Thursday, March 9, 2023
HomeArchaeologyWhy I No Longer Call It “Art”

Why I No Longer Call It “Art”

Aaron Wright, Preservation Anthropologist

Aaron Wright

(March 9, 2023)—I’ve been desirous about the facility of phrases, particularly these pertaining to petroglyphs and pictographs, for fairly a while. With the annual assembly of the American Rock Art Research Association (ARARA) going down in Tucson this weekend, I felt the time was ripe—and perhaps proper, we’ll see—to elaborate on why I’ve come to keep away from the time period “rock art.”

Buckle up; we’ve got some rocky terrain to cowl.

Some Personal History to Set the Stage…

When I started my doctoral analysis challenge some time again, I was comparatively unversed within the examine of petroglyphs and pictographs. I’d seen examples, in fact, and even encountered and documented a number of throughout my years in cultural useful resource administration previous to beginning graduate college. But I knew little to nothing concerning the topic by way of methodology, evaluation, and interpretation. All I actually knew was that almost everybody referred to as it “rock art.”

During my first semester at Washington State University, I truly pitched the thought of doing my grasp’s challenge on a really fascinating pictograph panel I’d helped doc within the rugged, distant Manzano Mountains National Forest southeast of Albuquerque the yr earlier than.

Documenting petroglyphs at the Gillespie Narrows Preserve, lower Gila River. Image: Paul Vanderveen.
Documenting petroglyphs on the Gillespie Narrows Preserve, decrease Gila River. Image: Paul Vanderveen.

That thought hit the graduate-student advisor like a rockfall. Apparently, such “art” was incompatible with “science,” so I as an alternative took up palynology and helped develop a low-frequency paleoclimate reconstruction for the Four Corners area in affiliation with the Village Ecodynamics Project (thanks, Dr. Kohler). Lab coat, take a look at tubes, fume hood, centrifuge, pipettes, microscope, onerous information…

I cherished that work, and I had each intention of continuous with it by means of a doctoral program. I’d been introduced with the potential for learning the pollen and pathogen profiles of coprolites—desiccated poop—recovered from caches in rock shelters in Utah. I was excited.

Then issues modified. During my fourth and remaining semester, a committee member delivered to my consideration a discover of funding for a Preservation Fellowship with the Center for Desert Archaeology (now Archaeology Southwest) in Tucson. The fellowship provided 4 years of economic assist for a PhD scholar to finish a dissertation on the petroglyphs at South Mountain Park in Phoenix in collaboration with the City of Phoenix and Arizona State University. This committee member knew I had an curiosity in petroglyphs and thought it is perhaps match.

I utilized, interviewed, and was ultimately awarded the fellowship. Goodbye palynology; whats up petroglyphs!

At that early stage in my profession, I didn’t totally perceive that Americanist archaeology has an uneasy historical past and uncomfortable relationship with petroglyphs and pictographs. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that some archaeologists, previous and current, have outright disdain for the topic. I’ve come to understand this in hindsight, however let’s get again to grad college…

With exterior funding secured, my committee appeared to welcome this transformation in my analysis emphasis. But then I discovered myself going through a special problem: I had no educational background in petroglyph analysis, nor did any of my professors. A survey of the scholarly panorama confirmed that the overall absence {of professional} archaeological scholarship on the topic was due, largely, to the dearth of professors and fellow college students who studied it throughout the nation.

Sadly, it’s nonetheless that approach right this moment.

Needing to chart my very own path, then, I started by studying every thing I might on petroglyphs and pictographs. One of the primary books I turned to was a reasonably contemporary The Archaeology of Rock-Art. This quantity had a easy but highly effective title, and by way of social principle, the Brits had been working circles round Americans for a number of many years. This ebook was stuffed with examples of that.

Theory apart, in studying the quantity’s introduction, I encountered a cogent critique of the time period “rock art.” Although I’m positive folks within the area had been debating this time period for years, if not many years, I’m underneath the impression that the dialogue centered totally on what to incorporate underneath this umbrella. Should cupules, amorphous pecks and scratches, and even floor figures be lumped with pictographs and petroglyphs?

A large cupule ground into the ceiling of an overhang, above a spring in the South Mountains, Phoenix. Is this “art”?
A big cupule floor into the ceiling of an overhang, above a spring within the South Mountains, Phoenix. Is this “art”?

But the editors’ critique was deeper, extra significant, and more durable to reply. At challenge was whether or not petroglyphs and pictographs had been truly artwork, within the western worldview, or one thing extra important to the lifetime of the “artists.” Lacking an appropriate different, nevertheless, the editors retained the time period, however set it as one thing other than both rock or artwork by hyphenating it: “rock-art.” A portmanteau, as they referred to as it. This hyphenated kind evidently didn’t sway many researchers, and its use appears to have all however light in just some years. The final place I discovered it was in The Figured Landscapes of Rock-Art, a companion quantity that hit bookshelves the identical yr I enrolled in graduate college.

Shortly after finishing my dissertation, wherein I was fairly comfy with “rock art,” I had the chance to assessment the second version of Introduction to Rock Art Research. Here, within the introductory chapter, a vital consideration of the appropriateness of “rock art” popped up once more. This time, nevertheless, the writer defended the established order. They argued that, as an archaeologist, they had been involved with preserving the previous, together with perpetuating archaeological terminology and traditions until they could possibly be proven to be inaccurate or dangerous—put a pin in that! They additionally opined that by calling Indigenous petroglyphs and pictographs one thing apart from artwork in some way other-izes the makers and casts their work as one thing lower than Western artwork.

The latter argument appeared like a straw man to me. I am unaware of up to date students with any ounce of credibility suggesting non-Western, Indigenous individuals lack a capability or aptitude for artwork. Although such racist sentiments do coloration the self-discipline’s troubled previous, I can be shocked—however perhaps not stunned—to listen to one thing comparable right this moment.

Most not too long ago, in reviewing The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art, I encountered an intensive and well-thought-out commentary on the issue in a chapter entitled “Rock Art and Aesthetics.” The writer defined that whether or not petroglyphs and pictographs ought to be thought-about artwork is an empirical matter regarding aesthetics. They concluded that, regardless of why folks made such imagery, “rock art” is suitable if the imagery impacts us in methods artwork does. Do we reply emotionally, sensorily, or intellectually when introduced with it?

This aesthetic argument surfaced in a latest dialogue I had with a really skilled “rock art researcher,” somebody I esteem and take into account an elder statesperson for analysis on Southwestern petroglyphs and pictographs. I was making an attempt to elucidate why I don’t name it “rock art”—I know, I’m getting there—and so they replied, “Well, it is art because it follows everything I know art to be.” This individual is a retired artwork educator, so OK. And I can’t deny that petroglyphs and pictographs have an effect on my sensibilities; they delight me intellectually, and their disrespect and mistreatment ache me.

But that doesn’t imply I want to consider them as artwork, and I’m definitely not comfy speaking about them as artwork, and because of this.

Meanings past Aesthetics

Since finishing my dissertation, which I wrote with little or no perception from descendant communities, I’ve come to strategy archaeology not with a priority for the previous, per se, however from a dedication to the current and future. What I imply is that, as an anthropologist, I’m within the nexus between these supplies and up to date folks, and how you can safe a future the place this nexus abides and is strengthened.

In speaking and dealing with Tribal elders and advisors, I’ve seen how petroglyphs and pictographs transfer them, typically in robust and—to me not less than—shocking methods. Emotional responses are widespread. But some have advised me plainly these pictures will not be artwork; they weren’t made merely to make us really feel a specific approach.

A panel of Zuni pictographs dating to the 1950s and depicting deities and beings embodying animals. This is a stop on an official tour of the Village of Many Kivas, here led by Zuni guide Kenny Bowekaty in June 2022. Image: Totsoni Willeto
A panel of Zuni pictographs relationship to the Fifties and depicting deities and beings embodying animals. This is a cease on an official tour of the Village of Many Kivas, right here led by Zuni information Kenny Bowekaty in June 2022. Image: Totsoni Willeto

I’m lucky to have been educated that these are messages from the ancestors, who supposed to convey very important cultural and religious info to their descendants. Some advisors have additionally shared that the pictures themselves materialize a religious vitality that may heal or hurt, and to see and go to them safely and respectfully requires a sure sort of mindset and strategy. These understandings transcend aesthetics.

Given the facility of this imagery—which isn’t obvious to the informal observer, not to mention a novice archaeologist—I’ve since grown uncomfortable with the time period “rock art,” hyphenated or not.

In working with a number of Tribes in creating an up to date brochure for the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, I shared with one advisor that I was having bother discovering an applicable time period. “What should we call it?” I requested. They responded immediately: “It’s not art. Call it what it is. Petroglyphs and pictographs.”

Such a easy but insightful reply. Rather than debate a principle of artwork, or create some form of new phrase or portmanteau, they conveyed that the popular and applicable terminology ought to be value-free, non-interpretive, and technically correct.

Seems affordable to me.

I’ve by no means had a Tribal advisor inform me outright that “rock art” is inappropriate. I solely realized it by clearly and respectfully asking them. I imagine that is the place among the debate I outlined above has fallen quick. It has most frequently been Euro-American teachers and avocationalists quibbling. I have by no means learn that their positions had been knowledgeable by session or collaboration with descendant communities. (If they’d been, such discussions weren’t made identified.)

But my expertise shouldn’t be novel, and my descendant-community advisors’ positions will not be distinctive. From what I can inform, the notion that “rock art” is an inaccurate time period is extensively shared amongst Indigenous communities. And don’t merely take my phrase for it—ask some Tribal elders, or learn their statements, such because the one shared by Elizabeth Paige, a member of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla group in southern California in a latest article in Inland Empire Magazine (web page 33).

First Do No Harm

But is “rock art” an inappropriate time period for individuals who might not share that cultural connection or religious affinity to the imagery? That’s for them to determine. I know lots of people who’ve the utmost respect for the imagery, and I know descendant communities to whom it belongs who nonetheless name it “rock art.” I know Indigenous individuals who name it such. But I know others who’re offended by the time period, which brings me again to the pin I positioned above.

We can proceed the semantic and theoretical debates as as to if or not “rock art” is an correct time period, however it’s clear—to me not less than—that it may be a dangerous time period.

Knowing that Indigenous communities see this imagery as one thing important to their well-being, and figuring out that they imagine “art” shouldn’t be the suitable time period, persevering with to name it “rock art” can be an offense to them. Applying my values and sensibility to another person’s heritage can be a mode of cultural appropriation, because the writer of Rock Art and Aesthetics accedes. Moreover, it’s simple that cultural appropriation may be dangerous.

That writer goes additional in asking whether or not it’s appropriation if nobody is being harmed. This may apply if somebody had been speaking about Paleolithic cave work, however I dwell and work within the Southwest. I now know that appropriating the area’s petroglyphs and pictographs can be insulting and dangerous to the handfuls of Tribes who’ve lived right here since time immemorial.

As I proceed to work with Tribes, my views and positions will naturally change, and I humbly welcome that development and understanding. For now, I have settled on “rock imagery,” a time period and idea I borrowed from Utah’s State Historic Preservation Office. They’ve clearly been pondering alongside the identical traces. It’s not excellent, however neither are the options.

Given all this, I was a bit bowled over when I wrote “rock imagery” in a bit selling this weekend’s ARARA convention in Tucson and one of many group’s Board members stated, “I know that rock imagery is the latest fad, but as long as we are the American Rock Art Research Association we should call it rock art.”

I get it. I do. But I additionally don’t suppose it’s a fad. And I’m keen to put aside archaeological custom out of respect for the Tribes who’ve helped me change my pondering and take into account my phrases correctly. Words are highly effective. As professionals, we should be cognizant of how we converse concerning the previous as a result of it will possibly have dangerous impacts on folks right this moment.


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