Decentering the world—by Dr. Nara Hohensee

Painted ping pong table, 798 Gallery, Beijing (photo: Dr. Steven Zucker)

This is the second in a four-part series of posts authored by Smarthistory’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Naraelle Hohensee. The series will appear on this site over the following week.


How must the discipline of art history change, what are the assumptions it must relinquish, and what ideas must it embrace in order to effect a true dislocation of “center-periphery” models of cultural intellectual exchange?

Aruna D’Souza and Jill Casid

The “global” in scholarly discourse

This question was posed by the organizers of an important conference in 2011 at the Clark Art Institute titled In the Wake of the Global Turn. D’Souza and Casid’s words call attention to the continuing presence of the “center-periphery” model within our discipline: that is, Western art, with its more or less accepted trajectory through classical Greece and Rome, the European Renaissance, and modern Europe and Anglo North America, has historically been accorded a central place within the discipline, whereas art from everywhere else remains at the margins. The center-periphery model applies not only geographically, but also in terms of the people who create art: for instance, Native American and Spanish colonial art are clearly part of the “periphery,” even though they are spatially embedded in North America. The marginalization of artists of color and women artists in all regions is also an important part of this larger problem. In addition to all this, art history itself arose as a discipline within a Western, colonial context, and this context was key in framing even such basic methodological concepts as what constitutes a work of art.

Even when the center-periphery idea is used to critique the marginalization of non-European artworks and methods, the very structure of this model upholds the idea of Europe as a conceptual “center,” thus reifying the very power relationship it seeks to deconstruct. What do we do with these legacies? Is it enough to simply add more works from underrepresented cultures to the existing canon? Or do we attempt to do away with binary concepts like “center and periphery” altogether, complicating the notion of hermetic styles, schools, or traditions? Or, should we look to radically redefine how we define and analyze “art” itself and, consequently, its many histories?

A range of prominent scholars have been working to address these questions, though the results have not been as rapidly or widely influential as many would like. Authors like David Carrier and John Onians have advocated for recognition and redefinition of “global” (or, as Onians advocates, “world”) art history as a necessary step in decentering the Western canon and its methods. The Clark Art Institute has also sponsored a number of conferences on the topic, resulting in several edited volumes that constitute a rallying cry for attention to the issue of “the global,” though they offer frustratingly few solutions.

Another tactic has been to employ methods from geography, as in Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s Toward a Geography of Art and John Onians’s Atlas of World Art. Some prefer an anthropological lens, notably Neil MacGregor in The British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. David Summers adopted a thematic approach in his much-lauded Real Spaces. The topic of global exchange has also taken hold within some individual subdisciplines, notably Renaissance and contemporary art studies. However tantalizing, erudite, and enjoyable as some of these offerings may be, they all lack a key aspect: broad, seamless employability at the basic level of the art history classroom.

The “global” problem in the classroom

In surveying 91 art history departments in 2015, Kristen Chiem and Cynthia Colburn found that, while the majority of program mission statements declare a clear commitment to the “global,” actual course requirements fail to measure up to this promise: about a third of the institutions surveyed do not even require one non-Western course for majors, and of the two-thirds that do require it, the vast majority only require students to take one non-Western course (seven of the 91 schools required two, and only four required three, the average course requirements for majors being 10 to 12 total). Clearly, most of the globe remains at the periphery of undergraduate art history education.

This overwhelmingly Western bias does not end solely with departmental requirements; it also exists at the basic level of the introductory art history survey curriculum. The most widely-used textbooks (Gardner and Stokstad) still organize the history of art in terms of the well-developed Western canon, with other art traditions presented as holistic, geographically-based addenda that reduce the span of entire continents and multiple centuries to single chapters.

It doesn’t take a close reading of the literature described above to recognize this as a travesty. I don’t know any art historians who feel good about the current state of the “global” survey. I also know very few who have figured out what to do about it. Faced with the task of adequately introducing all of the world’s art in one or two semesters, what are we actually supposed do?

Do I have to leave out Michelangelo?

Over the past five years or so, a community of art historians online has been talking seriously about how to address this. Ditching the traditional textbook and moving to the use of open educational resources (OERs) like Smarthistory, as well as flipping the classroom, have been identified as necessary first pedagogical steps out of the traditional survey box. But there is still always the question of what to teach. We are limited to just a few weeks. We are asked to teach not only the basics of art history and its methodologies, but also the larger cultural and political histories that inform it. How do we remain inclusive, but still pack in the content that students need in order to succeed?

A key issue we all face when teaching global surveys is the question of what to leave out. Even a stripped-down version of the well-established Western canon may be too much to fit into one or two semesters if we want to make enough room to cover even the bare minimum of non-western and/or global contemporary art. What do we cut? Do we have to stop teaching Michelangelo so that we can teach Ai Wei Wei? Isn’t the Western canon still important for understanding global contemporary art? But if Michelangelo can’t be left out, how grave is the disservice we are doing to non-Western art, where whole regions are reduced to just a handful of objects? In this scenario, the global survey becomes a negatively-tinged competition over what matters most in our discipline, pitting the “center” against the “periphery”—and no one wins.

The impossibility of this conundrum means we are asking the wrong questions of our curriculum. As many of the scholars mentioned above have also noted, the notion of the “global,” while helpful for pushing us to take a hard look at art history’s inherent biases, can run the risk of reifying those biases if it also means losing the specificity and rigor that the study of art from any era or region deserves. “Global” surveys, while admirable in their aims, may not be the right answer to globalizing the field of art history as a whole.

Possible models for achievable inclusivity

Luckily, paring down the survey is not our only option. There are other innovative solutions worth considering, many of which are eloquently discussed in a dedicated issue of the journal Art History Pedagogy and Practice. Two essays—one by Kristen Chiem (Smarthistory’s Contributing Editor for the art of China and Korea) and another by Julia Sienkewicz, discuss the idea of moving to a skills-based model of introductory art history, treating students’ first class more like a basic methods course that gives them the conceptual toolkit necessary to look more closely at the art of any time period or culture. (This approach is discussed more fully in the next post.) Another potentially fruitful approach is the “multi-survey model,” discussed by Michelle Kerin and Andrea Lepage, in which students are required to take both a survey of Western art and a survey of at least one non-Western art tradition as prerequisites for the major.

What Smarthistory can do

Though the discussions around the problem are of long standing, little traction has been gained on the “global” in art history education. Rather than seeing this as an impossible hurdle, however, we should view it as an opportunity. OERs like Smarthistory are uniquely positioned to assist instructors who are interested in applying some of the innovative teaching strategies discussed above, by actively broadening our coverage of non-Western art, and modeling, as well as providing resources directly about, art history methods.

With the help of skilled subject-matter experts who serve as our contributing editors, we are continually adding more coverage of topics outside the Western canon—specific artworks as well as introductory essays. (If you are a scholar working on an underrepresented area of art history, and you are interested in becoming a contributor, we would love to hear from you. Please get in touch.) We are also actively working on ways of framing this material that will help our users to remain conscious and critical of the eurocentric constructs inherited by our discipline, without jettisoning the tools that are still crucial to understanding art of any era or region: close looking, attention to materials and techniques, and social and historical context. This toolkit, and the ways it needs to expand to address the “global,” are discussed in the next post.

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