The Impending Single History of Art


North Atlantic Art History and Its Alternatives

James Elkins

Chapter 3

Are Art Criticism, Art Theory, Art Instruction, and the Novel Global Phenomena? 2

The question about worldwide practices of art history can be better understood, I think, when the condition of art history can be compared to the homogenization of some other related field. By default, that “related field” has been global late capitalism, but parallels between structures in academia and those in the free market tend to be general and therefore not helpful in understanding the specific conditions of art historical writing. The parallel between global capitalism and the international art market has been well studied, for example in Charlotte Bydler’s The Global Artworld, Inc: On the Globalization of Contemporary Art (2004) and Caroline Jones’s The Global Work of Art: World's Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience (2017).

In this chapter I look at three fields that are closer to art history—art criticism, art theory, and art instruction (that is, the teaching of studio art)—in hopes of finding suggestive parallels with art history. I’ll consider the three fields in turn, and at the end of the chapter I will look at a possible parallel outside of visual art: the rise of the global novel.

1. Is art criticism global?

        I have often counted myself lucky that I work in a department called Art History, Theory, and Criticism, because that triad seems to be continuously entangled. It is uncommon to find an art-writing practice that presents itself as purely art history, criticism, or theory, although that happens. And it is rare to find a writing practice that requires a fourth or fifth term, unless those are names of disciplines like Visual Anthropology or Sociology of Art.

Three art critics: Ticio Escobar, Wang Nanming, and Jan Verwoert.

        Each of the three subjects, art history, theory, and criticism, is practiced worldwide. Of the three, only world art history has become a common subject of study. The book Is Art History Global? was published in 2006, but it was only in 2014 that the question of the possible impending uniformity of art criticism occurred to me. As far as I know, critics and historians have not asked whether art criticism might also be tending toward an increasing worldwide uniformity.

        The odd result is that even though art criticism is more widely practiced than art history, it can be difficult to find even a few pages on whether or not it is, or is becoming, a worldwide practice. Here I divide my comments into two lopsided parts: a long first section on a recent form about regional and national practices of art criticism, and then a short second section with some guesses at answers.

For the purposes of this chapter, “art criticism” means mainly writing in newspapers and magazines, online and in print, on the subject of exhibitions. I tend toward a very inclusive definition of art criticism, which would embrace brief notices in newspapers and magazines and even brochures in commercial galleries. (What Happened to Art Criticism?, 18–23.) “Art history” would then be writing in academic journals and books. “Art criticism” is also generally seen as a first-person response to individual art objects, while “art history” is normatively the study of the reception of art by specific publics, or in certain periods—in other words, it is the study of other people’s responses. These distinctions are invisible, inadequate, or untenable in various contexts, but they are enough to focus what I want to say here. 

(A)  If there is such a thing as the study of “world art criticism” then a reasonable place to look for it would be AICA, the International Association of Art Critics (Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art), founded in 1950. In 2013, they began issuing a yearly series of books presenting “undiscovered” critics in bilingual editions, called the AICA Prize for Distinguished Contribution to Art Criticism. Their first was the Paraguayan Ticio Escobar (The Invention of Distance / La invención de la distancia, 2013). Other winners have been the Swiss critic Annemarie Monteil, the Hungarian critic Thomas Strauss, and the South Korean critic Yee Yil. The 2015 award went to the English critic Sarah Wilson, and the 2016 award to the Cuban critic Adelaida de Juan Seiller.

The choice depends on where the association has its annual conference, because AICA members from the host country nominate the critic whose work will be translated.  I attended part of the 2013 AICA conference that was held in Košice and Bratislava, Slovakia, and in Kraków, Poland, in September 2013, and I’ll take my examples from that meeting. (Anomalously, the winner that year was the Hungarian critic Thomas Strauss.)

The organizers of the 2013 conference, Richard Gregor and Juraj Čarný, described their theme “White Spaces – Black Holes” this way:

“White place” is a term used in cartography describing unnamed places on the map. Black hole is a term from cosmology defined as a region of spacetime from which gravity prevents anything, including light, from escaping. White Places – Black Holes sets out to analyse the strategies by which lesser-known regions have been and are reflected in the global history of art. How is the local history of art perceived from the centres, and how is the global history of art perceived on the periphery?… Our aim, therefore, is to organise a central European congress which will reflect the wider associations of how local art scenes are perceived by “official” art history.

This gave the conference a decidedly art historical orientation, and the lead speaker, Piotr Piotrowski, was known for his theories about what he called “horizontal art history.” I will consider Piotrowski’s position later in this book; it involves an attempt to formulate an art history of modernism in Central-Eastern Europe that is not dependent on narratives in the West. Middle East Europe, as it is sometimes called following László Beke (the conference’s second speaker), is in process of finding itself as a region in relation to the rest of Europe, so critical activity has tended to become historiographic.

        In my experience most panel discussions, symposia, and other meetings on art criticism focus on the local or national critical scene, and usually on a perceived crisis or problem. Because of their local or national focus, meetings on art criticism tend not to address the worldwide dissemination and practices of criticism. Because of the nature of the 2013 AICA program, there were no papers on the local critical scene in Slovakia or in Poland. The content of the papers certainly differed from the more ordinary art criticism written, for example, for the special “Czech and Slovak Edition” of Flash Art (2013), or the “Special English Edition” of Rider, an art magazine published in Bratislava by Richard Gregor. Given its theme, and its three locations in Slovakia and Poland, the 2013 AICA conference can’t be considered typical; its participants included critics and curators from Paraguay, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Romania, Belarus, China, Taiwan, Ukraine, Georgia, France, the US, South Africa, Brazil, Ecuador, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. The conference, therefore, was an ideal location for discussion of what regional or national practices of art criticism might look like, and by extension, whether or not they were successfully resisting pressures to become international.

Yet of the events I attended, the conversations I had, and the abstracts and papers I read, not a single one was the kind of art criticism in which judgments are rendered about artworks. (This is not to say that judgment is what’s needed, or that it’s the only kind or purpose of criticism, or that it’s optimal: just that it’s a historically common form of criticism, so its absence is hard to miss. See What Happened to Art Criticism?, 2003, for an exploration of the place of judgment.) There were almost no assessments of quality throughout the conference, and only a few instances of other common kinds of critical content such as appreciations, descriptions, or evocations. Most of the talk was about the historical contexts and meanings of particular art practices, which is to say that the conference was preoccupied with art history and art theory. The papers were art criticism in the sense that some were presented by people who identified themselves as art critics, but the critical content of the talks was almost always directed at the art historical narratives that marginalize or exclude certain traditions, practices, artists, or artworks, or at the theories that might articulate those exclusions.

There were papers, for example, calling on critics to “stop looking for what could be put into the context of Western art,” or to overcome the double history of modernism caused by the Soviet Union in order to see eastern Europe as part of “the same art history.” Andrzej Szczerski, a Polish art historian, contributed to the conference’s theme of “White Spaces – Black Holes” by proposing that the Central European region is a “white hole,” a place where stars are born, “having its own artistic identity,” with “its own critical system.” A Georgian critic, Nini Palavandishvili, noted the “lack of art criticism and theoretical analysis” in Georgia, and the “missing written history”; she was concerned about the lack of both art history and criticism. Lena Prents spoke of Belarus as a “terra incognita,” an “in-between, a territory of nowhere,” with “many blank spots” in its own art history. Belinda Grace Gardner, speaking of Romania, asked that the “white spots” of art production be restored to the map, rather than “usurped by the mechanisms of the Western art market.” Another critic asked that Central Europe stop “trying to be Western,” because then it would be “doomed to be peripheral.” Olena Chervonik, a Ukrainian curator, described two “mechanisms of exclusion” or marginalization that have kept Ukrainian art out of mainstream conversations. (She identified the two mechanisms as “Russification” and “provincialization,” and she noted that even art historical monographs like Myroslava Mudrak’s The New Generation and Artistic Modernism in the Ukraine, 1986, had not rectified the imbalance.)

According to Hélène Lassalle, these conversations about center and margin are “a perennial topic of discussion” at AICA. (Her essay, “The Founding of the International Association of Art Critics,” is in AICA in the Age of Globalization, published in 2010.) These sorts of conversations are not art criticism. That isn’t to say they aren’t “perennial” accompaniments of art criticism, but technically they have to do with historical meaning. They have long been central to art historical and postcolonial discussions of modernism and postmodernism, where themes of “center” and “margin”  are developed using texts by writers including Michael Baxandall, Hans Belting, Matthew Rampley, Inaga Shigemi, Iftikhar Dadi, Keith Moxey, Terry Smith, Homi Bhabha, Göran Therborn, Arif Dirlik, Andreas Huyssen, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, and perhaps most pertinently for the 2013 conference, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Piotr Piotrowski. Discussions of “center,” “margin,” “canon,” “periphery,” and other such concepts belong anywhere and everywhere in the discussion of art, but to the extent that there is a recognizable thing called “art criticism,” such concerns are different, because they are about how meaning is constructed in history, not how a viewer encounters an artwork. In all of the many definitions of the nature of art criticism, a constant is the idea that art criticism is the first-person report of an experience of art. Conversations about “center” and “margin” are about the adjudication of different perspectives, and to that degree they are separable from art criticism.

Other papers at the 2013 AICA conference were more about art theory than art history. Art theory took center stage in several presentations, most notably a joint paper by Maja and Reuben Fowkes called “Sidelined, Under-Represented, and Snubbed: The New Unofficial East European Art.” They used Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature” to understand the place of politics in East European and Roma art. Their paper was an articulate summary of Deleuze and Guattari’s claims, including the necessary misunderstanding of the “minor” as rootless and depoliticized. I thought their presentation would have fitted well in a Deleuze conference, because it implicitly critiqued the concept of “minor literature” by showing how it can be used to change the perception of art practices. The majority of the paper, in the form I heard it, was art theory rather than art history or criticism, although it had consequences for both history and criticism.

I am not proposing that art criticism should try to be somehow pure, in the way that Clement Greenberg’s criticism is taken to have been apolitical, optical, and devoted to judgment, or even in the way that Rosalind Krauss’s art history is taken to have been apolitical, anti-optical, and averse to judgment. The papers I have mentioned were intended as revisions of certain national and regional practices of art criticism, and in that respect they were critical, and therefore examples of art criticism. But at the same time, I think it would be hard to say exactly why they needed to be called “art criticism,” or what the field or project of art criticism contributed to them that was not already present in related texts of art history and theory, aside from specific knowledge about recent art practices that wouldn’t be available in art historical publications.

In the essay “The Founding of the International Association of Art Critics,” Hélène Lassalle notes that at the time AICA was established, all sorts of things counted as art criticism. At the first international congress of art critics, in Paris in June 1948,

many of the speakers raised issues that would not seem to us today to have much direct bearing on art criticism, such as museographic display, education services in museums, the development of provincial museums, archaeology, the crafts, art teaching in art schools and at secondary level, artists’ associations and learned societies, the circulation of fakes and art fraud… The art critics seem to feel an urge to become involved in any problem that had an aesthetic dimension.

She concludes that back then, “everything was still mixed up in a singularly global vision that embraced history, sociology, politics, institutions, corporatism and professionalism, along with educational and aesthetic issues, and even the notion of public service” (p. 16). I wonder if readers fifty years from now might look back at the 2013 AICA conference and conclude something similar. It is difficult to find discussion of art criticism in the topics Lassalle enumerates (and her original list is longer than the parts I’ve quoted), and the same might be said of the content of the 2013 conference I attended.

To future readers, it may seem the conference mixed art history, theory, curating, and other interests. It’s true that the act of revaluing the historical position of a national practice, such as Ukrainian modernism, is a critical enterprise, and it’s also true that revising the reception of an art practice, such as Roma art, is a critical project. But it seems to me that both postpone the question of what art criticism itself is. What in those papers is intrinsically art criticism, and not a matter of art history or theory? What is art criticism, in distinction to art history or theory? It may once have been easy to answer that question. (I can imagine someone like Ruskin, Fry, or Greenberg answering without hesitation. Criticism, in its many forms, always had to do with the encounter of the individual viewer with the artwork, and it was a record of her judgments.) It is characteristic of the period since the 1960s that the question is difficult to answer, because criticism has become entwined with history and theory. But even that verb, “entwined,” shows how the question lingers. Something has to exist in order to become entangled in other things. 

In the conference’s final event in Kraków, it was suggested that art criticism is a place where passion and obsession can rule, and where there is no special call for academic texts (like this one) with theses, classifications, and arguments. This position is pragmatic and true—as I saw after the project State of Art Criticism (2005), which showed that the majority of art critics don’t mind practicing something that lacks a sense of its own history, a coherent set of purposes, or consensual or common leading concepts. (This problem is developed in the “Envoi” to the book Re-Enchantment, co-edited by David Morgan, vol. 7 of  The Art Seminar, 2008.) It is quite possible to work productively as an art critic and ignore these questions, and it is sometimes helpful to assert that art criticism can’t be classified or “academicized.” But when it comes to asking if a practice called “art criticism” is a worldwide phenomenon, then it is necessary to come to at least a provisional sense of what should count as art criticism. At the Kraków event it was also said that art criticism might be intrinsically scattered, mobile, multiple, and interdisciplinary. One person suggested that art criticism already exists in myriad forms, and may only look homogeneous from a European perspective. But this, I think, is a hope more than a fact. Sometimes the unusual subject matter of critics can make it seem as if their practices are different, and the existence of untranslated texts can make it seem as if there might be undiscovered continents of art criticism. To be persuasive, these claims would have to be justified with examples. In the case of art criticism it would be helpful to identify critical practices that differ in more than subject matter and language. What are those practices, and how are they different in form, concepts, and methods?

        (A note for AICA members who may read this: the brief of AICA, which is on the website aicausa, is a list of five bulleted points: AICA, it says, is intended “to promote art criticism as a discipline and contribute to its methodology,” “to protect the ethical and professional interests of its membership,” “to encourage professional relationships,” “to contribute to mutual understanding of visual aesthetics across cultural boundaries” and “to defend impartially freedom of expression and thought and oppose arbitrary censorship.” Except for the one word, “methodology,” there is no mention in this list of the idea of discussing the nature of art criticism itself. The five points imply that art criticism itself is well enough known. By assuming that, AICA defaults to what George Dickie calls the “institutional definition” of art: you know what art is by the institutions that present it. I am not so sure that works well with an activity like art criticism; my own talk in the 2013 conference was on the absence of any agreement about what art criticism is, whether it has a history, or what it is intended to do.

The closing essay in the book AICA in the Age of Globalization, by Henry Meyric Hughes (his essay has the same title as the book), quotes these five points in a slightly earlier version, and then notes my own opinion that art criticism “is massively produced, and massively ignored.” (From What Happened to Art Criticism?) Meyric Hughes argues that criticism might derive strength from that weakness, and he quotes Irit Rogoff’s ideas about criticism from the book The State of Art Criticism. He says she shows that “the critic may have a new role to play” (p. 104). To me, this kind of discussion is promising, because it goes to what art criticism is and what it should be. In one of the events recorded in The State of Art Criticism, Rogoff called for an encounter between the critic and the artist that is so intense that the critic risks losing her function and identity, becoming a collaborator or an artist in her own right. Personally speaking, I don’t think Rogoff’s idea of “criticality” is a way forward: but it is necessary to ask, as she did, about the function and nature of art criticism. I wonder if it might be possible to add a sixth bullet point to AICA’s agenda, something like “to nourish conversations on the methodology and nature of art criticism.”)

        (B) What I’ve said up to this point concerns the absence of discussion of regional and national modes of art criticism in contemporary discourse, a lack that makes it hard to assess whether art criticism is a worldwide phenomenon. Given the lack of studies of the subject, it might be best just to set out some hypotheses for future conversations; here, then, are several possible answers to the question of whether art criticism is global.

(1) It is, if “art criticism” means the discussions of “center,” “periphery,” and other terms. These are common qualifiers in a range of art criticism worldwide, because critics are often aware of the art’s marginal or peripheral relations to some center of activity. However it can be argued that center, margin, periphery, and related terms are concepts borrowed from art history, cultural studies, and postcolonial theory, and that while they are among art criticism’s concerns, they are not constitutive of art criticism.

(2) Art criticism is global, if it is best understood in terms of its subject matter. Biennales, Documenta, the Manifesta, art fairs, commercial galleries, and auction houses comprise much of art criticism’s subject matter. Major contemporary artists are another traditional subject. Topics like these are common to many conversations in art criticism, and they could be a way to maintain that art criticism is a uniform practice worldwide. The difficulty with this formulation is that it reduces the activity of art criticism to its subject matter, depriving it of its methodological and interpretive interests.

        (3) It is, if “art criticism” means talk about curating and curatorial studies. In the last three decades, curation has emerged as a separate subject from art history, criticism, and theory, but if art criticism is understood as an integral part of curatorial studies, then the intense and increasing globalization of curatorial studies could be cited to argue that art criticism is also emerging as a relatively uniform practice worldwide.

(4) It is, if “art criticism” means the shorter notices that are part of the format in Flash Art, Artforum, and many national art magazines, because brief critical reports are fairly uniform in style throughout the world. The uniformity of such notices is largely a result of their limited length: it is difficult to do more in a couple hundred words than give the pertinent facts and some limited descriptions of the work. For some scholars, such notices therefore do not count as art criticism, because they lack the space to develop critical reflection. (See Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s contributions to The State of Art Criticism, 2007.)

(5) It is, if “art criticism” means brief exhibition reviews online and in newspapers around the world, because again they are fairly similar to one another.

(6) It may be, if countries and regions that have little or no tradition of art criticism develop critical practices by emulating practices elsewhere. There is literature, for example, on the relative lack of art criticism in some Arab countries. The rapid growth of museums, especially in the UAE, is promoting the assimilation of models of art criticism from Europe and North America. (Nada Shabout, Modern Arab Art: Formation of Arab Aesthetics, 2007; Kirsten Scheid, “What We Do Not Know: Questions for a Study of Contemporary Arab Art,” 2008; thanks to Farah Aksoy for these references.) In China, a number of prominent scholars and curators are European or North American. In 2019, for example, there was Philip Tinari at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, Karen Smith at OCAT in Xi’an, and Larys Frogier at the Rockbund Art Museum, also in Shanghai. The influence of foreign curators and critics would be hard to quantify, but they are an important part of the art scene. (Thanks to Jacob Zhicheng Zhang for these examples.)

(7) It may not be, if essays written in different countries and regions have different vocabularies, styles, manners, interpretive methods, and narratives, as I think they do in art history. If art criticism amounts to a series of languages, then translating one into another may result in what Luis Camnitzer calls “codes” or “dialects”—that is, texts that appear similar but lack the richness and specificity of their original places of origin. (This is from Camnitzer’s essay “Esperanto,” where he uses these words to describe art practices, but the same might be said of art criticism.)

The difficulty with this last point is that it hasn’t been studied. The general tendency of conversations about art criticism, in AICA and elsewhere, is toward internationalism, which can obscure or minimize such differences. A study is needed of the differences between art critical practices in selected regions of the world, with attention not to concepts such as central or marginal, or to subject matter, such as biennales or commercial galleries, but to style, interpretive strategies, and forms of narrative and argument. In the absence of such studies, it can come to seem as if art criticism is in fact a global enterprise, with little prospect of maintaining its dwindling diversity.


2. Is art theory global?

        Waves of art theory wash through the artworld. It can seem that art theory, unlike art history or art criticism, really is a worldwide phenomenon, something shared by people in a very wide variety of academic and commercial art contexts. Just as art history has a more-or-less familiar canon of preferred theorists (Art and Globalization; also see Preziosi, The Art of Art History, 1998, second edition 2009) and visual studies has a fairly definable list of expected or acceptable theorists (a hundred or so are listed in Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, 2003, pp. 32-33), so fields like anthropology, sociology, and others have reasonably well-defined senses of what counts as pertinent or viable theory. (For anthropology, see Rex Golub, “Is There an Anthropological Canon?,” April 2014,


François Laruelle and Catherine Malabou.

Throughout the artworld, modern and contemporary art are theorized using Kant, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, and Barthes. Nicolas Bourriaud has been a central figure since the late 1990s, and so have Judith Butler, W.J.T. Mitchell, Susan Buck-Morss, and Jacques Rancière. At the centers of theorization—mainly universities, art schools, and academies in the North Atlantic—scholars and artists are talking about Alain Badiou, Brian Massumi, and José Muñoz, or “unknown” philosophers like François Laruelle, Quentin Meillassoux, or Catherine Malabou. Theory, as everyone likes to say, is about fashion, and these waves spread unevenly and are often short-lived. On the other hand it may be comforting that in 2017 on, Kant had more subscribers than all the others I’ve named put together.

        In general, this would be a way to argue that art theory is a more or less worldwide phenomenon: the overwhelming majority of citations are to French postwar philosophers, and in art history, visual studies, and some art criticism, those citations can be fairly predictable. As an experiment I counted all the footnotes to theoretical sources (meaning writers cited as authorities on interpretation, rather than authorities on the specific subject matter of the essay in question) in a single issue of The Art Bulletin, March 2017. They are: Bruno Latour, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Derrida, Claude Gandelman, Georges Didi-Huberman, Hans Belting (cited as a theorist, not an authority on Renaissance art, which was the subject of the essay containing the citation), Alfred Gell, Edward Said, Foucault, Barthes, Agamben, Althusser, Louis Marin, Lacan, Heidegger, Adorno, Michael Holly (again cited for a general interpretation), Rosalind Krauss, W.J.T. Mitchell, Judith Butler, Ernst Bloch, and José Muñoz. The articles citing these authors ranged from Renaissance painting to the photographer Katharina Sieverding. Similar lists, with a fair consistency, could be compiled for other journals.

Another way to argue that art theory has a global uniformity would be to note that Western philosophy continues to encounter other traditions as “thought” and not philosophy. The French scholar François Jullien, for example, speaks of Chinese “thought” and its “choice” not to become a philosophy. (Jullien, “Chinesisches Werkzeug: Eine fernöstliche Denkposition zur Archäologie des Abendlands,” Lettre internationale 64, 2004, p. 91.)  As Marie-Julie Frainais-Maitre has pointed out, Alain Badiou has praised Jullien “for providing structures to Chinese thought, because when he read Chinese thought without preparation and conceptual work, he dismissed it as ‘small talk,’ as did Hegel many years earlier.” (Frainais-Maitre, “The Coloniality of Western Philosophy: Chinese Philosophy as Viewed in France,” Studies in Social and Political Thought 19, 2014, p. 10, citing Badiou, Oser construire: Pour François Jullien, 2007, p.140.) This leads her to ask why, in France, Chinese philosophy is “isolated from philosophy”: “Is it perhaps only the Western world that has the right and the ability to think? Does China not think?” The form of Frainais-Maitre’s argument can also be found beyond France, and beyond China. Samer Frangie has written about a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism by the Lebanese philosopher Mahdi ‘Amil (1936-1987); the terms (“philosophy” and “thought”) are strikingly similar. According to ‘Amil, Said constructs a polarity between the West and the Orient, and so he has to “reject reason in toto, opposing it to emotion in a quasi-Romantic gesture.” In Orientalism, ‘Amil argues, the Orient “appears to be only accessible through spiritual means or bouts of individual genius.” (Samer Frangie, “On the Broken Conversation Between Postcolonialism and Intellectuals in the Periphery,” 2011.)

(I’ve been exact about my quotations in the preceding paragraph, because there is also sense in which “thought,” penser, in postwar Continental philosophy denotes a general condition of experience. This wider “thought,” which comes from Heidegger, can appear more capacious than “philosophy,” understood as “Western philosophy” or simply “metaphysics.” But “thought” is often also imagined as an untheorized form of cognition, one for which Western philosophy or metaphysics provides a crucial opportunity.)

In everyday pedagogy, students in various parts of the world encounter theorists including the ones I have named above, and it is rare to find a young artist, critic, philosopher, or historian who follows a theorist no one knows. There are always unexpected choices—in the past year or so, I have read essays and artists’ statements that cite Agamben, Broch, Harman, Meillassoux, Brecht, Luhmann, Guattari, Massumi, Clough, and a couple dozen others—but the list is not infinite, and genuinely independent or idiosyncratic choices are very rare. So it may seem the only reason art theory isn’t a global phenomenon is that students and artists find theorists (or resist them) at different rates. Not all young artists influenced by Rancière know much about him, or have read assessments such as Oliver Davis’s “Jacques Rancière and Contemporary Art: Swapping Stories of Love and Tyrannicide,” which is—strangely enough—the lead article in the spring 2013 volume of Critique d’art, even though the essay is not criticism as much as art theory. 

As the Portuguese scholar Leonor Veiga pointed out reading a draft of this chapter, there are many parts of the world where theory is effectively absent because of a lack of funding, institutional structure, or ideological support—but I’d like to leave those many issues temporarily to one side, because what concerns me here is more the general tendency or direction of art theory. (See chapter 1 for problems of funding and access.)

Just as much of the discourse of world philosophies depends on fundamental concepts and forms of argument derived from European philosophy from Plato to Kant and beyond, so much of the discourse of art theory depends on concepts and arguments developed by French poststructuralists from Barthes and Deleuze to the present. Philosophy grapples with this issue in journals such as The Journal of World Philosophies and Philosophy East and West, but so far art theory has no forum for such problems.

The impending uniformity of art theory worldwide seems especially clear, and yet there are difficult problems lurking here. The theorists’ names are usually unsurprising, but they are put to work in different ways, producing unexpected forms of diversity. Here are two reasons why art theory might be considered a national or regional practice, rather than an international one.

        (A) Theory may not be global, because it is used differently in different parts of the world.

Theory does not look especially global when a critic like Tsai Raylin can say, at the 2013 AICA conference in Bratislava, that there is a connection between Leibniz’s monad, Deleuze’s nomad, and the post-human body, without justifying his assertion. Raylin’s paper did not engage Patricia Clough, Katherine Hayles, Deborah Christie, Serge Venturini, Donna Haraway, Jane Bennett, or other theorists of the biomediated, cyborg, or posthuman; and he did not elaborate, explain, or defend his slant rhyme “monad / nomad.” His paper was presented flamboyantly and enthusiastically, like a performative piece by an artist, and his use of theory was palimpsestic and impressionistic. I don’t mean this as a criticism, because I enjoyed the paper and its wild connections, but I don’t think it could be read as art theory in some other contexts. (It probably wouldn’t work, for example, in publications like Grey Room, n+1, or Nonsite, to name three theory-oriented online sites.)

At the same conference the Chinese critic Ling Min proposed a new theory of contemporary Chinese “ink art” and its relation to inkbrush painting. In part her claim was that Chinese ink painting be understood in terms such “poetic” feeling and “plasticity. But she did not engage other work on the contemporary conceptualization of ink painting by Wu Hung, Mike Hearn, Zhu Qingsheng, Gucheng Feng, and others, leaving the impression that no one else has been working on the subject.” Theorization of contemporary ink painting is contentious, both politically and conceptually, but Ling Min’s paper made it seem as if there is no pertinent literature—so again it sounded like a contribution to something other than a global conversation.

Broadly speaking, there are two possible approaches to idiosyncratic uses of theory. On the one hand, idiosyncratic essays might be expanded and brought to the level where they address the full range of literature on their subjects, so that they join the international conversations on their respective topics. On the other hand, it would be possible to see such essays as artist’s statements or personal texts that have purposes other than the wider discourse on their respective topics. In the last chapter of this book I will suggest a third possibility. I will return to this choice, in the case of art history, in the final chapter of this book.

        An eccentric, personal, or uninformed art theory can be effectively unanswerable, because it takes place outside existing conversations. In this sense art theory is not a worldwide phenomenon, because it exists in versions as different as creoles, pidgins, or entirely new languages. The challenge for forums like the Journal of World Philosophies would be to accept essays that appear to misuse or misunderstand philosophic positions, on the assumption that their misprisions were the effect of regional or national differences in reception rather than deficits of education or understanding. The analogous challenge for art theory would be to accept essays that seem not to be participating in ongoing conversations about Deleuze, Lacan, Rancière, or other art theorists, on the assumption that they were creating new forms of reception that fit their local or regional contexts.

        (B) Theory may not be global, because different regions read different theorists.

        Even though French poststructural thinkers provide the majority of theoretical sources in art history, theory, criticism, and art world conversations, there are some exceptions—places where there are distinct regional or national habits of art theory.

        There is an especially strong disconnect between Chinese theorists and theorists outside China. In my experience many Chinese historians, critics, and theorists read non-Chinese (mainly English, American, and French) philosophers and art theorists, but the reverse is not the case. Europeans and North Americans who are not specialists in China tend to get their information about Chinese art theory from François Jullien, in books like In Praise of Blandness: Proceeding from Chinese Thought and Aesthetics (2004). Yet Jullien’s books are problematic as representations of China, and they do not attempt to represent contemporary Chinese theory at all. (References are in my Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, 2010.) An older generation of Western scholars got their East Asian theory from French theorists who did not even make China or Japan their specialty, such as Henri Michaux and Roland Barthes. The opposite situation is hard to imagine. A number of Western art theorists have been translated into Chinese, including not only Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek, but also Roger Fry, Herbert Read, John Berger, E.H. Gombrich, Arthur Danto, Stephen Melville, Amelia Jones, Hal Foster, Douglas Crimp, and Thierry de Duve. Every non-Chinese art historian, critic, and theorist should be embarrassed if they cannot write down an equivalently long list of Chinese art theorists. Here are a few: 高名潞 Gao Minglu, 司汉 Si Han, 姜节泓 Jiang Jiehong, 周彦 Zhou Yan, 常宁生 Chang Ningsheng, 丁宁 Ding Ning, 冯原 Feng Yuan, 耿幼壮 Geng Youzhuang, 黄河清 Huang He Qing, 黄专 Huang Zhuan, 潘公凯  Pan Gong Kai, 彭峰 Peng Feng, 沈语冰 Shen Yubing, 王春辰 Wang Chun Chen, 王林 Wang Ling, 王南溟 Wang Nanming, 温普林 Wen Pulin, 尹吉男 Yin Jinan, 殷双喜 Yin Shuangxi, 杨慧林 Yang Huiling, 杨小彦 Yang Xiaoyan, and 朱青生

 Zhu Qingsheng. This isn’t an exhaustive list; it is just the participants at a conference in Beijing in 2009. A number of Western scholars met Chinese scholars there for the first time. Most Chinese historians, critics, and theorists recognized at least some of the Western participants; no Western participants except China specialists knew any of the Chinese participants.

        This sort of disconnect also happens between non-Spanish speakers and Latin America, which has a number of regionally famous critics and theorists. Some are known internationally, such as Nestor Canclini or the Uruguayan Luis Camnitzer; some are becoming known, such as the Paraguayan critic Ticio Escobar; and others remain known only to people who read in Spanish, such as the very subtle José Luis Brea or Cuauhtémoc Medina. There are many untranslated Spanish-language art theorists. Here are some names that were mentioned when I posted a draft of this text online: Ana Letícia Fialho, Virginia Perez-Ratton, Beatriz Cortez, Kency Cornejo, Eugenio Trias, Simon Marchan, and  Xavier Rubert de Ventos. (Many thanks to Leonor Veiga, Esther Planas, Mayra Barraza, and Vicenç Furió for these.)

Another such cultural divide is between China and India. There is relatively little awareness of Indian subaltern and postcolonial theory in China. In Europe, theorists such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha are known, and a few art historians read Geeta Kapur (in my experience she is more widely read by Westerners interested in postcolonial theory), but others such as Ranajit Guha, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, Sudipta Kaviraj, Gyanendra Pandey, Rajeev Bhargava, Göran Therborn, Gyan Prakash, and Arif Dirlik are not read except by specialists. In China, in my experience, only Homi Bhabha is read with any frequency.

        These large-scale bibliographies (Spanish, Chinese, Indian) are more dramatic, but rarer, than relatively isolated bibliographies specific to regions or languages. German-language art theory is significantly different from English-language art theory. I know only two or three North American art theorists who read Gottfried Boehm, and Friedrich Kittler and Niklas Luhmann are significantly less read than in German-speaking countries, despite the fact that both have been translated. Scandinavia, as a region, also has its specific literature. Joacim Sprung at Lund University suggested these theorists as people still mainly known only to readers of Danish or Swedish: in Danish, Carsten Juhl, Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, Camilla Jalving, Mikkel Bogh, and Simon Sheikh; and in Swedish, Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Tom Sandqvist, Maria Lind, and Daniel Birnbaum.

Where languages are confined to single nations, the literature can be even more restricted, but in smaller nations it might also be the case that the theoretical literature specific to the nation is not central to artists and historians in the country. But as far as I know this question is entirely unstudied. The Estonian scholar Heie Treier suggests Tõnis Vint, whose impact on Estonian artists was less written than personal. It would be interesting to convene a conference on smaller nations and their “unknown” theorists. But it is perhaps in cases like these that the lists I opened with are most nearly correct: everyone reads some Kant, some Foucault, some Lacan, some Barthes, so it can seem that art theory is everywhere.

Alisdair Duncan tells me that sometime shortly before 2013, the Tate Modern bookstore changed their label “Art History” to “Art Histories,” but kept “Art Theory” in the singular.  If they had adopted the label “Art Theories,” it might have sounded like they meant that every theorist has her own perspective, rather than that various nations and regions have their own art theories. To me this goes to show how much work needs to be done on the subject of the worldwide dissemination of art theory. As in the case of art criticism, the impending uniformity of art theory remains largely unstudied. Art history follows suit, citing art theorists largely from the French poststructuralist tradition, and not asking how those choices might be limiting the         questions that are being asked of the world’s art.

3. Is art instruction global?

        If art history, theory, and criticism may be tending toward a global uniformity then it’s visual art instruction might also be. A more or less uniform set of practices around art instruction would not be problematic for many people, because training in art should be responsive to the globalization of visual art and the art market. Yet there are presumably sources of diversity in art instruction that might be threatened by the increasing attention to the global art market.

Robert Morris in a studio critique at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

        The homogeneity of studio art instruction is especially evident at the MFA level in larger institutions. As Dave Hickey, McKenzie Wark, Jerry Saltz, and others have said, the programs can seem like mills, turning out a uniform MFA product. That uniformity decreases sharply in smaller institutions, smaller countries, and outside the first world: more on that below.

        Art instruction is also surprisingly uniform at the first-year (foundation year) level, despite the now conventional disagreement about how the first year should be taught. (There is more on this in the book What do Artists Know?, co-edited with Frances Whitehead, 2012.) Elements of Bauhaus instruction, for example, are common around the world, and so are leftovers of French Academy training. Bauhaus exercises in abstraction, colors, or textures, and French-Academy style exercises in drawing from the model can be found in academies from Paraguay to Kyrgyzstan.

        Yet it’s clear that the flavor of art instruction varies from place to place. Assessment, for example, seems to vary widely: some institutions have strongly critical learning environments, and others have almost no critique culture. Some institutions have no budget to buy even basic darkroom equipment, while others can afford the latest 3D printers, computer looms, and laser routers. At larger institutions from Germany to Japan, some instruction is in English; but there are many smaller art institutions with few or no instructors who can read the principal European languages. 

This sort of list could be continued, but I don’t think these contingent features capture the really important differences. Here are three ways—aside from assessment, economics, and language—that art instruction is not a homogeneous enterprise around the world.

        A. Local, regional, and national techniques

It might be said that techniques and skills in studio art aren’t essentially parts of a global conversation. The Bucharest National University of Arts (Universitatea Naţională de Arte), for instance, teaches students how to restore Romanian frescoes; the Academy in Tehran has instructors who know how to make miniature paintings; in Tokyo Geidai students can learn Japanese lacquer; in Renmin University in Beijing you can study Chinese lacquer; the Terrace campus of Coast Mountain College in the northwest coast of Canada offers First Nations arts programs for students of aboriginal descent; and there are several academies and workshops in Italy for mosaic work. (Thanks to Madalen Benson for the information about Coast Mountain College; for the Italian workshops see the Mosaic Matters website.)

The same is true in different ways in western European and North American art schools and departments. The art department in Durham, New Hampshire, has a strength in “perceptual art”—realistic oil painting. There are several state schools in the Midwest (Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa) where a student can learn midwest-style landscape painting. When I was an MFA student in the 1980s, the Boston Museum School offered fresco using heated lime and mosaic with a large selection of tesserae from Italy.

I wonder if it might be true that most nameable techniques are older ones, and that newer media—at least those that are less dependent on expensive equipment—are more uniformly distributed around the world.

B. Local, regional, and national styles and schools

There are examples of regional and national strengths and tendencies that aren’t related to techniques and skills. Eastern Europe has an identifiable kind of surrealism that has continued into the twenty-first century; to learn it, a student would be best off studying in the Czech Republic, Hungary, the Baltic states, the Ukraine, or Belarus. China is an especially intricate example, with its smaller art academies still divided between ink painting and Western oil techniques. Academies that are influenced by the Russian academic model tend to have instructors who teach a certain kind of realistic painting; the effects of that particular school can be seen as far apart as Kazakhstan, the IRWIN group in Slovenia, and the Academy in Lhasa.

        Some of these regional and national schools and styles have diminishing importance in the contemporary art world. Except for offerings in purely technical subjects (how to restore a Romanian fresco) and occasional instruction in national and regional styles (such as the influence of Soviet realist painting), larger academies and universities do not differ enormously from one part of the world to another. In smaller art schools, smaller cities, and smaller countries, local or national interests are often a stronger influence than the international. This is true even in larger first-world countries. In the US there are some unusually focused places like the one in Durham, but it is relatively common to find regional artists on the faculty in smaller state campuses. I find this is true worldwide: go a little off the art world map, and the world is filled with local practices.

This is a fascinating and important subject, because it leads art historians, theorists, and critics to misconstrue the art production of different countries. Off the beaten track of major academies in China, most art production is still a mixture of ink painting and School of Paris styles, with unpredictable admixtures of contemporary practices. It’s also the case that the styles and stars of the international art world loom large even in the smallest art academies in the most isolated places, which they don’t necessarily do in smaller institutions that offer instruction in art history.

The tendency, in studio art instruction, has been to omit local interests from publicity materials and curricula, emphasizing instead whatever seems global and contemporary. In order to preserve differences in art instruction worldwide, it will be necessary to find ways to revalue local, regional, and national media, techniques, and styles, and to see them as something other than leftovers of a period before internationalization. As in the case of art theory, where the names of local theorists are well known,  it isn’t difficult to name what is local: a wall-painting tradition, a style of conversation on art instruction.

As in the cases of art criticism and art theory, the lesson for art history is that local practices may not appear to be pertinent: just as the website of the Bucharest National University of Arts emphasizes “European values” over their expertise in Romanian fresco painting, so Romanian art historians may value art practices that have pan-European significance such as Tristan Tzara or Marcel Janco over modernists such as Nicolae Tonitza or Ştefan Luchian.

(There is another point of contact between studio art instruction and my main interest in this book. I have heard art students in a number of countries talk about artworld stars, but in more culturally, economically, or linguistically isolated places artists’ names mean very different things from what they might mean in western Europe or North America. On one of my first trips to China, in 1999, I heard Damien Hirst’s shark piece discussed, in Chinese, by art students in Hangzhou: they had found a reproduction of it in a Western art magazine in their library, and were enthusiastic about it, but they had no idea about the Western context of medical museums, curiosity cabinets, or innovations in museum display. They couldn’t read that the piece was called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. At that point the shark sculpture was already eight years old, but it was the first those students had seen it. For them it meant the possibility of making something ambitious and very large. Things have changed now, but that kind of visual influence, without critical or historical context, is analogous to the differences in art historical meaning that I am exploring in this book.)

C. PhD-level instruction around the world

        I think there is another sense in which studio art instruction is not a worldwide phenomenon, and it pertains to what is called in the EU “third level” art instruction—teaching and learning at the PhD level. At graduate level, art instruction does seem to have regional variations. It is global, or worldwide, in the sense that the degree, the PhD, is transferrable; but it may not be global at the level of curriculum, assessment, content, or purpose.

What follows is adapted from a chapter in a book called Artists with PhDs, which assesses the studio-art or “practice-led” PhD around the world. There are currently about 200 institutions that grant the PhD to artists, and this passage is about the possibility that those institutions might be going in at least six different directions rather than working together on a single kind of degree:

        1. The Continental model is found in Continental Europe, especially Scandinavia, along with some institutions in the UK, in Central and South America, and in southeast Asia. Northwestern Europe is where most of the publishing about the PhD is taking place. It is also the center of a certain sense of research. In literature like Henk Slager’s The Pleasure of Research, the concept of art research is aligned with a poststructural critique of institutions; research is partly a matter of mobile, oppositional spaces, and of intellectual freedom. Art research is less the institutionalized, science-based practice of hypothesis, deduction, experiment, and falsification, and more the name for a set of strategies for reconceptualizing art in relation to existing academic structures.  

        2. The Nordic model emphasizes what Henk Borgdorff calls a “sui generis perspective”: it stresses “artistic values when it comes to assessing research in the arts.” Programs in Norway and Sweden follow this model, which is based on the idea that what counts as “research” in the arts should proceed according to properties of visual art; in that sense it engages Christopher Frayling’s original “research for art,” which he described as not about  “communicable knowledge in the sense of verbal communication, but in the sense of visual or iconic or imagistic communication.”  

        3. The UK model is practiced in the UK, Australia, South Africa (Michaelis, in Cape Town), Uganda, Canada, and other Anglophone centers including Malaysia and Singapore. The UK was one of two places in the world that developed the studio-art PhD in the 1970s, and the influence of UK administrative structures on assessment and outcomes is still visible in many institutions. Among other characteristics, the UK model involves sizable bureaucratic and administrative oversight, including sometimes elaborate structures for assessment, specification and quantification of learning outcomes. It remains closer to the scientific sense of research than what I am calling the Continental model.

        4. The Japanese model. One of the main surprises of this research, for me, was “discovering,” in 2010, that Japan has twenty-six universities that grant the PhD. Japan, along with the UK, were the first countries to develop the PhD in the 1970s. In terms of the length of their tradition and their independence (if not in terms of international influence or number of students), Japan and the UK are the co-founders of the studio-art PhD. The Japanese model has been developed in isolation, and its dissertations are still largely studies of natural, technological, scientific, and  artistic precedents that are then applied to the students’ practices.

        5. The Chinese model. China has a much smaller, more recent tradition of PhDs. As of January 2014 there are only three PhD-granting programs in China, in CAFA (Central Academy of Art); Beijing CAA (China Academy of Arts), Hangzhou; and THU (Tsinghua University), Beijing. Part of the reason that the PhD is not expanding is administrative: the degree is given under an administrative research heading, which does not exist in other academies such as Chongqing and Nanjing. It will require a change at the level of the Department of Education to make it possible for other art academies to offer the degree.

         6. The lack of a North American model. There is no consensus in North America about how the PhD should look. Of the North American programs, several have distinct flavors. Santa Cruz, for example, has a strong program in North American-style visual studies, which also involves gender theory, postcolonial studies, and anthropology. Rensselaer Polytechnic is one of the United States’s leading technical universities (alongside Georgia Tech) and students there have a unique combination of political theory, activism, and science. In my experience, because of the unique cultural configuration in Canada, there is little communication between the Francophone and Anglophone institutions, to the point where several times my Canadian correspondents have been surprised to discover the existence of other institutions that grant, or are contemplating, the PhD.

        This is all speculative, and it could change in several directions. Africa is an interesting example of the difficulty of deciding about the global or local nature of PhD-level art instruction. As of January 2014, there are six institutions in Africa that grant the PhD. I have visited three of them: Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town, South Africa; the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), in Kumasi, Ghana; and the Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda. Each differs from the others, and all diverge from EU and North American practices. Michaelis School of Art is the closest to European institutions, and has the most contacts. But Michaelis has not yet engaged the debates that are current in the first three models. KNUST in Ghana is quite isolated and impoverished by comparison, although several of its faculty exhibit in Europe and elsewhere. In my visit there was little talk of the international conversation on the PhD, and more on the dissemination of art theory—a concern that is common in many institutions other than the PhD. Makerere University in Uganda has a larger, robust program; when I visited I met with most of the current PhD students, who showed a very wide range of concerns. One was studying forms of clay that could be used in water filtration projects; several others were looking at forms of central and eastern African avant-gardes. But there was a surprisingly wide range of awareness of art theory, from what would be in North America a beginning BFA-level awareness to work on a par with many PhD programs. No one I talked to was conversant with the literature I listed at the beginning of the Introduction to this book.

        I do not mean these programs are deficient, or that they might “catch up” by engaging the literature. What I hope for in regard to the studio-art PhD is similar to what I want in relation to art history, theory, and criticism: not a worldwide conversation with a shared vocabulary and bibliography, but an appreciation of local and regional cultures of art instruction. There’s a challenge here both for those who teach and study in regional institutions, and for those who travel and observe such programs. For people who study or teach in regional, local, or smaller institutions, the difficulty will be in nourishing and articulating their own interests without becoming disconnected from worldwide interests; and for those who travel and study such programs the challenge will be avoiding perceiving local, national, or regional practices as belated or partial.


These three sources of local, national, and regional differences are not, in general, the direction in which art instruction is going. Art instruction is strongly globalized as well as international; in another generation, as local expertise in media is further eroded, art instruction may become effectively homogeneous except in smaller academies and schools.

4.  A possible parallel: is the novel global?

Art criticism, art theory, and art instruction share a lack of critical reflection on their global diversity or uniformity. The study of the contemporary novel is an instructive contrast and parallel, because it has been the subject of an extensive literature.

The novel is often considered as an optimal example of a worldwide practice that nevertheless remains attentive to the texture of local life. In that respect, it presents a close parallel to the self-descriptions of global art history. Mario Ortiz-Robles puts this well: “the novel’s loose, though fairly stable, formal traits,” he writes, “make it particularly well-suited to the task of representing… widely varying local contexts without significant loss of structural integrity.” (“Local Speech, Global Acts: Performative Violence and the Novelization of the World,” Comparative Literature  59 no. 1, 2007, p. 1.) If we read “narrative and interpretive methods” for “formal traits,” we have a good approximation of descriptions of the successes of global art history: it is taken to have a recognizable form, a “structural integrity,” that can work in very different cultural contexts.


Tim Parks, David Damrosch, Mariano Siskind.

The study of the history of the novel and the study of the history of art share a phase, extending roughly from the mid 19th through the mid 20th century, during which scholars were interested in what Bruce Mazlish calls “world art history.” In his usage the expression “world art history” denotes the study of common themes and ideas in art of different periods and cultures. In art history that ambition marks a number of late 19th century “universal histories,” and includes 20th century scholars such as Riegl. As in the study of the history of the novel, such “world art histories” tended to disappear with the dissemination of poststructuralism. A late summary of the state of such work in literary history is in the classic text of New Criticism, René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1942, third edition 1956). The authors trace the idea of world literature to Goethe’s Weltliteratur, which was not the study of literature “on all five continents,” but “the ideal of the unification of all literatures into one great synthesis.” They are in favor of reviving a study like Goethe’s; today’s scholars, Wellek and Warren say, have been influenced by nationalism to “increasingly narrow provincial cultivation of the study of national literatures.” It is not that Wellek and Warren are against the idea of considering what makes a national literature: they are afraid of reducing literature to what would today be called ideology. Theory of Literature is a reminder of a time in which it was still possible to say—using the grammatical form aptly called the “present unreal conditional”—“we would argue that we cannot even seriously wish that the diversities of national literatures should be obliterated” (p. 49). Needless to say the authors do not mention any “literatures” outside of Europe. The histories they admire are Ernst Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948) and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1946), which are as enormous, as erudite, and as Eurocentric as their own book. Theory of Literature represents an interesting moment, just before and during World War II, in which German and Italian sources were as much a part of the conversation as French ones, and in which ambitious surveys of world literature, or world art history, could be imagined without too much awareness of art made outside Europe. I mention this as background: the parallels I have in mind have to do with the contemporary situation.

There are several possible topics in the theory and history of the novel that bear on its globalization, including the field of translation studies, and the emergence of the discipline of comparative literature as a mediator for global studies of writing. For Jacques Lezra, for example, comparative literature can play a central role in articulating national literary cultures because of its “‘consciousness of languages’” and their effects on the “production of differences.” (Lezra, “The Futures of Comparative Literature,” 2012, p. 88.) From many possibilities I choose five topics.

(A) The idea that the global novel is made expressly for translation

The novelist, critic, and translator Tim Parks has taken strong positions on world literature. Replying to an essay by David Shields, which was later incorporated into Shields’s book How Literature Saved My Life (2013), Parks notes that the local and the contextual is lost when writers insist, as Shields does, on a continuum of global practices, where “every man contains within himself the entire human condition.” Parks advocates local, regional, and national traditions over packaged novels “that will lead to prominence on the world stage.” The problem, he thinks, is “a slow weakening of our sense of being inside a society with related and competing visions of the world to which we make our own urgent narrative contributions.” That kind of writing, aware of its context and tradition, is “being replaced by the author who takes courses to learn how to create a product with universal appeal, something that can float in the world mix, rather than feed into the immediate experience of people in his own culture.” (New York Review of Books blog, January 19, 2012; see also Where I’m Reading From, 31-9, 60-71, 85-92, 183-201.)

In an earlier blog, titled “The Dull New Global Novel,” Parks presents a contentious version of this concern. He notes how authors increasingly want to be published in English, and have their books sold internationally. Agents and publicists orchestrate “simultaneous launches” of books, using corporate-style promotional strategies. As a result, “a reader picking up a copy of… a work by Umberto Eco, or Haruki Murakami, or Ian McEwan, does so in the knowledge that this same work is being read now, all over the world.” Parks’s target is the uniformity of the literature that is produced:

What are the consequences for literature? From the moment an author perceives his ultimate audience as international rather than national, the nature of his writing is bound to change. In particular one notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension. Writing in the 1960’s, intensely engaged with his own culture and its complex politics, Hugo Claus apparently did not care that his novels would require a special effort on the reader’s and above all the translator’s part if they were to be understood outside his native Belgium. In sharp contrast, contemporary authors like the Norwegian Per Petterson, the Dutch Gerbrand Bakker, or the Italian Alessandro Baricco, offer us works that require no such knowledge or effort, nor offer the rewards that such effort will bring.

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding wordplay and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader. [New York Review of Books blog, February 9, 2010]

The risk is that the market for world literature will “neglect… the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives. In the global literary market there will be no place for any Barbara Pyms and Natalia Ginzburgs. Shakespeare would have eased off the puns. A new Jane Austen can forget the Nobel.”

It is easy to be sympathetic to Parks’s appeal, at the end of that essay, to “avoid writing over and over the dull, amazing novel, or the amazingly dull novel that new market conditions are inviting us to write, ‘the Esperanto of international literary fiction’ as Adam Shatz has called it, reviewing Orhan Pamuk.

        Parks has elaborated his critique by including translators in the mix: what appears as a universal novel, worthy of the Nobel Prize, may actually be “put together” or “consigned to the page” by a translator, who is implicated in the projection of internationalism and the appeal to an “international public.” He argues that the process of internationalization of the novel does not liberate, but reinforces stereotypes:

However much you prize your individuality, your autonomy from your national culture, nevertheless you’d better have an interesting national product to sell on the international market: Scandinavian melancholy, Irish burlesque, the South American folk tradition. Or best of all, some downright political oppression of one variety or another. [Parks, “The Nobel Individual,” Times Literary Supplement, April 20, 2011]

(Parks’s essay got a number of responses. Andrew Seal raised cogent objections to Parks’s choice of examples and his claim that the phenomenon is relatively new. Yet for my purposes here it is the outline of his argument, rather than his examples, that matters. For Seal’s essay see David Damrosch, whom I will discuss below, also notes that “a defining feature of world literature… is that it consists of works that thrive in translation,” but he points out that translatability and universality are not necessarily related. “There can be no more global work than Finnegans Wake,” he writes, but it is “only a curiosity in translation,” while the more local Dubliners works well in translation. Sharae Deckard has connected Parks’s critique to a Jamesonian analysis of world literature in “Mapping the World-Ecology: Conjectures on World-Ecological Literature,” 2014; in Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature,  2017, Rebecca Walkowitz suggests there are virtues in the kind of reading that a novel “born translated” implies.)

The politics of identity and ethnicity in visual art is usually critical of “national culture,” but artwork in international contexts is expected to represent its places of origin. Parks’s suggestion that novelists write in a way that is easily translated is a useful way of naming the uniformity in the forms of reference that visual artists employ when they want to be visible in international venues. Complicated, apparently difficult, idiosyncratic, overly demanding references to the local are generally avoided in favor of signs of identity that can be easily assimilated. Perhaps that is the art world’s version of translatability.

In art historical writing there is no such length limitation, but there is a similar tendency toward ease of “translation.” Local contexts and practices are presented in ways that make them comprehensible and engaging for “generalist” readers, or readers outside the author’s specialty. The result can be writing that is curiously easy to digest, even though its subject matter may be very distant from most readers’ experiences. Most major art history journals publish such articles regularly: they “represent” global practices without asking readers to make the effort that would be required to read texts written for other specialists. There may be a parallel here between the carefully curated local detail in such essays and the grit and difficulty of language and words that Tim Parks misses in the “new global novel.”


Yvonne Owuor, Taiye Selasi.

(B) Denials and remnants of nationalism and regionalism

Parks gives several examples of writing that resists the leveling he associates with the desire for international success, including The Great Gatsby, Barbara Pym, Hugo Claus, and Henry Green. (These examples are scattered through Where I’m Reading From.) Such writing embraces “culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity,” but it also tends to speak to “the immediate experience of people” in their “own cultures.” The first criterion is linguistic and the second has to do with subject matter. The first asks authors to avoid simplifying their language, the other asks them to avoid the homogenization of reported experience. This is a doubled argument that also appears in discussions of global art. The issue in both fields, I think, is the concordance or adjudication between these ideals.

In a review of Yvonne Owuor’s novel Dust, the novelist Taiye Selasi praises the author’s lack of “African archetypes” and her independence of “the conventions of interracial romance,” and says the novel is not just for “Afrophiles” (New York Times Book Review, March 2, 2014). She also praises Owuor’s writing in unusual and specific terms:

Owuor’s prose is a physical expression of the landscape it evokes: raw, fragmented, dense, opaque. Beautiful, but brutally so. There’s a sort of lawless power at work in her text, a refreshing break from the clinical reserve so beloved by American M.F.A. programs. The language sweats. It bleeds. Critics may object to the novel’s unapologetic density, or find the characters’ ruminations unfashionably ‘emotional.’

This description will be familiar to readers of eastern and western African novels, and Selasi makes her regional preference clear by the comparison with North American writing programs. It’s difficult not to imagine that the critics she is thinking of are mainly in North America and Europe. In this way Selasi conjures a quality of Dust that may appeal mainly to “Afrophiles” or is at least not the general “bibliophiles” who prefer work that appeals outside its places of origin.

(Given these distinctions it is not irrelevant that the two authors here are black women and the three critics are white men, although the internationalism of the group is not immediately apparent from those identifications—Owuor is Kenyan; Selasi is Nigerian and Ghanaian, born in England and raised in the US; Parks is English, but lives in Italy; Damrosch is American; and Siskind is Argentine.)

        What is helpful here, for the parallel to visual art, is the difference between Selasi’s fully articulated position about how novels might avoid regionalism (for example, by omitting “the conventions of interracial romance”) and her implicit regionalism when it comes to style and voice. The contrast between conceptualized or simplified positions, on the one hand, and embodied, complex positions, on the other, also marks writing on visual art and art history worldwide: some of what makes the art regional or local is identified and analyzed in the texts, and some is generalized or unrepresented. In my reading of Parks’s essays, there is a similar tension between an idea of local or regional tradition, which can’t be defined and relies on examples like Jane Austen; and the idea of nuances, clutter, and local usages, which can be defined but not easily translated.

(C) Quantitative and systematic studies of world literature

There are initiatives in art history to study world art using macroeconomic and financial indicators, to study dissemination and circulation of art using empirical data, and to study art as an effect of Darwinian or neurobiological principles. Those projects are small in comparison to the application of quantitative and systematic analysis to the study of world literature.


Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees; the tree graph of free indirect discourse        

Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2005), for example, leans in part on Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World System (1974; part 3, 1989), which proposes a combined post-disciplinary social science endeavor, aimed at understanding the redistribution of value from the “core” to the “periphery”; it would include national or local identities but its real interest would be the “world system” of modernity, which is global. Franco Moretti’s project combines Wallerstein’s ideas with Darwinian evolutionary theory and visual communications. As Damrosch summarizes it:

In Moretti’s view, the European novel can be mapped as an invasive species, spreading around the world in the wake of colonial and neocolonial political and economic developments, putting down roots in cultures that previously had little history of extended prose fiction, and variously suppressing traditional genres and inspiring new creativity, usually after an initial period of uncertain, derivative composition. [p. 506]

Moretti’s method isn’t quantitative as much as a matter of “deliberate reduction and abstraction” (Moretti, p. 1). One difficulty with such an approach is that it may not make contact with existing ways of understanding the novels he studies. The culminating example in Graphs, Maps, Trees is “free indirect discourse,” a complex term that is central to definitions of literary modernism. (It means, nominally, the practice of reporting and commenting on a character’s speech and thoughts instead of just quoting them.) Moretti traces a history of free indirect discourse using a tree graph inspired by Darwin and Ernst Mayr, but for the subject itself he cites only Ann Banfield’s “classic study” (1982) and older sources such as Bakhtin. His tree graph is divided into “second person / orality / collective” and “first person / thought / individual”—six contentious terms, grouped into two problematic sets. Moretti’s purpose is to reveal “some fundamental principles of cultural history” by “replacing the old, useless distinctions (high and low; canon and archive; this or that national literature…) with new temporal, spatial, and morphological distinctions” (p. 91).

        A possible point of contact with histories of visual arts is Moretti’s interest in avoiding types and genres. As he says, once you replace a “type” such as detective fiction with a tree, “the genre becomes an abstract ‘diversity spectrum.’ (p. 76). The problem in adapting such an approach to the global study of art history is that it omits aesthetic criteria. Significant or “interesting” novels, practices, and types—which crop up throughout Moretti’s work—are discussed in terms of their survival (in a Darwinian or evolutionary sense), their success at defining niche markets, or their place in branching evolutionary trees. The result is counterintuitive for many readers. Ultimately, why study the romantic novel, the detective story, or the history of free indirect discourse, if the point isn’t the individual novel or story? Moretti’s answer has long been that the evolution and differentiation of the romantic novel is inherently more representative of novels than, say, another close reading of Wuthering Heights. The exclusion of close readings (or, in art historical terms, close descriptions, formal analysis, attention to facture, materiality, and other ways of paying attention to the particularities of the artwork) is ultimately an exclusion of the aesthetic moment. On the other hand, systematic studies in art history, including studies of macroeconomic, financial, and “neuroaesthetic” approaches, have contributed many needed corrections to received ideas about genres and practices.

        Moretti’s is only one of several projects to apply social science methods to literary history. Pascale Casanova’s La République mondiale des lettres (1999) also presents a Darwinian model, and is closer at least in that respect to existing studies in global art history such as Julian Stallabrass’s Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (2005), although Casanova’s work has mainly had resonance in literary criticism. (For example Christopher Prendergast, Debating World Literature; and work by Christophe Charle, which is represented in the edited volume Circulations, discussed in chapter 4.) There are many possibilities for links between systematic, sociological, economic, evolutionary approaches to world literature and to world art.

        Within literary criticism, Moretti remains controversial for another reason, which can also be helpful to the study of world art: his mantra of “distant reading”—machine-assisted reading that takes in hundreds or even thousands of novels to find formal similarities—has been resisted by scholars who feel it vitiates “close reading,” the sine qua non of aesthetic appreciation since the New Criticism of the mid-20th c. A forum in the professional journal PMLA in 2017 brought this out very clearly (PMLA 132 no. 3, 2017, 613-89). As Bethany Wiggin wrote, Moretti offered a “pact with the devil”: give up the pleasures of close aesthetic reading for the undiscovered territories of the world novel (682). A “distant reading” brackets out the aesthetic enjoyment of the text in the same way as a sociological, anthropological, or statistical study of world art might do. The benefit is that it becomes possible to see large-scale patterns of development. I will return to this approach, and its limitations, in chapter 10.

(D) The remnants of the canon

David Damrosch’s essay “Frames for World Literature” shows how the early history of writing on world literature focused on Western examples (Damrosch, in Grenzen der Literatur Zu Begriff und Phänomen des Literarischen, 2009). He says the change from histories that exhibit what he calls “great-power emphasis” to histories with more genuine globalism happened after 2000; his own Longman Anthology of World Literature appeared in 2004.

It is interesting to speculate how such a history of histories of world literature might correspond to histories of visual art. In art history I imagine one thing that scholars might want to say is that the idea of a world art history is itself European. This is so, I think, even though histories of world art produced outside western Europe are often illegible or even unrecognizable as plausible histories. I have documented a number in the book Stories of Art (2002).

That aside, art history texts can be said to have been effectively global at an earlier stage: the first edition of the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces (1956) had only Western authors (all but one male), while Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages had non-Western material, of an abbreviated and formalist sort, in its first edition in 1926. Art history has also in large measure avoided the “canon wars” that spread through the other humanities in the 1980s simply by increasing the size of its surveys and textbooks. It takes less time in the classroom to include a painting than a novel, so art historians were able to add to the roster of artists, practices, and cultures, without making hard decisions about whom to exclude. (This is discussed in Stories of Art.)

        Damrosch distinguishes between three “basic paradigms” of world literature: novels “as classics, as masterpieces, and as windows on the world.” He sees the last of those as ascendant since the mid-1990s (p. 503). He points out that in the growing interest in world literature, the “classics” and “masterpieces” have not been ignored in favor of “windows on the world”: no one fails to read Virgil or Shakespeare because they are also reading Toni Morrison. The old system, Damrosch says, was comprised of the canon and a satellite system of “minor authors.” (His examples are Petronius and Suetonius, who served to highlight Virgil and Ovid; and William Hazlitt and Robert Southey, who were “minor authors” in comparison to Wordsworth and Byron.) Damrosch proposes that the current system has three “levels”:

a hyper-canon, a counter-canon, and a shadow canon. The hyper-canon is populated by the older “major” authors who have held their own or even gained ground over the past twenty years. The counter-canon is composed of the subaltern and contestatory voices of writers in less-commonly-taught languages and in minor literatures within great-power languages. [p. 511]

In this system, the real losers are the “minor authors… who fade increasingly into the background, becoming a sort of shadow canon that the older scholarly generation still knows (or, increasingly, remembers fondly from long-ago reading), but whom the younger generations of students and scholars encounter less and less.” The hyper-canon continues to be discussed—there are more books on Kafka and Joyce each year—and smaller countries can find themselves reduced to one author as their hyper-canonical representative. The shadow canon is “figures everyone ‘knows’ (most often just through one or two brief anthology pieces) but who are rarely discussed in print: they served their purposes in postcolonial literary criticism, and are now in danger of being forgotten.” Damrosch names Fadwa Tuqan, Ghalib, and Premchand, and he notes how the hyper-canon pushes authors into the shadow canon: “Alan Paton gives way to Nadine Gordimer, R. K. Narayan is upstaged by Salman Rushdie.”

        This candid if somewhat Darwinian discussion of the economy of authors in world literature might be of interest to global art history studies. Few books have addressed the concept of the canon in art history (an exception is Anna Brzyski’s Partisan Canons, 2007), but it may be time to revisit that apparently vitiated theme. There is certainly a shadow canon in art history, even if the selection and inclusion processes are quite different.

        (E) The globalization of the novel

        Mariano Siskind makes a distinction between the globalization of the novel and the novelization of the global. The latter is “the production of images of the globalized world,” and it produced “dissimilar imaginaries” of the global depending on the authors’ geopolitical situations. (“The Globalization of the Novel and the Novelization of the Global: A Critique of World Literature,” 2010, in World Literature: A Reader, p. 331; and in Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature in Latin America.)

        This might be useful for studies of world art: the parallel would be the globalization of the artwork and the visualization of the global—both familiar phenomena. In Siskind’s account, a “cultural mediation” accounts for the “gap” between the globalization of the novel and the novelization of the global, between “capitalism’s creation of ‘a world after its own image’… through the global expansion of its aesthetic and cultural institutions,” and “local literary reappropriations and reinscriptions” of that process. I wonder, in the art world, how much the globalization of art and visualizations of the global could be seen to differ, except in their iconography (except, that is, for the particular subjects they portray).

        Siskind asks questions directly related to the themes I have been exploring. Is there a difference, he wonders, “between the European novel and the Latin American novel, the Asian novel, the African novel, and so on?” Yes, because it is possible to point to “formal and thematic aspects of individual works” that express the novelization of the global. But no, because it is hard to find “institutional and political” differences in the function of the novel in different places. “In other words,” he concludes, “the world system of novelistic production, consumption, and translation reinforces the dream of a global totality of bourgeois freedom with Hegelian overtones.” (p. 331)

        He says he was initially heartened by Damrosch’s project of world literature in his Longman Anthology of World Literature (second edition, 2008) until he saw the sort of “syllabi, anthologies, and research agendas” that would actually result: they would be the same “romantic ideology,” and the same idea of the “indivisible unity of the nation.” So what would a better kind of pedagogy of world literature look like? Siskind agrees with Moretti that the study of world literature must become the study of world literatures, ideally excluding nothing and therefore incapable of examples that are “isolated because of their supposed capacity to represent… national or regional cultures.” (p. 344) This is “convincing,” but “impractical,” Siskind writes, and he ends by proposing his distinction between the globalization of the novel and the novelization of the global as a way of understanding how the universality of world literature is being made, while also “resisting the temptation to fall back” on “national and regional cultural identities.” (p. 346)

        Another critique of the globalization of the novel appeared in 2013 in the online journal n+1, under the title “World Lite: What is Global Literature?” It argues, informally and in an unsystematic manner, against various kinds of novels currently viable internationally, such as the postwar European novel, exemplified by Houellebecq and including “Perec, Bernhard, Nádas, Nooteboom, Jelinek, Marías, and now Knausgård,” a literature “written by, about, and for literary people who attain a critical mass only at the Frankfurt Book Fair.” Such authors’ “melancholy wanderings among the dead seem a way of shielding the novel’s protagonist, and perhaps the novelist himself, from a contemporary world he can’t face… present day confusions and controversies are neglected or sentimentalized.”

The anonymous editors’ principal target is novelists who have lost their political edge after receiving university appointments. They make this argument about Salman Rushdie, Junot Díaz, Dinaw Mengestu, Michael Ondaatje, and others, indicting a kind of “global formula” that produces books appetizing to the small publics that still consume literature. Díaz, for example, gave up chronicling “down-and-out Dominicans” and wrote a novel about an American academic who is obsessed “with the semiological analysis of comic books and science fiction.” They propose the only good academic novel is DeLillo’s White Noise, which was written by a writer who never taught in a university. Political retrenchment is common: even Naipaul, they say, eventually retired to England after writing The Enigma of Arrival.

        “World Lite” provoked responses by authors eager to point to literatures the editors had overlooked, to show the essay’s Anglophone bias, to argue that not all university novels are bad, or to point out that some professors write about themes other than university life. (See MLYNXQUALEY, “World Literature Certainly Sounds Like a Nice Idea”; and Jennifer Solheim, “n+1’s World Lite: A Hopeful Response.”) The editors then responded, defending their position against claims of Anglophone regionalism, but they did not address deeper issues. (“‘The Rest is Indeed Horseshit,’ Pt. 6, On World Lit #BEEF,” on the n+1 website.) The essay wasn’t meant to stand up to concerted criticism: the editors even posted some of their emails to one another, showing how rapidly they had formulated some of their judgments, such as their opinion that Goethe wasn’t a good novelist. (“Editorial Debates On the ‘World Literature’ Intellectual Situation, Issue 17,”  also on the n+1 website.)

        For the parallel I am pursuing here, it matters that “World Lite” is consistently political in its interests and values. For the editors, political opposition is the sine qua non of viable world literature. They praise work that remains outside the circuit of academic, elite, “international middlebrow” taste. The terms of their approbation closely match the values of postcolonial theory in the visual arts; they support work that finds places and projects of resistance, “opposition,” and “most embarrassingly, truth. They give several examples: Eduard Limonov, Roberto Bolaño—and especially the astonishing 150-page novel-within-a-novel in 2666 about women murdered in a town that is modeled on Juarez—Marie N'Diaye, Elena Ferrante—especially Days of Abandonment—Juan Villoro, Álvaro Enrigue, Yan Lianke, and Pola Oloixarac. These are roughly the equivalents of politically active visual art from Haacke to Ra’ad and the Yes Men, and to the art historians and visual studies writers who privilege such work, from the group around The Anti-Aesthetic to contemporary writers like Nicholas Mirzoeff.

This political reading of world literature faces the same difficulties as the socio-economic readings of art history and theory influenced by postcolonial theory: that is, it begs the question of why literature is what’s at issue. Form, style, voice, quality, rhetoric, and writing in general may only be mentioned only in passing. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, for example, is praised for using “metafictional techniques of postmodernism to address the theme of migration,” but that doesn’t clarify why it was politically efficacious to mix postmodern writing with themes of hybridity. Is it just that the divided and multiple forms and voices of postmodern metafiction resemble the forms of contemporary diasporas, hybridities, and migrations? If so, that would be an observation, not a justification, and it would still leave unsaid why the optimal vehicle is fiction and not postmodern theory.

At the end of their response, the n+1 editors mention Michael Ondaatje as an example of a bad writer: it’s the only discussion of style in the response, and it’s just an assertion of Ondaatje’s bad writing, reminiscent of the way that connoisseurs used to assert quality without argument. Such brief, unsupported mentions of writing quality make it difficult to see why the globalization of the novel, in particular, should be any greater concern than the globalization of any cultural product that carries political meaning.

        These are glimpses of the larger literature on the globalization of the novel. In different ways each raises the question of how best to write about a practice—the “global novel”—that is becoming increasingly uniform even while it continues to claim to be an authentic vehicle of the local and particular.

When Lezra ponders the sense of teaching Comparative Literature at NYU–Abu Dhabi, he is interested in what it would mean to teach what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world”—provided, Lezra says, such a thing even exists anymore, and if it exists, if it is accessible, and if it is accessible, if it is teachable, and if it is teachable, if “its teaching is desirable.” In this exceptionally thoughtful account the voice, critical terms, and issues remain faithfully American. There is no mention, for example, of the possibility that engaging Arabic-language literary-critical traditions might be pertinent or compatible. The Abu Dhabi campus has students from roughly 100 countries, and only 15% or so are Emirati students, so it poses an especially complex case for questions like Lezra’s. (Lezra, “The Futures of Comparative Literature,” 2012, p. 83.)

Concluding remarks

        From these four case studies I draw two pessimistic conclusions. First: the fields most closely related to art history—art criticism, art theory, and art instruction—remain largely silent on the question of their increasing uniformity worldwide. Of the three examples I’ve discussed here, the most concerning is art theory, which urgently needs to find a way to address its ongoing working assumption that European, and specifically French, theory is optimal to interpret all the world’s art. Second: studies of the global novel suggest that it is possible to make headway on the question of art history’s uniformity, but possibly only by omitting aesthetic criteria and relying on statistical, quantitative, or sociological data. Studies of the novel also show how it can be possible for an artistic practice to continue to claim its fidelity to the local even while it tends toward an easy translatability. 

The study of the global novel is one of several parallels that might be brought to bear on the problem of global art history. Anthropology has long pondered its global uniformity, and so has musicology, and there are also studies of worldwide practices in sociology. (For example Sujata Patel’s “Afterword: Doing Global Sociology: Issues, Problems and Challenges,” Current Sociology, online, March 19, 2014.) There is also at least one study on the global spread of art journalism, Ruth Skilbeck’s “Art journalism and the Impact of ‘Globalisation’: New Fugal Modalities of Storytelling in Austral-Asian Writing.” (Pacific Journalism Review 18, 2008, pp. 141–61.)

        If these comparative studies were to be multiplied, I imagine it would be difficult to avoid becoming depressed about the increasing worldwide uniformity of the arts and humanities. This is so despite the current focus on local art, customs, beliefs, concepts, languages, and other traits of culture, because at the same time scholars think about those things, they write in an increasingly uniform manner within each discipline. In the absence of evidence to the contrary it appears that the arts and humanities are headed toward a remarkable global uniformity, supported by an intensifying rhetoric about the local.