Prehistoric art

art produced in preliterate cultures

In the history of art, prehistoric art is all art produced in preliterate, prehistorical cultures beginning somewhere in very late geological history, and generally continuing until that culture either develops writing or other methods of record-keeping, or makes significant contact with another culture that has, and that makes some record of major historical events.


  • Is the Makapansgat pebble “art”? In modern times, many artists have created works critics universally consider art by removing objects from their normal contexts, altering them, and then labeling them. In 1917, for example, Marcel Duchamp chose a ceramic urinal, set it on its side, called it Fountain, and declared his “readymade” worthy of exhibition among more conventional artworks. But the artistic environment of the past century cannot be projected into the remote past. For art historians to classify as an “artwork” a found object such as the Makapansgat pebble, it must have been modified by human intervention beyond mere selection—and it was not. In fact, evidence indicates that, with few exceptions, it was not until three million years later, around 30,000 BCE, when large parts of northern Europe were still covered with glaciers during the Ice Age, that humans intentionally manufactured sculptures and paintings. Only then does the story of art through the ages really begin.
    • Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner's Art Through the Ages: A Global History (14th ed., 2012), p. 16

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