Before I get to the main point of today’s post: Three of my articles made Sixty Inches From Center’s Top 10 Most Read Articles of 2011 list, and I only joined SIFC in the Spring. THANK YOU for reading all the crazy things I write! Make sure you check out my latest piece, “Text, Drugs, and Rock & Roll // PART I.” (Part II will be live on Monday.)
Speaking of Sixty, last week, at WBEZ and SIFC’s “What’s Your Art? Celebrating the Art Centers of Chicago” event at the Chicago Cultural Center, a visitor approached me (“I know you! You put on the show where the woman rolled around on the floor!”), introduced himself (Dubi Kaufmann, who took a few photos of said woman rolling around on the floor), and told me that Exquisite Corpse inspired him to start his own project that engages artist collaboration. Like this audience reaction letter, it made my day. Thank you, Dubi.
On to a different kind of center… Let’s discuss the de-centering of art history, the need to expand mainstream art history’s focus beyond its Eurocentric bent. I came across The Art History Newsletter, which published “Art Historian, Globalize Thyself” yesterday:
Globalizing art history is “the most urgent task now facing art historians,” says David Carrier, professor at Case Western Reserve University. [...] 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.
To state the obvious, by limiting art history to the West, we severely limit ourselves. Obviously. What’s more, however, is that broadening our perspectives can allow us to re-examine and re-structure our established frameworks, to see our own world through a new—and better—lens. Take, for instance, the essence of Modernism itself. I can never get over how so much ancient Chinese art looks downright Modern—in the economy of line, in the minimalism, in the symbolism, in the abstraction. (In a similar vein are Tantric paintings from 17th C. India:)
|Image via NYT.|
But then, in the article, things take a turn toward the problematic / offensive…
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.”
· Yeah, no. The onus shouldn’t be on “non-Western” (an inherently imperialist term, making the West the norm and everything else something that deviates from that norm) cultures to write more about their respective art histories (which they already do). Rather, Western institutions should be the ones providing such educational platforms. Look at languages: learning English is often mandatory in primary schools throughout the world. Many Americans, meanwhile, know only one language (and it ain’t Urdu).
This insularity is not a problem limited to the primary school system. My alma mater, Columbia University, prides itself on its Core Curriculum—which might as well be called Kids, Let’s Talk About Dead White Men—comprising courses like Literature Humanities in which, if you’re lucky, a token or two (Jane Austen and/or Virginia Woolf) might be thrown into the mix. There is a Major Cultures requirement, but students must choose and specialize in one particular region (e.g. Africa, Asia, the Middle East). For art majors, one of the requirements is 20th Century Art, and although it was one of my favorite classes (because it’s not like I’m into contemporary art or anything…), it really should be renamed White People In 20th C. America And Europe And Not Even A Cameo By Basquiat.
· History-writing / documentation is not a Western invention.
What are your thoughts on the subject? If you’ve studied (or are simply interested in) art history, what has your experience been like?