Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Thomas Heyd and John Clegg (eds.), Aesthetics and Rock Art, Ashgate.  2005.  pp. xxv + 316.  

Elisabeth Schellekens

The term ‘aesthetics’ is often used in academic circles to refer to the study of a certain kind of experience.  Philosophers, art historians and even anthropologists and archaeologists, employ it to describe a specific kind of relation that we may entertain and develop with things in the world.  Those things are frequently assumed to be artworks, or at least objects that may properly qualify as ‘art’, in so far as the aim of art is often taken to be to give rise to aesthetic experiences.  That is to say, ‘aesthetic experience’ is understood as that which art gives rise to in us, and ‘art’ is, in turn, said to be that which affords aesthetic experiences.  What of this circularity?  Two questions clearly stand in need of independent investigation here.  First, we may ask exactly what aesthetic experience amounts to and towards what it is directed.  Is the occurrence of aesthetic experience really only the prerogative of art?  Must, moreover, aesthetic experience be concerned with beauty or a certain kind of pleasure?  Second, what may properly count as art, and how do we account for those things that are capable of yielding aesthetic experiences yet do not, or at least not uncontroversially, qualify as such?  

The complex yet rich connection between the aesthetic on the one hand, and art on the other, is the general theme of Aesthetics and Rock Art .  More specifically, its over-riding aim is to establish whether an approach focused on the distinctively aesthetic character of rock carvings and paintings can increase our insight into their nature, function and role.  In the words of Jean Clottes, author of the volume’s Foreword, the book raises the question of whether, and if so how, ‘aesthetics [can] help us better understand rock art and the people who created it’ (p. xix).    

In this process, representatives of several disciplines have been invited to participate in the debate: philosophers working on aesthetic appreciation; art historians specialising in paleolithic images, pre-Columbian art, and digital reproductions of rock engravings; archaeologists focused on Australian aboriginal, South-African San, Brazilian, English and Scandinavian engravings and paintings; psychologists studying cross-cultural perceptual processes; and, finally, anthropologists interested in landscapes and gardens, digital media, and museum anthropology.  The project thus has an intrinsically inter-disciplinary character, and, accordingly, the variables are many.  Most importantly perhaps, one may ask whether the central notions are understood in the same way.  Is, in other words, the focus of investigation, or indeed the ‘aesthetic approach’ under scrutiny, sufficiently constant for genuine progress to be made?  Before addressing this question in any detail, let us first study the volume’s structure and individual contributions.


Aesthetics and Rock Art is divided into three parts.  The main concern of Part I, ‘Theory: The Role of Aesthetics in Rock Art Research’, is ‘whether aesthetics can or should have a place in encounters with rock art’ (p. 10).  The hypothesis upon which the book rests is indeed in itself a contentious one, since what is referred to as ‘the aesthetic dimension of rock art’ (p.19) has, we are told, received little if any attention from the academic community until now for reasons partly linked to a parallel debate about whether rock engravings and images should be conceived of as art or not.  

Part II, ‘Aesthetic Appreciation of Rock Art: Constitutive Factors’, sets out ‘to uncover the factors that constitute the aesthetic values found in rock art’, ranging ‘from those that have to do with the material and the physical trace on the rock, to those that have to do with the makers of rock art and, furthermore, to those that have to do with the reception of marks on rocks.’ (p. 11)  Here, then, we transfer our focus from the ‘more object-related to the more appreciator-related factors’ (p.87).

Finally, Part III, or ‘Case Studies: Opportunities and Tension in Cross-Cultural Appreciation’, comprises five individual studies illustrating the kind of advance that can be achieved with the help of the aesthetic approach, ‘given that this appreciation generally is a cross-cultural enterprise’ (p. 13).      


The first part of Aesthetics and Rock Art is the philosophically most interesting section of the book.  The opening essay of this volume is concerned with the scope of the notion of the aesthetic, and the possibility of the ‘universal applicability of art historical idioms’ (p. 21).  In ‘Paleolithic Cave Painting: A Test Case for Transcultural Aesthetics’, Peter Lamarque isolates two questions that,  although both of central importance to aesthetics, nonetheless seem to be at least partly at loggerheads with one another:

‘The first is the essential embeddedness of cultural objects – be they artefacts or works of art – in cultural traditions which both give them their identity and make them intelligible.  The second is the ease with which such objects, particularly with respect to aesthetic appreciation, can be appropriated by other cultural traditions and assimilated into contexts far removed from the origins of their creation’ (p. 22)  

Lamarque’s aim is to examine the assumptions that one would need to make were one to support the view that aesthetics could somehow overcome its own origin and apply across times and cultures.    

This essay, by far the most directly philosophical of all contributions, raises some of the most fundamental – and interesting – questions that the category of rock art gives rise to.  Never straying far away from how we are to define the notion of the aesthetic, or aesthetics, Lamarque addresses head-on many of the pressing questions this area gives rise to.  With the help of a very vivid example, the ambiguities surrounding the key notions are unveiled and the highly misleading consequences a confusion at this level may lead to are exposed, thereby pin-pointing exactly the kind of mistake any student of rock art must be careful to avoid in the process of creating explanatory narratives for the mysterious things that rock art presents us with.

Thomas Heyd, one of the co-editors of the collection, then proceeds  to a defense of the aesthetic approach to rock art and a very helpful exploration of the advantages (and disadvantages) entailed by such an approach.  In ‘Rock Art Aesthetics: Trace on Rock, Mark of Spirit, Window on Land’, Heyd starts off by describing how ‘rock art can be as aesthetically stimulating as works that have their roots in the art practices, conceptions and conventions which, although they originated in modern Europe, are now represented in most parts of the world’ (pp. 37-38).  Advocating a univocal account of art appreciation, Heyd argues that rock carvings should indeed be conceived of as a kind of art in its own right on the basis that ‘much rock art-making was likely to have been accompanied by the relevant attitudes’ (p. 41).

Heyd unravels a plethora of philosophically interesting questions about viewing rock carvings from the aesthetic perspective, and it is obvious from the text that these are concerns that Heyd is deeply committed to.  In fact, the very discussion of the aesthetic approach to rock art is imbued by this aesthetic stance, and it is refreshing to read such a heartfelt academic paper.  This method is well-chosen and helps the reader see the point behind the approach defended by Heyd, and why it deserves the attention Heyd and Clegg have given it.  One of the most important aspects highlighted in this way is the way in which an all-encompassing account of art proposed can provide us with a very appealing – and continuous – story of art-making ranging right across from the Aboriginal art discovered in Northern Queensland in Australia, to Jackson Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings.

An archaeologist by training, Howard Morphy, in his ‘Aesthetics Across Time and Place: an Anthropological Perspective on Archaeology’, endorses the philosophically loaded ‘universal’ analysis, and carefully outlines the advantages of adopting the aesthetic approach.  Targeting the very heart of prehistoric research methodology, Morphy suggests that archaeologists’ and anthropologists’ tendency to shy away from promoting a less context-dependent and narrow approach to the interpretation of rock carvings has little to do with lack of archaeological evidence.  This Morphy describes as a ‘great irony’:

‘On the one hand, rock art is used as a source of data in cognitive and evolutionary studies, providing evidence for theories on the origins of language, the technological capacities of people and their emergence as fully modern humans.  On the other hand, in analysing the particularities of the record and searching for the meanings that the representations might have to people who made them, there is a tendency to lay too great a stress on the partial nature of the record and paucity of evidence.’ (p. 59)  

Although his conceptual apparatus is rather problematic from a philosophical point of view, Morphy nonetheless highlights very effectively the importance of distinguishing between aesthetics and art (p. 52) and the need for developing a ‘meta-language for cross-cultural and cross-temporal analysis’ capable of tackling the ‘fuzzy concepts’ it will need to be able appeal to (p. 51).      

Reinaldo Morales’ ‘Considerations on the Art and Aesthetics of Rock Art’ identifies the widespread distinction between the aesthetic and the functional realms as the principal source of resistance towards an aesthetic approach to rock carvings.  This ‘reluctance to associate prehistoric visual expression with art’ seems, or so Morales argues, ‘grounded in the beliefs that art is a modern construct of Western civilization and that aesthetic sensibility played an insignificant role in the production and reception of prehistoric painting and engraving on rock’ (p. 61).  Eager to develop an argument against this reluctance, Morales sketches a helpful overview of why one might be unhappy about the word ‘art’ applying to such prehistoric items, with a special emphasis on certain ‘perceived inconsistencies between Western and non-Western attitudes to art and aesthetics’ (p. 61).    

This paper presents a convincing case for the claim that our understanding of the term ‘art’ has often been unduly limited and geographically restricted.  Bringing numerous captivating examples to our attention, Morales elegantly demonstrates his point with the help of several interesting publications on the topic.  The weaknesses of this contribution – a persistent assumption that art and aesthetics always go hand in hand in some unexplained manner together with a relatively commonplace conclusion –  may make this the philosophically least rewarding paper of Part I, but it is nevertheless helpful in giving philosophers an idea of the current state of the anthropological and archaeological debate.  Moreover, it encourages us not be too complacent about the concept of art, and that is invariably a good thing.  

The last contributor to Part I is the archaeologist William Domeris.  In his ‘San Art: Aesthetically Speaking’, Domeris explores the rock art made by the San bushmen in South Africa, and argues that we ought to view rock art from a threefold perspective following the spirit of S. M. Pearce’s museum studies: (i) the aesthetic of form, (ii) the aesthetic of function, and (iii) the aesthetic of history.  Only once this perspective has been espoused, Domeris argues, can the aesthetic approach to rock art be adopted.  His conclusion is formulated in no uncertain terms.    

‘Whether one determines meaning as function, meaning as structure or meaning as history, aesthetics plays a role.  For those who determine meaning as function, aesthetics is measured in the extent to which art may have been useful… For those who determine meaning as structure, aesthetics is obvious in the symbolism of art, but present also in the careful framing of art upon the rock face.  For those who determine meaning as history, aesthetics exists in the manner in which art mirrors the changing social, political and religious contexts in which it was born and attempts to change history.’ (p. 85)  

Although to my mind Domeris takes a few too many liberties with some of the philosophical texts to which he refers, he nonetheless manages to address a concern which must lie at the heart of any scrupulous investigation of the aesthetic character of rock art, namely the meaning imbued to it not merely by its makers but by its ‘audience’ too.  Of all the papers touching on the notion of meaning, this is the most interesting and informative one.

Aesthetics and Rock Art ’s second part begins with an essay by Michael Eastham.  In his ‘The Archaeology, Anthropology and Aesthetics of Understanding Parietal Rock Images at La Grèze, Cosquer and Wangewangen’, Eastham discusses the so-called ‘twisted perspective’ of certain rock art images.  Rather than endorsing the view that such images often seem slightly perspectivally distorted because of their makers’ lack of technical ability, Eastham argues that this effect can be explained in terms of an alternative account.  Taken instead as the result of a ‘non-perspectival’ or ‘regressed angular’ projection, the perspective afforded by a rock image is ‘seen less as the ultimate stage in technological progress and more as one of many forms of judgement about visual stimuli’.  It is, more specifically, ‘a form of judgement that pays particular attention to the examination of the relationship between the space occupied by an object and the surrounding space’, indicating ‘the size of the void between figures or other objects by detaching them in a separate scaled picture space of their own’ (p. 114).  An aesthetic approach is fundamental to such an account, Eastham claims, since it rests on the assumption that ‘perceptions are common to all people, and that only intentions differ’ (p. 114).  

The art historian Masaru Ogawa’s essay, ‘Integration in Franco-Cantabrian Parietal Art: A Case study of Font-de-Gaume Cave, France’, urges us to revise our assumptions about the kind of aesthetic gaze adopted by prehistoric engravers and image-makers in Western Europe.  The view proposed has it that the shapes of rock walls were not merely used by these people in order too engrave or carve images, but that ‘they integrated certain representations with the pre-existing shapes of the natural rock-surface as they found it.’ (p. 12)  This integration is defined by Ogawa as ‘a kind of mutual complementarity between the shape of the pre-existing rock and the concerns of the artist’.  As such, the term is thus taken to describe a ‘convergence between that which the rock already expresses and that which the artist seeks to render in the act of painting or drawing.’ (p. 118)  The point is explored principally in relation to rupestrian images, and discusses the role of light diffused onto them.  

In ‘Perception and Ways of Drawing: Why Animals are Easier to Draw than People’, J. B. Deregowski addresses rock image-making from a psychological angle.  Suggesting that drawing skills go hand in hand with the ability to detect typical contours and, further, that such contours are more problematic to reproduce in the case of human beings, we are urged to ‘consider what further perceptual factors may be at the origin, not only of particular ways of executing rock images, but also of the prevalence of certain motifs in the record.’ (p. 12)  Raising a handful of underlying questions about why this kind of ‘cognitive game’ seems to require a different set of rules for the human case, Deregowski’s psychological examination of this concern provides an overview of what are referred to as the ‘perceptually less stable’ (p. 139) typical contours of human beings, and how image-makers might try to overcome them.  

The anthropologist Ute Eickelkamp, in her ‘ “ 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’, investigates the development of aesthetic imagination and the process whereby meaning is given form.  Focusing mainly on the formal-aesthetic features of non-iconographic line patterns produced by Pitjantjatjara women from west South Australia, Eickelkamp sets out to ‘demonstrate the intrinsically cultural nature of [the] open process of “finding form” and consider the relevance that such a close reading of art in the making might have for the appreciation of rock art aesthetics.’  Her principal claim is that ‘the key to establishing links between the past and present experience of making art is to draw on and develop further an understanding of the meaning of style’ (p. 143).  Style, for Eickelkamp, has its own ‘generative qualities’ that reflect the aesthetic consciousness of image-makers.  The drawings of the Pitjantjatjara women show how an aesthetic impulse, such as one of pursuing dynamic visual balance, can drive the form-giving of meaning.

In his contribution to the volume, John Clegg outlines particular techniques for creating the visual effects produced by some rock images in Australia.  In ‘Aesthetics, Rock Art, and Changing States of Consciousness’.  Clegg discusses the evidence available for the view that these images may be achieved through a kind of optical trick, and how altered states of consciousness (attained via ‘deep trance, heavy drugs, shamanism, ecstatic experiences and the supernatural’, p. 175) may deepen our understanding of rock art.  In addition, Clegg tries to ‘broaden our understanding of the psychovisual techniques applied in rock art by comparing them with those developed in twentieth-century op-art and in European medieval works’ (p. 13).

 The final essay in Part II, Rowan Wilken’s ‘Evolutions of Lascaux’, encourages us to think about the interaction, or ‘interplay’, of the notions of ‘original’ versus ‘copy’ and how it influences our appreciation of rock art.  Drawing on how the greater public’s experience of cave paintings such as those to be found at Lascaux in France is nearly exclusively through replicas or virtual recreations, Wilken examines whether, and if so how, this affects our perception and understanding of rock engravings and images.  For Wilken, all our experiences of places such as Lascaux are mediated by a ‘movement’ between the real and the virtual – the ‘original’ and the copy’.  We are thereby forced, it is argued, ‘to re-evaluate what we take to be significant about what “originals” are’, and prompted ‘to consider new directions for the aesthetic appreciation of rock art as a science and art’ (p. 177).    


Part III opens with a contribution by John Coles.  In his ‘Illuminations and Reflections: Looking at Scandinavian Rock Carvings’, Coles argues that it is possible to make certain inferences about the engraving-makers’ aesthetic perspective even though there is relatively little by way of archaeological evidence to be found in Denmark, Norway and Sweden capable of single-handedly establishing this claim.  Discussing the granite rock surfaces of western Sweden in particular, Coles tells the reader about the relation these engravings might have born to religious rites and beliefs, the concept of the soul somehow being ‘in’ the rock, political power, land control, and much more.  The uniting feature for Coles lies in the aesthetic pleasure afforded to perceivers of these engravings, ranging from the very engraving-maker her/himself to today’s rather alienated onlooker.

Pippa Skotnes’ ‘The Visual as a Site of Meaning: San Parietal Painting and the Experience of Modern Art’ presents an art-historian’s point of view on the interpretation of South African San art.  Centring her argument on the claim that the original meaning of San art has been overlooked as a result of bringing a Vasarian Renaissance approach to bear to it, Skotnes urges us to return to a formal analysis of such art.  Although remaining ‘faithful to the productive ethnographic model of interpretation’, Skotnes’ goal is to contrast the anthropologists’ and cognitive archaeologists’ concern with the ‘verifiable and verbalizable components of the art’ to that of the art-historian’s interest in ‘the direct apprehension of the aesthetic and expressive potential of the art’ (p. 202).  Looking at similarities between San art and Modern art, Skotnes emphasises the role of the aesthetic in the artistically creative process.  

Continuing this art-historical outlook on rock art, Andrea Stone’s ‘Divine Stalagmites: Modified Speleothems in Maya Caves and Aesthetic Variation in Classic Maya Art’ examines some engravings discovered in underground caves in the Yucatán.  These engravings are particularly interesting, it is expalined, since they contrast starkly with the far more elaborate, detailed and skilled images the same society is known to have produced, revealing important aesthetic features such as elegance and proportion.  Stone’s claim holds that the ‘sculptural modifications of these engraved speleothems, or ‘stalagmites, stalactites, and other concretions typical of limestone solution caves’ (p. 215), should be seen to testify of ‘an intentional aesthetic rather than any failing on the part of the maker’ and, moreover, that ‘this aesthetic is grounded in the function, location and cultural context’ (p. 218).

George Nash’s ‘The Aesthetic Value of Textual Images: Pallava Script and Petroglyphic Images on Semi-portable Stones from Bandung Museum, Indonesia (Western Java)’ investigates some of the differences that prevail if marks on rock surfaces are viewed as textual imagery as opposed to non-textual imagery.  Nash explores the idea that textual imagery ‘should be considered as rock art’, where that concept is ‘defined in terms of power, rhetoric and display’ (p. 235).  Not only does Nash argue ‘that text may form an integral part of the art of rock art panels’, but also ‘that we may appreciate such rock text for its aesthetic qualities’ (p. 236).  The main advantage of applying the aesthetic approach to the stones of the Bandung Museum, then, is that it helps us further our knowledge and understanding of the cultural system prevalent in Western Java at the time of the engravings.  

The final contribution to this volume is Sven Ouzman’s ‘Seeing is Deceiving: Rock art and the Non-visual’.  In this essay, emphasis is placed on the importance of non-visual aspects of rock art in the process of understanding such art’s cultural and aesthetic relevance.  Interested in what may be called a ‘multisensory’ approach to the aesthetic appreciation of rock art, Ouzman explains that rock carvings can be seen as ‘signposts’ of elaborate mindscapes.  Thus, ‘[b]y combining rock art’s non-visual aspects with the concepts of questing and desire we may understand how body, landscape and mindscape combined in an aesthetic and sensory articulation’ (p. 253).  Examining images found in South Africa, Ouzman looks at dance, rhythm and sound in addition to light and tactile sensation.


Aesthetics and Rock Art is a very rewarding book.  The topics it treats are nothing less than fascinating, and its general goal is undoubtedly an important and pressing one.  The editors have managed to impose a clear order and structure onto the 17 essays, and have done an excellent job in combining so many different perspectives into one cohesive whole.  There are a great number of illustrations, which are all very helpful, and the Introduction (written by Heyd) provides an essential tool for understanding the many and varied debates that are on-going in this area.  

For a philosopher, there is, however, a sense in which little progress is made with regards to the most central question of all, namely what is meant by the notion of the ‘aesthetic’.  If the proposed aesthetic approach – the defense of which is the very raison d’être of this volume – is to be adopted, surely we will need to be told precisely what the volume’s contributors views are on how we are to understand the most fundamental of its terms?  Yet very few of them seem as uncomfortable as I about the relative ease with which we are encouraged to slip from a discussion about aesthetic pleasure (Coles) to another concerned with aesthetic consciousness (Clegg), via essays tackling aesthetic imagination (Eickelkamp) and aesthetic perception (Deregowski), without so much as an attempt at uniting these various aspects of the aesthetic sphere into one explanatory unity.  An analytic philosopher is thus left wondering whether, on the whole, the contributors to this book are not operating with comparatively unsophisticated concepts in their investigations, and whether most of them really could, if pressed, give a concise answer to what they have in mind when they discuss the ‘aesthetic approach’.  Surely, one feels tempted to say, beauty is not a necessary component of aesthetic experience, and hence the fact that some rock art is truly beautiful cannot by itself establish what should quite rightly be interpreted as broader and more inclusive aesthetic perspective.    

Having said that, my frustration at this level may well be the inevitable outcome of what is a remarkably ambitious inter-disciplinary project.  Anthropologists, art historians and archaeologists are, after all, equally likely to be in a position to accuse philosophers of overlooking important facts and debates of which we are entirely unaware.  To overcome such limitations is, of course, the very aim of inter-disciplinary projects such as these, and is precisely what makes them not only difficult but also important.  In the light of this, it seems to me that Heyd and Clegg could probably not have done a better job of the bold and impressive task they set themselves.


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