The Venus of Willendorf, its sculptor, and abstraction / by Bryce Hidysmith

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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Imagine the sculptor of the Venus of Willendorf. I am of the opinion, at my knowledge first posited by LeRoy McDermott in 1996, that the Willendorf figurine is a self-portrait rather than a fecund cartoon.[1] Per this interpretation, the anatomical distortions in the structure of the figure’s body are caused simply by the sculptor depicting her own form from the first person. The foreshortened perspective accentuates the lateral, exaggerating the wideness of the form and downplaying the length of the limbs and torso. The absence of a face is simply an act of underspecification. Like all art, this art was a gesture, an attempt at representation not reproduction, for nature can only be represented, and reproduction is limited to the artificial for only ideas that are simpler than nature itself could ever be reproduced.

Then, long before the figure is tinted with the red ochre that gives it its distinctive coloration, the artist must have moved the figure away from the self, viewing the absence of the face, the contortion of the body’s structure in the accentuation of various body parts from foreshortening, and noticed the fundamentally imperfect replication of her form. Imagine that moment, where this Paleolithic sculptor looks at her creation, distorted with her first-person intentions but seen from a third-person perspective. The trompe l'oeil is more sophisticated than interpretable by modern archaeologists, who have a propensity to try and identify mechanistic cultural practices that do not include the internal experience of the producers of the artifacts that such archaeologists study. In identifying the Willdendorf figure as merely an instance of a fertility idol, the archaeologist can treat humanity in the past as another animal, and simply describe the economy of symbols and labor that lacks subjectivity as a mechanism of behavior. Crude ecology has much the same problem.

By three dimensionally producing a representation of a first person perspective, the sculptor of the Willendorf figurine has effectively applied a transformation function to a third-person representation that shows the distortion inherent in reconciling the first and third person perspectives. I imagine that such an artist would have to develop a new concept, that of the generalization of the third and first person perspective, a transcendent perspective that accepts the distortions in both. The idea, in her mind, of “me” is suddenly something in-between self and other. She has an abstraction of self, an idea that at least implicitly encompasses both perspectives.

I think there are several important generalizations that can be accomplished from this idea. Firstly, an experience such as this seems like the type of event that would cause an altogether different experience of self than Lacan’s idea of the mirror phase, which I’ve written about in an earlier post. Instead of a sense of incompleteness, of the self being fundamentally irreconcilable between a subjective and an objective perspective, the self can be understood as containing subjective experience, but not being limited to it.

Secondly, it seems to show something important about how abstract categories may originate in the human mind. The mind always sees things as phenomena internal to the mind, as rather obviously one cannot interpret anything that has not already been imported to the mind via the sensory apparatus. However, the majority of interesting behaviors that are possible for a given intelligent agent to undertake come from the extension of the mind’s action beyond such mere phenomena in order to have action affect structures external to the mind. B. Joeng, a colleague and friend of mine, remarked to me that he became a linguist because language and linguistics is all that can be known completely by a human mind, for it is the only object that is purely created by the mind, and the study of one’s own mind depends on metacognition that produces an infinite recursion of attempted outside perspective-taking, or a different fundamental uncertainty of being frame controlled by one’s own self.

To accomplish external action, one must develop an understanding of the limitations of the internal sensory perspective. This requires the mind to develop a category of concept—abstraction—that includes information that cannot be known directly. Perhaps the most important of these categories that include information that cannot be known directly is the abstraction of abstraction itself. The best explanation of how the category of abstraction emerged in the human mind that I know of is perspectival experiences such as this hypothetical reconstruction of the experience of a Paleolithic artist’s experience of representing her own body. The relationship of individual perspectives that show that the named entity—in this case the representation of the artist’s body—cannot be reduced to an individual perspective—shows that the abstraction of the name can be used to define the entity without direct reference to the individual perspectives.

[1]A good initial analysis of this topic can be found in @deeallen’s post here, warning for nudity. McDermott’s ‘96 paper is frankly written in an academic idiom I cannot recommend. I will, for the moment at least, focus on this interpretation, as while the criticisms that can be found in @deeallen’s post that other art of the Paleolithic does not take this first-personal self portrait style, this specific art object seems to, and the notion that the Willendorf figure or others sharing the “lozange perspective” somehow must not deviate from a stylistic norm is invalidated by the proof of their own existence. Thus, a surprising explanation such as the self-portrait hypothesis seems justified to me, as the only other likely deviation from realism that I could imagine is a pornographic one, which does not adequately explain the dramatic tapering off of the lower body, as one would see if one was simulating foreshortening.