Monday, June 7, 2010

Philosofossilising: What is Palaeo-Art? (Craig Part 2)

This is a reply to the question:
What is Palaeo-Art?

This is an individual opinion on this topic. To read a number of different peoples' answer to this question click this link here. If you have your own answer, read the last paragraph of this post for details on how to get yours posted.

Craig once again weighing in on this topic. This is partially a rebuttal to Nima's reply. You can read my own definition of Palaeo-art here.

One of the major issues with defining Palaeo-art is determining what proportions of palaeontology and art are needed to make a piece. Does Palaeo-art need to be very creative and artistic or does it have to be very confined within scientific understanding?

At the risk of sounding non-decisive, I'd argue any ratio works just fine. So long as it has some science and some art it is a perfectly fine piece of Palaeo-art.

In his recent essay on the topic, ART Evolved member Nima took the question of "what is Palaeo-art" to a different level and answered "what is good Palaeo-art". He than outlines why he believes scientific accuracy is a key ingredient to "good" Palaeo-art.

Now immediately I appreciate the fact he took the time to explain this was his definition of what is good Palaeo-art. As this way the artworks he criticizes and deems not good, are still implied to be Palaeo-art. If he had not done this, I would have had to take aim at his definition altogether. As is, I'll leave this as his opinion, and admit I also share a large part of his opinion for some standards on scientific illustration.

I however find this lacking as a definition for overall Palaeo-art, as there are a number of sub-genres in the art form I feel serve an equally important purpose to scientific illustration that would be excluded if we adhered to the standards of simple this one sub-genre.

Sadly the attitude that absolute scientific accuracy being an opinion of"good" palaeo-art has shifted into an outright definition of Palaeo-art for some people. I find this both paradoxical, and frankly a little egotistical. No matter how much we stick to scientific facts, our reconstruction will always be wrong.

If there is one thing history should have teach us with palaeontology, is that our scientific understanding keeps expanding and changing all the time. Meaning what is a fact today typically won't be a fact in the long run. Additionally the fossil record simply doesn't record all the information we need to "accurately" restore prehistoric creatures.

So how can you define Palaeo-art as a piece that accurately depicts an extinct creature when there is no such thing as accuracy for that creature?

Here is my argument boiled down (so you don't have to bore yourself with my very long version in a moment).

Let us imagine an artist in the remote land of Kookamunga is given a skeleton of a Magpie and asked to create a totally accurate recreation of this creature. Let us also say there are no Magpies in Kookamunga and no record or trace of them apart from this one skeleton. The artist creates a perfect Magpie, having meticulously measured and studied the skeleton. Somehow determining all the unknown muscle attachments, soft tissue arrangements, even the feathers perfectly! Than in the end coloured it yellow and grey... Would we consider this a accurate drawing of a Magpie?

No we wouldn't, as he got the colouration (a key aspect of what makes a Magpie unique from other birds). This is just with the colour in mind a definite unknown, for the most part, in palaeontology. As I hinted at a moment ago if all you have is a skeleton of an animal things like the underlining muscle arrangements, the overlaying soft tissues, and finally ornamental loose bits like feathers or hair are all impossible to directly determine. You can guess yes (using lots of scientific evidence), and possibly get very close, but you are never going to be correct (or demonstrably correct in any case... without getting your hands on the real animal!).

Before anyone argues that we know lots about Prehistoric animal's soft tissue, think about how much we know about them. A whole picture's worth?

For example I attended a talk the other month that clearly demonstrated how we've been recreating Theropod tails completely incorrect due to misunderstandings of their musculature systems. Luis Rey excellently illustrates (literally) how we know next to nothing about Dinosaur soft tissues, by drawing Turkey flapped raptors and puffy nosed Ceratopsians. The debate on this very site about Pterosaur wing attachments demonstrated there is no where near a consensus on that topic.

So to attack a piece because it hasn't measured out the skeletal proportions, and claim yours is more realistic simply because you have, is a little silly. In the end yours is only slightly less made up than theirs. In the end both both works are inaccurate! When you think about it the degree by which it is not important. Wrong is still wrong... Setting up a defination based in right means both pieces are equally useless.

That is the end of my short argument.

To coherently explore this topic, I'm going to draw on the following definition of Palaeo-art provided by palaeo-artist John Conway, as it perfectly illustrates the philosophic problems of this type of definition. I am not taking aim at Mr. Conway personally here, I consider him a top notch Palaeo-artist, however I consider his definition in the following explanation of his artwork, which he calls "Palaeontography", very flawed.

"Palaeontography is the reconstruction and depiction of fossil organisms (this is often called "palaeoart"—however, this is both pre-occupied by ancient art, and horribly mal-formed). My main interest is trying to formalise many of the methods for reconstructing fossil organisms, in an attempt to bring a cohesive and critique-able methodology to the field. " (Click on the quote to be taken to Mr. Conway's site)

Now I consider this definition to about Palaeo-art. My reasoning is that he admits Palaeontography should be called Palaeo-art, and he than makes no real effort to differentiate the two other than Palaeo-art is "pre-occupied by ancient art, and horribly mal-formed". This than implies that Palaeontography is an artform with no body of work to reference, and thus does not actual exist.

I want you to read and think about the line Palaeo-art "is both pre-occupied by ancient art, and horribly mal-formed". I find this definition of Palaeo-art baffling, and frankly a little elitist. In a single sentence we have all the problems of a scientific accuracy model of Palaeo-art fleshed out. The first is this concept of previous work being "ancient art", and the second is a blanket criticism of these previous works all being "horribly mal-formed".

To view Palaeo-art as "pre-occupied by ancient art" is a dangerous road for any palaeo-artist to go down, no matter how talented they are!

A Palaeontography attitude would hold that when our scientific knowledge has changed since a piece was created, this renders this older Palaeo-art inferior. Thus the amazing work of say Charles Knight would all have to be thrown out of Palaeo-art, as far too many of the ideas that fueled and shaped his work have been discredited after the fact. Yet when the pieces were made this was the cutting edge research of its time!?! More to the point this is a great insult to the the people who pioneered early Palaeo-art. The artform wouldn't exist without them, but that doesn't matter now as their "ancient"...

What about our "modern" palaeontographer? I believe the statement goes "time stands still for no one". Sooner or later your piece is not only going to be old, but it's going to become "horribly mal-informed" despite the current research you used at the time. To define an art field like this is to voluntarily admit your art is going to be rubbish eventually.

If you're wanting to counter by saying Palaeontography is "trying to formalise many of the methods for reconstructing fossil organisms, in an attempt to bring a cohesive and critique-able methodology to the field" and thus somehow remain relevant, think about what you're calling for. Art does not and can not follow a concrete "cohesive and critique-able methodology", that is engineering (again you can't reverse engineer an animal for which you are missing all but the skeleton). More to the point it implies that we are doing something radically different than old artists like Knight. He measured and proportioned his animals very similar to how we do it today. The only critique-able part of palaeo-art I have encountered working with a real palaeontologist, is the measurements, everything else is subjective. Sure soft tissues, muscle placement etc. might be based on comparison with real animals or scientific intuition but you could just outright make them up and there is no way to know for sure with is right. In the end they are all stabbing at the darkness shroud by deep time, we have no clue what the real thing exactly looked like.

I also find this idea of old efforts being "ancient" and "mal-informed" very presumptuous and egotistical. It implies that we today are somehow smarter than these people of the past, and that they were foolish for "mal-inform[ing]" their art with the current scientific knowledge of their time. We have had both the benefit of additional time to acquire new knowledge, and more to the point we couldn't have arrived at this new understanding without the basis of their previous work in the first place!

It also to me implies that we feel our modern understanding is the end of the scientific road, and we have arrived at the final truth. The whole point of science is it is constantly trying to refine the truth, and will never settle on a single answer (at least without relentlessly testing it all the time). More to the point modern palaeontology is nothing but change these days! So Palaeo-art should never get stuck in a groove (and it hasn't... I find today's palaeo-art to be among the most varied and diverse of any era!).

(Artwork credits from left to right: Charles Knight, Ely Kish, Unknown artists of the American Museum of Natural History, and Robert Walters)

When we look at all these depictions throughout the last hundred years of Laelaps (aka Dryptosaurus) I do not see them as a litter of "pre-occup[ying]...ancient art [that are] horribly mal-formed", I see a range of very believable possibilities of prehistory. Sure some are more probable than others (the ones on the right in particular), but we'll never know for sure one way or another (unless Dr. Brown invents a flux capacitor :P). More to the point the scientific facts that went into their construction are every bit as legitimate as the others. They were just put together at different points in our journey of scientific discovery.

More to the point, anyone you show these t0o would be able to instantly recognized them as a Dinosaur. Which brings me to my last problem with a scientific accuracy being the only criteria for Palaeo-art. It has the assumption that a scientific understanding overrides a cultural one.

Now I wish it were true that the average person cared about scientific accuracy, and the universal truth about the world around them. Sadly it isn't the case, and to impose this type of understanding on them is again a bit self important on our part, and off putting to those who might shift to our point of view (I hate it when people try to shoove their conflicting point of view down my throat... why shouldn't they?).

By an Unknown Artist, but this is unacceptable. They deserve credit for this great piece of work. If you know the artist behind this piece please email us at

While some science is essential in the make up of a restoration of any prehistoric creature, for it to be recognizable, beyond a general likeness this science is not crucial. In this example piece that Nima stated wasn't "real" palaeo-art, I know what all these creatures are supposed to be, and they communicate the core essence of what each was. Admittedly they are not the most correct versions of these animals, but again I don't see how this makes it inferior or "mal-informed". A mal-informed piece would give the Stegosaurus 8 legs, and the Tyrannosaurus breathing fire and having wings. There is more science in this sort of piece than palaeontographers give it credit for. It is just missing the finer details.

I follow Nima's desire for a higher standard of quality, but this is not answering "what is Palaeo-art?". He is answering "what is good Palaeo-art?" To me these are drastically different questions, and is telling me what we should launch for our next Philosofossilising topic ;)

So long as a piece communicates something about how the world has changed in the last 4 billion years, it a perfectly fine piece of palaeo-art... It just might not count as scientific illustration. Which is fine. There is room in any art form for different sub-genres.

For example I point immediately to Jurassic Park. Yes it had a lot of scientific input into it, making its Dinosaurs close to scientifically accurate, but anyone who knows the behind the scenes of JP knows that there were a lot of changes made for artistic and entertainment reasons. Yet this movie is probably the single most important and far reaching work of Palaeo-art of the last 20 years.

It connected millions of people to palaeontology like no scientific illustration or sculptor could have. Should we dismiss it because the theropods are all holding their hands the wrong way, the T-Rexes skull is way to wide at the base, the Brachiosaurs are somehow chewing, etc? That would only really come across as jealously to me. In my experience working with kids at the Tyrrell, this movie only did good things for the science. The tiny details can be ironed out with anyone who wishes to know them. Yet if any piece conveys a general idea about deep time it serves as Palaeo-art just fine.

Despite my beating up on the concept of "Palaeontography" I do follow what Mr. Conway is probably trying to say. I think a high quality within scienctific illustration or otherwise scientific reconstruction is needed for this subgenre of Palaeo-art. I however think one needs to be careful with their regard to previous work, and especially making blanket comments about the quality of their forbearers. It is also important to recognize there are many other possible realms of palaeo-art than simply pure scientific reconstruction!

I believe I will leave off on this note, and threaten my next post being on the sub-genres I see existing in Palaeo-art (or more to the point what parts of palaeontology we don't normal see as palaeo-art that we should reconsider!)...

ART Evolved is very interested in other opinions on this topic, and would welcome your answer to this question. If you would like to enter an article on "What is Palaeo-art", please read the brief criteria here, and send your essay to