The Impending Single History of Art:
North Atlantic Art History and Its Alternatives
Table of Contents
1 The Conditions Under Which Global Art History Is Studied 13
2 Leading Terms: Master Narrative, Western, Central, Peripheral, North Atlantic 39
3 Are Art Criticism, Art Theory, Art Instruction,
and the Novel Global Phenomena? 65
4 How to Read Art Since 1900
5 Pondering a Response to Art Since 1900
6 State of the Field: Six Current Strategies
7 Reasons Why Escape is Not Possible
8 Finding Terms and Methods for Art History
9 Writing about Modernist Painting Outside Western Europe and North America
10 Two Modes of Judgment: Forgiving and Demanding
11 The Most Difficult Problem for Global Art History
This is a book about the ways people write about the history of modern and contemporary art in different parts of the world. From the vast art world and art market, I want to look just at the writing about art; and within art writing I want to consider only texts that are concerned with modern and contemporary art history; and within those texts, I am mainly interested not in what is said about art but how it is said. This may appear to be a specialized subject, but to adapt William Gass’s phrase, I think it is the heart of the heart of the matter for understanding the impending globalization of art.
The subject variously called “global art history” or “world art history” has become a concern in art history departments worldwide. Sometimes it focuses on the practices of art worldwide: how they differ from one region or nation to the next, whether they are becoming more uniform in the age of international curation, how cultural practices disseminate and produce new combinations. But “global art history” or “world art history” have always also been about how such practices are interpreted—how art history is written—and that is my subject in this book.
The question of how to write art history is at a crucial point: it is recognized as a central part of the discipline of art history, but discussions of how art history is written around the world still rely on incomplete, local, and even anecdotal evidence. The study of the writing of world art history—again, in distinction to the study of how art has been practiced around the world—seems at once indispensable in an age of increasing globalization, and also optional, something that might be added to a student’s curriculum or a scholar’s itinerary.
I think that the increasing worldwide uniformity of scholarly and critical writing on art is the single most important problem in the field of art history, and I think we need to consider it first, even before we write on our various specializations. Paying attention to the how of writing—our theories, narratives, and points of reference—is crucial for judging whether or not our thinking about the history, theory, and criticism of modern and postmodern art are becoming uniform worldwide. There is a great deal of attention paid to global and national art, to competing accounts of modernism, and to the contemporary. All that can obscure the fact that the talk itself—the way we use theories, the theories we choose, the ways we discuss modern and contemporary art, in short the how of art history—is widely taken as given, as an unproblematic lingua franca. For example there is a fair amount of scholarship on Gutai and other postwar movements in Japan, and in that scholarship there is ongoing discussion of which moments in Japanese postmodernism are most important, which have been misrepresented, and which have yet to be adequately described. But the literature that debates those questions is itself written in a very uniform manner: the style of the writing, the theorists who are brought to bear, the scholarly apparatus, the publishers are all in what I will be calling a standard North Atlantic idiom. Cultural difference, hybridity, translation, misrecognition, and the circulation of ideas are very much at issue, but the manner of the writing is remarkably uniform.
Talk about modern and contemporary art is at risk of being flattened into a homogeneous world discourse, despite the fact that scholars continue to emphasize the importance of the local and the diversity provided by mixtures of national, transnational, and regional practices. The impending single history of art will be very sensitive to difference, but unless it also reflects on its own lack of diversity, national and regional variations in art historical writing may become extinct. This book is an attempt to slow that unfortunate tendency.
I have three purposes in mind with this book: first, to set out what I think are the principal conceptual issues in the worldwide practices of art history, theory, and criticism; second, to describe the uniform practice I will be calling North Atlantic art history; and third, to propose a new source of diversity in art writing, one I have not yet seen in the literature.
The field of writing on worldwide practices of art history, theory, and criticism is chaotic, full of incommensurable viewpoints. Chapters 1 and 2 set out a dozen or so of the most pressing issues. Global art history is an unusual kind of subject, because it is geographically and economically dispersed. Chapter 1 considers some of the conditions under which it is studied, including questions of funding, access to books and artworks, and the crucial fact that English is the de facto language of world art history. Global art history depends on unstable terms, including “Western” “non-Western,” “Euramerican,” “North American,” “Eurocentric,” “global,” “local,” “glocal,” “international,” “central,” “marginal,” “peripheral,” “regional,” “provincial,” and “parochial”; these are introduced in chapter 2. Issues like these cannot be definitively resolved; the purpose of chapter 1 is to acknowledge the institutional, economic, and political limitations of the study itself, and my aim in chapter 2 is to sketch usable meanings of some of the principal concepts for the purposes of the arguments in this book.
I will present a case that certain habits and expectations of scholarship have effectively captured the world’s major academic institutions, so that there are few alternatives to the canonical readings of artists and artworks, the expected forms of explanation, narrative, and scholarship. The sum total of those habits, theories, valuations, and narratives comprise the norm in art history departments in places like Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Harvard, the Courtauld, Leeds, Sussex, Berkeley, or the University of Chicago. I call that set of practices, with many qualifications, North Atlantic art history. I do so because the usual ways of specifying the kind of art history I have in mind are either too biographical (so that this sense of art history is associated with Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Michael Fried, Griselda Pollock, and several dozen others), too institutionally specific (so that it is said to be found in The Art Bulletin, Art History, October, and a dozen major US and EU university presses), or too vague (for example “Eurocentric” art history or “Western” art history). Rhetorically the commonest position is to deny the existence or the influence of what gets called, I think reductively and inaccurately, “the October model,” but I think the consequence of avoiding a reasonable working definition is an inability to effectively articulate kinds and practices of art history. We are left with the choice of multiplying art historical practices to the point where each art historian would embody his or her own practice, or gathering practices to the point where regional or national differences can no longer be discerned. That is why I have opted, somewhat reluctantly, for the expression “North Atlantic art history,” which I will develop in chapter 2. It is intended to be historically, politically, and geographically delimited, so that it can intervene between the October model, which is both overly precise and elusive, and the notion of a “Eurocentric” or “Western” art history, which is vague and not analytically useful.
The principal reason to risk a neologism like “North Atlantic art history” is to show that there is, in fact, an uncodified consensus in the way art history should be written. There is dwindling diversity in art history and related fields, because the North Atlantic model attracts concerted emulation in virtually every center of art history in the world. Like global capitalism, it is spreading everywhere, and attempts to keep minor practices alive have not usually been viable. Chapter 3 explores analogous trends toward global homogeneity in the cases of art criticism, art theory, and art instruction: my sense of those fields is that they, too, are becoming less diverse.
I also want to be able to argue that there is no undiscovered continent of art historical writing that is outside this paradigm. It is often assumed that art history, theory, and criticism worldwide comprise a set of diverse, mutually intelligible languages. I do not think that is the case. There are no “non-Western,” “undiscovered,” local, national, or regional ways of writing art’s history that can join their voices to North Atlantic practices and form a diverse community of ways of writing art’s history. In other words, it isn’t likely that North Atlantic art history will be saved from homogeneity by the voices of other traditions. There is an idea, held by some scholars in Europe and the Americas who specialize in the art of those regions, that there are traditions or styles of art historical writing elsewhere in the world, and that Euramerican scholars need only acknowledge them in order to ensure art history’s diversity. I do not think this is so: the age of discovery is over, and scholars who identify themselves as art historians look—whether critically or in emulation—to a small number of institutions and scholars in western Europe and the US.
In my experience most academics in the major institutions in western Europe and North America say they are independent of the influence of the journal October and the various scholars and concerns associated with it. I will be arguing that isn’t the case. Even the most experimental contemporary art history, which appears least concerned with the interests of the previous generations of art historians, remains dependent on the model it ostensibly rejects. This dependence is ongoing and commonly unacknowledged, largely because the dependence is deeper and more general than it seems if October is associated only with a couple of scholars and a small number of generative papers.
What follows from this is that a relatively small number of scholars, universities, journals, publishers, and books continue to provide the model for the world’s art history. The most important agent in the international spread of North Atlantic art history is not any individual person or institution but a textbook: Art Since 1900. Even in its expanded second edition, this book has virtually no time for modernisms outside the North Atlantic, and even though its subtitle proclaims that its scope includes Modernism, Antimodernism, and Postmodernism, it gives little space to Soviet and National Socialist antimodernisms, and none to the many belated and provincial practices that are tacitly antimodern, and which comprise the majority of art produced worldwide.
In a way this entire book is the unexpected outcome of an effort I made, together with three colleagues, to write a book that might serve as an alternative to Art Since 1900 and project a different sense of the 20th century to students around the world. That project failed for various reasons, and the result is this book; I will explore these issues in chapters 4 and 5.
It’s likely that in the next couple of decades the number of art historians, theorists, and critics who engage world art writing practices will increase, and the subject of global art history (under various names) will become more common in departments worldwide. At the same time I think the practices of art writing will become more homogeneous. As this happens it may be particularly tempting to identify local or national art practices with differences in art history, theory, or criticism. Yet as different as local and national practices can be, they do not produce or represent differences in the ways art history is written.
That brings me to this book’s third contribution, a problem I think has so far gone unnoticed. Some scholars hope that there are undiscovered or lesser-known practices of art writing that comprise art history’s real diversity. Others emphasize the necessity of being attentive to individual practices of art, to local languages and forms of production. Still others focus on hybrid and transnational art, or on postcolonial or decolonial contexts. There are a number of such strategies to increase art history’s attention to the fine grain of individual practices. I do not think any of them have succeeded in working against art history’s impending uniformity. From my point of view, art history’s real diversity is hiding in an unexpected place: it can be found in the many small inequalities between art historical practices of writing in different places. By “small inequalities” I mean discrepancies between different authors’ engagement with the literature, their uses of theory, their knowledge of translations, their differing styles of argument, their senses of proper reference, their writing tone, or their use of archives.
Each place art history is practiced varies slightly, in these “small” ways. What counts as a proper conversational opening to an essay in one place may seem too informal in another. What counts as a useful review of the critical literature in one place will seem overly contentious in another. What counts as an adequate engagement with the secondary literature in one country may seem insufficient in another. What seems to be an interesting use of a theorist in one institution may seem misinformed in another. These differences are the sorts of things that instructors correct in their students’ papers, and that editors notice when they read submissions to journals. Correction of such differences comprise the everyday business of teaching and publishing art history everywhere.
These small discrepancies, I believe, actually are the remaining diversity in worldwide practices of art history. They are the forms of cultural distance that we have left to us. My last claim in this book is that we need to start paying attention to these apparently practical, minor, contextual deficiencies, absences, infelicities, solecisms, and awkwardnesses, because they are the precious remnants of cultural variety when it comes to art history, theory, and criticism. This argument is made in the final chapter.
And last: this book is also my last contribution to the field of art history. Partly that is because this book says everything I want to say, and partly it is because I am moving into the study of writing itself, apart from its function in the description of art.
I started as an art historian, but I found myself less engaged in producing new interpretations or making new discoveries than in understanding what has counted as persuasive or compelling interpretation. At some point my practice moved from art history (the study of artworks) into the study of art history (historiography, or art theory). It became clear to me that art history is limited unless it considers its own medium of writing, because writing creates the conditions for sense and meaning. And although it took me a long time to realize it, I am hardly the first to conclude that disciplines are only tenuously aware of the writing that supposedly serves them so efficiently.
The book’s Envoi sets out the reasons why it might be fruitful for art history, theory, and criticism to turn their attention inward, to the writing itself. Without an entirely rethought sense of writing, there are limits to what an analysis of globalization in art writing can accomplish.
This short book is the result of a large amount of traveling. Since 2000, I have visited approximately 50 countries, looking at how art and art history are taught. Some years I traveled almost every week; in 2012 for example, I visited 18 countries, not including repeat visits to 5 and about 20 trips within the United States. My total, as of this writing, is 76 countries. Some international curators, collectors, and artists travel much more; but scholars, critics, and philosophers of art tend to depend on conferences and fellowships for their knowledge of global practices. The result is a disparity between curators’ and artists’ accounts of the international art world and art market, on the one hand, and academic descriptions of worldwide practices of art history, criticism, and theory, on the other. I hope the observations I have gathered in this book can be useful for those who are developing their own sense of what writing about art might be in different parts of the world.
My largest debt is to the many people who taught me something about their country’s institutions, and patiently explained how their sense of art history, theory, and criticism differed from mine. The following list is only a sample. I hope I am not insulting the many other people whose names are for one reason or another not included this listing.
In Bogotá, Colombia: Patricia Zalamea Fajardo, Lina Espinosa, Claudia Montilla, and Carolina Franco. In Lisbon, Portugal: Mariana Pinto dos Santos and Joana Cunha Leal. In Lhasa: Pema Yangchen, Wangmo, Tseden Namgyal, Tsarong Dhundrub, and (for travel advice) Leigh Miller and Rob Linrothe; In Hangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai: Fan Xiaoming, Cao Yiqiang, Gu Ling, Qigu Jiang, Yubing Shen, and Ding Ning. In Nanjing: Chang Nincheng. In Plovdiv, Bulgaria: Zhivka Valiavicharska and Anastas “the Culture.” In Helsinki, Finland: Minna Törmä and Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse. In Mumbai: Jyotsna Joshi, Amrita Gupta, and K. Sridhar. In Delhi: Seetha Venkataraman, Jyotindra Jain, O.P. Jain, Roobina Karode, and Vivan Sundaram. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Muzaffar Tursunov, Natalya Mussina, Negora Akhmedova, Bakhodir Jallalor (Jalal), Faizulla Akhmadaliev, and Kochi Okada. In Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic: Gulzhan Ybysheva, Almash Naizabekova, Rifkat Bukharmetov, Gulchehra Toktosunova, and especially Jamby Djusubalieva. In Almaty, Kazakhstan: Baitursun Umorbekov, Richard Spooner, Amandos Akanayev, and Abdrashit Sydykhanov. In Moscow: Victoria Musvic and Elena Khlopina. In Kampala, Uganda: Venny Nakazibwe. In Sofia, Bulgaria: Zhivka Valiavicharska, Kamen Balkanski, Iaroslava Boubnova, Luchezar Boyadjiev, and Diana Popova. In Cape Town: Pippa Skotnes, Fritha Langerman, Andrew Lamprecht, and Stephen Inggs. In Budapest and Eger, Hungary: Miklós Peternák, András Zwickl, Krisztina Szipőcs, and Melinda Szakóly. In Tallinn and Tartu, Estonia: Peeter Linapp and Heie Treier. In Valletta, Malta: Raphael Vella, Theresa Vella, and Dennis Vella (none of them related). In Bucharest, Romania: Horea Avram, Ion and Teodora Stendl, Marilena Preda-Sanc, the Uniunea Artistilor Plastici din Romania, Adriana and Liviu Crainic, and Ioana Vlasiu. In Prague: Ludvik Hlavácek, Katerina Pavlíčková, Lenka Bydzovská, Vojtech Lahoda, Petr Wittlich, and Tomaš Vlček. In Skopje, Macedonia: Vladimir Janchevski and Safet Ahmeti. In Kyoto: Shigehisa Kuriyama, Shigemi Inaga, and John Teramoto. In Tokyo: Mina Ando, Jung-Yeon Ma, Hoshina Toyomi, Omuka Toshiharu, and Michio Hayashi. In Tromsø, Norway: Svein Aamold. In Singapore: Jeffrey Say, Ian Woo, Kwok Kian Chow, Lee Weng Choy, and Joan Kelly. In Coimbra, Portugal: António Olaio, Joana Cunha Leal, and Filomena Molder. In Tbilisi, Georgia: Mariam Didebulidze and Anna Mgalobeli. In Iceland: Einar Garibaldi Eiriksson (for the many invitations), Hjálmar Ragnarsson, Ólöf Gerður Sigfúsdóttir, and Hulda Stefánsdóttir. In Kumasi, Ghana: George Intsiful and Ato deGraft-Johnson. In Mexico City: Pablo Helguera, Laura María González Flores, and Tobias Ostrander. In Puebla, Mexico: Xavier Recio Oviedo, Karen Cordero Reiman, and Luis Xavier Cuesta Hernandez. In Buenos Aires, Argentina: María Lía Munilla Lacasa, Maria Costantini de Silva, Alejandra Aguado, Jorgelina Orfila, María José Herrera, Laura Buccellato, Silvia Marrube, Américo Castilla, Daniel Maman, Cecilia Caballero, Diana Saiegh, Riccardo Coppa, Marina Pellegrini, Malena Castelo, Teresa Riccardi, and Valeria Fiterman. In Monterrey, Mexico: Julio César Rodríguez-Cuervo. In Stockholm, Sweden: Charlotte Bydler, Hans Hayden, and Mårten Snickare. In Kraków and Poznań, Poland: Mariusz Bryl and Andrzej Szczerski. In São Paulo, Brazil: João Grijó (1949-2003), a wonderful observer of the Brazilian scene. In Asunción, Paraguay: Olga Blinder and Meme Perasso. In Montevideo, Uruguay: Fernando Martinez Agustoni, Luis Fernando Gadea Pinienta, Anhelo Hernández, Miguel Angel Guerra. In Santiago, Chile: Margarita Schultz, Daniela Rosenfeld Grossman, Milan Ivelic. In Tartu and Tallinn, Estonia: Heie Treier and Peeter Linnap. In Vienna, Austria: Friedrich Teja Bach, Manuela Ammer, Heike Eipeldauer, Elisabeth Fritz, Agnes Hannes, Rolf Wienkötter, and Wolfram Pichler. In Oslo, Norway: Torild Gjesvik. In Ljubljana, Slovenia: Tugo Šušnik, Zdenka Baldovinac, Adela Zeleznik, Tomaž Brejc, and Nadja Zgonik. In Bratislava, Slovakia: Ján Bakoš, Mária Oriškova, Katarina Benova, and Richard Gregor. Thanks also to Juan Carlos, for information on contemporary painters in Papua New Guinea; to Leua Latai, for introducing me to Samoan painting; and to Bohdan Gorczynski, for help with Polish painting.
There are many others, in each city, who helped make arrangements, recommended people for me to contact, and even offered their houses to me before we had met—many more people than I can thank here. Most of the travel for this book was arranged by writing letters to people I had never met, and proposing lectures in return for accommodation, tours, and introductions. I was offered extraordinary hospitality in almost every country; many times people gave up days of their own time to introduce me to their country’s universities, academies, and art. Part of the joy of this book has been discovering that the supposedly Greek virtue of hospitality is a worldwide phenomenon.
Chapters 2, 3, 5, 8, and 9 were written online, live: I embedded sketches for chapters live on my website, and then I announced them on social media, so that people could comment as the chapters were being written. The idea was to resist the temptation to write more-or-less finished drafts, and to acknowledge the open-endedness of the subject by inviting criticism at all stages. I benefited tremendously from the comments on the website and on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Academia, and I have acknowledged everyone who contributed.
Parts of chapters 2 and 6 were half-written before Cathérine Dossin and Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel asked me to write an afterword to Circulations, the first book produced by their research group called Artl@s. The first half of chapter 6 abstracts the principal issues from the afterword to their book. The second half of chapter 6 is rewritten from another source, Art and Globalization, co-edited with Zhivka Valiavicharska and Alice Kim, vol. 1 of The Stone Art Theory Seminars (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2010).
Part of chapter 7, beginning “The comparison of historical perspectives…” is rearranged from the conclusion of Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, with an introduction by Jennifer Purtle (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010). Several pages of chapter 8 have appeared, augmented by a dialogue, in “The Homonymic Curtain,” co-authored with Richard Gregor, Umeni (Prague) 63 no. 3 (2015): 150-55.
An unpolished version of chapter 9 appeared as “Writing About Modernist Painting Outside Western Europe and North America,” in Compression Versus Expansion: Containing the World’s Art, edited by John Onians (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 188-214; then a revision was published online as “Writing About Modernist Painting Outside Western Europe and North America,” Transcultural Studies [Heidelberg University], 1 no. 1 (10 Nov 2010; tinyurl.com/k5nrg5g); the version here is more fully argued.
Chapter 10 appeared, in draft form, as “Two Forms of Judgement: Forgiving and Demanding (The Case of Marine Painting),” in Journal of Visual Art Practice 3 no. 1 (2004): 37–46.
The Conditions Under Which Global Art History Is Studied
The ways art history is written around the world is an unusual subject, in part because it is a study of writing, and not art, and in part because it is unusually scattered and difficult to access (in the sense that it exists in dozens of languages). Hence my reason for starting with some observations that bear on how such a subject can be studied, the people who study it, and the limitations of the study. The economics of poorer and more isolated universities constraint art history, and it is a crucial part of the study of global practices of art history—but it needs to be considered along with the complementary problem of the economic positions of the people who can afford to travel widely. This is a kind of Heisenbergian problem, in that the economics of privilege that permits some scholars to travel widely, is both affected by the conditions in economically and politically constrained institutions, and also affects those conditions.
The last of the topics in this chapter—the fact that English is the language of art history worldwide—is especially vexed, because while it is in many ways unfortunate that any one language dominates the worldwide conversations on art history, it is just as important to study the fact that relatively few scholars are fluent in reading, writing, and speaking English, and those three skills determine how professionally mobile art historians can be.
These are not the sort of problems that have solutions, but the kind that define some of the conditions under which the larger subject of this book can be studied.
1. Should the study of worldwide practices of art history
be a concern of art history in general?
How is the study of global art history related to art history’s traditional topics—its specialties, such a Roman or Japanese art, or its methods, such as iconography or semiotics? Is it a subject principally for scholars who write on broad geographic areas, or is it also pertinent for specialists whose subject matter is focused on local or regional practices? Should it concern scholars who do not actively engage “theory”? Is it properly part of the historiography of the discipline, and therefore mainly a matter of interest to those concerned with the discipline’s history? Or is it a framing question for the entire discipline, which can also shape the study of historiography itself?
The reasons these questions do not have clear answers, I think, is that the study of world art history as it is currently constituted is itself relatively new, so it lacks a recognized, organic relation to the discipline of art history. I suspect that in the next few decades, the study of worldwide practices of writing about art will come to appear as a subject that includes particular practices of art history as special cases. If it becomes possible to characterize regional or national ways of writing art history, then it may seem appropriate to study them along with the art of different regions or nations.
If that happens, then local, regional, and national art practices will come to be seen as determined by the local, regional, or national practices of art history that are used to describe them, and global art history will be a subject that is different in kind from either the project of writing about a given specific practice of art, or the project of writing a history of art history.
This is of course just a guess. But it seems clear that questions like the ones I posed in the first paragraph are not “well formed” in the logical sense of that expression, because they can’t be adequately answered until we have a clearer idea of the history and place of the study of world art history.
2. World art history, global art history, and their mixtures
Most discussion about the expressions “global art history” and “world art history” has to do with the difference between the study of the contemporary art world, on the one hand, and the project, which originated in 19th century Germany, to study all of the world’s art. The best way of naming this difference, I think, is Wilfried Van Damme’s adaptation of Bruce Mazlish’s distinction between “global history” and “world history.” “Global art history” is then the study of the recent and contemporary worldwide dissemination of art, and “world art history” is the study of all artifacts produced in any culture from prehistory to the present. (Van Damme, “Art History in a Global Frame: World Art Studies,” in Mazlish, “An Introduction to Global History,” in Conceptualizing Global History, 1993.)
A root-level confusion, however, stems from the simple fact that the expression “the study of art history” usually means the study of the objects of art history, but grammatically the expression indicates the study of something called “art history,” which is an academic discipline. Both “world art history” and “global art history” share this grammatical ambiguity between the study of the objects, periods, practices, and cultures, on the one hand, and the study of the academic discipline or discourse that articulates that study, on the other. In the sentence at the end of §1 I wrote “the study of world art history.” To some readers, that will sound like the study of the art of Egypt, the Maya, or the Ife. To others, it will sound like the study of figures like Hegel, Alois Riegl, or David Summers.
The confusion is therefore double: between “global” and “world,” and between the study of art’s history and the study of art history. This produces four possibilities:
(A) The study of world art history. From the inception of Kunstgeschichte in Germany in the mid-19th century (one of several contested points of origin for the discipline of art history, a subject I am avoiding here) there has been interest in the possibility of a “universal” art history. From Karl Woermann’s Geschichte der Kunst aller Zeiten und Völker (three volumes, 1900–05) through the mid-20th century, including scholars such as Alois Riegl, universal or world art history was a matter of locating principles, themes, and common patterns in the evolution of art. More recent synoptic studies of world art, such as David Summers’s Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (2001) have gone in new directions, but kept to the central purpose of understanding "world art" as a coherent phenomenon.
(B) The study of global art history. Following Mazlish, this expression—and some others, such as “globalization in art history” and the “globalization of art”—normally denotes the study of the art market and the art world in the age of increasing international exchange and “biennale culture.” Exemplary texts on this subject might include John Clark’s “The Worlding of the Asian Modern” (Contemporary Asian Art and Exhibitions, edited by Michelle Antoinette and Caroline Turner, pp. 67-88), T.J. Demos’s Return to the Postcolony: Spectres of Colonialism in Contemporary Art (2013), Caroline Jones’s The Global Work of Art: World's Fairs, Biennials, and the Aesthetics of Experience, or Julian Stallabrass’s Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (2004).
(C) The study of the writing of world art history. This is typically the study of the history of writing on world art history. In art history, such study is known as historiography, the history of the discipline. Examples include historiographic studies of world art histories by Matthew Rampley, Jan Bakoš, Richard Woodfield, and others. It seems possible that art history, as a discipline, is turning increasingly in the direction of the study of its own history: in my experience, it has become more common to encounter PhD dissertations that take episodes in the history of the discipline as their subject, including the the development of world art history. Thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Rampley, Bakoš, and Woodfield, the history of world art history is much better known now than it was in the mid-20th century when such histories were more commonly produced.
(D) The study of the writing of global art history. This is less common than the study of the writing of world art history, presumably because writing about global art history is itself relatively new. I do not know any books, including the ones I have edited such as Art and Globalization (2010)—which was intended to be about the writing of global art history—that keep to the subject of writing and don’t stray into the subject of the history of the globalization of art itself. In forums on global art history, the writing itself is normally taken as transparent in the sense that it is not problematic. Artists’ practices, institutions, and theories are under discussion, but texts written by scholars, which report on those practices, institutions, and theories, tend to be treated as source material.
I would like to propose that the studies of writing about art (topics C and D) are separable from studies of the history of art itself (topics A and B). Writing done on the subjects I have labeled (A) and (B) is about artworks and artists; writing on the subjects (C) and (D) is about texts written by art historians.
Yet given these four nearly synonymous practices, it is no wonder so many contributions end up arguing in several different directions at once. In the book Is Art History Global? (2006), my own interest, along with Andrea Giunta and some other participants, was in topic (D): I had intended to explore the ways that art history varies in different parts of the world, and that would include histories of those variants. Other participants, including Summers, were more interested in what I have labeled (A): they wanted to find viable ways of writing about world art history, and they were minimally engaged in looking at practices of writing about world art history.
In the book Art and Globalization all four topics are woven together. Some of the participants, for example Susan Buck-Morss, were interested in the globalization of art (B), while others, including Michael Holly, Keith Moxey, and Shigemi Inaga, were more concerned with the possible globalization of art history (D). Occasionally we also talked about books like David Summers’s, and at those moments our conversation was also an example of (C), talk about the ways art history has accounted for world art. Several of the contributors to the book were more interested in the possibility of writing world art histories, so their contributions would be examples of (A). Often, in that book, it isn’t entirely clear which subject the participants are exploring. Arguments are made about global art without taking into account modes of writing about the art, and arguments are made about writing histories of art, but using art practices, rather than writing, as evidence. (For example, the many discussions about how to structure introductory art history textbooks tend to pivot on which cultures and ideas need to be included, rather than on the practices of scholarship that made those cultures or artists available to begin with.) There are some very difficult passages in both Art and Globalization and Is Art History Global?, because participants make assumptions about the transparency or unproblematic nature of the writing in order to make claims about the history of the art, or, conversely, they assume unproblematic access to the pertinent properties of the art in order to make claims about the history of writing on art practices. (The long history of the awareness that a text isn’t transparent, which goes back before poststructuralism to New Criticism, appears in art history as a set of practices, methods, and interests directed at artworks and art practices. It’s a constitutive paradox that art historians who are at home with poststructural critique tend not to picture their own texts as productive objects of that critique. Where, for example, are there literary critical accounts of art historical texts?)
This issue isn’t confined to these two books: it appears in books such as World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches, edited by Wilfried van Damme and Kitty Zijlmans (2008), and Elaine O’Brien’s edited volume Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America: An Introduction to Global Modernisms (2012), which are mainly about the globalization of art (B) but also, intermittently and seamlessly, about the writing about global art (D).
When this mixture of subjects is not thematized, it can come to seem as if there is no good reason to try to separate them. Yet the study of world art certainly relies on different examples, and raises different problems, than the study of recent and contemporary global art. I hope that by watching for these differences it may be possible to clarify some claims about art, by showing that they are in effect addressed to art writing.
3. Studies of worldwide art history are still mainly written by “older white men”
David Carrier made this remark at a meeting of the College Art Association in February 2011. I co-chaired that session with Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann; our panelists also included Iftikhar Dadi and Michael Ann Holly. At least two of those aren’t “older white men,” but Carrier’s point was not inaccurate. A panel discussion on the subject of global art history at the University of Illinois, Chicago, in February 2013 included Mark Jarzombek, Terry Smith, and Victor Margolin; it was moderated by Esra Akcan. Aside from Akcan, the panelists were white men with white hair. “Older white men” describes a fair percentage of the scholars who write on worldwide practices of art history. (When I arrived in a workshop in Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, one of the faculty said, “Oh, that’s a relief, at least you don’t have white hair too. I would have had a hard time relating to you.”) Carrier’s remark was offhanded, but there are at least three ways to turn it into a serious issue.
First, as he himself noted, studying worldwide practices of art history requires extensive traveling, and that is something that takes time. So by the nature of the problem, people who write the most on the subject tend to be older scholars. The historiographer Matthew Rampley, who has made a comprehensive study of European art history, is an example of a scholar who has wide experience within Europe. A half century ago, the models of internationalism in art history included Jan Białostocki (1921-1988) and Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968). (See Białostocki’s estimation of Panofsky in Simiolus, 1970.) In the intervening half-century since Panofsky’s death it has become possible to travel much more, but the means and opportunity are not always present.
Second, traveling is a privileged activity even in the age of global contemporary art. Most people who have access to traveling on that scale are from western Europe and North America. I am acutely aware of this myself. I travel on average almost once a week, but the number of countries I’ve visited is growing very slowly because most of the world’s remaining 125 or so countries do not have art historians, art history departments, or even universities. In order to continue to visit places with limited practices of art history, I need to raise money; I fund those trips using speaker’s fees I charge when I go to places in the United States. For this it helps to be based in North America. The EU does not have the custom of paying speakers more than €1,000; but in the United States even smaller state schools can often afford to pay speakers $2,500 or $3,000. I use that money to fund visits to countries like Ghana, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Paraguay, and Belarus that either have limited funds for speakers, or (as in the case of Iran) have political or institutional barriers that limit the number of international scholars. I think of this as a practical matter, but it is also an obligation: people who can travel should. Otherwise the world is whatever comes to me, in the form of international panelists at conferences, or people who apply for fellowships or lectures at my institution. A number of academics at the larger North American institutions, for example, tend to judge the world of art history outside their specialty by the people who visit their institutions. But a scholar working in her context, in her city and her institution, surrounded by her colleagues and students, is a very different person from that same scholar in an antiseptic hotel conference room in North America. (Academics are sensitive to differences of gender and ethnicity, but that sensitivity is a very different thing from the sometimes overwhelming experience of those same differences when they occur in situ: sensitivity does not substitute for experience.)
Third, the “older white men” tend not to be critical of one another. This is mostly by choice: you’re less likely to write a critical account of someone you will probably see every year, or several times a year, in public venues. The people who have been most active in the 21st century theorizing world art history—say Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg, Terry Smith, Andreas Huyssen, Whitney Davis, Caroline Jones, Kitty Zijlmans, David Carrier, Parul Mukherjee, John Onians, Michael Ann Holly, Keith Moxey, Timotheus Vermeulen, Susan Buck-Morss, several dozen others—have rarely engaged one another's’ work in an extended manner. (There are counterexamples: Whitney Davis has elaborated a trenchant critique of David Summers’s Real Spaces; Mieke Bal has critiqued a number of writers; and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann has been critical of my work—more on that in chapter 4.) This sort of collegiality is common enough in the humanities, even if it’s rare in the sciences, but it can prevent productive development of a contentious field by making it appear that everyone is engaged in a cooperative venture. In fact some accounts are radically at odds with others.
Of these three issues, I think the most serious might be the second. Institutions with a lot of funding (Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, University of Chicago, and a dozen others) often host international scholars. The senior scholars in such institutions tend to rely on their experiences at such events to give them a picture of art historical practices worldwide. The international scholars who end up at major universities tend to be very well versed in the interests and expectations of those universities, producing a misleading sense of the quality and homogeneity of art history worldwide. The same can be said of scholars who research the global art market: smaller institutions and countries that don’t participate in that market tend to be invisible. What is needed is more traveling and more inventive destinations.
4. Art history is not a worldwide phenomenon simply because people in many
countries lack access to books and online resources
Despite the most vigorous efforts at inclusiveness, art historical conversations on worldwide practices of art history tend to be limited to places and institutions that have a modicum of money: they have some books, some of their faculty travel, some publish. It is difficult to get past those constraints when it comes to international grants, conferences, and fellowships, because art historians who work in places without resources are not always connected enough to know how or where to apply for funds, and people outside those places may find it difficult to find occasions to visit.
The basic lack of images, internet, and books has visible and less visible aspects. It’s a well known problem that people in developing countries may not have access to books or internet resources that are behind paywalls. Two things are, I think, less well known:
(A) Many universities in first-world countries also lack crucial resources. At a university where I taught in Ireland, there was discussion about which of the more expensive databases could be bought. Should students have both Nature and Science? Could we afford JSTOR? Many mid-range and smaller universities in the EU lack some of the most important electronic resources. A Spanish art historian (whom I can’t name here) wrote in a grant application that “very often it's difficult for professors in Spain to accede to the latest books or publications in Art History.” The same is said in countries like Estonia (in 2014, the EU’s most digitally connected country), Finland, Poland, Slovakia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia. A first-world university is no guarantee of resources.
Art history departments in smaller universities in the EU may have annual book budgets on the order of 1,000 Euro, which means that students will only have access to a few of the books in their specialty. The EU has an interlibrary loan service, but that is not a substitute for a well-stocked library. North American art historians tend to be unaware of this issue, because even small state schools in the US routinely have all the major electronic subscriptions and a large stock of books in the library. For students, too, the lower living expenses of some countries and regions means that money goes farther—but that doesn’t effect the cost of foreign books or software. Hence the prevalence of torrent sites and illegal online sources for texts.
In 2013 there was a discussion on Facebook about the disenfranchisement of first-world art historians who are unemployed: they often can’t get access to JSTOR and other paid databases. But that problem is only a small version of the much larger issue of fully employed academics outside the US who cannot get access to those same databases.
(B) Many universities in developing countries are effectively cut off even from the internet. I find there is an assumption on the part of first-world scholars that the internet can solve a fair percentage of these issues of access. There are several reasons why this is not always so. First, in developing countries internet access is often nearly nonexistent outside of institutions. In some African countries such as Congo, Eritrea, and Niger, internet access is between 1.5% and 4%. (This is according to sites like Internet World Stats.) In villages in Africa, internet access is generally only available on cell phones, in a truncated form that makes it effectively useless for research. In universities, internet and email access can be unreliable, and downloading can be so slow that large quantities of information can’t be accessed. (It would be salutary for art historians to sit at computers in smaller institutions in developing countries: in my experience what is promised as internet access is effectively too slow or unreliable to be useful. There is a big difference between a filthy internet café with no paid academic subscriptions and a connected laptop in a major university.) Even major universities in developing countries are not likely to have Oxford Art Online, ARTbibliographies Modern, JSTOR, or other standard databases.
All this is aside from the lack of books. That situation is also more dire than it is often imagined. Even major universities in developing countries typically have art libraries comprised of second-hand art books from the mid and late 20th century. It may be effectively impossible for a scholar to form an understanding of the recent reception of an artist or theorist, and that is a direct cause of the common state of scholarship in countries like India, where scholarly essays on Western artists may lack recent references or any awareness of the secondary literature.
What counts as art history is crucially determined, in any given place, by what books and other resources are available. In some places the discipline can be in effect unrecognizable by North Atlantic standards because of the lack of resources. Recently I met professor in a developing country who is interested in semiotics. He knows Peirce and Saussure (although he pronounces his name “Suss”), but mainly from a book by Umberto Eco; he told me proudly he had gotten most of his information from a “difficult theory source,” which turned out to be The Da Vinci Code. If you laughed at that last sentence, you might want to reconsider: it isn’t an unusual example, and when scholarship strays that far from what North Atlantic practice might recognize as reliable or scholarly, then it becomes unclear exactly what might count, in that place, as art history. It would not be straightforward to fill in the gaps in that particular scholar’s knowledge: he is an established, full-time faculty member, who would not be in a position to begin his studies with a freshman survey.
A scholar from Cuba wrote me in 2013 that “In art, we still depend of the old forms: impressed magazines that eventually somebody bought in another country and brings in, some documentary that somebody downloaded from the internet and spread among friends.” Another scholar, in Nigeria, wrote with possibly intentional humor, “Africans are the most culturally disoriented people.” An applicant from Cameroon wrote that the grant money would help him “redress the critical imbalance of factual information about some part of the world art history inside books, museums and on the Internet.” That may be true, but travel does not internationalize art historians as swiftly as it internationalizes contemporary artists. An artist who visits the Venice biennale will quickly get ideas about how to make her practice internationally viable; a scholar who visits NYU or the Courtauld will encounter a very different learning curve.
Even in first-world countries the internet is not necessarily a useful source for buying books. North Atlantic scholars tend to assume that Amazon, eBay, and other companies mean students can get many books cheaply. But in Russia, for example, students may choose not to buy books on the internet, because shipping and customs costs are prohibitive, because used book dealers in the EU may not ship to Russia, and because shipping takes so long the books may not arrive until the semester is over. I have myself bought commonly available books and sent them to students in Moscow. (There is also the question of what is available digitally: it is often assumed that sites like Google Books, Scribd, Aaargh!, Library Genesis, or other illegal sites can provide most materials, and that with proxy servers people anywhere in the world can access them, but that depends entirely on what is being searched. Local and less popular materials of interest to studies of world art history are commonly not available except as physical objects.)
5. Open-access art history has a complex relation
to the worldwide spread of art history
It’s a common hope that the internet will facilitate the global dissemination of art history, theory, and criticism, and that is no doubt true. Beginning with MIT and the Harvard Open Access Project, there have been a number of initiatives to make all scholarship open access, and to eliminate subscriptions and paywalls (the MIT project is at tinyurl.com/p8k9tbw). The Directory of Open Access Journals listed nearly 10,000 titles as of 2014, and another site, JURN, listed 5,000. Peter Suber’s Open Access (MIT Press, 2012, available online) is a good introduction to the subject. The subject is especially pressing in the face of evidence that the top universities continue to hire one another’s graduates, and scholarship is increasingly concentrated in exclusive universities. (Aaron Clauset and others, “Systematic Inequality and Hierarchy in Faculty Hiring Networks,” Advanced Science, February 12, 2015; Joseph Duggan, “Global South Scholars Publish Without Cost, With Global Reach and Royalties,” 2014.)
In art history there are a number of open-access journals, including Artsjournal, Contemporary Aesthetics, the Revista de História da Arte, InVisible Culture, Seachange, and Visual Culture and Gender. An open-access document assembled by Charlotte Frost lists over thirty (tinyurl.com/kkkwbqd), and there is an essay on the subject, “Discovering Open Access Art History: A Comparative Study of the Indexing of Open Access Art Journals,” by Siân Evans, Hilary Thompson, and Alex Watkins. One of the issues here is the extent to which open access journals and other online sources are indexed by the standard art history databases, which are themselves available only by subscription. According to Alex Watkins’s online essay “Discovering Open Access Art History,” the percentages of open access resources indexed by the main databases is rising, but it is still low.
In 2013 the College Art Association decided to remove the password protection on its book reviews site; in 2014 the Getty Research Institute’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus became freely available. Arthistoricum.net is an initiative at the University of Heidelberg to provide open-access publications to scholars. The Art History Guild, founded in 2012 by Victoria H.F. Scott, has as one of its goals open access job listings for art history; Scott is also interested in gathering and disseminating information about salaries, standards of living, and working conditions of art historians worldwide. Charlotte Frost’s book Art History Online and her website digitalcritic.org are aimed at open access research and career advice.
It is reasonable to anticipate that a large number of resources for art history, theory, and criticism will eventually be open access, so it may be useful to take open access as a given and ask, instead, about its consequences. In this book I will be arguing for a distinction between first world issues and those that pertain more to the developing world, smaller countries, and more isolated institutions; open access affects those parts of the world differently.
For first world scholars, open access should help unemployed (“independent”) scholars and part-time or hourly lecturers who are underpaid and sometimes lack full access to the resources of their institutions. Online open access publishing and other “digital art history” ventures will speed communication and let both enfranchised and disenfranchised historians, critics, and theorists discover a substantially wider and less predictable range of writing. I support Victoria Scott’s efforts to advocate for part-time and hourly lecturers and “independent” scholars, and to gather and disseminate materials about the economics of the profession.
As I mentioned in the Acknowledgments, much of this book was written online, and I posted drafts as I wrote them. When I had something legible, I embedded the live page on my website, and posted the URL to the live document or the website page to Facebook, Twitter, Academia, and other sites. Often I got immediate responses, so I found myself writing and responding to comments at the same time. This book has benefited tremendously from that kind of crowdsourcing. I have written or revised four other books in the same way, and my impression is that few comments and suggestions that come via social network sites are not potentially pertinent: at the least they remind me what readings are possible, and they prompt me to consider how I might accommodate alternate viewpoints. (The key to the usefulness of the internet in this regard is to post texts that are nowhere near polished—not even as finished as a typical blog entry—because it’s at that stage that unpredictable online comments are most useful.)
But this all has to do with first world practices. Outside the principal centers of art history in western and central Europe and North America, the uses of online resources change. Many scholars around the world do not have English as their first language, and that imposes variable and often severe problems. (On the hegemony of English, see section 7 below.) Historians and critics who are not wholly fluent in English, who do not have ongoing access to high-speed connections, or who are isolated from larger scholarly communities, may interact with online resources in what may appear to be partial and unpredictable ways. It is not easy to put this accurately. A scholar in China, for example, who reads English with some hesitancy might choose just one or two results of an internet search. She may understand some of the arguments she reads, and miss others, and she will probably be unfamiliar with the context that produced the essays she finds and the range of references the authors bring to bear.
This kind of partial, truncated interaction is typical of the general formation of discursive fields. The concept is Foucault’s, and he used it to describe the production of knowledge: all knowledge is partial and mobile, and contingent on the stability of its communities of users. (A helpful source here is John Swales, Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings, 1990.) The question is how such uses of open access sources are imagined to operate over the long run. I think the principal position on this subject in art history and other humanities is that open access will eventually minimize such partial overlaps between discursive fields, disseminating knowledge increasingly evenly around the world. Discursive fields that were interestingly distinct, like disjunct circles in a Venn diagram, will tend to overlap, and their intersections will become more extensive.
At the same time I think it is widely assumed that there are local traditions of art history, theory, and criticism that can remain distinct under the pressure of increased communication. As I will argue in this book, I do not see evidence of that. In the Venn diagram model, the largest circle attracts the others, and the overlaps become so extensive that the smaller circles—the once isolated discursive fields—become coextensive with the central circle. Open access plays a role here by facilitating the amalgamation of distinct practices.
Here is an introductory example. In the span of a month in 2014, Academia.edu notified me that my work was being “followed” by scholars in some very diverse locations: the Université de Mostaganem (in Mostaganem, Algeria); the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design (Ramat Gan, Israel); the Juraj Dobrila University of Pula (Croatia); Ss Cyril and Methodius (Skopje, Macedonia); Mansoura University (Mansoura, Egypt); Universitas Syiah Kuala Banda Aceh (Indonesia); University of Muhammadiyah Malang (East Java, Indonesia); Universidad del Valle (Sede Central Cochabamba, Bolivia); Nilton Lins (Amazonas, Brazil); Universidade Eduardo Mondlane (Maputo, Mozambique); Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest, Hungary); Bocconi University (Milan, Italy); University of Muhammadiyah Malang (East Java, Indonesia); Boğaziçi University (Istanbul, Turkey); UFJF, Federal University of Juiz de Fora (São Pedro, Brazil); Sekolah Tinggi Teknologi Tekstil (Bandung, Indonesia); Vignan University (Vadlamudi, near Guntur City, Andhra Pradesh, India); Uludağ Üniversitesi (Bursa, Turkey); Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Thessaloniki, Greece); University of Sri Jayewardenepura (Gangodawila, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka); Universidade Lusófona (Lisbon, Portugal); Zagazig University (Zagazig, Ash Sharqiyah, Egypt); BIOLA University (Los Angeles, US); University of the Philippines Diliman (Quezon City, Philippines); University of Southern Denmark (Funen, Denmark); Mapua Institute of Technology (Intramuros, Manila, Philippines); Brawijaya University (Malang, Indonesia); European University of Moldova (Chisinau, Moldova); International Culture University (online, icu-edu.org, but based in Dhaka, Bangladesh); Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI, Tanjong Malim, Perak Darul Ridzuan, Malaysia); University of Cassino and Southern Lazio (Cassino, Italy); Institute of Archaeology “Vasile Parvan” (Bucharest, Romania); Christ University (Bangalore, India); Universiti Sains Malaysia (Kelantan, Malaysia); Quaid-i-Azam University (Islamabad, Pakistan); Academia Sinica (Taipei, Taiwan); and the Université Saad Dhalab (Blida, Algeria).
Many of these institutions, if not cities and countries, are well off the beaten paths of art history. Yet I don’t draw too many conclusions from this list. After all, there would presumably be many reasons these scholars found my page on Academia.edu: a certain percentage are simply “following” the way people do on other social networks. I can’t tell, in each instance, what kind of scholarship each person is teaching or producing. But in the cases where the scholars are artists, critics, or historians, their writing is closely related to the norms and ideals of what I will be calling North Atlantic art history. The aspiration to uniformity is generally quite clear, and there is a decided absence of unusual kinds of writing among these “followers.” Aspirational art history tends toward uniform art history, and open access art history accelerates that uniformity.
This is not an argument against open access initiatives, because the worldwide spread of European models of art history has been underway since the 19th century. But I am concerned that the rhetoric of open access is almost all about empowerment and inclusion, and not about the loss of diversity and difference. I will return to this in chapter 9.
6. There are unexplored degrees of commensurability
between practices of art history
Another large and largely unstudied problem is how to assess of the degrees of compatibility or contradiction between alternate accounts of art history. Here is an example, taken from Terry Smith’s work.
In the book What is Contemporary Art? (2009) Smith proposes there are three “world currents” in art. (He is speaking of art practices, not ways of writing about art.) The first is “the aesthetic of globalization, serving it through both a relentless modernizing and a sporadic contemporizing of art”; the second is the “postcolonial turn,” which has generated a “plethora of art shaped by local, national, anticolonial, [and] independent values (diversity, identity, critique)”; and the third is also a miscellany, comprised of younger artists “in small groups, in loose associations,” seeking “to grasp the changing place of time, place, media, and mood today.” Smith thinks these “three narratives” will “compete,” but that no “synthesis” will be forthcoming. They are at once, he says, “irreconcilable and indissociable.” They comprise the condition of contemporaneity, and they can neither be separated nor merged (pp. 264–8).
The virtue of this model, I think, is neither its classification (which is intentionally inexact, especially given that the second and third “currents” are both described as multiple and mobile) nor its content (because crucial traits of each of the three “currents,” and especially the third, are undefined), but the abstract relationship between the three “currents.” The idea of three kinds of contemporary practice that are dependent on one another, and neither reducible to one another nor susceptible to being combined, is distinct from several other models currently on offer.
Smith has also argued (in a conference in February 2013) that there is a “very rich art discourse,” involving “at least one hundred” people in different parts of the world who are writing using new concepts and methods. (He was speaking, in this case, about ways of writing about art, not practices of art.) There are people, he said, who are working on modernisms in New York that haven’t yet been widely studied. Different national and regional traditions of art history can coexist, he said, “co-temporally”; there can be “Asian art histories,” for example, “African art histories,” and others. Such work, he suggested, points to a “synthesis in the making.”
I won’t elaborate on Smith’s positions here; I’ll return to his work in chapter 4. But note the contrast between the two positions: the idea, in the 2009 book, that there are three streams of contemporary art; and the proposal, in the 2013 conference, that a number of regional and national art histories can coexist. This kind of difference—a difference between accounts of art’s diversity—is common in the historiography of modern and contemporary art.
The book series Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Arts (2005-2012) is another example. The first volume was my own Master Narratives and Their Discontents, and the idea of the series was to provide a leisurely forum for the authors to compare their differing ideas of the shape of 20th century art. The series failed to do that, both because the authors were polite to one another, but also because their sense of what “master narratives” might be differed not only in number and chronology, but in kind. The sense of historical narrative in Stephen Bann’s contribution, a book called Ways Around Modernism (2007), is entirely different from the forms of narrative in my book. Both books are different once again from what counts as interesting narratives in Richard Shiff’s volume Doubt (2008), and all three of us—all older white males!—are different from the concerns voiced in the last volume in the series, Pamela Lee’s New Games: Postmodernism After Contemporary Art (2012). The four authors speak almost entirely past one another.
The incommensurability between theories of the diversity of art history is an abstract problem. I present it here at the beginning of this book to signal the trouble lies in wait for theories such as the different versions of multiple modernities, the dozen or so senses of the contemporary and contemporaneity (and contemporaneities), and other accounts of the regional, local, national and global. In the course of this book I will be considering a number of such theories where they impinge on the ways art history is imagined. Each account naturally has its strengths and weaknesses: what remains invisible to the discipline is the fact that they are themselves not easy to compare.
7. The language of art history is English
The last of these framing problems regards English. If you live in a country whose language is not English, you may need conversational English in order to attend conferences and meet scholars from other countries. If you’re a teacher and your students don’t speak English fairly well, they may face limited job choices and mobility. If you don’t speak English fluently, you may have difficulty as a student in English-language seminars and lectures, and it will be hard to gauge what you are missing. If you don’t read English easily, you may favor art history written in other languages, which will have an effect on your research. And if you do not write English reasonably well, you may not be able to publish outside your country or region.
Speaking, teaching or learning, reading, and writing are mixed together in a typical art historian’s career, and each may be more or less important depending on the context. Each raises sensitive and interesting cultural, political, and institutional problems. It’s strange that so far, disciplines like art history, visual studies, art theory, and art criticism do not often discuss these issues except when it comes to deciding which languages will be spoken at a given conference or symposium.
Speaking and teaching (or listening) are often open for discussion, and there are institutional precedents for decisions that are made about them. Scholarly societies adopt policies about the languages of their meetings; smaller conferences do the same; sometimes it’s necessary to budget for simultaneous translators, and that affects the viability and composition of conferences; and admissions officers adopt standards they hope will ensure students understand their teachers. (There is a large difference between simultaneous and alternating translation in lectures: often, I’ve had to rewrite lectures so they fit the form of translation, even aside from the translators’ skills, the institutional context, or the probable interests and knowledge of the audience.)
There is a great deal to be said about each of these abilities, but I want to concentrate here on the ones I think are the least talked about and the most pervasive: reading and writing. I will divide the subject of English reading and writing into three separate issues: art historians who do not read outside their principal language; art historians who do not read easily or often outside their language; and art historians who do not write fluently outside their language.
(A) Art historians who do not read outside their principal language. It is often said that scholars from the US, UK, Australia, and New Zealand are especially likely not to speak other languages. That is a complaint voiced in many countries, but it may be especially common among German-speaking art historians. Scholars like Horst Bredekamp, for example, have long maintained that most art historical writing is German, and Anglophone scholars ignore it at their peril. Actually, English-language art history is published in more journals, produces more books, and is practiced in more departments than German art history by a ratio of about two to one. (The statistics are in the book Partisan Canons.) But on the other hand, the UK has one of the worst records in the EU of monolingualism. A 2004 poll found that only 1 in 10 Britons could speak a second language. (A 2000 poll found 1 in 4 Americans could carry on a conversation in a second language, and 1 in 5 speak a language other than English at home.) Enrollments are down in UK language departments, and internationally its scholars are among the most likely to be monolingual. At least in the UK, the situation is getting worse: the number of departments in the UK offering modern language degrees dropped from over 100 to 62 between 2000 and 2013.
The general lack of Anglophone readers of German-language art history is significant because German-language art history is the largest tradition outside of English, and over the last half-century or so it has developed its own concerns, leading concepts and methodologies, traditional points of reference, and interpretive traditions. The distance between German Bildwissenschaft and Anglo-American visual studies, for example, is often difficult to assess because of the lack of scholars who read in both. (This is a principal subject of the book Farewell to Visual Studies, 2015.)
These issues apply equally to Anglophone scholars’ ignorance of writing in Spanish, Chinese, and other major traditions. The Anglophone practice of bypassing Spanish-language writing may be even more monolithic than the habit of not reading German, but it is less often noted. (One of the few Spanish academics to explore this is Vicenç Furió, especially in his Arte y reputación, 2012.) French and Italian may be the principal exceptions to Anglophone monolingualism, because so many North American art historians specialize in French and Italian subjects.
Yet the monolingualism of American and English art historians, along with those from Australia and New Zealand, is a trope within art history—a traditional complaint. As such it obscures more complicated lacks of English. In Ghana I met some art historians and critics who spoke 4 or more “local languages” and also spoke English, but did not write it well enough to publish outside Africa. At the University of Cape Town, the Michaelis School of Art has to work hard to support some of its black African students whose languages may include Zulu, Xhosa, and other Bantu languages but only basic English.
The trope of English-language monolingualism also deflects attention from other monolingualisms. Several traditions around the world are effectively monolingual. Aside from English-language scholarship produced in the UK and the US, another principal example would be Latin American scholarship with the exception of Brazil. Many Central and South American art historians speak a small amount of English, but in general the literature is isolated. A Chilean scholar put this concisely in an application I recently read: “from a Latin American point of view,” she wrote—and I’m quoting verbatim to give a sense of the texture of the problem—“it seems that lack of knowing another languages has stopped contribution.”
A second principal example of non-English monolingualism is China: of the hundred or so most active Chinese art historians, theorists, and critics, something on the order of twenty speak English well enough to carry on scholarly discussions. In my experience co-organizing conferences in Beijing from 2009 to 2011, Chinese scholars have a general, if uneven, awareness of writers like Panofsky, Warburg, and especially Gombrich (whose books were extensively translated in the 20th century), but little knowledge of more recent figures. Together with a Chinese graduate student I have been compiling a list of all art history books translated into Chinese, and it shows that the dozen or so most prominent Western art historians active in the last few decades are likely to be represented in Chinese by just one or two books each. Those books, in turn, are sometimes translated so inadequately that the books are not read or are grossly misinterpreted. Hal Foster came to one of the conferences I co-organized in Beijing; only three or four Chinese scholars in our group of about thirty knew who he was, and only one mentioned trying to read his one translated book. On the other hand, none of the Western scholars who attended those conferences—except for those already specialized in Chinese contemporary art—knew a single one of the Chinese art historians, theorists, and critics.
A third example of non-English monolingualism is Russian. Russian-language art history is especially isolated, with relatively few scholars working in English or other languages. In some ex-Soviet countries the situation is better: in Belarus a small group associated with the EHU (European Humanities University) work in English; in Romania art historians know French and German; in Bulgaria there is some knowledge of English; in Turkey there is variable knowledge of English, and older scholars who learned in French and German. But in countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, the second language (after Russian) is likely to be Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek, and not English. Another largely monolingual country is Iran, where a small number of historians and critics speak English. (As in China, there is an asymmetry in translations: when I visited I tried to collect examples of art history and criticism translated into Farsi, but it wasn’t easy, mainly because the print runs are so tiny that even the few venues that carried the books did not have complete collections.)
Effectively monolingual traditions call for a special kind of intervention. It would be a good use of Getty or Mellon funds if lists could be compiled of books and essays translated into selected monolingual traditions: that would be a first step toward understanding what counts as “European,” “Western,” or other art history in those traditions. Without a good knowledge of the shapes of art history in different countries, it is impossible to gauge how texts written in different languages are read—how they are understood, against what historiographic background, in relation to what sense of the discipline. Translations from effectively monolingual traditions into English are more commonly funded, but I am not convinced that is a good strategy. The journal AIT, Art in Translation, tends to find essays whose methods and scholarly habits are already familiar—they are already close to the North Atlantic model. Monolingualism is not the most serious issue in the languages of art writing, but it requires a special study, and not just translations into English.
(B) Art historians who do not read much, or often, outside their principal language. Many scholars are effectively monolingual because they do not read easily in languages other than their own. The qualification here makes all the difference: it turns this from an apparently trivial condition into a very difficult problem.
It is not true, for example, that German-language scholars are unproblematically or perfectly aware of English-language scholarship. A typical contemporary publication written in German might well make reference to the principal works on its subject in English, but there might not be any extended encounter with those English-language texts. German scholars do read English, but it is an open question how much is read, and there are many instances in which the literature in English is cited more than actually engaged. German Bildwissenschaft and art history have not developed the Anglo-American interest in identity, for example, even though authors like Judith Butler appear regularly in German publications. The many large edited volumes produced by Eikones, the image research center in Basel (2005-2017), are a good example. I served as a site panelist there for five years, and each year I reviewed dozens of essays, monographs, and edited volumes. When the topics overlapped those that are traditional in postwar English-language art history and theory, such as gender, sexuality, and identity, the German-language authors would usually cite the pertinent sources, but after the citations the authors tended to return to their own concerns and follow lines of thought that were more dependent on German-language art theory and art history.
A good example of an attempt to bridge this gap is Birgit Mersmann and Alexandra Schneider’s Transmission Image (2009), which includes a number of texts on gender, identity, and ethnicity, and—from the German-language tradition—a number of texts that carefully discuss image reception. Another example of German scholars reading some, but not much, English literature, is the influence of Tom Mitchell in Germany: it went up sharply after the publication of an anthology of his work in German, even though in my experience German scholars often say they had known his work for some time.
A similar example is Scandinavian countries’ relation to French. Students in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden tend to read English and German by preference over French. I have seen third-level syllabi in visual studies departments that have almost no French readings. This isn’t because the students don’t know French, but because they are not fluent enough to read French easily. These slight lacks of skill can have significant consequences: entire scholarly traditions can be deflected from one literature, one nation’s scholarship, to another, and that can change the entire tenor of research in a country. In this case Scandinavian Bildvetenskap and allied disciplines are influenced by Anglo-American and German writing, but less so by French writing.
I think Spain may have a higher percentage of English-speaking art historians than South America, but a version of this problem still applies. Spanish scholars who do not read fluently in English are largely dependent on just a few publishers, such as Akal; similarly Portuguese scholars who are not comfortable in English are dependent on just a few publishers such as the Brazilian journal Arte & Ensaios. Czech scholars have the journal Umění and several volumes of theoretical essays edited by Ladislav Kesner, but there are large gaps. The result of these limited translation programs is an idiosyncratic sense of English-language art history, formed mainly by the translations that happen to be available.
(C) Art historians who do not write easily in English. This, I think, is the most interesting of these issues. It is difficult to define what it means to say scholars in a country don’t read “much” or “easily,” but it is clear when scholars do not write well enough to submit their essays to the principal English-language journals. Any number of accomplished scholars in countries like France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the Balkans, Poland, and Russia write English well enough to communicate, but not quite well enough to publish. I find this problem is more or less unknown to Anglophone scholars, but it is a subject of intense concern in parts of the EU and elsewhere.
(This issue does not exist as such in English-speaking countries outside the EU such as Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, and the Philippines, because the distance between their scholars’ practices and North Atlantic norms can be great enough so that the content of their scholarship, aside from their language, makes it difficult for them to be published in US or UK journals and books. I will return to this question under a different heading.)
French scholars in particular often have good conversational English, but don’t write quite well enough to submit essays to The Art Bulletin or Art History. This subject has been discussed by Matthew Rampley in his excellent anthology Art History and Visual Studies in Europe: Transnational Discourses and National Frameworks (2012), and it is a concern for Francophone groups such as the Artl@s initiative. A slight deficiency in written English can effectively hobble a career. French scholars may not want to publish only in French journals (which do not have wide circulation outside Francophone countries), but they may be effectively prevented from writing for the world Anglophone press.
Scholars who do not experience this problem often don’t know about it, and I have heard it said that art historians who face this issue can just employ translators. But that is actually quite difficult: translators who can deal with art history, theory, and criticism can be difficult to find. Hans Belting, who has an elegant written style in English, still felt the need for finding English translators, and in 2011 he told me that finding good translators was one of the principal obstacles in getting his work into English. In addition, of course, translators are expensive, and English-language publishers will often require a completed chapter or entire book manuscript in English before they will even consider sending a manuscript out for review. It is not an exaggeration t2o say southern and eastern Europe have many scholars whose work is not known outside their countries because of a slight lack of English.
Exceptions to this problem are, I think, mainly localized in northwest Europe: scholars in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and to a lesser degree Finland and Estonia may well have written English good enough to submit essays to any of the principal English-language journals and publishers. But outside that geographically narrow compass, the world is full of scholars who can read some, and perhaps a great deal, of the English-language literature, but cannot easily publish their work.
It is sometimes said that scholars from “unusual” places can’t submit articles to English-language journals. One Croatian scholar complained that people who “come from so called ‘margins’ barely have the opportunity to submit papers or to publish in the prestigious scientific journals.” But the reason such applications might be turned down without serious consideration is not the place the scholar lives but the language of the cover letter. Even before the editor has seen the essay, she will have an idea of how much work (and expense) it may require to turn the essay into English in the “house style” of the journal. When I edited a book series involving a number of international contributors, I tried to address this problem by permitting people to write in whatever English they could command, and then undertaking extensive “translations” from broken English to fluent English. I did that kind of work myself because the process often takes more time than an ordinary translation, and it can only be done by someone who knows the nuances of the subject matter. A professional translator would miss many of the inflections that matter so much in scholarly work. But that kind of work is prohibitively expensive for most presses, so essays in less than adequate English tend just to be rejected.
Before I conclude, there’s another aspect to the language issue that is not often discussed: the question of multilingualism, and its effect on the discipline. Major universities in the North Atlantic are effectively multilingual: each of their art history faculty speaks and writes fluently in several languages, and their students are expected to do the same. In North America, only the very top tier universities achieve this, and they do so by accepting only the most qualified students, and by advising them to increase their language skills. Anthony Grafton tells me that Princeton students are encouraged to write and give lectures in their research language; most universities in North America would not ask that of their American students. But in the EU, especially in smaller countries, there is a different kind of issue to do with multilingualism. Heie Treier tells me that several of her Estonian colleagues have studied abroad, in Paris, London, New York, Berlin, and Helsinki. When they come back home, she writes, “they speak Estonian but think in the categories that come from the country and university where they studied. These are different traditions of thinking and analyzing art. So, the result is that colleagues sometimes can no longer speak about art with each other in Estonian! They all think in different language traditions, but speak Estonian.” That is a polylingualism issue seldom seen in larger countries. Similarly, a Chinese scholar told me that because she learned her art history through English, her Chinese style is recognizably “foreign.” It’s not clear to me whether that might be a common issue for Chinese editors and publishers.
These three subjects—lack of languages, lack of fluency in languages, and lack of fluency in writing—are divisive problems in art history worldwide. They are, perhaps, not the most profound problems: those have to do with content, the subject of this book’s final chapter.
Master Narrative, Western, Central, Peripheral, North Atlantic
It is a sign of the unsettled nature of the study of worldwide practices of art history that most of the basic terms are contested. Some scholars prefer “global”; others prefer “worldwide,” “transnational,” or “international.” In some places the modifiers “Western” and “non-Western” are common; in other places they are proscribed as overdetermined. “Central” and “marginal” or “peripheral” less likely to be seen as problematic, but they are difficult to avoid. In this chapter I consider several overlapping sets of these qualifying words:
1. Canon, trajectory, master narrative
2. Western, non-Western, European, Euramerican, North American, Anglo-American, and American
3. The choice of North Atlantic for this book
4. Central and peripheral or marginal
5. Regional, provincial, parochial
I will not attempt to provide fixed definitions for these terms, but I hope to settle them in the informal sense of that word, the way a person might settle a restive animal: I want to describe them in such a way that they can be useful in the context of this book, and hopefully prevent them from leaping out of context and ruining the arguments they are meant to articulate.
1. Canon, trajectory, master narrative
I begin with a set of concepts that is relatively easy to frame. “Canon,” “trajectory,” and “narrative”—as in “master narrative”—are used interchangeably, but it helps to make some simple distinctions between them. In this book, a canon is a set of artists, artworks, periods, places, styles, movements, or other categories that is considered, in some interpretive context, to be both essential and irreplaceable for a larger sense of the pertinent history. A canon in itself is not a temporal object; it is a list. When chronology is added a canon becomes a trajectory, history, genealogy, or lineage—I will mostly be using those terms interchangeably. The central trajectory of modernism includes the sequence
and it also includes the branching sequence
Either one of those also comprises a canon. I will be using the expression “master narratives” to evoke the sum of the texts that articulate and justify canons and trajectories. The “master narrative” of modernism, in its simplest form, is this branching sequence; but the term narrative is a reminder that this is not a list, but a story or a series of stories, together with all their supporting values and instances. “Master narratives” is a way of gesturing toward a sum total of justifications and interpretations: some arguments later in this book, especially in chapter 7, depend on the entanglement of the full complement of texts that support and articulate canons and trajectories. (Partisan Canons, edited by Anna Brzyski, 2007; Master Narratives and Their Discontents, 2005.)
2. Western, non-Western, European, Euramerican, North Atlantic,
North American, Anglo-American
“Western” and “non-Western” are perhaps the least useful terms in the discussion of the worldwide practices of art history, theory, and criticism. The reason isn’t that they are inaccurate or outdated, and it isn’t that they are irremediably biased or that they rely on overdetermined assumptions. Nor is the problem their generality. The reason these terms are not useful is that there is an impasse between communities who use these terms and those who do not.
On the one hand, scholars in Europe and North America often wish to shelve talk about “Western” and “non-Western.” The concept of "Western art history"—or Western scholarship in general—is widely rejected, for several of the reasons I gave in the preceding paragraph. “Westernness” is under- and over-defined: writing on art from the 18th century to the mid-20th century has in effect proposed many detailed definitions of what counts as Western art, while also leaving the nature of that art implicit. “Westernness” is also ideologically loaded, meaning it does work that those who use it may not intend, defining their own identities and implicitly also the identities of their readers.
Claire Farago has researched what might be said and done without words like “Western” and “non-Western.” Her Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America 1450-1650 (1995) was an influential marker of the turn in art history toward global studies. The program called Art in the Contemporary World and World Art Studies, at the University of Leiden (begun in 2005), the program Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia (1992), and the program for Arty History in a Global Perspective at the Freie Universität Berlin (2008), were founded on the conviction that it was time to pay attention to the world’s art practices without categorizing them into “Western” and “non-Western.” (More on this is in Ulrich Pfisterer’s “Origins and Principles of World Art History,” World Art Studies, 2008, pp. 69–89.) Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000), Arjun Appadurai’s Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996), and other critiques in political theory and area studies have effectively removed the concept of “Western” from serious discussion.
But on the other hand, terms like “Western,” “non-Western” and “Oriental” are routinely used in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe. For example, as Xenia Gazi points out, “oriental” is widely used in the Middle East to designate characteristics of art such as the use of calligraphy and geometric patterns. (Its use in other parts of the world is an entirely different matter.) Even in as geographically close a country as Turkey, the concept “Western” is commonly used to refer to European art and scholarship. The same is true in Morocco, which is geographically west of most of Europe. Piotrowski uses “Western” to talk about art history as it is practiced not only in Art Since 1900, but art history to the west of the area he studies (“On the Spatial Turn, or Horizontal Art History,” Umeni, 2008, p. 379).
The opposite of “Western,” in some of those contexts, is not “non-Western” but African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Chinese, or any number of specific regional and national labels. When I am traveling, I sometimes find myself in discussions that take “Western art history” as a given: it isn’t always well defined or geographically precise, but it is useful in those contexts because it corresponds well to the ways that scholars think of themselves and their places in the world. But “Western” and “non-Western” are non-starters in western Europe and North America: and that difference is itself one of the most interesting, and intractable, problems with the words.
The challenge, then, is double: it is necessary to find terms that can bridge that gap between the rejection of "Western" and its routine use outside western Europe and North America; and to find working synonyms for "Western" that will allow conversations about different parts of the world to go forward in western Europe and North America.
It is my preference to take this double bind regarding “Western” and “non-Western” as a starting point in conversations, even though the western European and North American resistance to the qualifier “Western” is so strong that it’s sometimes necessary to abandon it, even though that means playing false with the self-descriptions of historians and other art writers elsewhere in the world. (My own book Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History is aimed principally at Western scholars of Chinese art who have experience of this use of the word “Western.” But that book should probably have been titled Chinese Landscape Painting as North Atlantic Art History, because it is a study of mainly European scholars’ reactions to Chinese literati painting. The book says nothing about Chinese landscape painting itself: my subject is European and North American scholars’ interpretations of Chinese landscape painting, so I don’t make any judgment about the painting itself or the many Chinese interpretations.)
In addition I use “Western” and “non-Western” in several carefully defined contexts when I lecture. One of the restricted uses of “non-Western” that I find particularly helpful in conversations outside Europe and North America is what I call the narrative definition of Western and non-Western.
There is a common pattern in books that recount the histories of art in their countries or regions: the author says she will not rely on styles and movements from western Europe or North America, but the book ends up describing artists by reference to western European or North American examples. A Filipino painter might be said to have a style “reminiscent of Bernard Buffet,” for example, or a Hungarian modernist might be said to work in a manner indirectly influenced by Cézanne. That narrative form, in which an artist from outside western Europe or North America is described, if only provisionally, in terms of a western European or North American model, is common and in some contexts unavoidable. For example, in Modern Art in Eastern Europe (2001) Steven Mansbach mentions the Hungarian modernist Vilmos Perlrott-Csaba, and remarks that Csaba was influenced by Cézanne. He reproduces Perlrott-Csaba’s Bathing Youths, saying simply that its composition “[stems] from the work of Cézanne and Matisse” (p. 271). At first glance—and even in front of the original, which is in Budapest—Mansbach seems entirely correct, but the form and the economy of this kind of reference drains Perlrott-Csaba’s painting of its interest by making it conceptually, historically, and artistically dependent on an artist at the center of the narratives of modernism. This is a complex problem, and I will return to it in chapter 8. (See also the longer account of Mansbach’s book in The Art Bulletin (2000), 781–85.)
It can be useful to say that the form of such references makes the narratives of which they are a part “non-Western.” A “Western” narrative in this sense is one that avoids being dependent on references outside its own subject—in this case an introduction to Hungarian modernism. In this sense a “non-Western” art historical account would be one in which interpretations of the country’s art depend on the conceptually or historically antecedent artists, concepts, and practices from western Europe or North America. “Western,” from this perspective, would be whatever narratives are sufficient in themselves and do not require references taken from outside of their purview. Examples of “Western” art histories in this sense would be Gombrich’s Story of Art, or the book Art Since 1900.
This isn’t a sufficient conceptualization of “Western” and “non-Western”—far from it—but it has the virtue of clarity, and it can be a provocative and fruitful way of thinking about art historical accounts of different national traditions. The narrative definition makes it possible to study a wide range of books that tell the history of national art traditions, by flagging places where the historian has chosen to let her narrative lean on an existing narrative of art outside her country or region. This narrative definition is also useful in discussions that take place outside western Europe and North America, because this sense of “non-Western” corresponds well with the ways that some nations’ historians understand their geographic and historical position.
I have experimented with this in other books. Readers who are interested in the practice of writing the history of one nation’s art, or of trying to balance such a history with an account of the art of the rest of the world, might be interested in the book Stories of Art (2002, reprinted 2013), which surveys textbooks of national and global art history written in the Soviet Union, Japan, Iran, Turkey, India, and elsewhere. Just looking at the tables of contents of such books can be an interesting exercise in dislocating what seems culturally natural. Burhan Toprak’s textbook Sanat Tarihi, published in Ankara in 1957, for example, begins with Anatolia and the Hittites, moves through the Christian middle ages to mid-century Picasso, and then veers back to the Indus Valley, and ends with 19th century Japan. It isn’t a trajectory that would be persuasive to students in western Europe or North America, because it seems incomplete—it appears as if Toprak did not want to let Judaeo-Christian art continue and envelop all of art, or as if he did not approve of modernism after mid-century. But to say such a book ends strangely, or that it “veers” from some course, is to acknowledge the pull of standard North Atlantic narratives of art history. There are many more examples in the book Stories of Art; each one reveals assumptions we tend to make about the naturalism of our own accustomed narratives.
Another way of considering this narrative definition is to inquire more closely about what counts as “our” narratives. I have sketched this in a book called Master Narratives and their Discontents (2005). That book is focused on European and, later, North American versions of the principal narratives of modernism and postmodernism. One story of modernism, for example, has it beginning with the Industrial Revolution; another, more applicable to art history, ties modernism’s formative moments to the French Revolution. Several of Tim Clark’s accounts of painting, especially a chapter on Jacques-Louis David in Farewell to an Idea (1999), make a case that modernist “contingency” is to be found first, and perhaps best, in paintings like the Death of Marat. Another narrative of modernism begins with Manet, and especially his awareness of the history of painting as a history of art; this reading is mainly associated with Michael Fried and the book Manet’s Modernism (1996). Still another guiding narrative locates modernism in Cézanne’s experimentation and in Picasso and Braque’s cubism: this is the story implicit in Art Since 1900, which I will consider in chapters 4 and 5.
Postmodernism, too, has its principal narratives, which are associated with writers such as Peter Bürger, Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, and Arthur Danto. It is useful to call such stories master narratives, because they tend to guide specialized inquiries by providing large frames for local research. It makes sense to study Rayonism in detail, for example, if Russian cubo-futurism is part of a larger narrative of modernist practices considered to be canonical or essential for understanding art of the past century. It is of interest to study Argentine, Colombian, or Peruvian conceptualism because discussions about the worldwide occurrences of conceptualism are common in art history (see the discussions of Global Conceptualism in chapters 2 and 5). And global conceptualism is of central interest, in turn, because of valuations of conceptualism that are found in the master narrative associated with October and Art Since 1900. (This is not to say that master narratives have predictable effects, good or ill, on more local or alternative narratives: it’s just to point to the fact that master narratives tend to inspire and justify local or alternative narratives, making it harder for specialized studies that aren’t connected to master narratives to attract attention.)
My subject in this book is not the number of cogency of these master narratives, but what I am exploring here would not make sense without the persistence of such narratives. Unlike visual studies, art history is cogent to the degree that its many individual research projects implicitly contribute to larger conversations on the important moments of modernism and postmodernism—and those moments, in turn, are given in the form of episodes in various master narratives.
This narrative definition is useful mainly when the question is specifically the form of writing—the stories of art, the master narratives. In practice, when narratives of national and regional traditions are not at issue, and when it is not feasible to raise the problem of the double bind, it is probably best simply to be careful and articulate what is at stake in words like “Western.” The Polish scholar Piotr Piotrowski’s paper in the book Circulations, which I will consider in chapter 6, is a good example. Both Uruguay and Poland in the 1970s, he writes, “worked at the margins of Western culture,” and in general “both Latin American and East European art are somehow Western.” I like the “somehow,” which allows his argument to proceed without hobbling it by overly rigid definitions. Often, but not always, “Western” is best treated as a placeholder—that is, a word used in ordinary speech to signal the speaker doesn’t feel the need to think of a more precise word in order to get on with what she intends to say.
3. The choice of North Atlantic
For this book, I had the choice of a number of other terms: “Eurocentric,” “Euramerican,” “North Atlantic,” “North American,” “Anglo-American,” and “American.” My principal subject is practices of art history that are emulated by much of the world, and there is no single way to adequately localize those practices. It is tempting to think of this as a series of concentric circles:
Diagram 1. The central institutions, journals, and publishers in art history
The same sort of diagram could be made beginning with German-language art history, and moving out by concentric circles to its direct and indirect influence on Anglophone art history. It would also be interesting to experiment with Francophone diagrams, or diagrams starting with Italian and other languages and national traditions. But the diagram doesn’t represent a topographic truth: German Kunstwissenschaft is not somehow “outside” or secondary to English-language art history, and none of these three circles are unitary or otherwise well defined. It is a diagram of a perception. What matters, in the study of world art history, is what is being emulated (or rejected), and how that object of emulation is identified by the people who admire or study it.
For the purposes of this book, something like the center of this chart is approximately right: what is emulated around the world is some version of what happens in places like Princeton and Yale or in journals like October or The Art Bulletin. That is not to say the center and the first ring aren’t permeable—I have tried to indicate that with the interrupted lines. The salient point here, however, is that what is being emulated in China, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, and many other places is English-language art history, even more than French and definitely more than German or Italian scholarship. The mixtures of models are complex, but I am risking this diagram in order to make the point that there is a center toward which emulations are aimed. (The listings on the diagram are mainly based on a comprehensive bibliography of North American and European art history translated into Chinese, which I will discuss in chapter 10. The examples of institutions, journals, and publishers in the diagram therefore reflect texts and scholars that have been considered worth translating.)
That center is a mobile target, but often it can be provisionally described as the sum of the most active art historians working in the principal universities in the US and western Europe including Scandinavia, along with their principal journals and university presses. Any young art historian in the US could rattle off a list of the ten or so top-tier universities, the three or four acceptable journals, and the ten or so acceptable university presses. Young scholars in North America can be so fixated on such lists that they won’t apply to PhD programs in other institutions, or, at a later stage in their careers, they won’t send their manuscripts to publishers who aren’t on the list. Below is a half-serious diagram of the centers of emulation from the point of view of some scholars who work in or near those centers. If anything, this would be even more contentious than the first diagram! But that very contentiousness shows the gravitational pull of what are considered centers and margins of the field.
Diagram 2. The central institutions, journals, and publishers in art history,
seen from a North American viewpoint
(Caveat emptor: I am only hoping to point to general trends here. These names and places vary somewhat depending on the scholars’ specialties, and I don’t mean to imply an equivalence or connection between the places and publishers.)
Seen from the reverse perspective, what counts as the best practices of art history, those worth emulating, is somewhere toward the multiple centers of the first diagram. Hence among the possible choices of words, “Eurocentric,” “Euramerican,” “North Atlantic,” “North American,” and “American,” one of the better choices is “North Atlantic,” because it names the general geographic region that art historians in different parts of the world take as optimal practice. “North Atlantic” has drawbacks: it omits major centers such as the west coast of the US, and it is vague about what matters in central and eastern Europe. In addition it is reminiscent of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) and Jigna Desai’s Brown Atlantic (for example in her book Beyond Bollywood, 2003), although Gilroy and Desai’s projects critique previous models of diaspora, while my purpose here is to delimit a region that threatens to expand unhelpfully or contract until it has no critical purchase. “North Atlantic” is also less than optimal because it echoes North Atlantic Studies, an established specialty that has nothing to do with this subject (as in books like Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, 2012).
“North Atlantic” also has the drawback of being an unusual term in art history, somewhat like John Clark’s “Euramerican”—a term I might have used, except that much of the argument in this book turns on differences and divisions within North America and Europe. (“Euramerica,” incidentally, is a geologic term, referring to a continent in the Devonian period that was comprised of present-day North America and Europe. It is also known, amusingly, as “The Old Red Continent.” And more appropriately for Clark’s usage, EurAmerica is the name of a journal published in Taiwan and dedicated to the study of Europe and North America.)
“Anglo-American” was another possible way of naming this book’s subject, but it is too narrow, because the art history that is discussed in South America, southeast Asia, and Africa is often French. Another drawback is that “Anglo-American” is a term used in political theory to name the shared economic and cultural values of the United States and the UK. “Anglo-American” could be a good shorthand for the linguistic dominance of English that I discussed in the previous chapter, because it hints at distinctions between American and UK academic practices—differences that are sometimes visible in the reception of English-language art history. The historian Cao Yiqiang, for example, studied with Francis Haskell and E.H. Gombrich; his work is quite different from Chinese art historians educate in the US.
On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t be productive to try to specify my subject any more closely than “North Atlantic.” For some people, the hegemonic model of art history should be identified with just a few institutions (as on the second diagram) and just a couple of dozen art historians (most of them also writers in English). Others might point to the crucial publishers as art history’s real center; in that case the central models of art history would be found in books by Yale University Press, or in The Art Bulletin, Art History, or October. And still others might prefer the synecdoche of New York City to the less precise “east coast” or “North America.” Vicenç Furió puts this very well when he paraphrases Serge Guilbaut’s famous phrase: New York didn’t just steal the idea of modern art, Furió says, but the idea of modern art history (Arte y Reputación, p. 219).
“North Atlantic” is a compromise: it’s not a common usage, but I hope its slightly unfamiliar sound might also draw attention to the fact that the practices of art history that are emulated throughout the world are themselves not well defined. That is the reason I have adopted “North Atlantic” in the title of this book.
4. Central, Peripheral, Marginal
Usually talk about center and periphery has to do with visual art, not the writing about it. Art historians, theorists, and critics talk about art practices, movements, styles, the market, and institutions as central or peripheral. But in this book center and periphery apply to art history: art history departments, individual historians’ texts, publishers who maintain art history lists, as well as conferences and other elements of art historical writing.
“Central” is my term for whatever practices and institutions of art history are understood to be the models, norms, standards, or exemplars of art historical practice at any given time or place. “Central” might be as general as “Western” or as focused as “the first decade of October” or the Department of the History of Art at Yale. For someone in the art academy in Xi’an, central might be CAFA in Beijing or the China National Academy in Hangzhou.
Contrasted with these are whatever practices and institutions see themselves, or are seen, as “marginal.” (From this point on I will omit the scare quotes around these terms, with the understanding that they do not name truths as much as perceptions, and that there is no one center or definable margins.) In this book, marginal or peripheral are intended as non-judgmental terms designating a geographic distance that is also perceived as a way of naming relatively isolated, belated, incomplete, perhaps simpler, less connected, less well financed, or smaller versions of what happens in the center. The mechanism of the relative isolation of center and periphery might be geographic, or it may also be political, historical, ethnic, economic, institutional, or linguistic.
Two conclusions are often drawn from the “center / periphery” relation when it is applied, as it usually is, to visual art. Neither one, I think, is justified by the discourses that make use of the terms, and the two conclusions need to be carefully distinguished from one another, if not always separated.
First, it is said that studies of local art contexts, “minor” practices (in Deleuze’s sense), subaltern discourses, and glocal developments will eventually dissolve the fundamental relation between what is perceived as center and what is perceived, or perceives itself, as margin. This hope—that attention to local contexts can resolve or avoid the hierarchy of center and margin—is repeatedly resurgent in art history, area studies, and postcolonial theory. I am not convinced that the many studies that articulate local contexts have eroded the hold of the concepts of center and periphery. (I can only suggest that argument here; see the Afterword to Art and Globalization for a full account and evidence.)
This is the argument I would make about art, and I think the same is true of art history. In this book I will be assuming that emphasis on individual art historians’ work, on local practices of art history, or on “unusual” or “new” methodologies, interpretive concepts, publishers, institutions, or venues, may not erase the underlying distinction between center and periphery, which usually remains impervious to such attention.
Second, the rhetoric of the center and periphery can be so strong that it can obscure the fact that in any given case neither one might be well defined. In art, it’s common to read about the central narrative of modernism or the exclusion of practices that do not conform to it. Yet it is far from easy to say precisely what that central narrative is, aside from many individual examples, such as the privileging of cubism in Paris, surrealism, Russian constructivism, and other movements. Rhetoric about central and marginal are also used in talk about art history, and in that case it can be even more difficult to specify what is meant because the canonical examples might not be available. When some Chinese scholars at a conference in Beijing in 2010 called for the abandonment of “Western art history,” the rhetorical context gave the claim a kind of urgency, but the center itself was not clearly defined. This kind of dependence on the rhetorical force of claims about the center and margin can make it seem as if it may not be sensible to explore ideas of center and margin more systematically. It can then be concluded that the distinction is empty or overdetermined, or that it should be avoided as an example of an restrictive binarism. I do not think that those conclusions are always warranted, because the rhetoric of center and periphery continues to do a great deal of amount of work in contemporary art.
I think the same is true when center and periphery are applied to art history: an awareness that you’re in a central place, or a peripheral one, can have a tremendous effect on your work as an art historian. Regardless of how vaguely center and periphery might be understood—it’s never easy to find adequate examples or definitions—they form the interests of young art historians, the syllabi of art history classes, the themes of conferences, and ultimately, entire institutions and national traditions of art history.
These two common notions of central and peripheral art practices—that the distinction between center and margin can best be vitiated by paying attention to local cases, and that the distinction should perhaps not be entertained at all—are at times conflated. The second is taken to imply the first, and the first is understood as leading to the second.
Personally I find both conclusions, and their implied interdependence, Eurocentric in the worst and most old-fashioned way, and I think the same is true when center and periphery are applied to art history. The scholars who draw such conclusions almost always speak from universities in Europe and North America. In those settings it can indeed seem that talk about the center and margin is unproductive. Elsewhere, center and periphery are crucial to discussions about art history, theory, and criticism. (The situation is similar with the pair Western and non-Western: as I mentioned, scholars who object to those terms almost always work in major universities in North America and western Europe. Elsewhere those terms are often fundamental, even if they are always also problematic.)
The philosophic critiques of center and periphery by Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and many others up to Bhabha and Chakrabarty are cogent, but when they are applied to art, and also when they are applied to art history, they effectively continue the very imbalances their authors were so concerned to critique.
There have been several initiatives to work through these issues, and I will consider them in chapter 6. Here I want to emphasize four aspects of the center / periphery difference that might be productive in conversations about art historical practices worldwide. My examples come from applications I read in 2013 for an international travel grant for art historians. An earlier version of this chapter described that grant, and quoted the applications anonymously, but I was informed that even anonymous quotations weren’t legal: I am bound not to say what grant I helped judge, and I am not permitted to quote any material from the applications, even if it is anonymous and untraceable. (And regardless of the fact that several applicants, whom I later met, would have been happy to see their perspectives considered here.)
(A) Center and periphery in art history operate at several scales: regional, national, at the level of the department, and at the level of individuals. An applicant from Brazil noted she had studied in Paris, with Georges Didi-Huberman, Alain Badiou, Danièle Cohn, and others. She had also supervised the translation of a dozen European and North American scholars into Portuguese. Several applicants were strongly international: one was born in Africa, studied in Germany, and worked in Egypt. Another was so accomplished and had so many international connections that it seemed the opportunities afforded by the travel grant weren’t that important to him. He wrote that the present and future of art history open a path that we should transit only in an international researchers’ community and in a global scale.
By comparison with these scholars, the panel of judges was more provincial. As a panel we had various obligations, but if we had accepted only scholars like these, we would have been the provincial institution inviting the global scholars to enrich its practices. That would have been an interesting inversion of the usual state of affairs, in which the better funded countries and institutions are also the more international; but it would have been in line with the grant’s interest in internationalism.
Center and periphery in art history cannot always be equated with nations, cities, or university departments of art history. There are departments in developing countries with art historians who travel internationally and look for positions outside their country. It is common, in my experience, to find small, under-funded faculties in developing nations that include one or two scholars whose breadth of reference is greater than the average for larger North American and European art history departments.
(B) Some first-world departments of art history are as isolated as some in developing nations. An applicant from Romania wrote that art history in his country was nourished with innumerable ingredients of belatedness. One could argue, he said, that ”international” does not imply East and West anymore, that it abolishes the divide, but everyone he knows rightly believes the opposite.
This kind of observation can sometimes obscure a more subtle phenomenon, which is just as prevalent. Marginality doesn’t just apply unexpectedly to certain centers of art history: some smaller, provincial and regional institutions in first-world countries can be as isolated, as belated in relation to the discipline of art history, as entire countries or regions in the developing world. There are whole art history departments in first-world countries that are peripheral in the sense that their faculty do not engage the latest scholarship, don’t travel beyond what is necessary for their specialties, and wouldn’t be viable on the job market. (Chapter 1, section 4 has some examples of marginal libraries and resources in first-world art history departments.)
Several applications for the travel grant were from art historians who worked in minor institutions in first-world countries. The countries themselves could not reasonably be called culturally isolated, but some of their institutions could be. One applicant said she worked in a medieval Croatian town that was culturally insensate. An applicant from Poland wrote eloquently about the relative isolation of her institution, saying she cannot ignore the inequalities that still exist between different parts of the world. She wrote that she can’t easily get the newest books or catalogues, that she can’t easily travel, and that her salary is lower than in the West. Even so, she and her colleagues make use of the same topics and theories as in the West, and so she is part of the same “knowledge community.”
It is easy for western Europeans and North Americans to underestimate the influence of apparently slight economic inequalities. And it bears saying that those economic disparities, even though they are slight in comparison to differences between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are more substantial than they might seem. In 2010 I estimated (based on on earning power reported by faculty) that effective income for art historians in Poland is one-seventh what it is in France. For most of Eastern-Central Europe, art historians need to have second and even third jobs. And the amount of disposable income that is left over for travel and books can be vanishingly small.
It wasn’t a surprise to the grant panel that applicants from countries like Romania might need help traveling even within Europe. But it was harder to understand how that kind of inequality could apply to applicants from smaller countries in western Europe. An applicant from Italy wrote that she felt Italy is struggling with a sort of isolation, and is underrepresented at an international level. My own experience working for three years in Ireland, in 2005-7 (that is, before the banking crises, and only just after the so-called Celtic tiger), was that even the major art history departments in Ireland had very small book acquisition budgets, and the university libraries had to consider seriously before acquiring even the basic electronic databases. (This is discussed in chapter 1.) The universities’ budgets for bringing scholars in to talk were vanishingly small. At one stage the university where I worked, University College Cork, had a limit of €250 to invite speakers, which effectively limited the speakers to people from the U.K. who could pay part of their travel expenses.
If there is a center of art history, in this case, it is the approximately 2,500 private and state four-year colleges and universities in the U.S., all of which can afford to buy research materials and subscribe to all pertinent databases—and many of which can afford to invite speakers from anywhere in the world, pay them fees in the thousands of dollars, and help send their own faculty abroad. This may sound inaccurate if you work in a small state university or college in the US and you’re hurting from budget crunches and meager travel and research funds, but the art history budgets for even small U.S. universities can look extravagant and even unthinkable in smaller universities in Europe.
In Europe only a few smaller institutions can hope to invite speakers from outside Europe, or obtain sufficient travel and research funds for professors. In the U.S. it is uncommon to have to apply for sabbatical leave; in the E.U. it is normal, and it’s also common to be rejected. In Europe only the largest art history departments in western Europe, Scandinavia, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and some in other places have the budgets and capacities that even mid-size US state colleges have. There is no way to quantify this, but my sense is the ratio of such departments in the U.S. to those in Europe might be on the order of ten to one.
(C) Peripheral institutions almost always gravitate to the center. Part of the prejudice, common in major North Atlantic institutions, against words like center and periphery or Western and non-Western, comes from the idea that there are local cultures of scholarship, which are self-sufficient or inwardly directed, and are therefore not well described as “peripheral.” Those departments and scholars are imagined to be largely unconcerned with what happens in the so-called “center.” I find this nearly universally untrue.
One of the candidates for the grant wrote describing conditions of art history in his institution in South Africa. He said that aside from the national organization SAVAH (South African Visual Art Historians), hardly anyone shares knowledge, so scholarship goes on in relative isolation.
This paints a picture of endemic partial isolation of the kind that could, in theory, produce different research cultures. On the other hand the magnetic pull of the distant center is very strong. This candidate went on to describe the excitement of meeting someone from the States or in Europe who was doing similar research, and how rare it was to meet anyone working on similar subjects face to face.
Another applicant from South Africa drew the consequences of this situation, saying that he thought the majority of ideas and discourses around the methodologies and cutting-edge approaches to art history remained centered in the proverbial “Western hegemony.” He said he’d initiated a few conversations with colleagues about this subject, and he’d found a general acceptance that the very idea of art history as a field of study is a Western one. What matters, he said, is the possibility of developing new ways to theorize or engage non-Western art practices.
Even though the judges were interested in local practices, it was never clear, during the grant review process, which peripheral locations might be producing writing that might be different from writing done in central locations: this will be the subject of Chapter 7.
(D) Sometimes scholars at the margins do not appear as part of art history. Our grant panel also got some applications from people in less well represented parts of the world, like Togo, Cameroon, and Kazakhstan, and in some of those cases it wasn’t clear whether the applicants knew what art history is. One wrote that art history helps humanity to take account of the past, and that without art history the present and the future cannot easily be foreseen. He added that art history helps humanity understand the way of life of our grandfathers, traditional know-how, and old ways of thinking. From a North Atlantic perspective, that applicant had a strange way of putting things, and it seemed he was guessing at art history rather than responding to it.
Notions of art history, theory, and criticism become less well-defined in places that are culturally isolated or impoverished, and at a certain point it becomes necessary to ask: what, in any given context, should reasonably be counted as the practice of art history? Does this applicant have a working idea of what art history is, or is she motivated by a kind of hope provoked by the questions on the application?
For our panel judging the travel grant, there was a practical question in applications like this one, because we wanted to be sure the applicants could make use of their exposure to art historians in North America. An applicant who knew nothing about art history as a field would not know what to make of the talks given by professional art historians. Underlying that was a more troubling question, which I will develop in chapter 9: what are the limits of what is usefully considered to be art history?
From these four points I conclude that there are interesting differences between the ways words like central and peripheral are used in relation to art, and the ways they might be applied to art history. The center or centers of art history are hard to define adequately. Some depend on not being adequately defined, and most are known only from informal, unquantified descriptions like this one.
In art, center and periphery or margin remain both well known and deeply problematic, especially in regard to modernism. I will end this chapter with an example in order to draw out another difference between center and periphery in art and in art history.
(E) Envoi, on Global Conceptualism
This example concerns the book and exhibition Global Conceptualism (1999) and a response to it in a book called Circulations, edited by the Catherine Dossin and Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel. Circulations is the product of two conferences hosted by the Atl@s group, which is comprised of Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Dossin, and Joyeux-Prunel; I will have more to say about it in chapter 6. The essay that provides my example here is by Sophie Cras; she opens by recalling that Global Conceptualism was founded on the rejection of the center. The exhibition, she says,
suggested “a multicentered map with various points of origin” in which “poorly known histories [would be] presented as equal corollaries rather than as appendages to a central axis of activity.” The very notion of centrality was altogether repudiated, as Stephen Bann made it clear in his introduction: “The present exhibition… explicitly rejects the customary practice of plotting out the topology of artistic connections in terms of ‘center’ and ‘periphery’.”
Cras also notes Peter Wollen’s claim, in the catalogue, that conceptualism had no center, and therefore did not disseminate outward, so that its manifestations are all potentially equal. Her argument is that negating “the notion of an opposition between center and periphery in favor of a supposedly de-hierarchized panorama is problematic at three levels at least”:
First, artists of the time… effectively perceived the artistic scene in terms of centers and periphery, if only to contest its structural inequality. Second, leveling practices… does not allow an understanding of the process by which some established themselves historically while others had to wait for a belated rehabilitation… Third, this proscription of the notions of center and periphery… does little justice to the discipline of geography.
It’s necessary, Cras argues, to retain “center” and “periphery,” but to consider “circulations between these spaces… dynamically and dialectically” in order “to understand processes of emulation, domination and exclusion.” The book Circulations, in which Cras’s essay appears, is an attempt at writing around problems of center and periphery in art by focusing on geographical movements of artists, ideas, and artworks. The Atl@s group uses cartographic tools, large databases, and some historical and conceptual ideas provided by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and others to try to rethink ideas like center and periphery.
Centers “create, or feed on, their peripheries,” Cras remarks, creating a “dialectical tension,” and the idea of multiple simultaneous equally important centers is a rhetorical move, a hope rather than a reality. Her essay includes an excellent succinct criticism of Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object From 1966 to 1972 (1973), contrasting Lippard’s claims of the “decentered internationalism” of conceptual art with maps of the places she mentions, which turn out to have “defined centers and peripheries.”
I agree almost entirely with Cras’s criticisms of Global Conceptualism and of Lippard’s book. Almost, but not entirely, because what most interests Cras seems to be the conceptualists’ inexhaustible experimentation with maps. The many photocopied maps in On Kawara’s 12-volume collection I Went, she writes, “suggest the endless possibility of other places, rather than the fixity of this or that art center or art capital.” Here Cras is attracted by the “visually striking… diversity of maps, scales, typographies and alphabets,” records of the artist’s endless circulation. Here it might be good to mark the difference between a critique of center and margin, and a celebration of endless circulation or the poetry of forgotten “non-sites” or deserted places like the ones shown in Art & Language’s Map of a 36-square-mile area of the Pacific Ocean, or Ger Van Elk’s La Pièce (a blank map of part of the North Atlantic Ocean). On Kawara’s wandering and Art & Language’s or Van Elk’s poetics suspend talk of center and periphery, but—as in Global Conceptualism—they do not effectively remove or deconstruct either term.
Like other essays in Circulations, Cras’s critique may depend too much on the expectation that an emphasis on cultural exchanges might itself remove or solve the traditional focuses of art history or “escape the hierarchization and exclusion that underlies the narrative of modern art.” Elsewhere in Circulations, Piotrowski mentions Global Conceptualism, praising the way it combines “geographical and historical” perspectives, but saying that “in terms of global comparative art studies, however, one has to go further”:
Luis Camnitzer drew a geo-historical panorama of conceptual art, a kind of world atlas of such a practice. What we need to do is to compare East European and South American conceptual arts on a more detailed level.
The question here is what the “more detailed level contributes” to art historical methodology, to “breaking down the dominance of the Western paradigm in analysing conceptual art,” or to re-conceptualizing the global.
Piotrowski first notes that “East European conceptual art” was not “uniform,” and neither was “South American conceptual experience.” He registers the “interesting paradox” that “anti-Soviet attitudes, although shared by almost everyone, did not produce any common transnational platform for subversive art in Eastern Europe.” He also makes distinctions among the reasons for conceptualism in different parts of the world:
Mari Carmen Ramirez is more specific on this issue, and has polemicized against Benjamin Buchloh’s famous essay which sees the origins of conceptual art within the “administrative drive” of late capitalist society. Following Marchan Fiz, she repeats that unlike the Anglo-Saxon self-referential, analytical model, Latin American conceptualism was “ideological” and revealed social realities.
As Piotrowski’s argument develops, it seems plausible that an extended inquiry into conceptualisms in Poland and Uruguay, and in Eastern Europe and Latin America in general, will reveal differences so deeply informed by local contexts that the very project of studying global conceptualism (or even global conceptualisms, in the plural) will begin to fragment. This possibility appears, for example, when he writes, near the end of his chapter, that “neutral, purified, tautological projects such as Valoch’s… or Kozłowski’s… gave them universal, worldwide circulation, but their meaning came from local circumstances, making them entirely different from Latin American political projects.” Piotrowski concludes by mentioning “the limits of reception of circulating ideas.”
For me, this is one of the most interesting passages in the book Circulations. On the one hand, the comparison of conceptualisms in different places is made “more detailed”; on the other hand, that very detail threatens to make local and regional differences more important, more fundamental, than whatever label is used to link them in books like Global Conceptualism. Like circulation, globalism only makes sense at a certain level of generality and scope: but if the drive of the art historical inquiry is toward greater detail, then the discordance between contexts of production overrides similarities, and circulation gives way to local meanings.
This problem of the historiography of global conceptualism is emblematic, and perhaps even crucial, for any account of center and periphery in modern and postmodern art. But I want to leave it here, in order to suggest a difference between center and periphery in art and in art history. The two conferences and several years of editing that produced the book Circulations were themselves examples of central art historical practices. At the first conference, in Purdue University, the presiding historiographer was Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, who had occasion to mention, in passing, that he worked at the world’s richest university. His own work has been central to geographic understandings of art for several decades. (He also wrote the introduction to Circulations.) The scholars at both conferences came from a range of places, but the concepts that brought them together—the idea of using circulations to think differently about center and periphery, the idea of gathering cartographic databases—were held in common. For a number of more marginal, less connected departments of art history, that kind of conversation might not have been possible, because it required some shared knowledge of the problematic of center and periphery, and a tacit agreement that a new kind of study could help resolve the issue.
Personally, I am not convinced that “circulation” can replace center and periphery. As in other such projects, such as Claire Farago and Donald Preziosi’s Art is Not What You Think It Is (2012), I find that projects that seek to reframe the discourse of center and periphery (or the related discourses of the new and the belated, or the canonical and the marginal) only postpone discussion of the target concepts “center” and “periphery.” But that is not my point here: what matters in this context is that the art history performed in Circulations is itself firmly in the center, and it does not engage ways of talking about center and periphery that insist—as many of the applicants for the travel grant did—on directly emulating a center, regretting a peripheral situation, claiming a central status, or otherwise arguing status rather than reformulating it.
5. Regional, provincial, parochial
There are many more terms—but perhaps not too many—that could be counted as “leading” concepts in the articulation of global art history. For a long while, working on this project, I thought the terms regional, provincial, and parochial could be helpful in characterizing practices of art history as well as art. I am not so sure of that now, but it can be helpful to adopt provisional definitions.
Speaking first of the usual applications of these words to art, rather than art history: the term regionalism can be applied to cases in which an artist knows what is happening in some other region, but decides to continue making art that is particular to her own culture. An example is suggested by Steven Mansbach in Modern Art in Eastern Europe (1998) when he points out that artists in Riga were “cognizant of progressive developments in Belgrade or Budapest” through the exchange of journals, although they continued to pursue different trajectories (p. [ ]).
Parochialism would be a better term to describe the case of an artist who knows something is happening in some other region, but is afraid to find out too much. Mansbach notes, for example, that some eastern European groups avoided outside contact “for fear of compromising their perception of their own unique contribution” to their nations’ art (p. [ ]). This is less documented than regionalism, but perhaps even more pervasive; I will consider examples later in this book.
A provincial artist, then, would be one who wants to know about art that is taking place in some other region, but is prevented for political and economic reasons. Mansbach notes the difficulty Polish artists had in forming contacts “across the lines of partition separating Russian, Austrian, and Prussian (German) provinces”: a good example of provincialism (p. 7). (These examples are in my review, The Art Bulletin 82, 2000, pp. 781–85; also The Art Bulletin 84, 2002, p. 539.)
I have not pursued these distinctions in this book, for several reasons. “Regionalism,” which was a term of pride and anxiety in 20th century North American art up to the dissemination of Abstract Expressionism and Pop, has become a general term for modernisms outside western Europe and North America. The affective conflict of the older use of “regional” is somewhat lost in its use as a synonym for “multiple,” as in “multiple modernisms” (chapter 6). There is also Terry Smith’s exemplary essay “The Provincialism Problem” ([ ]), which has been studied by Heather Barker and Charles Green (“The Provincialism Problem: Terry Smith and Centre-Periphery Art History,” a chapter in a forthcoming book on Australian modernism). As e, “SmitBarker and Green noth defined provincialism as ‘an attitude of subservience to an externally imposed hierarchy of cultural values,” which is different from the sense I mentioned, but just as important in its psychological inflection. It seems to me that the affective content of categories like “regional,” “provincial” (in my sense, and in Smith’s), and “parochial” may be the best reason to retain them: as categories they are more of their time—from the opening of the 20th century, with American anxieties about European modernism, to the end of the century, with academic experiments in writing about “other” modernisms.
These terms appear differently when they are used to describe art historical writing. There are certainly parochial art historians in my sense of the word—scholars who avoid looking too closely at some potential sources, languages, and theories—and in Smith’s sense—scholars who feel subservient to ideas and methods that seem not their own. A common example of both would be the discipline’s relation to Hegel: he is an object of fascination, as the potential “father of art history”; but his texts are seldom read at length. (E.H. Gombrich, In Search of Cultural History, 1969.) For younger scholars, it is not an unfamiliar feeling to be at once beholden to and anxious about theorists like Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière, or Alain Badiou. Whether or not these provincialisms and parochialisms correspond to geographic areas, as provincialism did for Terry Smith in New York City in the 1970s, is another question: but in the final chapter I will argue that art history does have identifiable regionalisms.
Are Art Criticism, Art Theory, Art Instruction, and the Novel Global Phenomena?
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, savageminds.org.)
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 academia.edu, 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-Maître 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-Maître, “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 tinyurl.com/k2b6wto. 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.)
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.