21 September 2006

Art as Portal

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 10:26 am

Surrounded by the sophisticated drawings that decorate the walls of the Pech Merle cave, the two roughly sketched lines of charcoal look at first like random marks made by a child, or perhaps a false start. Then, as the guide highlights with her laser pointer the natural contours and discolorations of the rock framed by the two lines, you see it: a mammoth in relief. With two lines the artist identified the back and the stomach; the rest of the animal is part of the cave wall itself. It’s nearly miraculous that any mere human could have summoned such discernment and subtlety, but there it is: the work of an anonymous Cro-Magnon artist who, twenty thousand years ago, made these two marks.

According to anthropologists, the artist may have believed that the spirits of animals lived in the cave, embedded in the rock. In drawing those two lines, the artist was outlining a portal for the mammoth-spirit to enter the mortal world. Elsewhere in the cave human hands have been stenciled onto the walls. They are reverse images, made by pressing a palm against the wall and then spraying dye from the mouth across both the back of the hand and the wall. The technique creates a trompe l’oil, the illusion of a hand having passed into the wall. Maybe the handprints were portals through which the artist could pass the spirit of his drawing hand. If he could touch the primal beasts living inside the rock he would be empowered to draw them more accurately, thereby strengthening the connection between the two worlds.

Art has always been iconic, offering passage from everyday life into other realities. The other realities are elusive. At times they seem to surround and permeate us, but their presence is obscured by the dominance that ordinary reality exerts on the world and on our awareness. What we need is a portal, a passageway between this reality and the other. Art is one kind of portal.

Did the anonymous iconographers of Pech-Merle discover the passageways that the god-creatures had already placed in the wall, or did the artists create the connections between matter and spirit? Do the portals already exist in the world, waiting for the artist to discern their contours and to outline them so the rest of us can pass through? Or do the artists actively create the portals, burrowing through this reality until they break through to the other side?



  1. Indeed! Art is a portal.

    As a side note…

    We all see teenagers walking around wearing their ear buds that are connected to their ipods – devices with enough gigabytes to hold their entire library of songs. (And this library usually includes the entire libraries of three or four of their friends’ music as well!)

    This, to me, is one contemporary example of a portal. The youth may be walking around in the real world, but in their own mind they are walking in the midst of a music video. They have portaled into an MTV-like reality.

    Some conservatives will criticize the above portal. They criticize it on the grounds that there becomes a widening disconnect between reality and the individual.

    To me that raises an interesting issue: Are we held responsible for the artistic portals that we choose to burrow through?!!? Or do we not really have a choice on which portals we burrow through? We might choose to enter the artistic portal, but maybe the art chose us as well….


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 22 September 2006 @ 3:29 pm

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. I think the portals exert force, drawing people in and transporting them to whatever alternate reality they’re connected to. Some portals exert more force than others; e.g., the “real world” so-called which just happens to be the one that most people live in. Some portals are subtler; some perhaps emit frequencies that only some can hear. This is the realm of the artist, the scientist, the dreamer. Can our willpower always override the force of the dominant realities in order that we might enter these other portals? I’m not so sure.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 September 2006 @ 6:24 pm

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