Don’t Try This at Home

Art is mysterious to artists as well as those who appreciate it. Stone Age cave paintings are among the most amazing human artistic achievements. On the rough walls of a cave, those artists could portray the rushing movement of a whole herd of stampeding bison. The techniques and materials are as old as time and still used. Most of the paintings are done in charcoal and ochre; ochre is clay. Many of the cave paintings are on limestone which makes the cave paintings very ancient frescoes. I LOVE the idea that fresco painting is THAT old, that it’s just come down and down and down and down through humanity’s almost countless generations.

We have these paintings but we don’t know the people. Archeology loves that mystery, I think, and I enjoy reading their discoveries and conjectures. The newest is that these Stone Age artists did their artwork — which is often in the deepest darkest parts of these caves — while they (the artists) were high on oxygen deprivation. Not just that they were high, but that they painted in those dark inaccessible places on purpose.

I don’t know much about the minds of Stone Age people (who does?) but maybe the archeologists were right. I’ve had a little challenge sussing out the cause and effect from what I’ve read , but the gist is that the artists painted in the convoluted depths of the caves BECAUSE to paint there they had to take flaming torches which would deplete the air of oxygen, inducing visions and confusion in the brains of the artists. It seems to me that the paintings could have been (some archeologists have posited this) a kind of prayer. Maybe the archeologists are right, too, that the artists sought an “altered state” to bring them closer to whatever mystical power (muse) inspired the paintings. If the Stone Age artists didn’t know WHY they ended up in an altered mental state when they were back there, they could easily have believed that those spots in the cave had mystical powers of inspiration and clarity; showed them the future, allowed them to commune with the beasts they needed to eat and those who sought to eat them, the old kill-or-be-killed thing.

Art and mysticism have always been very close together. Both the Illiad and the Odyssey begin with an invocation to the Muses to be with the poet and inspire their words and their performance, all convey the message that poetry is not in the day-to-day realm of human endeavor. Though there is no Muse specific to painting, I know that in the times in my life when I’ve been truly inspired, I haven’t felt “normal.” Those have been really glorious moments and working in that state of mind (heart?) is very different from the normal day-to-day. I don’t use — and haven’t ever used — anything external to get into those states; they happen spontaneously, often the result of seeing something striking, like a single crane walking among the winter willow saplings. It doesn’t happen immediately. Inspiration seems to need some time to mature, to make the journey from my eyes to my mind and heart and eventually to my hands. Sometimes it is the result of the work itself, seeing through the process of writing or painting what something wants to be. I think others can see the difference between work done in inspiration and those done from other motivations, like the simple pleasure of painting. Anyway, I can say in total confidence that I’m not likely to try this carbon monoxide trick any time soon.

l You can learn more about this archeological theory here.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Try This at Home

  1. What an interesting proposition. I wouldn’t recommend that technique.
    I often get quite creative in my thinking when I have low blood sugar and my heart starts beating rapidly to get the oxygen supply to my brain. The last time this happened I was convinced my dogs should protest the discrimination as they weren’t allowed to get the Pfizer vaccine.

  2. Hmmm. This is new information that I’m going to have to explore and digest. I’m very familiar with carbon dioxide narcosis and it is not something that should be played with!!! I can only imagine that some artists didn’t finish their paintings, having died for their art…

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