North Atlantic Art History and Its Alternatives
This is the introduction to James Elkins’ new book of the same title. We will publish an extract in the next issue
This is an introduction 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 topic, 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 global art history focuses on the practices of art around the world: 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 my title phrase does not refer to what is studied the master narratives of art history, freshman survey courses, and introductory textbooks – but how it is studied.
The dissolution of the introductory ‘story of art,’ as E. H. Gombrich called it, is impelled by interests in decolonization and identity, and by the ongoing introduction of unfamiliar art practices into the art world. But as the art world is becoming more diverse and inclusive, writing about art is becoming less diverse and more uniform. There is, I think, a single model for how art history and theory should be written, and it is spreading, largely unremarked, around the world: that is my subject in this introduction and my recent 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 practices in Japan, and in that scholarship there is ongoing discussion of which moments in Japanese postmodernism are the 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 forms of argument, the values accorded to what is taken as historical significance, and the places the work is published, 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. It is a paradox that just as attention to identity becomes more intensive, and as the subjects art historians study become increasingly diverse, the writing that articulates those identities and subjects is itself losing the relatively small degree of variety that it still has.
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 introduction and recent book, is an attempt to slow that unfortunate tendency.
I have three purposes in mind:
First, to set out what I think are the principal conceptual issues in the worldwide practices of the writing of art history, theory, and criticism;
Second, to describe the dominant practice, which 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. (Here as everywhere in this introduction, diversity applies to the forms of writing, not its subjects, which are multiplying exponentially).
The field of writing on worldwide practices of art history, theory, and criticism is chaotic, full of incommensurable viewpoints. I begin with a practical look at the study of global art history, including questions of funding, access to books and artworks, and the crucial fact that English is the de facto language of 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’.
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 (this kind of art history could, for example, be associated with Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, Michael Fried, Griselda Pollock, and several dozen others); too institutionally specific (it could be associated with the Art Bulletin, Art History, October, Texte zur Kunst, and a dozen major US and EU university presses); or too vague (it could just be called ‘Eurocentric’ or ‘Western’ art history). Of those unhelpful or treacherous definitions, the commonest is the identification of this kind of art history with the journal October. Among the many difficulties of that identification is the fact that, in my experience at least, it’s common among art historians to deny the influence, the coherence, or the relevance of ‘the October model.’ Still, if the reductive identifications with October, the other journals and presses, the individual scholars, or the individual universities are unhelpful, it’s not much better to think of art history as a single discipline, or to divide it into ‘Eurocentric’ and ‘other.’ We are left with the choice of multiplying art historical practices to the point where each art historian would embody their own scholarly 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’. 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 about the way art history should be written. There is dwindling diversity in the writing of 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. I will explore 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.
There are no ‘non-Western,’ undiscovered, local, national, or regional ways of writing art history that can join their voices to North Atlantic practices and form a diverse community of ways of writing. In other words, it isn’t likely that North Atlantic art history will be saved from homogeneity by the voices of other traditions.
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 history that can join their voices to North Atlantic practices and form a diverse community of ways of writing. 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.
I don’t know any art historians who identify themselves with October. I know some who deny that the circle around October was ever coherent, others who think the ‘model’ is long superseded, and many who do not recognize or acknowledge their indebtedness to October. In my experience most art historians and theorists in the major institutions in western Europe and North America say they are independent of the influence of October and the various scholars and concerns that were associated with it in its first two decades. 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 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.
It’s likely that in the next couple of decades the number of art historians, theorists, and critics who engage with 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 my 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.
My last claim in my 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.
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 my 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. This 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 wider 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 in the humanities are only tenuously aware of the writing that supposedly serves them so efficiently. My 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.
On the Impending Single History of Art: North Atlantic Art History and its Alternatives by James Elkins.
De Gruyter 1st edition.
English 240 pages. ISBN-978-3110681109