planned to repaint them, but when he took another look, he noticed the colors were changing and becoming more vivid than the original tints. He did not know that microscopic bacteria and fungi colonized and replaced the paints and were responsible for the transformation. It must have appeared to him to be a miracle from heaven, and with the proper presentation, his followers thought so too.
I have an artist friend named Tom Glover W., one of the world’s greatest living wood sculptors, but he has abandoned the wood medium for harder stuff like marble and steel. I don’t know why he has done so, but I can imagine being able to create excellent art and wanting people to be able to appreciate it for a long time. Wood will, after all, crack and rot after a century or two. I have seen Tom’s wood work languishing, dusty and cob-webbed, in an unkempt pawn shop. Oh, the horror…
Envision an artist deliberately using microorganisms in his work, bugs that can withstand the ravages of weather and time while displaying everlastingly bright colors and patterns and perhaps also interesting textures and aromas. This could give artists a new medium to master, and I bet they’d do some awesome, ingenious things with it. One can only hope that microbiologists will expand on this discovery and create a palette of organism-colors for artists to use.