To most students of the history of art, the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic period has every appearance of a catastrophic decline. Instead of the accurate depiction of animals in drawings of great variety, we find geometrical designs which tend to degenerate into dull repetitive patterns; instead of a vital naturalism, a deadly monotony of abstraction.
Yet we know that by general cultural standards the later period represented a great advance in civilization. Man ceased to be a nomad hunting wild beasts and practicing crude magic; he became a sedentary agriculturalist, learned how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, invented crafts like pottery, made astronomical calculations on which he based the first calendars. The neolithic artefacts, particularly the ceremonial stone axheads and spears, reach an incomparably higher standard of workmanship, and in the place of magic we discern the first glimmerings of a spiritual religion. The New Stone Age is the cradle of the first great civilizations of the Ancient World.
We can show that in art, too, the Neolithic Age witnessed a wider development of aesthetic sensibility, a further conquest of plastic awareness, a unification and classification of sensuous experience. The area of reality, of the formal comprehension of the external world, was immensely extended in those dark ages of the Orient.
When, in the first chapter, I was considering the art of the paleolithic caves, I paused for a moment to point out that one of the drawings, that of a bison at Altamira, might be read as a stylistic composition, rather than as a direct eidetic image of the animal. An element of fancy, of mental playfulness, might have inspired the artist in selecting this particular attitude for representation. I suggested this only as a possibility, for animals, in some of their attitudes, do compose into a rhythmical pattern--a leaping deer, a coiled snake, a bird in flight--and the attitude of this Spanish bison, far from being stylized, is perhaps significantly naturalistic. An unusual attitude is selected because it is particularly vivid. What we might admit, not only at Altamira, but noticeably at the Font de Gaume cave, and at Lascaux, is the operation of a selective instinct for significant pattern, for pattern significant of the habits of the animal, for pattern, one might almost say, signifying the animal's essential character. The form of an animal is, of course, closely related to the function that has enabled it to survive--the flight of the bird, the swiftness of the deer, the concentration of power in the head of the bull--and in representing the animal the prehistoric artist automatically emphasized what was most significant in the animal's form.
Such a quality in paleolithic art perhaps constitutes a style, and in this sense we can speak quite legitimately of the Aurignacian or the Magdalenian style. The styles vary with the sites and the periods; they reflect the cultural habits of distinct phases of human economy. But in my opinion, in their aesthetic evolution, the paleolithic artists did not reach beyond the unique Gestalt, the specific awareness and apprehension of a single and separate image. The elements of composition were unknown to them, and I myself cannot find, in the collocation of images on any particular rock surface, anything but the use of a two-dimensional plane in a purely arbitrary manner. The space at Altamira, for example, was filled with images separately conceived, placed where a suitable place offered itself, and often the latest drawing would obliterate the images already on the rock surface. Admittedly, as at Lascaux, there is sometimes a representation of incidents that involve more than one animal; there are friezes of animals in procession, herds in their collective unity, and the depiction of hunting events in all their actuality. But "actuality" does not imply inclusivity. There is selection, but what is selected is the significant detail, the immediate silhouette, the pattern of action.
The composition, we might say, is dictated neurologically: a will-toform does not enter into the process.
When we move into the Neolithic period, across dark ages that reveal no traces of a continuous development, we find an art that is entirely different in kind, an art in which completely new formal elements are present. These elements reflect a new way of life. I have no intention now, or at any subsequent stage in my argument, to ignore the fact that new developments in aesthetic consciousness are set in motion by new economic conditions.