Why does our world look like it does? That great modern mystery is spectacularly unraveled in this international landmark series and epic quest across five continents and 100,000 years?via some of the greatest treasures of... more » the ancient world?to the heart of human creativity. Encompassing everything from cave paintings to ceramics and pyramids to palaces, How Art Made the World probes the global trend for unrealistic depictions of the human body; the secret powers of the feature film; how politicians manage to manipulate people so easily; visions of death and the afterlife; and, crucially, why we use imagery at all.« less
Fascinating look at Ancient Art from an Archaeological and S
dooby | 09/12/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This 5-part BBC documentary series (2005) is a fascinating look at why humans developed representational imagery or visual art, and how visual art has shaped the world we live in today. It's a topic that has been tackled before but here we see it from an archaeological as well as socio-anthropological perspective (Dr Nigel Spivey is a lecturer in both Classical Art and Archaeology at Cambridge University). His views are buttressed with insights from neuroscientists and psychologists. The focus is purely on the visual arts and centres on ancient and prehistoric art. It tackles broad questions such as why humans want or need to create visual images, why especially images of humans and why the predilection for distorted forms? Why humanity sees the need to represent death in art. How visual art is used for social and political purposes. How visual art has been refined to be the storytelling medium par excellence. It is meant for the lay audience and is easily accessible even to the uninitiated. Spivey is a captivating host and puts his ideas across clearly and succinctly.
The 5 episodes (58 mins each) are: Ep.1: More Human than Human - Why have humans felt the need to create visual representations of themselves and specifically why indulge in distortions of the human form? Is this hardwired in the human brain? What can we learn from modern studies in neuroscience? Ep.2: The Day Pictures Were Born - What might have been the reasons for the Paleolithic cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux? What can the the more recent cave paintings left by the San bushman in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa tell us? What have studies into altered states of consciousness taught us and how is this applicable to our understanding of the cave paintings? Ep.3: The Art of Persuasion - The role of visual art throughout human history to organise and mobilise society; to persuade, to propagandise, to lie. From its earliest use by Darius of Persia, through Alexander the Great, to Caesar Augustus, to the modern spin-meisters of Bush and Blair. Ep.4: Once Upon A Time - The role of visual art in story-telling, from its earliest beginnings as carved scenes on the Palace walls of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, to the marble statues of Classical Greece, to the epic carvings on Trajan's Column, to the Hollywood spectacles of today. Includes a fascinating reappraisal of Australian Aboriginal art, seen in its cultural context as a blend of picture, story, music and dance and how one element cannot be divorced from the other, making it one of mankind's earliest forerunners to the modern film. Ep.5: To Death and Back - Humanity's fear and fascination with death and how we utilise art in an attempt to conquer it. How images of death are used to gird a society under external threat. Examines the significance of ancient images of death. Compares Christian iconography with ancient Aztec and Incan representations of death.
One criticism is that Spivey is at times too emphatic in his conclusions. What he proposes may certainly be true but we cannot be sure of that (reasons for people producing distorted human imagery - the meaning of paleolithic paintings - the role of death in art). What we can say is that they are valid conclusions in the light of present knowledge. Still as an entry point for the lay audience, it is an excellent series. And Spivey certainly charges the viewer with his sheer enthusiasm.
The series is shot in 1.78:1 widescreen and presented as such on DVD (enhanced for widescreen TV). Picture quality is excellent. Photography is often stunning. Sound is in front-centered, crystal clear, 2.0 Dolby Surround. Optional English subtitles are provided. Extras include a 5-minute long interview with Spivey and Mark Hedgecoe on the series, as well as roughly 12 minutes worth of footage on shooting at the Gobekli Tepe archaeological site in modern Turkey. This series is accompanied by a fully illustrated companion book written by Nigel Spivey available separately from BBC Press."
Visually Great, Intellectually okay.
Louise Marquis | 11/02/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)
"This is an examination of various aspects of art - depiction of human form, origins of painting, storytelling, art of persuasion, depictions of death - and connecting their origins to today. Interesting stuff. It is visually stunning, and presented in a dramatic way that is entertaining.
One of the most interesting parts was the section on Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey, where huge engraved pillars were erected 12,000 years ago. This was the same time and place where wheat was first cultivated, and people moved from hunting/gathering to farming. The theory presented was that the agricultural endeavor was begun in order to feed the thousands involved in building and enjoying these decorated pillars. This differs from the usual assumption that people went where the food was and then culture developed. Intriguing.
My issue with this series is the unquestioning acceptance of brain theories in some of their analyses. People in unrelated cultures made figurines of the female form with rotund bellies and breasts, and minimized other features. Baby birds whose mothers have red stripes on them peck at sticks with red stripes painted on them. Therefore, a brain expert declares, it is hardwired in our brains to exaggerate certain characteristics. Where is the evidence that it has anything to do with the brain? And what does "hardwired in our brains" mean, exactly? It always amazes me when silly theories are accepted without question because they are expressed with an air of authority by an "expert". It is not surprising that unrelated people in harsh environments, where starvation and racial extinction were real concerns, would make a fetish of the female form looking well fed, pregnant and laden with milk. Nowadays, we are more concerned with obesity and overpopulation, so we find the gaunt form attractive. The tendency to exaggerate favored characteristics is a conscious aesthetic decision, no hardwiring needed.
In the part on death - comparing comforting and frightening images of death through the ages - it is said that people - even children - feel bad when someone dies because they're worried about their own death. That is an unwarranted generalization. I think most people feel bad because they miss the person who died, or worry about losing someone else. If children are concerned about their own death, I think it is because they are reminded of a previous death, as in the end of a previous lifetime. The spiritual aspect of these subjects is completely neglected in this series.
Nevertheless, it is worth watching for its unique approach to art history, and the relating of various periods and cultures. Just fast forward through the psychobabble."
A feast for the eyes and mind
E. Karasik | Washington, DC United States | 07/05/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"While I agree with other reviewers that some of the conclusions and connections made in this ambitious series risk being overstated and oversimplified, there is so much fascinating material here, so magnificently presented, that I would hate to discourage anyone from seeing this extraordinary achievement. I was utterly in awe of the production values -- the attention to detail in terms of framing scenes with stunning natural landscapes, dynamic (including computer-enhanced) art direction, strategic use of archival footage, and making generous use of experts from multiple disciplines. The filmmakers here have cleverly applied many of the theories they discuss on what makes art effective and persuasive to making the documentary itself extremely compelling, from having the camera linger with mesmerizing intensity on the world's most dramatic images, shifting points of view to maintain interest, and employing dramatic tension to advance the narrative. While Dr. Spivey is a highly charismatic and erudite presenter, the way his rugged good looks and toned physique are exploited, in the semiotic context of this particular film, occasionally made me laugh out loud. Nonetheless, this series, which is somewhat reminiscent of Bill Moyers's wonderful interviews with Joseph Campbell, is a rare and visionary achievement, marrying the disciplines of art history, archeology, anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience, to give us a transcendent view of the way art both reflects and molds human culture."
Fascinating subjects but falls short of ambitious title
Random Feature | Milwaukee, WI | 12/06/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Rather than a sweeping history of art this film excels at discussing a few fascinating subjects including the 25,000 year old Venus von Willendorf, 3,000 years of unchanging art in Egypt, Greek sculpture and their fascination with the body, the 12,000 year old Goblecki Tepe which far predates Stonehenge, and cave paintings. Also discussed but less interesting is how kings and politicians have used images to convey their power, and how images of death are used both to terrify and reassure. Subjects usually found in an art history book such as the Renaissance, Baroque, and modern art are not mentioned at all.
Some of the conclusions presented are not well supported and seem contrived. However there are enough fascinating subjects to make this well worth watching."
A view of "How Art Made the World"
Ruth E. Pettigrew | Fort Collins, Colorado | 10/06/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I used to teach a history of art class for non-majors at Colorado State University. This documentary covers many of the topics I incorporated into my course in order to bring my students into the world of art from their various majors. Cross-over view points such as portrayed throughout this program give people an opportunity to think about the world around them from a different paradigm. Many students today are so oriented on just taking a course for the sake of a grade, they are often blind to the actual interest of the topics being studied. I always felt that if I had simply wedged the door into the world of inquiry just a tiny bit wider, I had accomplished an important goal in 15 weeks. This documentary would be very helpful in inspiring learning for its own sake."