Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Call for a Global Art History / It’s not all about you, dude

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.

·         Etc.

What are your thoughts on the subject? If you’ve studied (or are simply interested in) art history, what has your experience been like?


  1. At College for Creative Studies, we've done away with the standard ancient to medieval, renaissance to modern art history survey. Intead, the first half is replaced with a non-western visual culture class, alternating between Asia and Africa with pre-Columbian we hope to soon follow. Also, if you haven't read Terry Smith's new book "Contemporary Art/World Currents" (Prentice Hall, 2011), you should. Gives an excellent overview of contemporary art from a global perspective.

  2. Im all for the global approach, would've made my college art history classes way more interesting.

  3. That's truly wonderful, Vince. Thanks for the recommendation as well.

  4. While admirable in theory, this approach neglects the victory of Western Modernism over every indigenous tradition in the world. While there certainly have been independent artistic developments outside the Euro/American orbit, these either died out on their own, ceased when the countries involved were colonized, or hybridized with Western art.

    Artists working in their own cultural traditions around the world have been reduced to creating debased versions of traditional designs to sell as souvenirs to tourists, while the prevailing mode in their capitals is primarily a watered-down version of Western modern art, brought back by members of the elite class who had studied abroad. Studying this degeneration just doesn't make for a very inspiring curriculum, even when compared with the devolution of Eurocentric art as represented by Koons and his ilk. At this point, artists in America, Asia, Latin America and Africa are all basically working on the same project, with only minor variations from an art-historical perspective.

    Andrew Werby

  5. With all due respect Andrew Werby, you assume "Modernism" is essentialisticly "Western," which I find based on a bigoted imperialistic approach that ignores facts. Just as contemporary Chinese artists such as Xu Bing and Cai Guo-Qiang might have found inspiration in works by Warhol and Rauschenberg, van Gogh, Monet, Monet, Cezanne, Pollock, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc. found inspiration in Japanese art, Picasso and Braque in African art, and Matisse in art from the Islamic world. Somehow these white dudes are considered geniuses and "victors" of the West because they imperialistically took over indigenous traditions of the world and appropriated characteristics of this work into the "Western Grand Narrative," while everyone from the "periphery" that is working as a serious artist today is a cheap dull imitator of Western art and has abandoned his/her own traditions?

    Bigoted sophistry if you ask me.

  6. First off, I think both you and Elkins are right on who should be writing the art histories of non-western cultures. (as for the term, non-western, I'm offended by the homogenizing usage of the term western as it is, so we need some new terms). I do think an art history would be strongest when written by a passionate historian of the same culture, as they would have a different perspective from someone outside of their culture. That said, I think we all have to do what we can to further this project.

    The whole issue makes me think of a Korean graduate student I met earlier in the fall. She's attending SAIC for the art history grad program. I asked her why she chose the US and not Korea, and she told me, "They told me back home that the US was the best place to study art history. This is where contemporary art history is being made." I understand her decision, but it would worry me if that were a prevalent attitude in Korea.

    As for Andrew's comments about the "victory of Western Modernism over every indigenous tradition in the world", I do think there are exceptions to that statement; it's a big world out there after all. One that comes to mind is Japan, which has a relatively quiet contemporary art world in comparison to the US, but draws nearly a quarter of its publishing GDP from manga and has been reported to create 50 to 60 percent of the world's total animation. To me, this is contemporary Japanese art history following its own path, focusing on art forms that are both contemporary and largely influenced and derived from Japanese visual history.

    As for the victory of Western art around the world, I think it's important to ask why the ideas of contemporary art have spread so quickly and globally. I remember reading in Architecture I in college about why Christianity spread so quickly in Rome even before Constantine made it the state religion. It was because it offered the Romans things their faith system couldn't give them: a focus on forgiveness, a straightforward path to a good afterlife, a benevolent deity, etc.

    Looking at the type of contemporary art that developed over the 20th century, I can see why it would appeal to creative people throughout the world. It values creative freedom, individual exploration, and expression so highly. I think those things are really enticing to creative people of any culture.

    For me the emergence of a global art world was both influenced by the new concepts of what art could be that emerged in the 20th century, and just modernization. Life changed drastically for people in the last 150 years. Education, literacy, communication, and a ton of other facets of life are dramatically different in the 21st cetury, and I think it's natural that art's going to reflect those changes.

  7. Well, I think my "bigoted imperialistic approach" deserves a little more respect than William accords it. I never denied that Western artists borrowed freely from other artistic traditions when formulating Modernism. What I said was that these other independent traditions have died out, and that Modernism continues. While most examples of it that one sees around the world are indeed dull and imitative, that's not to say that interesting and innovative work isn't also being done by a few exceptional artists in China and elsewhere, which actually is often better than art by more famous Westerners.

    But this is done within the framework of Modernism, and isn't the result of another unbroken art-making tradition. (I wouldn't include the practitioners of Manga in this select group; it is entirely based on Western archetypes, and only superficially draws on Eastern art forms in the manner of a pastiche.) But Zachary makes a good point - in the absence of both the strictures and the patronage that attached to traditional art forms, it's only natural that artists, wherever they are, would be attracted to the freedom of the Modern art project, and want to compete upon the world stage.

    Andrew Werby

  8. While I realize that the current art history education structure isn't going to necessarily have any major tectonic shifts in the near term, I think that perhaps the best way to go about implementing some change in the focus on dead white european men would be to reveal just how much influence the "non-western" cultures had on said dead white european men. Take for example the majority of the Impressionist artists: a great deal of their composition methods were a result of Japan re-opening trade to Europe in 1868, a connection which I would have not discovered had I not been doing independent research for a paper in the SAIC required art history course for the MDF graduate department. The wave of culture from the east that came in the form of both decorative objects and art further altered the culture of the west so far as to radically change the fashion silhouette of the everyday European woman; within a span of a decade, women went from the hourglass corset which fully covered the breasts and forced them to stand rigidly and bustle attachment to their rear end as seen here to the forward leaning, pigeon busted "mono-bosom" Gibson girl look such as these gals The corset beneath these later fashions did not come up over the bust but instead forced this sort of strange forward tilt, otherwise known as the "S" curve, as when seen in profile, a woman's body was supposed to seem to form the shape of an S; this, along with the big ol' pile of hair common for the era (women saved the hair that fell out in their hairbrush and STUFFED IT BACK INTO THAT LUMP in order to make it a bigger poof) came directly from the western fascination with the Japanese kimono, specifically the costume (and when I say "costume" I mean it as the traditional fashion of a culture) of the geisha, who's outfit would have been something along these lines:

  9. What really needs to be the focus of art history education is the fact that just because for most of human history we did not have industrialized forms of transit, does not mean that there were no exchange of ideas. Everyone down to young children are familiar with the tale of Marco Polo, and I would go so far to say that most of us have heard of the "Silk Road" that was an established trade route in ancient times; I would say go watch the History Channel for a day and you would probably come across one program or another that would illustrate how in past centuries people managed to get their ideas and products from one part of the world to another, but nowadays you'd probably only see something like "Swamp People" or "Pawn Stars". Part of what always irked me about your basic Art History 101 course, specifically the textbook, was that the way the book was laid out meant that the instructors had the choice to simply gloss over the entire chapters dedicated to Africa, the early Americas, and Asia. Rather what should probably happen is that the courses be taught in movements that aren't always independent and isolated moments in time, but most diffused and intermingled with one another. Though not exactly on the subject of art history per se, "The Unfashionable Human Body" by Bernard Rudofsky does an excellent job of throwing cultural separations of east and west aside to point out the ways in which civilizations across the globe and over centuries have come to similar styles for different reasons, or similar reasons for different styles, much in the same way that Jenny points out that Modernism looks strikingly similar to whole periods of art from centuries before. We need to open up a dialogue in academic institutions where the concept of what "art" is, is not limited and static as it is now, but rather something like, here's what was going on in the whole world at this time in history and show the threads interconnecting these separate cultures. Europe certainly wasn't ever an island only populated by men, so let's find out about the other 80% of the human population and what they were creating. While we're at it, I think we might also find that cultures outside of the dead white Europeans don't look down so much upon "craft" and "decorative objects" as some sub par form of art, because I'm so sick and tired of being treated like some lowly imbecile for studying fashion design in comparison to someone studying painting.

  10. I teach high school level art, and am a SAIC grad. At that school, one emphasis was on context, and that, for me, is the issue. I am a modern westerner, and see the world through that lens. One school of thought considers it irreverent to appropriate the sacred traditions of a culture since the 'context' would be absent. That is not to say we cannot consider and learn about these traditions. The challenge for me is to relate this knowledge to the life of my students in a way they can understand deeply. For example, a kachina doll is a beautiful artifact. Many grade school students make these. But, they are meaningless to a western student. A better challenge would be to introduce the context of the kachina and ask students what artifact of their making would hold a similar magic to that of the kachina? Thus the lesson is more relevant to their 'lens', and opens up some thoughtful discussion.
    Getting back to the dead white guys discussion, as a teacher my problem is how to fit it all I teach about, say, ten other cultures, then what do I omit from Western art history? Time is not an expandable bag. It is rigid.
    In my opinion, there is a place for teaching the standard art history.....let's not condemn the tradition of teaching Western art. Rather, it might be more productive to problemetize how we can expand and make room for the global approach. Yes, the 'book' might be dead white guys, but there are other books....and the internet.

  11. Art History is 100% a western construct in the way it's practiced and the effects it's had. That's not to say that history is necessarily western, only that the basic assumptions of art history as it is practiced stem from a post-enlightemet, European mode of thought. Elkins means to say that unless the subaltern writes its own histories, that history will always be mediated by European structures and undergirded by European assumptions (assumptions like a progressive history, the use of style as a metrics for evolution, the very purpose of art itself.)


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