The First Artists Were the First Scientists
The First Artists Were the First Scientists
  • Prof. Jung-Ah Woo
  • 승인 2012.11.07 12:29
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In 1994, a speleologist team led by Jean-Marie Chauvet discovered vivid paintings of horses, lions, bears, and mammoths on the wall of a cave in southeastern France. The date of their creation has been estimated to be 30,000-28,000 BCE, making the “Chauvet Cave Paintings” the oldest manmade images ever discovered. Although the creators of these images did not call them “art” in our sense, they can be called the “first artists on Earth.”
It is simply miraculous that we can immediately recognize all those animals painted by the hands of people living 30,000 years ago. The artists captured the most characteristic features of each animal with vibrant outlines and bold simplifications. The animals in the cave, some of which have long disappeared from our planet, are fully charged with vital energy, expressive power, and amazing lifelikeness.
Of course, such a vast, complex collection of images could not have been created all at once. They prove that people had already established a long tradition of image production, and that tradition has been stably sustained throughout the planet. The better-known examples of the Altamira cave paintings in Spain and those of Lascaux in France show similar renderings of strong outlines, brownish colors, and simplified forms.
You may be curious about how these images could be preserved for thousands of years. The reason is that they were painted in the deepest, darkest core of the caves. In most cases, the mouth of the caves served as the residential area, but the images were drawn in areas that are as far from the entrance as possible, and therefore, never easy to access. The path to the paintings is so long, narrow, dark, and complicated that you literally have to crawl on your hands and knees for a long time to reach them, and without a guide, you will get lost. In other words, the images were hidden away from human eyes. They were not “art” for entertainment or aesthetic appreciation, as in our modern sense, but part of an important ritual for survival.
For the Paleolithic society that created these images, hunting was the most crucial task for the survival of its entire population. If the hunters killed many animals, the society thrived; if they failed, the society suffered. The people believed that by picturing the animals, they could symbolically capture them, and that by “killing” the animals’ images, they could kill their vital spirit. Hence, by inscribing their urgent demands on the deepest bowels of the earth, they could convey their wishes to their deity?the earth, or nature. Thus, the images are a form of magic, or a religion in its most primordial form. The enormous effort to create these paintings could be explained only by this faith?a faith that the images would guarantee the human beings’ a safe “being” on earth, if not their “well-being.”

The artists therefore must have been very special people. They were gifted with the ability to translate nature’s voice into human words, transfer human wishes to the deities, and visualize the society’s ideal through images. What’s more, they grappled with the most raw materials-caves, stones, dirt, and clay?to craft concrete objects. Even though we may no longer believe in the “picture magic” of the prehistoric convention, today’s artists are still representing people’s shared faith for the sake of their society’s survival- not only physical survival, but also ideological, political, and social. From inspiration, artists communicate with nature, understand human wishes, accommodate the collective desire of society, and finally visualize the social ideals, ultimately striving to make a “better world.”
The history of art is the history of our ongoing struggle with our surroundings, both natural and social, to achieve the ideals that we seek. Of course, what is “ideal” for a society is amazingly diverse, fluctuating constantly according to different cultures, peoples, and historical periods. Thus, artists have always devised new languages, new tools, and new visualizations to grasp the complex ideas and questions that their society chooses to pursue.
You, Postechians, may again be curious about why we should look back at the origin of “art.” Look again at the task of artists as described above; it’s not so very different from that of scientists (and engineers and technicians). In fact, those first artists on earth, who struggled with so many difficulties in painting those animals on the cave walls, can safely be called the first scientists. They researched natural phenomenon to better understand human needs, and sought to materialize their ideas into concrete things, all in order to achieve a “better world” for humanity.
The distance between art and science is actually not as far as it initially appears. From the beginning, the term “art” came from the Latin “ars,” which is a translation of the Greek “techne.” “Techne” (or “ars” in Latin) means “skill,” which could mean the skill to make all kinds of objects, including paintings, houses, statues, ships, pots, clothes, etc. Moreover, it could be the skill necessary to command an army, measure a field, or sway an audience. All these skills, which were called art, depend upon an understanding of nature and, more importantly, human nature. Hence, both art and science are based on the study of humans, or better yet, the study of ourselves.
The most crucial ingredient missing from the future scientists that I’ve encountered so far at POSTECH is an awareness that, no matter what they seek to understand, be it advanced technology or the natural world, that understanding is essentially the study of humans. You may have believed that a scientist’s task is to research nature, accumulate data, and develop new technologies, but none of these tasks are possible without an understanding of human nature.
In my opinion, this is what Apple has, but Samsung lacks. Without question, Samsung has achieved the most advanced technology in the world, but its technology critically lacks an understanding of human desires and social ideals. In other words, Samsung has the skill to make perfect objects, but they have thus far failed to “sway an audience,” as Apple does. This failure cost Samsung 1.05 billion USD in the scandalous patent case, but the actual cost is not measurable by the monetary scale. The only way to achieve perfection-“to make perfect objects to sway an audience”-is through the consilience of art and science.