What Ancient Art Tells Us About Pinboards

In the midst of an online discussion about the popularity of the new social media network, Pinterest, blogger “2uesday” made a very insightful comment:

Pin boards could also be a way of ‘virtually owning something’ rather than actually buying it.

2uesday is spot on. Let’s take a look at how the “virtual reality” aspect of pictures plays out in both ancient art and the modern web.

Images Are How Our Mind Thinks About Reality

This echoes a larger discussion from the field of depth psychology, the way our mind converts the world around us into images.  A psychological “image” is not necessarily a literal picture: it’s the mental representation of something we’ve experienced, touched, possessed, or interacted with. The key to this “image” concept is the fact that in order to think about something, we can’t jam a physical thing (like a banana) into our heads; we have to convert it into a mental facsimile of it. Therefore, when we think about our possessions, our jobs, even people we know, we experience them and respond to them as mental images of those things.

I’m not sure I’m making myself clear, but the point is this: our minds are programmed to respond to and have feelings about representations of things. That means we can feel a sense of ownership, a sense of connection to, and a sense of reality in a picture of something.

What does this have to do with mythology?

Mythology is a creative way of representing things with images — or, rather, stories — and it often manifests in the form of actual images. Ancient Greeks loved the story of Hercules, and they were fond of serial sculptures representing the 12 labors of Hercules.  Or, for a more modern example, the Superman-myth derives its power mostly from images: when someone says the catch phrase, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman!” it triggers a mental picture of a muscular flying man wearing a red cape, blue spandex  and an S-logo on his chest.

Lascaux Cavern: A 17,300 Year Old Pinboard?

Lascaux Cave by sailko, Wikimedia Commons

Mythology often manifests in art, and it is often functional art: it doesn’t merely tell a story; it also is supposed to achieve some magical purpose. People feel that images can influence reality, because of the way our minds perceive reality through mental representations.

So, if we feel that a picture of a mammoth is real, then why not create cave paintings showing lots of mammoths (food!) and, perhaps, some arrows sticking in the mammoth expressing our hopes of catching it? Ancient cave art like the famous horses and bulls of Lascaux Cave let the painters connect with the natural world through representations of it, and may have served as a sort of visual magic saying, “let there be lots of horses for us to hunt.”

In the modern world, this impulse manifests online through simulation games like Farmville, or even the whimsical Angry Birds: we’re still working through the impulses to amass stuff, hunt, and collect food, but now we do it with images and points.

Ancient cave art arises from more than just the impulse to collect cool-looking images of horses, bulls, deer and other animals; it’s also an attempt to influence nature through art. Still, there’s certainly a pinboard aspect to the sheer numbers of animal representations in Paleolithic cave art and rock art. Those ancient people kept adding more and more horses, bulls, deer, mammoths — even the occasional penguin! — as time passed, contributing to a group pinboard.

Hand Cave Art: A “Friends” Page

Cueva de las Manos, taken by Mariano Cecowski, CC

Another example of cave art is hand prints. The impulse to sign one’s name, to leave behind a physical trace of oneself, is a very powerful one. We feel that a handprint is a part of a person, just as much as the sound of that person’s voice, because again, our mind can only interact with people in terms of images, representations.

It’s just a picture of a hand, but the representation is enough for us to feel that there were people here: in a way, to feel like the hand is the person. Why do these hand prints make us feel a connection with, and the reality of, the people who made them, far more even than the paintings of horses and bulls, which we know were done by people, too? Because our minds represent reality through images in such a way that images of something evoke a hint of the same emotional response, the same thoughts, the same impulses, as if we were looking at that thing.

It’s no coincidence that many social networks use hands or “thumbs” as a representation of how many people like something. It evokes a connection, a sense that real people just like me liked this page. The hand icon turns abstract numbers into a more personal connection.

This also explains why social networks include profile photos. It’s just someone’s head, but somehow their words, their status updates and posts, feel more real because we see a picture of someone looking at us. Most social networks include a friends list which shows icons of all one’s “friends” in a way very reminiscent of these 9,300 hand prints. The face book, or the handprints, makes one feel like part of a community: “these [images] are my friends.”

Egyptian Funerary Art: SimAfterlife

Egyptian Afterlife, from the British Museum

Ushabti Figure, Walters Art Gallery

Moving forward from the stone age to ancient civilizations, we find ever more sophisticated versions of this “mental representation / virtual reality” impulse. Ancient Egyptians were convinced that representations had so much reality that they created images and objects of things they’d like to have in the afterlife. All their funerary art was virtual life insurance: if one’s afterlife lasted forever, one certainly needed to prepare an afterlife kit of food, furniture, clothes, board games, even ushabti figures, representations of the owner that would take care of chores or do any jobs the gods asked the ushabti’s owner to do! The Egyptians were playing a unique mental game: SimAfterlife.

I wrote an article last year on modern examples of functional funerary art: in China, people burn pictures (representations) of things as gifts for their ancestors, and have recently started burning very realistic-looking paper facsimiles of smartphones and iPads.

In the western world, we aren’t quite as certain what the afterlife will be like, so instead our “Sim” games focus on simulating our lives: we’ve got SimCity, SimZoo, and of course The Sims, plus all those new mobile games sprouting up that allow us to simulate pet stores and the mafia (gack!) and, as usual, building towns. It’s just the latest manifestation of the Game of Monopoly. Why are these so satisfying? Once again, our minds have some of the same emotional responses towards these images of possessions, building, and creating ordered lives as we do towards real possessions, buildings, life experiences. But unlike real life, these images cost little to nothing, we can have more of them, and they’re under our control. All of which make them very satisfying, especially during a time of economic uncertainty.

Pinboards are simpler: instead of simulating the process of amassing wealth, growing food, building a city, or hunting, they let us collect virtual representations of the end result: stuff! And while pictures are no substitute for owning the real thing, they provide some of the same satisfaction as actual ownership — without the expense or clutter. Or, in the case of pictures of sunsets, faraway places, or things people like, they provide some of the same satisfaction as actually experiencing it or being there.

Virtual reality is now digital, but its roots go back to the stone age.

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