Art Theory

The Birth of Consciousness, Society and Art

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Going Back to Where It All Began to Unlock the Mysteries of Conceptual Art.

(© Copyright of Vicki Bright 2015)

I am going to be journeying right back to the beginnings of modern man to try to understand the fundamental benefit(s) of art. I will then use this line of thinking to scrutinise modern day conceptual artists with similar belief systems to early man. My main line of enquiry will be Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986), backed up by other artists to solidify my argument.

I will start by using a Marxist approach to establish that the early art that we will be looking at was indeed created by fully human, fully conscious people. I will be looking at how their evolution aided the start of language and society and the role of the shaman within those societies. I will then discuss the shamanistic interpretation and how we can use this to try to understand early cave art, and then see how this ties in with art today.

My area of interest is our Western European Upper Palaeolithic ancestors; the Homo sapiens, where it has been documented that the sudden acceleration of the development of the modern human happened around the same time as an influx of art (Lewis-Williams 2005:96). “…art appeared and human life became unrecognisable” (Lewis-Williams 2005: 40).

Frederick Engels (1820-1895) uses Marxism in an outline of a text which he would have included in Dialectics for Nature called The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (Engels 1876) In this he discusses how apes developed into man by the development of an erect gait and dexterous hands that allowed them to produce tools to carry out labour. They also realised through labour the benefit of joint activities which encouraged talking and eventually the evolution of their biological structure to make talking easier. Engels point is that labour created the need for language and so played a hand in the development of the modern human. And labour and language together created society.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) once said “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx 1859)

The level of consciousness of Homo sapiens being of a human level like our own is evident in their social structure. This can be directly cross-referenced to Marxist theory, where “all the fundamental social categories, forces and tensions….were thus present at the lowest stage of fully human social evolution” (Lewis-Williams 2005:53). David Lewis-Williams discusses that Marxism theorises a society as comprising of an infrastructure and a superstructure. The infrastructure (or the economic base) includes the production of life’s necessities through social relations. This in turn determines the superstructure, consisting of belief systems and laws (Lewis-Williams 2005:53). See Fig. 1


Fig. 1

If we look at the Base in relation to the western European Upper Palaeolithics, we can relate it to the production of tools, hunting weapons, clothes, fishing equipment, the earliest man-made houses and it is thought collective hunting strategies (Guisepi 2000). If you take Fig. 2 at face value then this appears to document those group efforts.


Fig. 2

In relation to the second strand of Marxist theory of social structure, the Superstructure, I would like to refer to Shamanism and its religious and political involvement with primitive societies, by looking at some examples of Upper Palaeolithic art.

A lot of early art was centred around mysticism. It has been speculated that shamanism explains some, if not all of early art in some locations (Lewis-Williams 2005:235). This is a good example of two of the Marxists qualities in the Superstructure; religion and politics. Religion for the obvious esoteric connotations of shamanism, and politics because of the segregation between shamans and non-shamans. Many Upper Palaeolithic artworks show relatively decipherable shamanic characters such as human figures with robes and headdresses, sacrificing animals and changing form (Lewis-Williams 2005:174-75). However they had even more shamanic connotations due to where they were found. The caves that contained shamanistic art were said to have been avoided by all but shamans and created fear and awe amongst the non-shaman people (Lewis-Williams 2005:178). They were often hidden and could only be seen by lighting the cave by hand (See Fig. 3).



Fig. 3

Although there have been many arguments debating the ‘shamanistic interpretation,’ the argument by Lewis-Williams is compelling. Thomas Dowson writes about the problems with the shamanistic interpretation being because of the modern definition of a shaman (Dowson 2007). I am however referring to the shaman in terms of the religious system and as the “law-maker” in a judicial system pertinent to a Superstructure. And it does however help us to look at the shamanistic interpretation as an insight into how it could have influenced the development of art.

Although primitive communism suggests a class-less society, the shaman did have a social and political function (Vitebsky 1995:33). Social behaviour was regulated and arbitrated (Vitebsky 1995:112). This is a modern observation as much as a historical one, but considering the fear that the shaman provoked it would make sense that they would therefore have been held in some judicial power by the rest of the community. The fact that the shaman’s powers were used for the protection of the community would also suggest the importance of them (Vitebsky 1995:110).

Mind in the Cave delves deeper into the world of the shaman and discusses altered states of consciousness, exploring the notion of consciousness by way of a spectrum. It discusses different levels of consciousness as suggested by psychologist William James (1842-1910) from waking state, through day dreaming and dreaming and hallucinatory states. An interesting point is made about the possibility that prehistoric art was a by-product of hallucinations induced by psychotropic substances as well as sleep, food and light deprivation. There’s a distinct possibility that the art left behind by our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors is a direct projection of their minds. This theory is given its reverence by research about the shamans of the modern descendants of the Sans South African Upper Palaeolithic (Lewis-Williams 2005:10), as well as scientific research about hallucinatory states. Prehistoric Europeans: People Who Invented Art reproduces an experiment where the hallucinatory areas of the brain are stimulated, and this produces the types of group patterns and shapes that correlate to the rock art of the Upper Palaeolithic. They conclude that the same effects are produced by sensory deprivation also (n.d).

The Shamanistic interpretation was such an important revelation to the study of prehistoric art because it explained how art began. Once the two dimensional had been recreated by our shamanic ancestors by way of hallucinatory visions, this new way of looking at the world became learnt by others. We are not born with an understanding of two dimensional representations, but this is a skill learned by social interaction. This has been proven by Anthony Forge’s observation of the Abelam tribe of New Guinea who were unable to recognise faces in a photograph until they were bluntly pointed out. This recognition of two dimensional images was then taught to others in the tribe (Spivey n.d, Lewis-Williams, 2005:183). It is presumed, and with a good supporting case, that this is how the word got out about this new ‘art’ all those tens of thousands of years ago (Lewis-Williams 2005:183).

It seems early shamans used art to explore their social and spiritual practice. This included using altered states of consciousness whilst creating art or in reference to previous states of altered consciousness. If we are to go along with the shamanistic interpretation, which seems to be a well justified argument, then this would lead us to a conclusion that the shamans were recreating visions believed to have come from the spirit world, therefore making the artwork itself sacred and a connection to the spirit world (Lewis-Williams 2005:234 – 235, Clottes 2002).

A large percentage of the subject matter they used were the animals that they consumed; bison, ibex, deer and horses. There were also depictions of social scenes, sexual organs as well as the geometric shapes and patterns we discussed earlier in relation to the use of psychotropic substances and sensory deprivation. If the shaman of prehistoric times had as much importance to the wellbeing of their community as has been speculated (Vitebsky 1995:110) then it would be a good assumption to say that the subject matter used in Upper Palaeolithic art was of particular significance to them, particularly if they were using art to request from the spirit world an abundant stock of food, or the health, wellbeing and virility of the animals and people.

From a Marxist perspective; the Base (in the case of the Upper Palaeolithic; labour which was in tune with nature and food) shapes the Superstructure (In this case the shamanic belief system and corresponding judicial system) If we are agreeing with the Shamanistic Interpretation, then most of the artwork of the Upper Palaeolithic was produced by the shamans, and was a direct representation of the link between their Base and Superstructure. Their hunter-gatherer way of life shows their stage of societal evolution, in this case part of a society based on ‘primitive communism’ or in terms of modes of production; the Tribal mode. And with the connection to nature that the hunter-gatherer required, was the use of nature as their creative muse.

There are quite a few anomalies amongst the artwork that does not follow the trends discussed above however. I would like to propose two arguments as to the meanings behind these. Firstly that the artwork was created by non-shaman ‘imposters’, and secondly the concept of shaman children.

As an artist myself, I remember studying the artwork of the great masters and getting inspiration for my own artwork. I held them in great reverence like the non-shaman Upper Palaeolithic may have held the shamans. Was some of the art found from this time simply an ‘imposter’ trying their own hand at art? This would explain some examples such as Fig. 4 which could be compared to a budding young artist drawing a picture of their family like in Fig. 5.



This compliments my second argument; there is a theory, backed up by archaeological evidence that suggests the involvement of children in shamanism. If we look at Fig. 6 we can see a handprint of a young child preserved in the clay. This was found deep in a cave in France and footprints have been found next to the famous clay bison. There has also been baby’s hand stencils including at least one that “seems to have been made while the child’s arm was being held by an adult.” (Clottes 1998:98 – 99) As discussed earlier, only shamans were allowed deep into the caves so this would suggest the status of the young people that ventured that far.



Fig. 6

As with prehistory, we can only theorise as to whether either or indeed both of these arguments actually explain the less decipherable examples of Upper Palaeolithic art, but the evidence makes for a good case.

So we have established and backed up an argument that the Western European Upper Palaeolithic people were fully conscious, they were part of a society and there was social hierarchy, in particular shamanism. They were also faced with conflicts with the lesser developed Neanderthals who’s race was rapidly declining, and from the arrival of migrants from the Balkan states and Asia.

Archaeological finds that have been scientifically dated show that the geological area that we are interested in was behind Asia and the Americas in its development. So whilst the next stage of Western European Upper Palaeolithic could be defined by Marxism as ‘Asiatic,’ there is some geological significance. Whilst Western Europe was still in a Tribal mode of production, the other continents were way ahead. As soon as those tribes started migrating however, a lot of social diversity would occur (Guisepi 2000).
“The Upper Palaeolithic was a period of social diversity, a time when social distinctions and social tensions proliferated and came to be the driving force within society. If we are to seek a driving mechanism for the west European ‘Creative Explosion,’ it must be in social diversity and change” (Lewis-Williams 2005:181).

So, they were a race faced with rapid change, picking up new skills that would form the first agricultural system and take them from the Palaeolithic age, through the Mesolithic age and onto the Neolithic age and the next step on the societal ladder (Hirst 2014). The emergence of art, music and dancing also showed how complex their society was (Guisepi 2000). All of these factors do well to explain why art emerged. They also give clues as to why the art was created and of what benefit it had to the Upper Palaeolithics of Western Europe.

As argued by the ‘shaman interpretation’ it was likely that the artwork was created by shamans. There could be some pieces however which were the creation of ‘imposters’ or child shamans practising their skills.

We have also established that the subject matter in general represented the society that they were part of; one that evolved around nature and hunting as well as their belief system; shamanism. This included the use of altered states of consciousness to connect to the spirit world, for guidance in the protection of their community. It is likely that the artworks were a record of these experiences, or a connection between the spirit world and the material world, making places of art sacred. If this was the case, it seems the shaman was fulfilling his obligations as a person of power by creating art.

So can these theories be applied to the modern world? Are artists still creating artwork for the same reasons as our prehistoric ancestors? To try to answer these questions I would like to take a look into the world of the late Joseph Beuys.

I am going to be linking our ancestors of prehistory and Beuys by comparing the shaman of the Upper Palaeolithic with Beuys the shaman, arguing that they assumed the same roles; they took inspiration from nature and created art for the protection and development of humanity. They used their stature to try to heal and inform on a social and spiritual level.

Known particularly for his sculptures and performances as well as his distinctive image, Beuys was an artist as well as assuming the roles of a political and social activist and teacher. He was also famously known by his persona; the shaman. His persona was well suited to his ethos; he showed many attributes in his social and political involvement that we have discussed in relation to the shamans of prehistory. Beuys saw himself as a tool, fulfilling his obligation as an artist of stature by using his art to educate people about the society they live in and all its flaws. He saw that he could change chaotic energy into order or form through the use of sculpture (Halpern 1988).

The materials Beuys used played an important role. He often recited a story from his past, although this has since been disputed. The story recalls a time when he was shot down in the Crimean war and his wounds were tended to by the nomadic tribe, the Tartars, who were descendants of an ancient Asian civilisation of the 14th century. He talks about being wrapped in fat and felt, which ultimately saved his life. Whether there is truth in this story is irrelevant, what is important is how this relates to how Beuys explores the materials that he worked with. Felt and fat reoccurred frequently in his work. He explored natural materials and their properties as well as nature taking prominence in his themes. The hare, the stag and the bee were frequently revisited (Anon n.d).

The bee was of particular poignancy. Beuys was fascinated with the functions and activities of bees and related this to his interest in societal structure (Stachelhaus 1991:57). Beuys developed his ideas on sculpture from this fascination. He recognised societal issues and made art to symbolise them. The Upper Palaeolithic used aesthetic representations of hunting and spiritual subject matter. Beuys represented his society contextually by his “social sculpture” a termed coined by himself meaning artwork that worked as a metaphor for the moulding of society (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:26). Beuys was interested in making art as a point of discussion rather than an aesthetic product.

Honey Pump at the Workplace (1977) was an example of his affinity and interest in nature as well as his contextualisation of society or ‘social sculpture’. “For Beuys, the production of honey and the organisational system of bees in the hive were on a par with human social systems.” (Anon n.d). Honey Pump consisted of several tubes being pumped full of honey by a motor lubricated with fat. Beuys had been stimulated by the lectures of Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) which compared the work of the beehive to the work of the human body. Beuys expanded this discussion by likening the human body to a state, or a community of various functions. Honey Pump represented both the circulatory system of a human body and the social system of a beehive, and on its deepest level it symbolised the idea of socialism (Stachelhaus 1991:57 – 58).

Like Karl Marx, Beuys explored social structure. To Beuys however the answer was in freedom through creativity rather than another failing social structure. Marx analysed situations and came up with alternatives whereas Beuys was a creative activist (Politi 1993).

A good example of this was one of Beuys’ most famous pieces “I like America and America likes me.” This was a performance from start to end, including the journey to the gallery in which he was about to spend three days living in a cage with a coyote. He was picked up in an ambulance from the airport and wrapped in felt until he got to the gallery. This was to avoid any outside influence so he could start the dialogue with the coyote without being tainted (Hall 2005).

The piece was a dialogue between Beuys and the coyote that went beyond language. They were able to come to an understanding with each other and learn to live together in the space. Two different worlds came together and lived besides each other, unlike man and beast in the history of the ‘white man’ and the coyote (Hall 2005).

The piece was laced with symbolism. The name of the piece itself was particularly ironic considering Beuys’ opposition to the military action in Vietnam. More significantly symbolic was the use of the coyote, a Native American animal that was treated as a pest by European settlers who tried to eradicate it. Before those times the coyote was seen as a powerful god by the native people. This piece was an attempt for Beuys to heal some of the damage done by the ‘white man.’ (Anon n.d).

The props themselves held particular significance. As well as a triangle, (to represent Beuys’ celebration of a Rudolf Steiner theory Beuys called “the essence of man”) some straw and the familiar use of felt, a daily pile of Wall Street Journals were used. As if staged, the coyote urinated on them, thus reclaiming ownership of its native land; marking its territory on such an iconic American paper (Strauss 1999).

Peeling back the layers of symbolism, Beuys had been described by some as a trickster, much like the coyote had in history (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:26). The coyote was also a symbol of survival against evolutionary change as well as being believed in mythology to carry shamanic knowledge from the Paleo-Asiatic times (Strauss 1999).
As mentioned earlier the piece was also meant to heal like a lot of Beuys’ work. The fact that Beuys chose an ambulance as a mode of transport to the gallery was significant to his cause. Beuys’ philosophy was that art has a social function and the power to heal (Anon n.d). In one of his performance pieces First Footwashing as a Public Performance (1971) he took on the role of Christ, washing the feet of his audience as a purification ritual (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:28). This action is also not dissimilar to a ritual that would be performed by a shaman.

The cross was another piece of remedial symbolism that was repeated throughout Beuys’ work. It was a representation of many other crosses (Mesch, Michely 2007), such as those with religious connotations, the medic cross to signify healing but also as a sign of unification. It was a sign of the need for unification of East and West for the health of society, as well as the inner unification of human beings themselves (Straine 2001). Beuys also used half crosses such as in Halved Felt Cross with Dust Image “Magda”(1965) (Fig. 7), said to represent the need for healing (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:39).



Fig. 7

Beuys had an ‘Expanded Concept of Art.’ This was another term coined by himself, related to ‘Social Sculpture’ but expanding the realms of art beyond the traditional to encompass an educational dialogue with the world. He said, not without criticism that “everyone is an artist.” This was meant however with regards to the anthropological concept of art, meaning universal creative faculties. Art was the work of the human in general, whether in the field of medicine, agriculture or administration (Stachelhaus 1991:60). With the freedom that this definition gives to art, came the work of Beuys that held real socio-political roots.

With this in mind, I would like to look at two projects that Beuys carried out in the latter part of his career that held the essence of his message. The first is the talks he held, which produced blackboards now presented as independent pieces of artwork.

If we are to take the talks that resulted in blackboards as one project, as a piece of conceptual art as defined by Beuys ‘expanded concept of art’ we would naturally scrutinise the cause rather than categorise the outcomes as aesthetical commodities. Following this train of thought the ‘project’ spans and connects “myth, alchemy, astrology, anthropology, and the social and political sciences” (Anon 1999) and they were a “blend of art, politics, personal charisma, paradox and Utopian proposition” (Anon 1988).

In these Public Dialogues, I summarise thusly: He explained that he wanted everyone to participate in creativity to change society. He believed that his idea of art encompasses everything from science to socialism and politics. That art is between all ideologies. All creativity within any field of thinking starts at the same point. He talks about freedom allowing people to create a new consciousness. He explained that at present, fields such as science and technology have to quantify things from the view of materialism. Until people change this way of thinking they will be stuck in bourgeois materialistic idealisms. He believed that we need to nourish our spiritual rather than materialistic needs by going back and analysing the point at which we create problems and formulating a new way of thinking to realise the next stage of evolution (Beuys 1974).

For my final example I would like to explore one of Beuys final feats to save the world which was sadly unrealised by Beuys in his lifetime. After a long illness he died of heart failure in 1986. In 1982 he started 7000 Oaks which was a symbol of the regeneration of “the life of humankind within the body of society and to prepare for a positive future in that context.” (Beuys n.d). Starting in Kassel, Germany he wanted to plant the world with trees. Each tree was accompanied by a piece of basalt stone very similar to the ones featured in The End of the Twentieth Century (1983/5) See Fig. 8



Fig. 8

Although Beuys could not finish this project himself, 7000 Oaks was a catalyst for change. It inspired many, including an environmental and political group called Platform who continued the project, and the final tree was planted in 1987 by Beuys’ son (Byrne 2010). Even from the grave Beuys was able to pass on his shamanic ways to the next generation just like the shamans of the Upper Palaeolithic may have done.

Since then other artists and groups have been inspired by Beuys 7000 Oaks, including the Dia Art Foundation, Walker Art Center and curator Todd Bockley the Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership and artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey to name just a few. Projects are still being completed all around the globe to plant trees and make the world a better place (Anon 2014).

7000 Oaks was an indisputable example of Beuys’ concern for environmental issues. As well as starting the German Student Party (who he claimed most of the members were animals) he also co-founded the Green Party in Germany (Anon n.d). He was a true protector of the people and their world just like the shamans were all those tens of thousands of years ago.

In the beginning my aim was to study art of prehistory at the very start of the modern man to try to gain an understanding of what benefits art had to us then. I then wanted to see if I could apply my findings to contemporary art. I chose Joseph Beuys ‘the shaman’ because of the similarities between his social status, inspiration and motivation for his work in comparison to our prehistoric ancestors. “For him the shaman was a figure in whom material and spiritual forces were able to unite.” (Anon 2009)

We discovered that Upper Palaeolithic art was thought to have been created by shamans who had considerable social standing within their communities. Their roles as shamans elected them the healers and protectors of their people. They had a responsibility for the cultivation and continuation of their future and the preservation of their race. We learnt that they were inspired by the elements that governed their superstructure; the animals that they hunted, as well as recording their exploration of altered states of consciousness and their belief systems and ceremonies.

Beuys was a spiritual man existing in a sceptical society. The big difference between prehistoric artists and Beuys was simply the times that they were present in. You may feel that this is stating the obvious. I am however referring to this in relation to the distractions of modern life that the prehistoric man was not yet subjected to, allowing them to be more in touch with the world spiritually.
“The human being is fundamentally a spiritual being and that our vision of the world must be extended to encompass all the invisible energies with which we have lost contact or from which we have become alienated from.” (Halpern 1988)

This quote from Beuys shows the recognition of the need to relate to the world spiritually, just as the shamans of the Upper Palaeolithics did in their creative interpretation of the spirit world. The Upper Palaeolithics were part of a tribal society where they lived in harmony with nature and their spiritual beliefs.

Beuys took inspiration from nature and his beliefs and assumed the role of healer of the people and society. He used his art as a tool for personal development as well as to inform and educate on the state of present times and how to invest in the future.

Beuys and the Upper Palaeolithic shamans alike, they wanted to use their art to shape a positive future for their race, and they were not the only ones. Performance artist Marina Abramovic (who incidentally recreated Beuys’ How to Explain Painting to a Dead Hare (1965)) spent time and gained much insight from indigenous tribes and shamans travelling the Gobi, Taar, Sahara and Central Australian desert (Paris 1990). Abramovic, born in Yugoslavia has described herself as the ‘grandmother’ of performance art. Her artwork has been transitory in line with her life (Richards 2009:1). She lived a nomadic lifestyle and travelled, experiencing eastern cultures, which in turn would influence the artwork that she has produced over her career (Furstenberg 2006:110, Richards 2009:1). Today she, like Beuys educates. She developed an approach she calls “cleaning the house” which she now teaches. It is a method of intense cleansing of the body and mind using mental exercises (Abramovic n.d). Although a lot of her earlier work was a personal exploration, her more recent projects reach out to a wider audience, such as the Marina Abramovic Institute and her latest performance piece 512 hours, which engages the audience in the development of mindfulness (Seppings 2014).

As well as Abramovic I could discuss many more artists that all play their part in spiritual, social, political and environmental action; Banksy, Yoko Ono and Guerrilla Girls are some examples on a very long list of people that use art to contribute to the development and healing of mankind.

These modern artists do well to evidence that they do in fact have a lot in common with their prehistoric ancestors, maintaining the reasons and benefits of art to this today.

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List of Illustrations

1. Structure of Human Society. 2014. [diagram] Available at: [Accessed 04 October 2014]

2. Cave Painting. n.d. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 07 October 2014]

3. Clay Bison. n.d. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 25 August 2014]

4. Petroglyph Rock Art. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 11 October 2014]

5. Family. [Illustration] Available [Accessed 11 October 2014]

6. Clottes, Jean, 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory. [photograph]

7. Halved Felt Cross with Dust Image “Magda”. 1965. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 19 October 2014]

8.  The End of the Twentieth Century. 1983/5 [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 22 October 2014]