Pushing and Pulling the Boundaries of Art History

Pushing and Pulling the Boundaries of Art History…from within: a review on Elkin’s Is Art History Global?

As the last book review requirement for the AS 240 Readings in Art History class, I wish to take this opportunity to frame the review as a reflection on the intellectual journey that this class has brought me to re-think my initial ‘strategy’ on ‘doing art studies’ — which stems on the (art historical) theories that have been influencing, forming, and affecting my personal standpoint or perspective — and, re-evaluate and reaffirm my role as a student in the Art Studies Department. I remember vividly the first day of class when Dr. Datuin asked each student, “Why are you here? Why Art Studies?”; of which my answer was a Ms. Universe-y though sincerely: “to make sense of the world”. Dr. Datuin said in her lecture on Doing Art Studies by “deconstruction…is a postcolonial undoing and challenge to existing norms”; and by challenging the western canon while trusting art historical methodologies is the direction which art studies has to face. Reading “Is Art History Global?” is also a challenge of self-reflexivity for art students as we find ourselves situated in the debate for the discipline’s place in academic institutions and its necessity in the broader context of social need which also impacts government and academic institutions’ policy and mission in education to ‘join the wave’ in the globalization of structures.

I think the main contention in the debate is the issue on “point of reference”, which Elkins identifies E.H. Gombrich’s Story of Art as one amongst the texts that acts as anchor and stumbling block that holds and challenges the direction of the globalization of art history. “Whole chains of dependence, misunderstanding, abbreviation and expansion and adaptation come from receptions of the story Gombrich tells so clearly — the very Eurocentric story that has proven so difficult to import into local contexts”, Elkins explains. (p. 124) Elkins and some participants in the seminar consider the popularization (and lack) of texts having huge influence in the forming (and non-forming?) of the narratives and thereby the pedagogies that art history in respective countries follow. The texts are responsible and fundamental in the formation of art studies starting from Vasari’s The Lives of Artists to include art methods that necessitates looking into the world in which the artwork exists and operates, just as how Baxandall has illustrated in his Paintings in 15th Century Italy. The entry of literary theories into art studies, and the texts and theories introduced by social historians, anthropologists, archeologists, sociologists, have expanded the scope of study on art from its materiality to include the sociality, thus bridging the gap of form and context towards a “contextual art history”. The definition of “art” was debated from since Winckelmann’s idealized form to art as a human product involved in the means of production and consumption. The experience of art was raised by Susan Sontag and Timothy Morton through the examination of abstraction and senses, to include other media, materials, and spaces including the environment beyond the visual and tactile senses exhibited by traditional western art forms of painting and sculpture. In the course of studying art, inquiries delved not just the ‘knowing’ but also of understanding wherein scholars search to find gaps from previous literatures and studies and discovering/realizing the excluded voices of the marginalized: the women, the ethnic people, the non-western, the queer, etc.

Elkin posing the question “Is Art History Global?” is valid and even necessary, however, not new. I think the question is an extension or putting back on the table the issues raised by post-colonial art historians especially Olu Oguibe. Maybe “Is Art History Global?” is a response to Oguibe’s suggestion to exchange a single center to a multiplicity of centers? Is Elkins proposing a universal art history but without the pains and divide caused by colonialism, by the canon? If so, are we to read art history’s western grand narratives with a sense of detachment, and regard it like an artifact of an already dead era, of outdated values? Or are we to totally disregard the western canon, but then, what is the alternative? Shelly Errington also raised the question, “suppose one did not want a way of imagining the narratives of art history as worldwide but neither Eurocentric, essentializing nor reductionist?” (p. 434 )

Recalling Oguibe’s 1993 essay “In the Heart of Darkness”, Oguibe said, “What needs to be done is to reject that peculiarization and all those structures and ideational constructs that underlie it….Otherization is unavoidable. And for every One, the Other is the Heart of Darkness. The West is as much the Heart of Darkness to the Rest as the latter is to the West. Invention and contemplation of the Other is a continuous process evident In all cultures and societies. But in contemplating the Other, it is necessary to exhibit modesty and admit relative handicap since the peripheral location of the contemplatory precludes a complete understanding. This ineluctability is the Darkness”. (Oguibe in Fernie p. 322)

Shelly Errington, opts to pin the issue on the narratives and institutions; categories and characteristics, instead on delving of what constitutes as “art”. The ‘new’ in New Art History is not just expanding other cultures and traditions to the ‘canon’ and grand narratives to ‘radicalize’, make ‘progressive’, or make it seem disrupting the western hegemony in the art history discipline and practice. Such a means, Errington says, is an “additive strategy — what anthropologists call the “fill-a-gap” or “another country heard from” method — is not the answer.” (p.431) Instead, Errington “believe(s) the intellectual center of the discipline may be at its margins — professionals deeply versed in and knowledge-able about the conventional, who push and pull it from within to new insights, perhaps using unusual subject matter.”

Is Art History Global? My answer to the question is “no”. Currently, as in now,  the art studies as we know it is not global. But my question is more on: should Art History be global? Keith Moxley said that Art History, just like the concept of art, is an inherited discipline and “part and parcel of the heritage of colonial and neocolonial experience… and to map the world according to universal principles (is a way) to continue their ambitious attempt to render the world transparent to a single point of view.” (p.208)  Because as long as patriarchy still rules in institutions, in political and social structures;  and as long as there are still unequal conditions in so far as the incapability of non-western institutions and scholars to assert their presence amongst the established, well-funded and published western scholars, globalizing art history will only cement western hegemony. There are ongoing struggles of the marginalized for publication opportunities, and even grants to fund research to include politicized discourses. It is still difficult for me to imagine an alternative. However, at the same time, I would like to see the debate for a global art history as an honest proactive move of art historians to overhaul and re-invent the existing norms. And maybe art historians at the margins will find this the opportune time to finally shout out loud and clear their proposals for an alternative art history.

Which brings me to the issue on intention or purpose: Why study art, why study art history? We go back to Kantian and Hegelian philosophies, and once more examine human in relation to nature. Pushing the boundaries is not just geographical boundary anyway but also the boundary humans placed upon themselves as human equating to “self”. And this, I believe, makes art history global…or maybe not. But that is the joy in art studies — the constant pushing and pulling of boundaries that is the very characteristic of the art discipline, the way artists and intellectuals alike explore at all the possibilities of depiction, of rendering, of creating; a course of study that is continuously and persistently critical, questioning, re-examining, and exploring new possibilities of thoughts and theory-making; of understanding; of seeing and sensing. For me, “doing art studies” is progressive, open-ended and even boundless.

Harris wrote in New Art Histories on bell hooks, on her declaring the “special quality of art activity”, of “art’s ability to transcend race and gender.” Quoting hooks: “Art, and most especially painting, was for me a realm where every imposed boundary could be transgressed. It was the free world of color where all was possible”…”a space of knowing utopian dreaming — where ‘color’ can be “free’”.  (Harris, p. 280) So maybe as   students of art studies we should start working and intervening towards the creation of that utopian space of “doing art and art studies” by pivoting, transgressing the center (Pollock), that patriarchal structure as a whole; it is only then can a global art history be possible.