Sunday, April 19, 2009


This question refers to the ethics of appropriating rock art images to one's own credit or profit. I have absolutely no qualms concerning profiting from publishing a book or paper about rock art as long as the originator does not take personal credit for the rock art. My criticism concerns someone painting rock art images or otherwise producing these images for decorative purposes and acting as if they were their own original creations. I first observed this about twenty-five years back with a painter who painted rock art images and presented them as her original creations. While her paintings were very well done and displayed a considerable degree of care and skill, her subject matter bothered me.

In one respect I think this might be considered a question of plagiarism which we all decry in contemporary original art and literature. There is no problem with citing other material, but it is unethical (even somtimes illegal) to present this material as your own creations. The American Rock Art Research Association has addressed this question by adopting a set of Guidelines for Artists Using (Rock Art) Images

The other aspect that bothers me is based upon the fact that we do not know the original "meaning" of so much of the rock art. Most people would not support the use of our religious images out of context. Think back to the many examples of public outcry of blasphemy against so-called art exhibits that use christian or other religious symbolism out of context. (The recent example of a political cartoon that included an image of Mohammed with a turban that morphed into a nuclear bomb. That image provoked public outcry throughout the Islamic world including rioting and destruction). While some rock art images are recognizably religious images, many of them are simply unknown as to the intention or the creator. Not knowing the "meaning" of a rock art image to its original creator how can we know that we are not committing the same offense in our use of it?

A similar situation (although not including rock art imagery) can be seen in the events following the rediscovery of the sunken Titanic. While the original expedition that located it took only photographs and attempted to maintain secrecy of the location out of respect to it as a grave site, subsequent expeditions to visit the site did take artifacts (which is grave robbing). This led to the exhibition of those artifacts which is presently touring museums. The latest outrage is an announced "Ghost Hunters" program on cable television which will spend a night in the Titanic Exhibition to discover the ghosts that accompany the artifacts. We can see that for each step in the process standards have been relaxed to another degree, often with good intentions, but the result has led to desecration and disrespect of the dead.

So how do we judge the ethical position of an artist using rock art imagery? I do not think that there is an easy answer because so much of it depends upon the actual intention of the person recreating the rock art image, as well as the intention of the person recreating it. For artists and artisans who are sincerely passing along the imagery that they love and respect I feel there is no problem at all. For those who are somehow taking credit for imagery that they only copied I am much less comfortable.

There is another form that has become ubiquitous in the modern west. The popularity of Kokopelli has led to the creation of millions of little knick-knacks using the form in cute little images; images of Kokopelli on a bicycle, Kokopelli as a skier, you know the kind I mean. I have even been given a few examples by friends as gifts myself. Since Kokopelli is a sacred figure to the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest these cute little knick-knacks are irreverent to say the least, and perhaps blasphemy to their eyes (although perhaps, from another viewpoint, there might be an analogy between Bicycle Kokopelli and their Mickey Mouse kachina).

So, is it ethical to profit from rock art? If you have taken the best photographs of a particular panel I believe you deserve to profit from them. If you have written the definitive report of a rock art location, style, etc., I believe you deserve to profit from that. If you have created a text that broadens knowledge of rock art and leads to increased sensitivity and understanding, I believe you deserve to profit from it. As we begin to stray closer to a situation where the artist is taking creative credit for the material, I begin to experience discomfort in that situation.

Rather than making unilateral declarations of how things ought to be, I would hope that we who are fascinated by rock art can promote comment and discussion which might serve as a forum for these matters.

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