Aesthetics and rock art, edited by Thomas Heyd and John Clegg
The study of rock art on a global scale has blossomed since the 1980s. No longer is western Europe the exclusive hub of rock art research, although those remarkable sites and artworks remain as impressive as ever. Some have even increased in significance since the revelation of 30,000 years BP plus AMS radiocarbon dates from Chauvet Cave. Along with a geographical broadening of interest in rock art has also come a proliferation in intellectual arenas. Perhaps most belatedly has been a willingness to see and theorise rock art not just in terms of an archaeologically useful source of ideas on information exchange, but to explicitly consider rock art in terms of aesthetics. This has come about in two ways: first, aesthetic values concern the onlookers today; and second, there is also an appreciation that aesthetic values are constructed in society and culture, and therefore exploring changing aesthetic expressions through time opens a door to an archaeology (and historicity) of aesthetics (which is not to deny aesthetism as a universal human process). This book explores some of these ideas; it represents the first book to specifically address the aesthetics of rock art, with the archaeology of rock art in mind.
Aesthetics and Rock Art contains seventeen chapters, divided into three Parts. Following an introduction (Chapter 1: Aesthetics and Rock Art: An Introduction) by Thomas Heyd, Part 1 explores ‘Theory: The Role of Aesthetics in Rock Art Research’. Here we begin with one of the twin pillars of this book: Peter Lamarque’s Chapter 2, Palaeolithic Cave Painting: a Test Case for Transcultural Aesthetics. In this chapter we are confronted with the question of what aesthetics is all about. We come away understanding that aesthetics concerns a qualitative (value) assessment of things through the senses. While all peoples have a sense of appreciation – a sense of value judgement – values change through time, across cultures, and between individuals, allowing for an archaeology (and, indeed, anthropology) and historicizing of aesthetics. We can thus have ‘good’ rock art and ‘bad’ rock art, but such judgements are always made in relation to a point of judgement, itself always located in relation to cultural positioning. Hence what is ‘good’ art to someone will not necessarily be so to another. A case in point: if aesthetics was not at stake, why do we find particular artistic conventions being repeatedly used by particular groups of people, or in particular contexts. Without aesthetics, would there be refinement, excellence, or mastery? Can you have care without aesthetics? Are aesthetic processes taking place in all material behavior? If there is an interplay between people and things, and if objects make demands on our attention, where is human agency located in historically-specific aesthetic positioning? And why have archaeologists not paid more attention to such historical dimensions of aesthetic behavior, as one aspect of cultural behavior?
Chapter 3, Rock Art Aesthetics: Trace on Rock, Mark of Spirit, Window on Land (Thomas Heyd) follows, with questions on the relationship between meaningfulness, representation and appreciation in the making of aesthetics. Chapter 4, Aesthetics across Time and Place: An Anthropological Perspective on Archaeology (Howard Morphy), is the second highlight of the book. Morphy argues that ‘aesthetics is integral to perception … and because it is concerned with qualitative responses to the object world, it provides a potential source of evidence about two areas of culture that are otherwise hard to access: perception and feeling’ (p. 54). Again, there are evident implications for archaeology.
Chapter 5, Considerations on the Art and Aesthetics of Rock Art, by Reinaldo Morales Jr, looks at rock art as metaphor as well as its’ aesthetic dimensions, taking into account non-Western contexts and notions of material depiction. In Chapter 6, San Art: Aesthetically Speaking, William Domeris pays particular attention to art as artifact.
Part 2, Aesthetic Appreciation of Rock Art: Constitutive Factors, has six chapters. Chapter 7 Michael Eastham’s The Archaeology, Anthropology and Aesthetics of Understanding Parietal Rock Images at La Grèze, Cosquer and Wangewangen, begins with the curious statement that the archaeology and anthropology of rock art begins with ‘an assumption of gradual aesthetic evolution’, and assumes that archaeologists and anthropologists are concerned with linear and progressive stages of economic development. Particular concepts, such as twisted perspective, we are told, are ‘regarded as a primitive form of tool that will be changed by the same process of technological development as a flint chopper. Just as the stainless steel kitchen knife evolved from the Acheulian flint chopper, scientific perspective came from twisted perspective’ (p. 91). There is generally evolutionary thinking among archaeologists when talking about the emergence of modern humans, but most archaeologists deal specifically with Homo sapiens sapiens (including almost all archaeologists dealing with rock art), and with specific forms of social and environmental engagements rather than with ‘progressive’ evolutionary change.
Chapter 8, Integration in Franco-Cantabrian Parietal Art: A Case Study of Font-de-Gaume Cave, France (by Masaru Ogawa) explores the role of a rock wall’s topography in rock art depictions in Upper Palaeolithic France. Chapter 9, Perception and Ways of Drawing: Why Animals are Easier to Draw than People, by J.B. Deregowski, argues that some things are easier to draw than other things, and this may be why there are relatively few anthropomorphs in European Upper Palaeolithic paintings. In Chapter 10 “We Make Lines, Follow this Direction, Then I Look and Go the Other Way”: Excerpts from an Ethnography of the Aesthetic Imagination of the Pitjantjatjara, Ute Eickelkamp gives an interesting discussion of the repeatedness of specific artistic conventions, and innovations, by Western Desert Aboriginal women artists at Ernabella in arid Australia, exploring notions of intentionality in the process. In Chapter 11 Aesthetics, Rock Art, and Changing States of Consciousness, John Clegg explores the employment of optical tricks in artistic productions, rock art included, and how these tricks add to the construction of aesthetic effects. Chapter 12 Evolutions of Lascaux, by Rowen Wilken, explores the hyperreal through the original Lascaux cave, Lascaux 2, and Virtual Lascaux: how representations draw us to think in certain ways, and in the process lead us to subliminally rethink the original thing itself through its representation. Notions of authenticity are questioned in the process.
In Part 3 Case Studies: Opportunities and Tension in Cross-Cultural Appreciation, five chapters are presented. Chapter 13, by John Coles Illuminations and Reflections: Looking at Scandinavian Rock Carvings, we are invited to muse over Scandinavian rock art in their environmental contexts. In Chapter 14 The Visual as a Site of Meaning: San Parietal Painting and the Experience of Modern Art’, by Pippa Skotnes, the notion of experience (a culturally mediated concern) is argued to be a key to understanding the art’s meaningfulness, and in doing so also a key to its aesthetic success (or non). Chapter 15 Divine Stalagmites: Modified Speleothems in Maya Caves and Aesthetic Variation in Classic Maya Art, by Andrea Stone, discusses the meaningfulness of modified Mayan stalagmites, and why it is that this form of art at least superficially presents such a contrasting aesthetic experience to the contemporaneous and better-known Classic Maya stela. In Chapter 16 The Aesthetic Value of Textual Images: Pallava Script and Petroglyphic Images on Semi-portable Stones from Bandung Museum, Indonesia [Western Java], George Nash discusses rock art as text, and written inscriptions as art through aesthetics (incorporating notions of symmetry and balance). The book then ends with Chapter 17, Sven Ouzman’s Seeing is Deceiving: Rock Art and the Non-visual. Here we are introduced to the creation of patterned visual marks through social actions that were not necessarily geared to produce visual marks, such as touching of rock surfaces (that produced polished surfaces) and the production of sound through physical impact. Each of these implicates a sensual relationship with the ‘art’ and more generally the engaged world.
Aesthetics and Rock Art is a mixed bag. There are a few outstanding chapters, quite a few good and stimulating ones, and a very few that do not meet the bill. While the chapters are generally united in a common topic of interest (aesthetics and rock art), and while overall they are useful in the diversity of approaches, there are unusual moments of sloppiness: there is a Northern Territories of Australia (p.107) (rather than the formally recognized Northern Territory); we are told that the echidna Zaglossus is ‘extinct in Australia but still found in Irian, Jaya and Papua’ (p. 112) (this should have been ‘West Papua and Papua New Guinea’). On page 113 we are told that ‘No extant mammal has a tongue that is forked, though the large monitor lizard, still to be seen in the tropical rainforest of Australia, has’ – the large monitor lizard is one of the most common largish vertebrates of Australia, found abundantly across most environments (including arid and semi-arid landscapes); there is no reason here to single-out the rainforest. Sometimes a reference in a text is not fully referenced (eg p. 193); some chapters have abstracts and others do not; and then there are inconsistencies in textual conventions (eg sometimes ‘20th century’, sometimes ‘twentieth century’). But these are editorial concerns. Of a more substantive nature is an absence of case studies specifically dealing with the historical emergence of particular aesthetic expressions; and there is the occasional confusion between, for example, notions of ‘naturalism’ and ‘figurative’ depictions. Nevertheless, this book invites us to look at rock art in different ways, and to explore hitherto largely ignored aesthetic dimensions of individual historical trajectories. It also tells us that while aesthetics is a universal concern, how things are appreciated varies between peoples and through time. The question remains: can we have art without aesthetics? Is it possible to suspend aesthetics in material production: if not, then the usefulness of aesthetics to archaeology is highlighted; if it is possible to suspend aesthetics, then here too we become faced with historically/culturally-specific contexts of suspension. Does kitsch, or counter-art, represent such a suspension under specific contexts?. If the value of a book can be measured by how it makes us think, then this book certainly succeeds in its desire to make us rethink how we see and analyse rock art.
Review Submitted: July 2005
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