01. Global Prehistory Art & Humanities Teaching

AP Art History: Theories and Interpretations of Prehistoric Art

July 16, 2020
*Note: The enduring “Enduring understanding,” “Learning Objective,” & “Essential Knowledge” language comes from the 2019 AP Art History Curriculum and Exam Guide.

Enduring Understanding: The study of art history is shaped by different theories and interpretations of art and art making that change over time. These theories and interpretations may be generated both by visual analysis of works of art and by scholarship that may be affected by factors, including, but not limited to, other disciplines, available technology, and the availability of evidence.

Learning Objective: Explain how theories and interpretations of works of art are shaped by visual analysis as well as by other disciplines, technology, or the availability of evidence.

Essential Knowledge: Over time, art historians’ knowledge of global prehistoric art has developed through interdisciplinary collaboration with social and physical scientists.

*Note: radiocarbon dating and archeology are integral to dating and understanding the cultural elements of prehistoric societies.

Essential Knowledge: Ongoing archaeological excavations and the use of carbon-14 dating have illuminated interconnections of art across the world. Because of the understandably small number of surviving and located monuments, however, reasons for similarity or difference in form remain largely conjectural. Nonetheless, comparisons of groups of objects and the application of ethnographic analogy (considering modern traditional cultural practices as models for ancient ones) and reconstruction of religious history (noting shamanism as the earliest, most persistent worldwide spiritual approach) can be applied to help establish general theories of the function and meaning of prehistoric art.

Essential Knowledge: Since it was first practiced c. 1900, modern stratigraphic archaeology (recording precisely each level and location of all objects) has served as a basis for art historical studies. Over time, art historians’ knowledge of global prehistoric art has developed through interdisciplinary collaboration with social and physical scientists. Important monuments, such as the caves at Lascaux, and media, particularly ceramics, were first discovered and described by archaeologists and then became available for interpretation by art historians— the two disciplines are highly complementary.

Essential Knowledge: The function of artistic expression prior to written records is inferred from evidence of technology and survival strategies and based on the relationship of tools and their function (whether task-related or expressive), available food sources, the rise of sophisticated culture, and humans’ capacity to shape and manage the environment. Basic art historical methods can be applied to prehistoric art by comparing works of art, imagery, materials, and techniques to identify patterns (such as a prevalence of transformational animal-human iconography), then ethnographic approaches can be used to propose hypotheses (e.g., that certain iconography is shamanic in nature). Cross-cultural comparisons can help establish wider generalizations (e.g., that South African, Asian, and indigenous American peoples all participated in rock/cave expressions of a visionary aesthetic). In this way, the apparent paucity of evidence can be mitigated, and theories can be proposed, tested, refined, and potentially rejected by conflicting evidence or new information, as in other periods of art history and in other disciplines.

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