Dec 142011

By Audrey Marienkoff

Art Historian, Globalize Your Thinking

December 2011

An art magazine recently commissioned me to report an article on “global art history,” i.e. Western art historians trying to get the discipline to look outside the West more often. In the end, the magazine and I couldn’t get the article into a form we were both happy with — an indication perhaps of how sticky and controversial a topic this is — so I’m publishing it here in the Newsletter instead:


A Chinese artist in the thirteenth century tasked with decorating a traveling coffer happily borrowed his composition from a Middle Eastern book binding, we learn in the opening minutes of “Art Through Time: A Global View”—the public-television series assembled recently by a hundred leading art historians from MoMA chief curator John Elderfield to Asia Society director Vishakha N. Desai. Artistic borrowing is common; what’s striking is how far “Art Through Time” is willing to stray outside Western art history. In most such surveys, everything is seen through a Western lens—African sculpture matters only insofar as it influenced Picasso, for example.

Globalizing art history is “the most urgent task now facing art historians,” says David Carrier, professor at Case Western Reserve University. “Far and away the most pressing problem facing the discipline is the prospect of world art history,” says James Elkins of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says global art history is now an obsession of his and he believes that its positive influence can already be seen in museums. “The Guggenheim now has a curator of Asian art, there are now more museums looking at Latin American art, going beyond obvious figures like Kahlo. The Rubin Museum just did a show comparing Christian and Buddhist icons. There’s a New York Public Library show bringing together works from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.”

Art history has moved beyond its blatantly Eurocentric, colonialist origins, when all non-Western art was considered “primitive”—if it was considered at all—but scholars say that serious problems remain. They note that Intro to Art History textbooks may now boast chapters on, say, “Monumental Olmec Sculpture” and “The Buddhist Temples of Korea,” but those make little impact alongside the books’ central narratives, which as always celebrate the long march of Western art from the Greek kouros to Jeff Koons. A recently published modern-art textbook scarcely ventured outside the West at all.

Why are so many art historians now concerned with overcoming the field’s Eurocentrism? Partha Mitter, emeritus professor at the University of Sussex, credits globalization: “The world is coming much closer. People like me are traveling all over, living abroad. And with things like Facebook, there’s lots more conversations between parts of the world.” Kitty Zijlmans, a professor at Leiden University in The Netherlands, believes the biggest factor has been the internationalization of the contemporary art world, but also points to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led many to wonder “what words like East and West really mean,” and 9/11, which triggered debates over concepts like “The Islamic World” and “The West.” Mitter also asserts that the wave of decolonization that culminated in America leaving Vietnam inspired a generation of scholars to question “the fact that Western values had been assumed to be universal, global values.” Other people that art history simply won’t be complete until it can explain all the world’s art.

Global art history is still very much a work in progress; a unified theory of world art has proved particularly elusive. (Few even agree on the right name for such a project, notes James Elkins.) Potential globalizers lack answers to many basic questions: How is non-Western art to be categorized – by country, by region, by religion? Is there such a thing as “African” art, for example? How do we decide what is worth studying outside the West without inflicting Western bias? What do we make of objects in cultures that lack a concept of art? Is Western art theory – devised to explain Western art – applicable outside the West, and if not, what is?

“We can’t just assume we can take our hammer to every nail; we need to revise our discipline using new frameworks,” responds Kitty Zijlmans to the latter question. This is lucky, she says. “It gives us another impetus to enrich the field.” Art history typically charts art’s “progress,” in mastering perspective for example, and traces the influence of “centers” such as Renaissance Florence upon “peripheries.” Partha Mitter says we need to “de-center” art history, evaluating each place and time period on its own terms. Such revisionism won’t happen overnight, he says. “We can’t dismantle everything immediately; we don’t want to lose the accomplishments of art history.”

We’ll never be able to write a single history of art, says David Carrier. Histories require causation – “Hokusai painted The Great Wave in Western perspective after seeing Renaissance Dutch prints in a friend’s collection” – but the world’s art traditions have evolved quite separately. Before 1522, the year Magellan circumnavigated the globe, they had virtually no contact at all. “Putting the world in a book,” he says, will require “abandoning the historical survey and developing a conceptual analysis.”

David Summers, a Renaissance-art scholar at the University of Virginia, is taking just such an approach. In his book Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, he tries to invent a more flexible formal language for describing artworks that will enable scholars to find connections across borders. “People now specialize so much, in single works of art even. I want to devise a method for looking at any tradition of art,” he said. He first got this urge thirty years ago, teaching undergraduate courses in Pre-Columbian art, as the only member of his department to know anything about it. He found that the West’s aesthetic categories were “about as insultingly bad as they could be” at explaining these objects. The Aztec sculpture Coatlicue, for example, had long baffled Western writers. In Real Spaces, he proposes the concept of “planar oppositions,” which he believes explains Coatlicue as well as Western works such as Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Summers’s book was extravagantly praised by some, but others found it unsatisfying. David Carrier doubts that any one person could pull off such a book: “This is a subject that no one is prepared to do all of the dimensions of.” For this reason, Carrier questions whether globalizing art history will ever succeed. How will a committee ever agree on such a politicized and polarizing subject? “There are as many visions of world art history as there are writers.”

There are institutional barriers, too, for example museum hierarchies, Carrier notes. At a lunch with the Yale University Art Gallery’s curators, “They pointed out they’re all in compartments, that there’s no one in charge of looking across compartments, and that anyway thematic shows that cut across are considered too confusing for the layman.” Yet another problem is that far too few graduate students today choose to study older non-Western art. “Eighty percent of incoming students want to do contemporary,” he asserts, without much exaggeration—in the U.S. in 2009, eighty-three PhD students completed dissertations on twentieth-century art, just one on pre-modern Middle Eastern art. Carrier doesn’t blame the students, noting that if you don’t arrive at graduate school already knowing Sanskrit or Persian or Japanese, say, you don’t have much choice.

Global art history’s biggest obstacle may be academe’s requirement that scholars specialize. Specialists are quick to smack down wanderers, as David Summers learned when he published his book. “I didn’t know the degree to which fields rule the history of art until I stamped into so many people’s fields.” James Elkins points out that when he recently published his Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, some Chinese-art scholars refused even to crack it open, because that he hadn’t read the Chinese-language literature in the original.

Elkins doubts we can write a truly global art history until non-Western countries start writing more of their own art history—they currently do very little, as he’s shown. Even then, he says, art history will remain “in its basic structure and institutional habits, permanently Western.” He notes that non-Westerners who take up art history typically imitate Western models and goes further to say, “The very idea of writing an art history of some country or region is Western.” Philippe de Montebello agrees, arguing that Westerners will dominate any future art history because of their power and money. Nor can they overcome their own biases; the idea that they could is sheer political correctness, he says. “One always sees in one’s own terms. MoMA organized a show of contemporary Muslim art. Somebody had to make a selection. Somebody chose these artists and these works according to what they think is good. You can’t tell me those curators have gotten under the skin of the Muslim world. Anyway, who’s to say that the native necessarily has a better sense for where the best works are?”

Such statements don’t endear global art history to its critics who see it as potentially imperialistic. Jill Casid and Aruna D’Souza, who recently organized a conference on “the global turn,” eschew the idea of “seeking a unifying conceptual term or method.” They reject concepts used by globalizers such as “The Islamic World” as artificial and chauvinistic. (Indeed, the very terms Western and non-Western are problematic.) “Art history is seen as a new colonizer,” Zijlmans admits. “It’s true, it’s the flip side of coin. We in art history can be said to sometimes be in service to global tourism, museums, and the market.” De Montebello also says that global art history deserves much of the criticism it’s gotten. “But,” he says, “if you didn’t do it, think of what they would say then.”

Global art history exposed itself to accusations of imperialism partly because of its popularity among Americans. “In Europe there is very little interest,” notes Partha Mitter. Zijlmans concurs, while noting that things are changing a bit, especially in Germany, the site of the last great attempt to globalize art history, in the late 1800s. Why are American scholars so keen to globalize art history? Many seem to regard it as a form of anti-xenophobic politics. About his book, David Summers says, “There was a hope of saving the world, of turning the history of art into a multicultural conversation.” Not everyone sees global art history this way, though. Asked if such hopes meant anything to him, James Elkins gave a one-word answer: “No!”

I asked Elkins if he thought global art history might at least succeed in producing a satisfactory single-volume history of art—“the world in a book.” To my knowledge, no major scholar has even tried since Ernst Gombrich’s famous Story of Art, published in 1950, and who can blame them, considering all the obstacles? Elkins replied, “I am trying.”


Further Reading

• Jaynie Anderson, ed., Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration, and Convergence: The Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress in the History of Art
• Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg, eds., The Global Art World: Audiences, Markets, and Museums
• David Carrier, A World Art History and Its Objects
• Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Toward a Geography of Art
• James Elkins, ed., Is Art History Global?

• John Onians, ed., Compression vs. Expression: Containing and Explaining the World’s Art
• Mary D. Sheriff, ed., Cultural Contact and the Making of European Art since the Age of Exploration
• David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism
• Philippe Vergne, How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age
• Peter Weibel and Andrea Buddensieg, eds., Contemporary Art and the Museum: A Global Perspective
• Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried Van Damme, eds., World Art Studies


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