Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 15, 2008
James Elkins, ed. Is Art History Global? New York and London: Routledge, 2006. 472 pp. Paper $27.95 (9780415977852)

Is Art History Global? should be read by anyone interested in the history of art as a discipline, and especially anyone interested in its future. The question it asks is of fundamental importance. The problems are clearly outlined and much useful data is presented already in the first part, which includes, besides James Elkins’s introductory materials, three other “starting points” offered by Andrea Giunta (Argentina), Friedrich Teja Bach (Austria), and Ladislav Kesner (Czech Republic). There follows the core of the book: the transcript of a lively seminar that took place in Cork in 2005, involving besides these four figures, Sandra Klopper (South Africa) and David Summers (United States). Then comes an equally substantial series of “assessments” of the “starting points” and the “seminar” by nearly thirty individuals from countries around the globe, followed by a concluding set of authoritative reflections on “globalising art history” by Sherry Errington.

To open the book is to experience expectation and real hope. The sense of excitement is similar to that at the outset of what the Europeans call the “age of discovery” five hundred years ago. It is further heightened by an awareness that this new enterprise is characterized by an openness and generosity of spirit that was then absent. One fundamental change is that the people who previously were placed in the role of being “discovered” are now invited to join in the venture. The scene is thus well set for engaging with Elkins’s challenging questions: “What is the shape, or what are the shapes, of art history across the world? Is it becoming global—that is, does it have a recognizable form wherever it is practiced? Can the methods, concepts, and purposes of Western art history be suitable for art outside of Europe and North America? And if not, are there alternatives that are compatible with existing modes of art history?” (3). One answer was already on the table in the form of an ambitious recent book, Summers’s Real Spaces: World Art and the Rise of Western Modernism (London: Phaidon, 2003), whose publication first concentrated Elkins’s mind on the topic. Summers’s volume either shines like a beacon or looms like a threat in the minds of many of the commentators. Indeed, a number of contributions to Elkins’s book, such as Keith Moxey’s, constitute new and important reviews of it.

But the scene may have been set too well. The framing of the question in terms of the possible wider applicability of “Western art history,” and especially the rider about “alternatives compatible with existing modes of art history,” implicitly bring attention back to the status quo and so set limits on the range of the inquiry. There was, thus, not much innovative thinking about how art might be approached as a worldwide phenomenon. Instead, what both the discussion at the seminar and the later responses yielded was a vast amount of information on the state of art history worldwide, on the constraints inherent in the discipline’s history, and on the way the discipline—like its offshoots visual studies and visual culture—has been adapted to serve a wide variety of institutions in an equally wide variety of economic and social conditions. Anyone who thinks that they know what art history is on the basis of their own experience of a limited number of educational institutions and their use of look-alike art-history libraries needs to read this book.

As the contributors make clear, the only way of understanding the extraordinary variety of art history’s manifestations in the early twenty-first century is by looking beyond the usual horizons and joining in the intellectual life of the thousands of universities, art schools, galleries, cafés, and private homes in which it is practiced and discussed on every continent—and on many islands. It is the success of the contributors in bringing that life—whether in Macedonia or New Zealand, in Caracas or Kumasi—to the printed page that gives the volume its greatest value. Some contributions have the substance of research papers, such as Shigemi Inaga’s survey of art history in Japan. Others, like those of Atreyee Gupta and Sugata Ray, both from a post-colonial Indian perspective, owe their force to their critical energies. There is a range of informed perspectives on China; besides Kesner’s at the beginning, these include Sandy Ng and Frank Vigneron from Hong Kong, Carol Archer from Macau, and Craig Clunas from England. There are also intriguing personal views from countries bordering the Baltic, including Hans Dam Christensen (Denmark), Heie Treier (Estonia), Ekaterina Degot (Russia), and Charlotte Bydler and Dan Karlholm (Sweden).

Taken together, they remind those of us who live in the homogenized English-speaking world, where we tend to read the same books and journals, and go to the same exhibitions, that in debates elsewhere on the planet about textbooks and theories, identities and internationalisms, linguistic and cultural traditions, the particular and the universal, there is more at stake than we can imagine. Above all they make us aware that, whether the factors we want to understand are those affecting the making of and the response to art, or those affecting the institutional and personal frameworks for its study, we are well advised to be more conscious of the influence of a myriad of contingencies. For those of us who live in a world in which contingencies have largely been eliminated, such a realization can only be salutary.

To broaden art history, as is done throughout the volume, either by incorporating the study of other traditions and adopting their conceptual vocabularies, or by responding to the needs of other institutional situations, is one way to begin to break the mould, and perhaps the one to which the majority of contributors look forward. There are others, however, that stand further back from the current discipline and promise a more thoroughgoing renewal by asking not, “How do we revise art history?” but, “How, if we were starting from scratch, could we best study art as a worldwide phenomenon?” Elkins is well aware that art history, as it developed from its narrow roots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany as an approach to one tradition of European art, is poorly equipped to engage with the entirety of world art. No one who set out to find the best way to study the art of the whole world would come up with something like art history.

In the first place they would have to engage with the totality of data available and to adopt an approach that treats it all equally. This is a prospect that frightens many of the volume’s contributors, but not all. One positive view is presented by Kitty Zijlmans who argues for an “intercultural” perspective. Another is that advanced by Summers’s Real Spaces, which argues that the first consideration in dealing with all art is to understand how it relates to the human viewer. As Summers says in his contribution to the volume, he begins by defining the visual arts as the “spatial arts,” and then analyses them in terms of freshly defined categories such as “facture” and “places,” thereby producing an account that is not only as internally coherent as possible but easily extendable to include almost all known art. Summers stresses the universal importance of “embodied experience,” but he never really explores it as such.

Others, though, do, and, recognizing its basis in the operation of the nervous system, look forward to a study of art grounded in the latest neuroscience. Such an approach is given prominence at the end of Kesner’s contribution, in which he cautiously looks forward to a study of art in terms of “biological or cognitive universals.” As an example, he discusses how “the brain is not only plastic in its early phases (during ontogenesis), but is continually tuned and adjusted in response to visual and other kinds of experience” (96). In Barbara Stafford’s “assessment” it is even more central, and her conviction of the benefit of relating the whole field of art to the whole field of neuroscience allows her a final conclusion that is the most optimistic of all contributors: “Inflected by brain science, art history could begin the difficult, but exhilarating, work of putting globally distributed visible structures in touch with an ocean of normally invisible anatomical and physiological processes. Bringing really new data to bear on our most pressing questions would invigorate what has become a tired field” (188).

All the answers to the question, “Is art history global?” are rewarding, but the neuroscientific approach discussed by Kesner and Stafford has particular benefits as a tool for the study of art worldwide. It provides access to the deepest recesses of the human mind, in whatever place or period it is found, without requiring any reference to language, and so leaves us free to view it, as Summers wishes, “in analogy to nothing else.” Here, at least, we get a glimpse of a new methodological foundation for the discipline, and a sense that we might realize the hope for a genuinely global art history.

John Onians
School of World Art Studies and Museology, University of East Anglia