|When you have a hunter-gatherer moment and you feel moved to copy an image on my website, just do it; print it; and send it to me with prepaid return postage. I will sign any one print up to 8x10, date it, and mail it back to you.|
In his 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog films the drawings at Chauvet. In fact we Cro-Magnons have made art for at least 35,000 years, perhaps longer. But Herzog observes that today we are trapped in history. Our thinking is bound by the short period of time for which we have written records.
But in pre-history hunter-gatherer society, the artists’ understanding of ownership appears to have differed greatly from ours. One wall in Chauvet was painted by two artists separated by 5000 years! In post-modern terms, the second artist appropriated the first artist’s work and re-purposed it to make a new work. He was a sort of pre-historic Richard Prince.
What probably happened is best understood in the context of an experience related by a contemporary Chauvet cave archeologist. He had been traveling in the Australian outback with two aboriginals. In a cave where they had camped for the night, one of his companions was saddened by the condition of some drawings on the wall of the cave, and he stayed up all night working to repair and add to them. In the morning the archeologist asked him why he was doing that. He replied, “You don’t understand. I don’t do anything. It is the spirit who is drawing.”
Cultural anthropology research demonstrates that hunter-gatherer societies are fundamentally similar in their beliefs from pre-history to the present day. So the second artist in the Chauvet cave was not “stealing” or “plagiarizing” or “appropriating” or “re-purposing” anything. S/he would have believed that it was the spirit updating images on the cave wall.
So what if you believed that a spirit was making your art? That you yourself are an implement, a co-equal with the other implements you use to make art. A person of integrity would have to revise their attitude towards copyrights. How can you “own” work executed by the spirit? Does your palette knife “own” your painting? In that case, neither would you own your painting.
OK, I get that this is the 21st century, the world to which we were born. We live here. And we all have to be able to sell our work to pay the rent; or else get a day job. And selling implies ownership. That’s the way it is for you, for me, and for everyone we know.
Fine! But I choose to engage in this one small act of rebellion. Let’s do something pre-historic! Go ahead, appropriate all you want! Re-purpose something! It’s OK, really!