The Impending Single History of Art:

North Atlantic Art History and Its Alternatives

James Elkins

Table of Contents



1        The Conditions Under Which Global Art History Is Studied

2        Leading Terms: Master Narrative, Western, Central, Peripheral, North Atlantic

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

4        How to Read Art Since 1900

5         Pondering a Response to Art Since 1900

6        State of the Field: Five 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 globalization of the discipline is the single most important problem in the discipline, 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 history is at risk of being flattened into a homogeneous world discourse, despite the fact that our theories continuously proclaim the problematic nature of identity, the myth of the local, and the unexpected mixtures of transnational practices. The impending single history of art will be very sensitive to difference, but unless it also reflects on its own lack of difference, national and regional variations in art historical writing may go 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 is the everyway 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 in the most tenuous control of the writing that supposedly serves them so efficiently.

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 75 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 benefitted 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;; 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.