Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 27, 2015
Marian H. Feldman Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 264 pp.; 20 color ills.; 41 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780226105611)
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Although the Iron Age (circa 1200 to 600 BCE) Levant (a zone covering territory in present-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan) is not familiar ground for most art historians, Marian H. Feldman’s masterful book Communities of Style: Portable Luxury Arts, Identity, and Collective Memory in the Iron Age Levant will draw diverse readers into its dynamic world aswirl with social networks and enchanting objects. Feldman focuses on the ninth to seventh centuries BCE in the Levant, but her study casts back to the second millennium BCE and projects geographically east of the Tigris River in what is now Iraq and across the Mediterranean Sea. Sculpted ivory elements along with inscribed and ornamented bowls of gold, silver, and bronze comprise her primary study corpus of portable luxuries.

Engaging and meticulously organized, Feldman tells “a story” about the nexus of person-object-style in the early Iron Age (1). In doing so, she effectively dissolves long-entrenched modes of stylistic analysis and scholarly interpretation. Traditionally, researchers have tried to reconstruct the production and distribution of ancient Levantine luxury goods by defining discrete styles, linking them to regional centers, and explaining their circulation through standard models of trade and gift exchange. Feldman’s groundbreaking account demonstrates the unbounded fluidity of style. She also proposes a social, rather than geographical, basis for style, which, she asserts, can generate communities, identities, and collective memory. On a case-by-case basis Feldman then investigates some well-known examples of Levantine-style portable arts found in non-Levantine contexts and considers each object’s unique circumstances of secondary use.

Feldman’s compelling argument has the potential to liberate ancient Near Eastern specialists from longstanding debates about the geographic origin of Levantine artistic styles and the mechanisms for their distribution. In addition to servicing Feldman’s own field of the ancient Near East, the book’s temporal and geographic range (reflecting the circulation of people, objects, and style) has practical bearing for scholars of the pre-Classical Mediterranean, while its methodological and theoretical frameworks provide a model for scholars and students investigating the production and consumption of style in any culture across the disciplines of art history, archaeology, and anthropology. Feldman’s treatment of style could, for instance, support new interpretations of mobile visual and material culture in medieval pilgrimage, Silk Road, or Pacific Island contexts.

The introduction establishes the book’s boundaries, defines operative terms, describes the material corpus, and presents synopses of the five interlocking chapters. Chapter 1, “Workshops, Connoisseurship, and Levantine Styles(s),” addresses the fundamental problem with studying early first-millennium BCE “Levantine” portable arts, namely, that they are classified as “Levantine” based on their visual affinities with immovable art, but most of these objects have been found outside of the Levant. Confronting this issue, Feldman first summarizes the historiography of studies on Levantine ivories, which are the subject of intensive debate among ancient Near Eastern art historians. She then demonstrates the shortcomings of any approach that insists on linking style to region. Eschewing connoisseurial terminology, such as “workshop” and “hand,” Feldman applies Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to interpret Levantine style as a socially networked practice rather than an autochthonous phenomenon.

Maintaining a perspective informed by Bourdieu’s theory of practice, chapter 2, “Levantine Stylistic Practices in Collective Memory,” interprets style as a “product and source” of collective memory (44). Feldman defines style through “the minutiae of visual forms” and specifically investigates the continuity of a distinctive set of markings rendered on animal figures (44). These markings originated on Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600–1200/1180 BCE) royal arts. Feldman suggests that when the markings were depicted centuries later, rather than representing a regional visual heritage, they evoked the lost culture of Late Bronze Age courtly diplomacy. Hence, she proposes that in the early Iron Age the markings helped to forge pan-Levantine elite identities through affiliation with a heroicized past. Feldman closes the chapter by demonstrating the role of style in the temporal process of community formation and collective memory. In this case, as dependence on Late Bronze Age memories waned in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, the animals shed their markings for new stylistic traits perhaps inspired by the now-solidified imperial and mercantile contexts.

Moving east into Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq), chapter 3, “Creating Assyria in Its Own Image,” shifts attention from Levantine style to the “rigid stylistic homogenization” and “oppositional” nature of Neo-Assyrian palace art (80). Neo-Assyrian style is so distinctive that scholars tend to take it for granted, but Feldman brings to light its political underpinnings by examining the concept of “stylistic Assyrianization” (195). In addition to cosmic notions of order over chaos, she proposes that Assyrian style strategically materialized control over the vanquished Other while maintaining a memory of it. Countering scholarship emphasizing the appreciation of foreign goods in courtly life, she argues that although Neo-Assyrian rulers collected Levantine arts, they did not integrate them into their palace environments. Likewise, Levantine style, recognizable on the ivories and metal dishes excavated from royal Neo-Assyrian storerooms, did not infiltrate the actively controlled coherence of Assyrian imagery and ornament.

Departing from discussions of style in relation to material production, chapter 4, “Speaking Bowls and the Inscription of Identity and Memory,” and chapter 5, “The Reuse, Recycling, and Displacement of Levantine Luxury Arts,” look at “subsequent phases of human-material engagement” in which objects receive inscriptions and circulate in secondary contexts (7). Chapter 5 spotlights a sub-corpus of sixteen inscribed and decorated ninth- to seventh-century BCE bowls. These once-shiny metal dishes bore Levantine-style imagery that would emerge as they were drained, probably during communal funerary rituals. Engaging Alfred Gell’s “notion of a technology of enchantment,” Feldman presents the bowls as powerful devices that could “ensnare” “user-viewers” and activate “bonds of community identity and collective memory” through shared social and aesthetic experiences (133). Found in Iraq, Cyprus, Greece, and Italy, these “speaking bowls” bear ownership inscriptions in diverse languages (111). In addition to linking people and communities as participants in the memory of Late Bronze Age drinking and libating traditions, Feldman suggests that the bowls’ Levantine-style decoration could also have provided a common backdrop for the verbal assertion of competing early Iron Age kin and ethno-linguistic identities.

Chapter 5 curates a fascinating collection of case studies that demonstrate the “re-use,” “recycling,” and “displacement” of Levantine art (139–40). Rather than applying a single interpretative model to the evidence, Feldman effectively reveals diverse “pathways” of material mobility through a “bottom-up” approach that traces the social history of individual objects (140–41). She introduces readers to ivories in Neo-Assyrian and post-Neo-Assyrian Near Eastern contexts, ivory and bronze elements of a cauldron and furniture found in an elite Cypriot tomb, bronze plaques incorporated into Greek statues, and bronze horse bridle elements (including the well-known pieces naming the Levantine ruler Haza’el) found at Greek pan-Hellenic sanctuaries. Supported by specific evidence, such as iconography, stratigraphy, and the results of scientific metal analysis, each case tells a unique story of secondary movement through time, space, and/or social strata, as displaced objects became nodes in the formation of communities, identities, and memories. Thus, Feldman’s final chapter reinforces the book’s overarching argument that art creates and sustains, rather than reflects, social phenomena.

While these five chapters intertwine, each could be read (or assigned) independently. Throughout, Feldman provides comprehensive evidence from which readers can assess her conclusions and pursue their own hypotheses. For example, one might query premises such as the prominence in the Iron Age of a memory of a heroic Bronze Age culture (chapter 2), the exclusion of foreign goods from Neo-Assyrian palace environments (chapter 3), or the funerary significance of the inscribed bowls (chapter 4). Theoretically, Feldman draws explicitly upon the works of Bourdieu, Gell, and Maurice Halbwachs, but some readers, especially students, may benefit from more extensive descriptions of their literature. A range of cross-cultural scholarship, including studies on Celtic metalwork and mass-produced images of Indian deities, inform her overall analysis, which is deeply, but rather implicitly, motivated by current research on materiality. Not disrupting the chapter narratives or distancing readers from her story with thick theoretical layers, Feldman’s tantalizing array of methodological and theoretical “tools” are mostly discussed in her conclusion, where she shares a sincere personal account of her own intellectual and creative engagement with this project (175).

Communities of Style is Feldman’s second book, following her monograph, Diplomacy by Design: Luxury Arts and an “International Style” in the Ancient Near East, 1400–1200 BCE (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), which considered second millennium BCE style and portable arts. Both projects make substantial contributions to ancient Near Eastern studies and to the cross-cultural, interdisciplinary pool of scholarship on the essence and implications of style. With the analysis of stylistic practice at the fore, Communities of Style offers especially high-impact studies that make sense of “an ambiguously defined and contested corpus” of early Iron Age Levantine art (175). Feldman’s refreshing insights will certainly enliven new discussions and scholarship. Despite a few untranslated quotations in French and German that could present detours or roadblocks to some readers (see pp. 118, 166), her writing is clear, engaging, and sometimes delightfully sensual (such as a description of lips pressing against the inscribed edge of a drinking bowl, p. 133).

Communities of Style features twenty color plates, along with forty-one useful black-and-white halftones. Some color photographs (see plates 9 and 15) lack sharp focus, and the decoration and inscriptions on most of the metal bowls would be more legible in line drawings (see plates 8–11). Despite these image issues, Feldman’s book is a terrific addition to the art historian’s library. With the potential to enrich scholarship and teaching across fields and disciplines, it should elicit wide readership.

Amy Gansell
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Design, St. John’s University, New York

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