This is the third in a four-part series of posts authored by Smarthistory’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr. Naraelle Hohensee. The rest of the series will appear on this site over the following week.
“I cannot decolonize myself, but I can decolonize my methods.”
In 1987, the artist Alfredo Jaar provoked furor with his public artwork A Logo for America, an animation he designed for Times Square’s Spectacolor board wherein he proclaimed that the United States is not “America.” Rather, the animation posited, the term applies to places all across the Americas—both North and South. Jaar’s snappy, 15-second jab at the narcissism and cultural hegemony of the United States reminds us of the immense power that even the most seemingly simple words or concepts can have in framing global identities and power relations. Works like this push us to question the basic ways of thinking about the world that we often assume are neutral in light of the inequitable systemic conditions that produced them. This process of self-reflexively examining—and working to deconstruct—those conditions is commonly referred to as the work of discursive “decolonization.”
Jaar’s emphasis on terminology reminds us that, as we consider how to decolonize the canon in terms of the artworks we include, we also have to think carefully about the analytical tools we use to interpret and contextualize them. Our methods, formulated within a primarily Western context (both in terms of the works of art they were applied to and those who applied them), come with their own inherent biases. While Wölfflin and Panofsky are still important, they shouldn’t—and, in many cases, can’t—be the only tools that our students learn to employ.
“Global” vs. “world”
This critique of methods is at the root of key current discussions about the use of the word “global” itself. John Onians has proposed the term “world art studies” (as opposed to “global art history”) to differentiate between research that looks at the “global”—i.e. globalized, networked—contemporary world through a traditional art historical lens, and that which looks at the “world,” looking at the longer span of historical time and geographic space, using a variety of interdisciplinary methods. The notion of “world” art studies has become an important point of discussion within subfields such as colonial Latin American art, precisely because it entails an interdisciplinary approach that helps to cut through inherited disciplinary boundaries around artists, styles, and periods.
Questioning, critiquing, and connecting
Another way of doing this, of course, is to explicitly emphasize the types of critique pioneered by Berger, Said, and other postcolonial, post-structuralist, and feminist scholars. As Benjamin Harris, a specialist on the global contemporary art world, reminds us: “A truly ‘global field of art history’ would comprise an intellectual intervention premised on a critique of Western power in the world as it exists and is reproduced (and challenged) in cultural and artistic terms.” I believe many of us would agree with this statement, but putting it into practice—especially in the Western survey, with its well-established narratives about stylistic lineage, single heroic artists as innovators, and geographical and chronological divisions—is challenging.
Whether or not we decide that it is important for students to take the Western survey at some point in their art history education (an open question, in my mind), it is clear that students need a robust and current toolkit for looking at and analyzing art. An example of a course that provides this comes from Smarthistory’s contributing editor for the art of China and Korea, Kristen Chiem. Chiem teaches a skills-based introductory elective course (outlined in her article for Art History Pedagogy and Practice), based around seven questions: What is the experience of art? What does art look like? Who makes art? How is art made? What is the relationship between art and the divine? Where is art? To whom does art belong? Using content from Smarthistory, the Met’s Timeline of Art History, and exhibition materials that support in-person museum visits, Chiem combines traditional art historical approaches with a critical view of how and why works are made, used, and displayed. “As we problematize the object, museum, canon, and their related concerns at an introductory level,” she writes, “we may begin to uproot the master narratives that have guided our pedagogical approaches in the past.”
Other approaches look to decenter the canon by looking at art through non-traditional lenses. Indigenous scholars, in particular, have been active in exploring alternative ways of analyzing and teaching about art. An example of this comes from Carmen Robertson, faculty in the Department of Indian Fine arts at the First Nations University of Canada. As she states in an interview:
The first and most profound difference I find in teaching my courses is the decentering that takes place. European art is not the filter through which these courses are taught. Aboriginal values and traditions inform and direct discussions of the artwork shown in class. I embrace ….an interdisciplinary approach [which includes] ….connections to traditional ways, colonial adaptations and recent developments[.]
For instance, when looking at West African Igbo art, Robertson has her students read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and then “discuss both traditional and contemporary expressions by Igbo artists, how museums display their work, and the effects of colonization on the arts.”
Networks as critique
What these approaches have in common, besides their willingness to expand the lens of art history to include concerns such as institutional, political, and cultural power relations, is a focus on objects as interconnected. Scholars in Global Renaissance studies, for instance, have been pioneering ways of reframing the art production of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific in order to question the traditional periodization and categories of style that arose in the art history of the European Renaissance. In the edited volume The Globalization of Renaissance Art: A Critical Review, Ananda Cohen-Aponte points to the existence and necessary acknowledgement of “many Renaissances and many Baroques whose artistic fruits spilled into territories across the Americas and Asia”:
I see a decolonial model of early modern art history as one that is keenly attentive to the hegemonic systems of power that served to naturalize the subjugation of indigenous aesthetic practices. A decolonial approach to the history of art…re-centers art histories that have been pushed to the periphery while still acknowledging the asymmetrical power relations at play between Europeans and their colonial subjects. What would it mean to rewrite a history of art from the vantage point of the Global South, whose positionality at the receiving end of a globalized Renaissance differed considerably from Europe’s self-image that it projected onto the world? (pages 73-74)
The reframing of objects within global networks can itself give rise to a form of critique, since, if we look closely and rigorously, these relationships demand new, more interdisciplinary approaches in order to be fully understood. (A nice example of such a project can be found in the Open University’s Travelling Objects website.) But Cohen-Aponte brings up another important point as well: if we want to truly decolonize the discourse of art history, then, we also have an obligation to make space for indigenous scholars and scholars from the Global South to take the lead writing the history of art.
Smarthistory as a nexus
Smarthistory’s resources are uniquely positioned to support this type of reframing of art history, and it is widely used by instructors who are rethinking their survey courses. One reason for this is the modularity of our essays and videos: each is able to stand alone, allowing readers or viewers with no previous knowledge of art history to grasp the basics. At the same time, our resources are also densely packed with rigorously researched information, and demonstrate, through their dialogical style and wide range of authors, the variety of methods and points of view that can be used to analyze works of art. We also strive to include both scholarly and artistic indigenous voices, most recently in our Oceania and Native American art resources.
Along with the relaunch of our website later this year, we will also be working to highlight the networks of objects amongst our resources that cut across or provide interconnections between periods, places, and traditions. As a digital open educational resource, Smarthistory is uniquely able to allow for these connections to become visible, and we can adapt and iterate quickly as our content expands. The strengths of Smarthistory as a digital resource, and the importance of digital resources for global art history today, will be discussed further in the next post—“Connecting with the World.”