Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 5, 2001
Elizabeth J. Milleker, ed. The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West New Haven and New York: Yale University Press in association with Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. 232 pp.; 150 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300085143)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 3, 2000-January 14, 2001.
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The idea of viewing systematically world art from a single moment in time offers an extraordinary opportunity to consider the prospect of a world art history that parallels an emerging subdiscipline of history that has come to be called world history. It looks at systems in an interlocked world, for example trade in sugar or slaves. Recognizing that even in ancient times people moved over vast distances and carried with them ideas that influenced the production of art, the discipline of art history as well could develop a world art history. Such a subdiscipline, i.e. world art history, could do much to break down the geographic and chronological barriers we erect around our slices of art history and help us think of the dynamic that constructs both the production of art and its history.

The Year One: Art of the Ancient World East and West is a step in this direction, although limitations imposed by the basis of the volume, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, somewhat limit the horizon. The catalogue commences with an excellent introductory essay by Elizabeth Milleker, the volume’s editor. Although it might be described as somewhat Romanocentric, she most certainly takes a global view and appropriately notes the Christian context of the notion of the Year One. What she does not say, however, is that this particular year was (and still is) of no special consequence to peoples in large parts of the world, where other calendrical systems pertain. The use of B.C. and A.D. throughout take possession of the time period for a Western and largely Christian world. Authorship of other parts of the catalogue is listed on page xi and covers mostly the catalogue entries.

The objects comprising the exhibition, all from the Met’s own collection, show the rich and highly diverse works produced close to the Year One. What they reveal is much more the localization of taste than a shared visual vocabulary represented by styles that transcend cultural boundaries. That in itself might be a conclusion worthy of comment in the volume. Despite the fact that luxury goods were often transported over immensely long distances, as Milleker shows—e.g., Chinese silk imported to Rome—the impact of those imported goods on local production seems to have been minimal. The production of things that we might today consider works of art must have been so intensely localized as a kind of knowledge imagined to be the province of specific artisans but not something that could be shared or emulated that little consideration was apparently given to replicating the products of distant cultures or even incorporating select motifs or stylistic features. There are exceptions, of course, for example, the art of Kushan Gandhara, where artists of the region (comprising large parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) worked in styles clearly inspired by provincial Roman art. But such exceptions are few, it would seem, suggesting that the issue of artistic influence needs to be problematized in new ways.

Following Milleker’s introduction is a catalogue of objects that make up the exhibition. It is organized geographically, that is, with a chapter devoted to each of the civilizations considered sufficiently important in the Year One to warrant inclusion in the exhibition. Long descriptive and analytical entries accompany the photographs of each object, although without a bibliography specific to the object. The overall bibliography at the end of the catalogue is general to the geographic region and lacks literature that could serve as a theoretical model for considering world art at a moment in time, including, for instance, the substantial body of material on world-systems theory. With that in mind, I wonder if there might have been a way to organize the exhibition—or at least the catalogue—without reverting to the customary divisions of art history and, by extension, curatorial departments. Thinking about the material across space, rather than within geographic boundaries, might have presented an opportunity to consider other interconnections where they might exist. For example, the Roman Dionysiac images discussed on page 51 are treated entirely in isolation, not related to comparable images elsewhere, for example, those in Kushan India. It thus seems clear that Milleker was the driving force behind this project and that the other contributors thought more about the objects from their collections than about the issue of an interconnected world in the Year One.

The Introduction looks seriously at the impact of trade routes connecting a world that was far more closely bonded than most might recognize. Following that comes a section entitled “The Mediterranean World: The Roman Empire.” Its lead position suggests a centrality in the global network of the Year One that is something of an exaggerated notion. Although the Met’s Roman collection offers the largest number of objects from which to draw for the exhibition—and Roman influence is certainly seen in works well beyond the empire—Rome itself lies far to the western side of the extensive and closely linked trade network that extended east to China. Interesting subsections cover Gaul, Britain, and Pannonia (essentially Austria and Hungary), as well as Roman Egypt. This is followed by a section on West and Central Asia, including a subsection on the Parthian Empire, one that probably does the most effective job of relating works to styles of surrounding cultures. A section on South Asia, that is, the Indian subcontinent, draws heavily on the art of Gandhara; the Met’s collection, however, includes some excellent works from Mathura dating close to the Year One that might have effectively balanced the Gandhara ones. The East Asia section is long and comprehensive but treats the region somewhat in isolation from the larger network in which it played a major trading role and, with that, a role in the exchange of artistic ideas and styles. Finally, the volume concludes with a short section on the Americas, admittedly distant from the network extending from China to Rome and onward into northern Europe. It serves, however, as an important reminder of the cultural vitality of the Americas soon after the Year One and opens the possibility of speculation regarding the Americas’ connections with other parts of the world at that time.

In spite of the concerns raised in this review, the book and the exhibition on which it is based are an important and provocative contribution to scholarship. At the very least, it reminds all of us to think beyond the confines of time and space by which we define our expertise within art history and to recognize the strong links that bonded visual culture even before the global networks of modern times.

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

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