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Why is it art?

a wall painting at lascaux cave

Since the cave paintings at Lascaux and similar locations were painted before concepts of composition were even thought of, are they art?

Some time ago, in a Facebook group, someone asked this good question.

My initial answer was as below.

I doubt if the people making them saw them as ‘art’. That’s imposing our view of the world on the makers. From our perspective, though, yes they are art. Plus, places like Lascaux were painted by numerous hands, perhaps over centuries. They are not single compositions. What they show though is considered mark making towards an idea.

I suspect the principles they were following were more in the line of magical thinking than aesthetics. They may have thought, “if I paint this animal being killed, we will be successful on our next hunt.” Another possibility is that it was an offering to the spirit world, giving thanks for a successful hunt. Both these have been found in modern times by anthropologists. Whatever it was, they seem to have had something guiding them. They were not just throwing pigment around at random.

Sadly, the discussion didn’t progress much. The rest of this post is based on the argument I was trying to make. It includes a few extra points that didn’t occur to me at the time.

I now think the original question was based on a false premise. We don’t know if they had ideas about composition. We do know that they are not random daubs on a wall. They represent a significant human achievement, only possible because of a great deal of effort and time. They meant something to their makers.

We can never know the motives of the makers or the guiding principles they were working under. We can only speculate. Our speculations cannot fail to be coloured by our own world view, as was the original questioner.

The question of what was in the minds of the original makers of these paintings is a different question to whether they are ‘art.’ We don’t even know if the makers had a concept of art as an endeavour in its own right. There seems to have been an urge to decorate, shown in other finds from many similar cultures, but we still don’t know why it was done.

If we shift our viewpoint from looking at cave paintings to looking at scientific illustrations, it is perhaps clearer. Hooke made incredibly detailed and brilliantly executed drawings of what he saw in his microscope. These are hugely valuable in terms of their scientific intent. To see them as art means looking at them from the perspective of a separate set of values to those of the original maker. The one doesn’t negate the other. Both reference frameworks can apply simultaneously.

In the end, I suspect defining art is like defining a game. After all, what links tennis, golf, poker and Resident Evil? All games, but we would find it hard to describe the common characteristic. So in my view art includes Lascaux cave paintings, Neolithic rock carving, Medieval illuminated manuscripts, Rembrandt, Monet, Malevich, Hockney, Basquiat, and David Bailey.

Hooke is close enough in time for us to have some idea of his thought processes. I think we can feel reasonably confident that he had a sense of his work as having an aesthetic value beyond being a ‘just’ a scientific illustration. We can’t know whether the creators of cave paintings had ideas or concepts of composition, or what they were thinking. We can be sure, though, that they were thinking…

This post is related to several others about meaning in art.

Neolithic art has also provided inspiration for many of my own prints.

Mixed media print - monotype and pastel
Rocking in Rhythm #1 mixed media pastel over monoprint
Collagraph print inspired by neolithic rock carvings
Hammer marks on Weardale
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Aerial Atlas of Ancient Britain

screen print called Tree of Life

Stone circles, hill figures and rock art generally have fascinated me for years. That’s why I was so drawn to the drone photographs of these artefacts, taken by David Abram, when they began to appear on Instagram. I’ve just received my copy of his Aerial Atlas of Ancient Britain. It doesn’t disappoint. The photography is stunning.

Each picture is stitched together from multiple drone photos into a single high resolution image. The image below, drawn from his website, is a good example. It shows White Sheet Hill, part of the Stourhead estate, in southern Wiltshire. On the hill there is a neolithic causeway camp and barrows, an Iron Age hill fort, and it is traversed by a Roman road.

Without these photographs, the only way to see the full extent of these ancient places is via maps and plans. The simplification inherent in their production creates a strong graphic image, which I find appealing. On the ground, they don’t reveal themselves in the same way. The attraction of the images, for me anyway, comes from the way they put these bold, graphic shapes back in their landscape settings, with all the rich and subtle colours that implies. In addition, many of these are in remote places, inaccessible to a 76-year-old with mobility problems, so they offer a vicarious experience to complement the data in reference books.

I’ve used references to neolithic art in my own work many times, and I think the Aerial Atlas will be a source of inspiration for some time.

Examples in my work

These tiny collagraphs draw on the idea of stone circles, for example.

These draw on hill figures. These are proof prints from a project derailed by the COVID pandemic.

This sketch, manipulated digitally, is based on craters, but contains the same archetypal round shapes.

Image from sketchbook with idea for 'Martian Landscape' image

I have a theory, which began with art, but applies equally well to the constructions in the Aerial Atlas, that there are certain archetypal shapes with which we have a physiological as much as an aesthetic response. The obvious ones are of course line and circle/disc, but also spirals and labyrinths and probably others. The job of the artist is to tap into that physiological response. David Abram’s photos do that, I think. They expose the ‘complex simplicity’ of the shapes our ancestors created on the land, never seeing those shapes themselves, but somehow reacting to them.

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A new print series

I’ve been unable to do any printing for quite a while. I have been plagued with problems with my foot, putting me on crutches since mid-November. I used my down time looking at a lot of pictures, but also thinking about subjects and themes. I’ve been interested in neolithic rock art for some time now and living near Avebury and Stonehenge it’s impossible to avoid standing stones. Scattered also across the landscape of Wessex are hundreds, if not thousands of barrows and burial mounds and of course the White Horses like Pewsey, Cherhill, Westbury etc in Wiltshire or Uffington in Oxfordshire. In addition we have the famous Cerne Abbas Giant, the Long Man of Wilmington and assorted other hill figures, many now lost completely.

It isn’t just Britain with these features. The stone alignments of Carnac in Brittany are well known, but there are a multitude of standing stone circles, alignments and dolmens across France and Ireland and much further afield.

Putting all this together made me wonder about the sort of landscape we might see if more had survived. Out of that has evolved the print series I’m putting together. This will take landscapes, more or less stylised and incorporate into them other figures. I will draw on a range of sources. I’m researching Celtic and Saxon myths, cave paintings as well as the sort of abstract shapes found in rock art.

Technically, these prints will incorporate collagraph and dry point plus perhaps solar etching and ultimately hand embellishments. I also expect to use monoprinting or hand painting as the ground on which the prints will be made. I’m also going to try and incorporate some of the techniques used by Australian artist, Kim Westcott. (, although the site did not load properly for me.) She reuses old plates in combination with new, mixing in shadow prints and rotation of the plates to create her drypoints.

I have no prints as yet, but here are some rough sketches and photos of some plates in preparation.

With luck, I’ll have more over the next few weeks.


I’m not the only one finding inspiration in these themes. See the web pages for Irish artist Tommy Barr.

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Ocean Park series by Richard Diebenkorn

I’ve been looking at the Ocean Park series of paintings and prints by Richard Diebenkorn (via this book.) There is something about them that keeps drawing me back. They are deceptively simple with subdued colours, apparently just variations on geometric subdivisions of a rectangle. This makes them seem akin to Mondrian, but for me, they have much more depth. They also owe much to Klee, and perhaps also to de Kooning, at least in terms of colour values. In the end, though, they are themselves and stand on their own merits.

When I was at school, studying maths, we were always told to ‘show your workings’. In many ways, that’s what is going on with the Ocean Park paintings. Variations, second thoughts have been painted over, but their ghosts remain.

I think this is part of their appeal to me. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of palimpsest, even before I became an artist. Both the urban and rural landscapes of Britain can be viewed as archaeological palimpsests. Take the time to look around any British town or city, and you will find signs of previous activities. The street pattern in many Northern industrial towns can often be mapped against ancient field boundaries. Alignments going back into pre-history may still be seen.

Beneath the streets archaeological investigations and civil engineering projects alike reveal layer after layer of activity. (for example Crossrail). The same applies in the wider landscape. Anyone familiar with Britain, will read into these paintings the pattern of fields, woods and lakes which almost define the English landscape. That landscape is almost entirely man made, even in the supposed wild areas like Dartmoor or the Scottish Highlands. It is not ‘natural’ but has developed out of complex and cumulative processes of human intervention.

So just as imperfections and variations disturb the surface of the modern world, revealing its past to those who look, so the Ocean Park paintings reflect the process of their creation, revealing the changes made, and to my mind, humanising their geometrical abstraction.

I’ll come back to this another time with images from prints inspired to a degree by Klee and Diebenkorn. I’m also planning some new work which will attempt to marry the geometry of this work to another interest of mine, the rock carvings and standing stones of the Neolithic era. Here are a taster with a collagraph monoprint I called ‘Frome Westport to Ocean Park’.

From Westport to Ocean Park a collagraph print
From Westport to Ocean Park