I know Bahn's work through such beautifully written and illustrated books as "Journey Through the Ice Age" (with Jean Vertut) and "The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art," both of which I read after visiting the Cave of Niaux in 1999, along with just about every other book on the topic of Europe's Ice Age art I could get my hands on.
My interest in rock art, albeit an amateur interest, began in 1984 when I first viewed petroglyphs in New Mexico near the Rio Grande. My approach to the topic is that of a poet, and has produced a poem on Niaux (translated twice into French) and, more recently, the Cave of Pech-Merle. So I enthusiastically ordered the hardcover copy of Bahn's new book, "Prehistoric Rock Art: Polemics and Progress."
My disappointment began with the fact the book had no dust jacket, unlike Bahn's previous book also published by Cambridge UP. The Amazon subsidiary from whom I ordered the book claims university presses don't usually publish with dust jackets. I have not found this to be true. A small point, perhaps, but if you're interested in art, you want as many illustrations as possible. The new book has lots of black and white photos; most are of poor quality, particularly measured against the splendid photos, both black and white and in color, of the other Bahn books I read (and own). Bahn says the lectures upon which he bases his book "were picture-led and heavily illustrated, whereas in the written format the emphasis must be on text" (Introduction). This is disappointing, especially considering the not inexpensive price of the hardcover edition.
Apart from his notorious and unscholarly exclamation marks (irritating in the extreme), Bahn is very readable. His prose style, apart from the exclamation marks, does not disappoint. He makes the subject interesting. I do not understand, however, why he spends two long chapters refuting the theory that much of the art stems from shamanism, a topic he has covered before and which even his favorite targets, Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, admit does not account for all rock art. Bahn's objections are so strongly put one suspects something personal is behind it (though I have no way of supporting my opinion other than a gut feeling). Surely if the topic of shamanism deserves so much space (roughly a third of the book), then André Leroi-Gourhan's absurd structuralist and neo-Freudian theories deserve more attention. The former theory is barely mentioned, the latter not at all (although Bahn touches on it in a previous book).
If we are going to call rock art "art," I think it a mistake also to say "the only person who can really tell us what a particular image or set of images in rock art means is the artist himself or herself" (Introduction). True, knowing the intentions of the original artists would be immensely helpful, but if the art clearly means something (e.g. that the image is a bison with a red arrow-like projectile) then we can say that and interpret it as we will in its context, by which I mean both its location and its media. Bahn has committed what the New Critics used to call the Intentional Fallacy. No artist has the final say on what his/her work means if it is truly art.
Nevertheless, I'm glad to see that Bahn believes the art often represents mythology and perhaps ritual (such as initiation), as well as humor and many other possibilities. What he brings to the subject is an encyclopedic knowledge of rock art from around the world. I would like more on the "progress" in the subtitle and less of the "polemics."