Some things never change
What was the artist thinking when he took a reindeer antler and carved this leaping horse? Nobody knows, because he lived 12,000 to 20,000 years ago and only this sculpture is his memoir. We can merely speculate.
Much speculation about the beautiful relics of the Ice Age hinges on the idea of artist as magician. It comes from studies of primitive cultures today and ignores the nature of the artist, it seems to me. There may well have been "hunting magic" involved in the usem of animal figures with the hope of invoking the aid of supernatural power, but I am not convinced that is necessarily what the artist had in mind.
A sculptor I know, who portrays all sorts of animals on a scale from hand-held to architectural, says, "If the big thing in his life is leaping horse , the artist is going to do leaping horse." He is going to express whatever is on his mind in whatever way is appropriate to his purpose. That purpose may be to decorate a wall or a spear thrower, and other people may have other uses for the thing once it is made. The artist himself is more likely to be coming to terms with something he senses strongly.
Theories of artist as shaman put the artist in the position of servant or priest who is thought to be able to conjure up visions more or less on demand. In the sense that artists may be commissioned to produce a piece of art there is a grain of truth here. But there is nothing supernatural going on.
Artists are often in tune with elemental modes of thought and are able to project them tangibly, even when they are not consciously doing so. They may feel, rather, that they are a channel for an idea while they are working from curiosity, observation, and unrestricted thought. What they produce is a matter of perception, test, and representation of what they see and feel.
They develop visual equivalents for what they sense, using the basic elements of line, color, shape, volume, mass, texture, and rhythm, doing so successfully in one medium or another the better they are able to coordinate themselves with what they perceive.
Why should artists now be different from their ancestors even 35,000 years ago? It seems to me that an artist is an artist is an artist, as Gertrude Stein said of roses. The nature of the being may be subject to many different circumstances but it remains the same in essence.
So I am inclined to agree that whoever produced the masterpieces of Ice Age art was representing the elements in his or her world that were "the big thing." And those artists were not primitive. Such accurate poetic engravings, paintings, and sculptures betray great sophistication of eye and hand and mind, as well as affection for the animals. It all adds up to a remarkable understanding of their world.
Alexander Marshack, who has been studying Ice Age artifacts for many years, thinks that various drawings and notations from that cool Garden of Eden, as he calls the era, are a kind of record-keeping, the beginnings of mathematics and science, rather than the hunting magic so often assumed. He believes the mental capacity of Ice Age man to have been no different from ours, no less developed, albeit functioning in different circumstances and with somewhat different material. Artists then solved problems as artists do now, he says, using any available means, whether Stone Age or electronic. And the materials help determine the result.
But when and where and how did artistic activity begin? It must have begun with even more ancient ancestors than Cro-Magnon man. Before him, Neanderthal man decorated with red ocher and devised beautiful symbols. Did art ever begin, really, or is it an aspect of life which finds expression when needed? Is it restricted to humans?
Marshack has puzzled over the questions of why animals don't create art, even though some demonstrably have the capacity, as shown in researchers' experiments. The animals may be as intelligent as we are, if not more so. Maybe we just don't recognize their art and further inquiry will lead us to see it. Or, as Marshack suggests, it may be that chimpanzees, for example, have not felt the need to symbolize what goes on in their lives and thoughts -- they haven't been stimulated to do that in order to cope with their situation, or their situation has not been complex enough.
Have we ourselves begun to fulfill the potential that apparently lies within intelligent life? If not, what prevents us? Would we not be much more happily united with the rest of creation if we were aware of the art in ourselves and it? Then we would not need to resort to magic.