Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 15, 2011
James Elkins, Alice Kim, and Zhivka Valiavicharska, eds. Art and Globalization Stone Art Theory Institutes, vol. 1. Edited by James Elkins.. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. 272 pp.; 1 ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780271037165)
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Art and Globalization, edited by James Elkins, Zhivka Valiavicharska, and Alice Kim, results from the first of the Stone Seminars at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Focusing on what James Elkins calls “biennale culture”—i.e., the global aspects of contemporary art—the book is an edited transcript of the seminar, or, rather, a transcript of select parts of the seminar. Readers are thus voyeurs, eavesdropping on a conversation but doing so as if entering the middle of a dialogue well in progress because they encounter only parts of it, not the whole, and they can’t interject insights, except in the margin, as the participants could. Participants at the institute, moreover, had read some eight hundred pages, many of them authored by the faculty of the institute, that is, by the voices in this volume. Readers of the book will not have done so even though many of the comments refer back to the readings. Some of the participants’ comments, ones that easily could have been edited out, further exclude the reader. They draw upon a discussion at dinner “the other night” (57) or lunch (107). Well, the readers weren’t there. Or the reference to Susan Buck-Morss’s lecture “last night” that they didn’t attend (73). Says Elkins in one place: “Zhivka and I wanted these conversations to be intermittently incomprehensible” (77; emphasis in original). Precisely because the reader encounters snippets of the seminar, as if having missed class for a few weeks, they achieved their goal. He adds that they hope they’ll be incomprehensible in productive ways. If they remain incomprehensible, they cannot be productive. But if the reader is prepared to struggle, to fill the interstices of the conversation, and to find ways of silently engaging with it, then it becomes largely comprehensible. Moreover, I recognize that Elkins’s intention was to make the reader feel like a participant in the live proceedings by including the informal comments. My reaction is that doing so makes it more exclusive than inclusive.

The volume starts with transcriptions of portions of nine seminars, each led by a distinguished scholar, and then moves to twenty-seven “Assessments” of the seminars, again each by a leading scholar. Elkins himself gets the last word in a concluding section. The seminars each feature a particular “take” on the issue of the global contemporary—Translation, Hybridity, Temporality, Universality, to cite some. The notion of globalism, by definition in the seminars linked to the contemporary age, locks into the present the notion of globalism and the allied concept of globalization. Readers thus might appreciate the reminders of Thomas daCosta Kaufmann punctuating the conversations that globalism has more ancient roots, to my mind roots even more ancient than Kaufmann argues. Fredric Jameson doesn’t agree. I do. I find a disturbing celebration of the global era, the present, the contemporary. It’s an era in which Euro-American technology and culture have dominated. But there have been multiple globalisms, though often at times when the full extent of the globe was not known. Even today, there are large parts of the globe that are excluded from participation in an economic or cultural globalism, parts that are erased in the course of such celebrations.

Oftentimes the book reads more like a play than a work whose ideas and central arguments are carried through. A play, however, has a guiding force: a playwright and director. Here the conversation does not, and it’s not clear where the director (of the seminars) wanted to lead the listeners or readers. The conversations, in which a seminar leader is frequently interrupted by one of the participants, seems to exclude the reader. I wanted to ask questions, as usually I do when I read a book. That’s why my books are often heavily marked. But it was hard for me, a reader, to enter the conversation because the participants in it were a circumscribed group.

Sometimes the conversation is too self-referential. If this were a searchable text, I’d be able to give a count to the number of references to Elkins’s Is Art History Global? (New York: Routledge, 2006). That is a book I like and found provocative, but the many references to it push the reader outside of this book and toward something not entirely meaningful unless she or he has read that book. And on page 123, where Elkins refers to a book by Steven Mansbach, the footnote leads back to Is Art History Global?, not to Mansbach’s study (probably Modern Art in Eastern Europe [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999], but readers will never know without leafing through all of Is Art History Global? since they don’t even get a page reference to that text, much less a bibliographic reference to Mansbach’s book).

Other quibbles are much more minor. The index is sparse, mostly nouns, when the book is one of abstract ideas. And the notes on contributors misses some. Few of the seminar participants are included. Keith Moxey is, but Michael Ann Holly isn’t. And several of those who wrote assessments are excluded, among them Rasheed Araeem and Blake Gopnik. And I caught a few typos, for example, South American for South America on page 189, but what book doesn’t have typos?

Despite my concerns, there is much that I found valuable. I found particularly stimulating several of the assessments that comprise the second part of the book. Here the arguments are focused, inflected, debated coherently. The twenty-seven scholars who wrote in this section had the advantage of time to reflect and to write in a fashion that carries a point of view that’s rarely accomplished in the ad-libbed discussion that formed the seminars. Perhaps to understand the impact of the seminars, the reader ought to note Charles Green’s assessment. Although he is much more charitable than I am, he successfully pulls together the first half of the book, almost providing a road map for the reader. He notes, “The welcome significance of the Chicago Seminars . . . is [that they] are part of the inevitable, epochal, and rapidly emerging reform of a North Atlantic-centered canon of art history that remains entrenched despite repeated incantatory acknowledgments of its inadequacy” (241).

The book concludes with Elkins again, first responding to some of the most critical assessments, then summarizing the ideas raised in the seminars. While this section gives Elkins the last word, it also makes this volume into a book. That is, it provides some coherence to the diverse arguments, the disparate positions and perspectives, and the often disjointed conversation that characterizes it.

In the end, I want to be careful not to be overly critical of Art and Globalization. Every one of the participants in the seminar, and all the respondents, are committed to decentering art history’s exclusionary Euro-American narrative. Elkins sees “the current distress of art history,” and I agree with him. But is art history a discipline in crisis? Not entirely, and that’s precisely because the many who participated in this seminar—either live, or as respondents, or, in many cases, as readers of these seminar snippets—are committed to rethinking art history, and that is precisely why it has become a dynamic field. The book needs to be read, its format notwithstanding.

Frederick M. Asher
Professor Emeritus, Department of Art History, University of Minnesota

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.