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New York’s Sidewalk Prophets Are Heirs of the Lascaux Cave Artisans

  • August 06, 2020

About 17,000 years ago, in the caves of Lascaux, France, ancestors drew on grotto walls, depicting equines, stags, bison, aurochs and felines. They wanted to convey to other humans a political reality crucial to their survival: They shared their environment with other beings that looked and behaved differently from them.

Those early artisans drew these creatures over and over, likely fascinated by their forms and their powers, but also intuiting that whatever happened to the animals would almost certainly be a harbinger of what would happen to humans. The presence of the bison and stags, their physical fitness and numbers, their mass migrations would have indicated the onset of plagues or cataclysmic weather systems. Containing some 15,000 paintings and engravings from the Upper Paleolithic era, the caves in Southwestern France were not simply an exhibition space for local talent. They essentially constituted a public square where a community shared critical knowledge.

These portraits and discrete stories are not very different from our contemporary forums: the street art adorning boarded-up storefronts in New York City. They tell us about our shared political realities, the people we coexist with in social space and the ways in which our stories and fates are tied together. If you walk the streets of SoHo, the alleys of the Lower East Side, and heavily trafficked avenues in Brooklyn, as I did over the last few weeks, you will see these symbols and signs and might wonder at their meanings. What became apparent to me is that in the intervening millenniums between those cave paintings and the killing of George Floyd, the messages we share, like the sociopolitical circumstance that impel them, have become more complex.

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