Achievements in the arts, unlike those, say, in geology or astronomy or molecular biology, do not chart an upward arc of progress. The value of literature, music, and painting is undiminished by time, by distance from our current world-view, or by place in a sequence of evolving technical mastery. Of each great work we can say, as Shakespeare’s Enobarbus says of Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither her, Nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.” Take, for example, the paintings discovered in December 1994 on the walls of the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche Valley of southern France. The images, over four hundred of them, date from 32,000 to 26,000 years ago, and are among the earliest artworks known to exist.
With astonishing rhythmical intensity horses, deer, bison, and mammoths dance across the walls, along with lions, bears, and other predators. There are no comparably vivid representations of humans, but there are five images that have been identified as pubic triangles, and a sixth, evidently conjuring up a myth to which we have no access, that seems to show a bison’s head with the legs and genitals of a woman.* The paintings were created by people about whom we know almost nothing, yet even though their purpose is utterly lost to us, along with the culture that produced them, they remain astonishingly vital, legible, and beautiful.
The fact that these archaic cave paintings hold their own against Rembrandt’s slaughtered ox or a horse by Delacroix is thrilling but disorienting. Though we may joyfully acknowledge their timelessness, they also compel us to recognize that the entire enterprise of art history was founded on a drama of progress that seems incompatible with this acknowledgment. Don’t we believe, after all, that successive artists slowly master innovative techniques, that the earliest efforts are gradually succeeded by superior talents able to exploit their predecessors’ cruder achievements, that long, barren ages of dormancy or error give way to periods of brilliant aesthetic flowering?
Underlying this triumphal conception of artistic progress is the work of one remarkable man: the Italian artist, architect, and writer Giorgio Vasari. To understand how we embraced a set of assumptions so difficult to reconcile with what we encounter in Chauvet, it helps to try to understand what Vasari bequeathed to us, and Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney offer lively guidance in their engaging study The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art. They propose that it was largely from him that we derive our very notion of an autonomous activity known as “art”—an activity so prestigious that someone recently parted with $450 million for a damaged work with a disputed attribution to one of its celebrated practitioners. That…
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