Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2006
Thomas Heyd and John Clegg, eds. Aesthetics and Rock Art Aldershot, UK and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. 316 pp.; 106 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (075463924X)

At the beginning of the twenty-first century it seems that history might be repeating itself with a call to a return to aesthetics. Not so much the aesthetics of the philosophers as the domain of the aesthetic itself. At the beginning of the twentieth century philosophical aesthetics had run out of steam: the German idealists had made themselves too remote from the practice of art to be of any use to art history. Alois Riegl felt that aesthetics had to be done again, this time from art. Max Dessoir felt that a united effort had to be made by psychologists, anthropologists, and theorists of the humanities—the practitioners of Kunstwissenschaften—to create a new aesthetics out of the domain of art. The major change between then and now, apart from changes in the social sciences and humanities themselves, was a revolution in artistic practice itself. The twentieth century saw the emergence of what Arthur Danto calls “the Intractable Avant-Garde”: artists who self-consciously set out to reject Beauty and even the Aesthetic itself. As Danto argues in The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2003), it is a mistake to confuse artistic values with aesthetic values. The interest of Aesthetics and Rock Art, edited by Thomas Heyd and John Clegg, is that its subject has become possible through an expanded notion of art made available through a critique of beauty and traditional forms of artistic practice. Interesting questions emerge.

Like Dessoir’s project, this book’s approach is multi-disciplinary (philosophy, anthropology, archaeology, and art history), and its central problem is the viability of an aesthetic approach to its subject. Heyd’s introduction usefully spells out the issues and rehearses the arguments of the three sections that follow: first, to “ask the question whether aesthetics can or should have a place in encounters with rock art” (10; emphasis in original); second, to “seek to uncover the factors that constitute the aesthetic values found in rock art” (11; emphasis in original); and third, to offer “case studies in the application of an aesthetic perspective to rock art in a diversity of areas around the world, the emphasis being on the possibilities, as well as the problems, of rock art appreciation, given that this appreciation generally is a cross-cultural enterprise” (13). There are eighteen contributing authors, and like many collections of this type there are tensions between their specialist expertise and the topic at hand. Clegg remarks: “It became clear that each editor wished, and sometimes assumed, that the other was more knowledgeable in the fields of aesthetics or rock art than was apparent in practice” (xxvii). Nevertheless, the book is invaluable for drawing attention to the methodological problems involved.

Heyd makes the very important point that the experience of rock art should be tied to a sense of place. It should also be tied to the moments of its creation and use by its originators. We must beware the notion that the aesthetic experience of rock art is the same as the modernist experience of painting produced for display in galleries and purchase for investment and museums. As Masaru Ogawa makes us aware in his case study of Font-de-Gaume Cave, there was a “kind of mutual complementarity between the shape of the rock and the concerns of the artist” (118). Andrea Stone invites us to consider Maya speleothems that echo the forms of Mayan sculpture. While we are accustomed to think of polarities between art/culture and nature, rock artists clearly did not think that way. One might say that they thought of themselves as actively participating in natural processes. And as nature has aesthetic properties as much as art, it would be a mistake to experience and evaluate rock art apart from its own aesthetic context. These properties need not just be visual but can be connected to the complete sensual field, including smell, sound, touch, and taste. Perhaps the contributors would have found it useful to work with Frank Sibley’s analysis of aesthetic concepts (Approach to Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Sibley opens the field to “Tastes, Smells, and Aesthetics”; he also has some interesting things to say on the topic of “Arts or the Aesthetic—Which Comes First?” He makes the enormously important point that “the qualities and appearances that can be admired aesthetically for themselves must be ones which somehow, putting aesthetic questions aside, are vitally involved in human experience. . . . Awareness of and concern with warmth, light, brilliance, clarity, purity, regularity, cleanness, richness, softness, smoothness, and simplicity go deep into human life and interests. There is nothing artificial or superficial about them. They are as basic as the passions, fear, anger, hope, pity, longing, ecstasy, and despair, with which other aspects of art are concerned” (31). Many caves are deep in the earth; many rock sites are in desert terrain. Then there is the South American jungle, the Scandinavian fjord, and the English landscape. Place various human activities in these various locations and one may begin to imagine the emergent properties of rock art.

It is at this point that contemporary artistic practice comes to our rescue. Although Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty might look beautiful in a glossy colour photograph, the experience of its reality is quite another matter. This has been brilliantly discussed by Francis Halsall in “One Sense Is Not Enough” (Journal of Visual Art Practice, 3.2, 2004: 103–22). The problem, though, is that much of our experience of rock art is mediated by photographs and, in the case of Lascaux (discussed in Aesthetics and Rock Art by Rowan Wilken, 177–89), reconstructions. Photographs can be looked at from the comfort of an armchair; they do not require a hazardous and somewhat spooky descent into the earth’s depths in conditions of uneven and flickering light. The reconstruction of Lascaux is tourist entertainment, another version of Disneyland. There is, of course, a cultural problem that has to do with the specific meanings that artists and spectators have attached to their aesthetic experiences. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is hard to imagine apart from the context of industrial pollution, becoming a kind of hideous negative beauty similar to that of the Nuclear Mushroom Cloud—a poisonous beauty of the kind described by J-K Huysmans in A Rebours. I wonder whether the Maya speleothems carried the same connotations as the considerably more explicit stela (so-called “found” stalactite images with skillful sculptures of the same subject). And I wonder how the San hunter-gatherers experienced the Eland antelope that played so central a part in their art. William Domeris discusses some of the issues in “San Art: Aesthetically Speaking” (75–85), and I share his reservation that the concept of beauty is hardly adequate to the task.

A number of writers address the issue of whether rock art can be considered as “art.” Reinaldo Moreales suggests: “The reason why some cultures have art and others supposedly don’t is probably less a reflection of any concept of art on the part of the Other and more likely a reflection of the definition of ‘art’ used by the investigator or understood by the indigenous consultant” (67). This is a fair observation to make. The fact of the invention in Europe in the eighteenth century of the modern idea of art does not make it necessarily inapplicable to other times and cultures. The problem is that there is a lot at stake in using the label “art.” The anthropologist Raymond Firth remarked that a concrete expression of a judgment of equality between an African carving and a Viet Stoss might be the “acid test of aesthetic value—high auction prices!” (“Art and Anthropology,” in Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton, eds., Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, 20), but he should have said “artistic” rather than aesthetic value. This leads us into a paradox generated by an ambiguity in the use of the word “art,” which may either be used neutrally, as in “child art,” or evaluatively, as in “Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box is a work of art.” One conspicuous feature of twentieth-century art, as I have already pointed out, is that the “intractable avant-garde” is anti-aesthetic; or rather it attacks the concept of “art” framed in the eighteenth century. Firth’s anthropological point is that what enters art collections (neutral) at fantastically high prices is “art” (evaluative). George Nash’s contribution, “The Aesthetic Value of Textula Images: Pallava Script and Petroglyphic Images on Semi-portable Stones from Bandung Museum, Indonesia (Western Java),” exemplifies this kind of process at work. While the article argues a case for the stones’ aesthetic value, Nash’s conclusion demonstrates the importance of the museum context: “The stones, with their various inscriptions, are subtly illuminated within the enclosed courtyard space. Each stone is set into a series of cobbled floors, the scene resembling, say, a pseudo-Japanese formal garden. The inscribed stones, the enclosed space, the raised cobblestone floors and the minimalist setting place the archaeology into a modern framework” (246). This is, of course, a process of aestheticization, rather like turning a section of the telephone directory into a poem.

At this point it would be useful to remind ourselves of the issues raised for the art historian Julius von Schlosser by the philosopher Benedetto Croce. In his tortuous essay “‘History of Style’ and ‘History of Language’ of Fine Art: A Survey” (at, Schlosser attempted to distinguish between the shared visual language of a community and tradition and style as a characteristic of the work of its best artists. Ernst Gombrich put the matter slightly differently in Art and Illusion (2nd ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) as the distinction between the linguistics and poetics of an image—there being, if you like, visual prose and visual poetry, the latter being “art.” Using this distinction one might say that in the broad field of rock art, which extends across cultures and through history into the present, there have been outstandingly impressive and relatively mundane performances. We have a right to be stunned by the achievement of the artists of Chauvet and Lascaux, but this should not obscure the important aesthetic role that rock art had to play in its artists’ and spectators’ lives.

Mark-making through and across cultures must have played some kind of important role in people’s lives, otherwise why would they bother? But the kinds of roles could be quite surprising. Sven Ouzman’s article “Seeing is Deceiving: Rock Art and the Non-Visual” draws attention to markings in San rock art that would have been produced by hammers, generating sounds: “When struck, even with a bare hand, these gong rocks emit a harsh metallic sound rather like striking a blacksmith’s anvil with a hammer. The sound is usually restricted in tone and timbre, though some gong-rocks have a three octave range” (258). Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois have produced resonance maps of caves in the Ariège region of France demonstrating that paintings or engravings were good acoustic sites for singing (cited in Richard Leakey, The Origin of Humankind. London: Phoenix, 2001, 139–40). If David Lewis-Williams was right to see rock art as generated by shamanic practices (The Mind in the Cave, London: Thames and Hudson, 2002), one can speculate on whether those practices were public or private. If they were private, then the public aesthetic experiences they generated could have yet another dimension. If some rock art functioned as ancient equivalents of contemporary urban graffiti, their aesthetic dimension is twisted yet again.

Fundamentally, the problem arises as to whether we should even be thinking of extending our own categories of aesthetic and artistic experience to the work of other cultures. Negatively it could be registered as misappropriation and misunderstanding, particularly when cultures are robbed of their artifacts to generate aestheticized exhibitions in our museums (or even their museums). But if we stepped out of our urban environments into the land occupied by rock art, it might offer us aesthetic and imaginative experiences that we would not normally have. This comes with a penalty, though. One cannot experience rock art without affecting it and its environment. It has to be protected for its own good, like the paintings in the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet. Photographs and installations simulate aesthetic experience without offering the genuine article. It is just as well that this book comes with the dull black-and-white illustrations one finds in archaeological handbooks instead of the lush color illustrations one associates with art books.

Richard Woodfield
Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham; Editor of The Essential Gombrich