Simple crop (panoramic)

The term ‘rock art’ is commonly used but it arguably must be rejected as the ubiquitous descriptor for any image of any provenance found on the surfaces of rocks for the following four reasons:-

i) The term ‘art’ loosely used by commentators is inherently mischievous, for it suggests that these images have primarily a decorative value and no intrinsic value or meaning of their own.

ii) The term ‘art’ naturally implies classification of these images according to Western notions of ‘high’ or ‘low’ art, or, perhaps even more misleadingly, a ‘craft’. These terms have loaded meanings that impose the analyst’s conventional values. They should not be considered within the cultural context of the ‘reader’s’ or ‘viewer’s’ influences perception and classification. They should certainly not be understood as part of the ‘great age of historical mythology’ still less the ‘invented tradition’ identified by Eric Hobsbawn in 1983 and in Tony Judt’s words the ‘evocation of a genuine nostalgia for the fake past’. Any pre-judgment threatens to adversely affect the manner in which these images may be understood.

iii) Clear guidelines indicating the ways in which the ‘meaning’ of such images might be unpacked are not provided even by practitioners of images from other cultural contexts.

iv) I disagree with Whitley’s argument that the term ‘rock art’ should be canonical simply because a western intellectual tradition has used it for more than one hundred years. The use of a term for a long period of time does not of itself justify its continued usage particularly if the users acknowledge that it is inherently problematic. Furthermore, the continuation of such a practice or ‘tradition’ merely leaves the arena open for continual dispute and a fundamentally pointless discussion over whether these images are ‘art’ or not.

I propose that if they are to be considered within the ‘canon’ then these images should be termed rock images, or petroglyphs and pictographs. So, let’s get back to our problem.

Alicia Colson 2006

Cited references:

a) I. Frank (2000) summarises the intellectual arguments, and debates concerning the development of the different theories that led to different objects and images being termed “decorative” or “fine” arts or handicrafts. Dondis (1973), Gombrich (1984), Layton (1991), Murphy (1989), and Rapaport (1997) considered the question of what can be defined as art, crafts, and visual literacy. Haselberger (1961) proposed a method for dealing with ethnological art.
b)E. Hobsbawn, ‘Introduction: Inventing Traditions’, in E. Hobsbawn and T. Ranger, ed.s, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, 2003), 1-14.
c) T. Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York & London, 2005). Cited here at 773.
d) D. S. Whitley, Handbook of Rock Art Research (Walnut Creek, Lanham, New York & Oxford, 2001). Cited here at 22-23.