Meaning is a slippery thing; changing according to context, or vanishing when exposed to new information. It can’t be trusted. Yet we’re meaning addicts, measuring value based on its presence or absence. Gathered as we stumble through time, meaning is stored in objects and images to later be called upon for comfort, pleasure or a host of reasons as diverse as we are.
The use of physical materials as Tupperware for significance is ancient. Looking more deeply into this topic for a class recently I came across an image of the Lowenmensch.
If you’re not familiar (as I wasn’t) the Lowenmensch, German for Lion-human (or Lion-man),
is the oldest known undisputed sculptural object in the world. The prehistoric ivory figurine carved from the tusk of a Wooly Mammoth combines a human body with a lion’s head. It’s attributed to Cro-Magnon man, who migrated to western Europe during the last ice age. A quick history refresher: the Cro-Magnon population, known to have a rich symbolic life, occupied Europe between forty and ten thousand years ago in small hunting bands. They are now referred to as Early Modern Humans, or EMH. Think us, only better looking.
Speculation among Anthropologists about the Lion-man’s precise meaning has produced volumes. Putting that debate aside for the moment however, may allow for some justified astonishment at another aspect of this effigy… the bare fact that, among all the animals competing for scant resources in the harsh conditions across ice-age Europe, Early Modern Humans alone had the conceptual need, coupled with the advanced skill, to fabricate objects that were not immediate matters of reproduction, self defense, or food procurement. We may not know specifically why or what the message was, but the Lowenmensch is a tool for sharing an observation. We don’t need to know the specifics of its role in EMH society to appreciate that this object embodies the unique nature of the human animal in such a context.
Meaning is not a requirement of Art. Though the term "Art" has always been thirsty, tending to soak up cultural flavor. Art may be the difference between the car you have and the car you want, the way an exceptional meal is prepared, or an afternoon shadow falling across a wall. For some, expecting mere historical significance from a sculpture or painting would seem grossly sterile and far from the emotional response that drew them to the work in the first place. Consider this: the visceral feeling of familiarity experienced in the presence of our favorite works of art may be a wordless connection to the unlikely place we hold in the world. The Lion-man implicates us all in some way, as art lovers.