Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 22, 2009
David Carrier A World Art History and Its Objects University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. 200 pp.; 11 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780271034140)

“Creating a world history of art is very difficult. But finding some way to understand all visual cultures is the most urgent task now facing art historians” (58). Urgency is an unusual accomplice to art-historical inquiry: what might prompt it now, and why should it require a “world history of art,” whatever that might be? David Carrier sees desired states of being such as world peace endangered by “the political struggles that threaten to destroy the very possibility of international cooperation” (xxvi). Academics, he believes, should respond to such threats by rethinking their disciplines as genuinely global projects. In a nutshell, his argument is that art history has been a monocultural (mostly Eurocentric) discipline, an “imperialism seen aesthetically,” but the world has become a more complex and dangerous place; therefore art history must become genuinely multicultural, that is, written from within each major culture, in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Believing it “too early to write a full visual history of all cultures,” an enterprise that would result in “a very fat book,” he sets out to ask if such a world history is possible, decides that it is, and proposes a structure for it (xxv).

The feeling that the history of art as a discipline should encompass all the visual arts of the world has been coming back into focus for a decade or more. As Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann reminded us in his Toward a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), it was present at the mid-nineteenth-century beginnings of modern art history in the German and Austrian university departments. Not only the greatest achievements of the European high arts but also artifacts produced in all cultures anywhere were regarded as worthy of scholarly scrutiny. In their different ways, practitioners such as Horst Bredekamp and Hans Belting continue to mine these beginnings, even as they seek their expansion. The universal art history museums, established at the centers of the European empires throughout the nineteenth century, presumed that exhibit-worthy art had been produced throughout time and across space, although true to their own period they also favored room-by-room narratives devoted to peaks in earlier civilizations and then to national “Schools.” From this perspective, then, today’s art historians and museum professionals bent on a worldly art history would best respond to present expectations by going back to the sources of their own disciplines.

Yet such a blithe, wait-and-see attitude ignores the very reasons why the inclination toward taking large-scale perspectives fell into disrepute within the discipline. Since the 1960s, the standardized grand narratives (style history, connoisseurship, iconography) have been attacked by the social history of art as being aestheticist, by feminists as masculinist, by relativists of all stripes as impossibly universalist, by postcolonial critics as colonizing, and by postmodernists for being, well, grand narratives. While none of these in themselves were total critiques (indeed, could not be so, in principle), each highlighted evident failings, and together brought down the edifice. These critiques did not, however, cause its collapse. They were responses to its failings. They have rebuilt art history into a viable, often vital, reflexive and self-renovating discipline that is pursued, especially by certain, mostly younger practitioners committed to postcolonial critique, in a genuinely worldly manner. Carrier offers a more distant response to the same situation, having arrived at it via a different route.

A philosopher in the pragmatist camp of the American analytic tradition, Carrier now teaches art history and theory at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art. He is best known to art critics for his Artwriting (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987) in which he identified “artwriting” as an emergent genre that was testing the disciplinary limits of modern art history and criticism. Gombrich’s naturalistic narrative, Greenberg’s formalist historicism, and Fried’s “presentness” were giving way, he argued, to structuralist readings that in turn fell short of fully accounting for the contexts of art. To art historians he is best known for his Principles of Art History Writing (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), in which he wondered whether “progress” in artwriting was indicated by the stylistic differences between the contemporary texts about artists such as Piero, Caravaggio, Manet, and Matisse and those of modern, professional art historians. This effort drew high praise from his mentor, Arthur Danto: “Art history has only lately come to the recognition that it is part of its own subject, and that there is an art history of art history to be written, and a theory of art history to be formulated. David Carrier, a philosopher, has thus raised the level of discussion by an immense distance. . . . All further discussion must now begin with him.”

Danto is crucial to Carrier’s latest book (his fifteenth), A World Art History and Its Objects. So is another philosopher who wrote obsessively about art, paintings in particular, Richard Wollheim. The allusion to Heinrich Wölfflin in the title of Carrier’s earlier book is echoed in the current one’s hat-tipping to Wollheim’s Art and Its Objects (New York: Harper and Row, 1968). The object in this book, however, is rarely “art” as a category central to aesthetics. Carrier does focus on works of art, especially when they include tokens and symbols of exotic otherness, such as Oriental carpets. But his main object is artwriting as itself an artful practice: a topic that only grudgingly interests Danto, and one the thought of which would have horrified Wollheim.

An immediate difficulty is that when one presumes to write about artwriting as itself an art one’s own writing is called upon to match its object. One of my own criteria for the success of an artwork is whether it has, or can, inspire brilliantly affective writing, whether it precipitates texts full of striking passages that embody the great and enabling paradox at the heart of all artwriting: original interpretation. How might such a criterion come into play when artwriting itself is the object? What must it inspire? Surely, we would look for brilliant theorization about artwriting as a practice, brilliant hypotheses about its history––that is, for art theory and art historiography pushed beyond their limits. This has been Carrier’s topic all along. But in this book artwriting fades as a topic, and as a demonstration.

Carrier aims to “demonstrate what art historians can learn from historians and from analytic philosophers” (xix). He loves analytic philosophy because it is “determinedly lucid and democratically accessible,” yet he constantly risks this plain speaking by “offering suggestive, but deliberately inconclusive arguments” (xviii). By the time we reach the book’s conclusion, statements in the main text are frequently haunted by a puzzled footnote. Yet his overall argument could not be simpler: art history has been Eurocentric and imperialist, but the world has changed; therefore, a world art history must be multicultural. The devil is in how to show this in detail.

Carrier begins with a chapter about the carpets in such famous paintings as Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1553) (both in the National Gallery, London). This is an amusing and provocative beginning, because it enables him to point out that, despite the many thousands of words expended on iconographic readings of these paintings, Western art historians have without exception ignored the carpets. Not least, he implies, because Western presumptions about high art make carpets visible only as decoration. Orientalism, in all its comfortable shortsightedness, skewered in one stroke.

As distinct from the close focus on the art object much valued by Wollheim, art historians, Carrier observes, are naturally led to place each work in a historical narrative, as their main objective is to show how “its creator acquires and modifies tradition” (22). Since Vasari, art historians have favored causal, temporally linear, monocultural, indeed Eurocentric narratives. The only significant difference that Carrier can see is that some (Vasari, E. H. Gombrich, Clement Greenberg) “treat the history of art as an internal development,” whereas others (Hegel and the Marxists) “construct an external or sociological perspective” (30). All tell “the story of art using one time line.” As Craig Clunas among many others has shown, while it is difficult to argue for an essentially coherent “Chinese art” having existed for millennia, the history of the high arts in China, at least from the twelfth century onwards, can be represented as a sustained, mostly self-sufficient tradition. Along with Indian and Islamic art, this tradition developed along its own trajectory; each flourished quite independently until occasional contacts became frequent and, eventually, in today’s globalized world, quite dense. Carrier’s main point is that these four traditions are “basically distinct, each possessing its own essence” (41).

This presumption permits him a diagram that is at the heart of his argument––indeed, he sees it as the “basic structure for a world art history” (40). It consists of four parallel lines indicating the evolution of the art of Europe, China, India, and the Islamic World as occurring in parallel, with diagonal arrows indicating points of major contact: Alexander the Great enters India, aiconic Muslim cultures react to the dense imagery of Christian art during their invasions of Europe, Castiglione and his Jesuits join the Chinese emperor’s court. . . . For all the ensuing misunderstandings, mismatches, and strange hybrids, what we see in each case is a specific meeting of visual cultures, each of them distinctly evolved. About these, Carrier believes, art historians should write “parallel stories,” thus producing “a “multicultural art history.” There can be, he concludes, “no universal monocultural history of art, no account telling the story of the developments in China, Europe, India, and Islam in one continuous story” (44).

Carrier admits that he does not see how to fit into his account the arts of Africa, Oceania, Pre-Columbian America, and Japan (xii). But there should be no logical problem for him: he is using a civilizational model of history, so each civilization has already generated its own art history to interpret and narrate its art, or should be able to do so. The problem is that a pile-up of parallels would bring his account perilously close to the essentialist generalities of the “the clash of civilizations” thesis on violence in the contemporary world, as revived recently and notoriously by Samuel P. Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996). Carrier shows little awareness of other, more viable attempts at long-term big picturing: the sense of planetary consciousness allied with historical evolution evident in, for example, J. R. and William McNeill’s The Human Web (New York: Norton, 2003). Nor does he consider George Kubler’s famous recognition that cultural evolution is scattered and discontinuous, yet shaped, an insight taken up usefully for this topic by David Summers in his Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (New York: Phaidon, 2003) (Summers appears in the index, but not the text, of Carrier’s book).

Other notable omissions include early twentieth-century speculation about universalization, such as Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1908), and mid-century models such as André Malraux’s L’univers des formes project (best known as the “museum without walls”). Only passing reference is made to world-art surveys such as the many editions of Helen Gardner, regional overviews such as those of Honor and Fleming, Larry Silver, and Marilyn Stokstad, and attempts to make past art vivid for current readers such as David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, and Kathryn M. Linduff’s Art Past, Art Present (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008). For all their strengths and limitations, these textbooks embody the idea that all of the world’s art was there for their reader’s appreciation, in however a schematic and introductory a manner.

Carrier acknowledges his debt to James Elkins, and indeed his concluding chapters fall subject to Elkins’s peculiarly circular yet nonetheless challenging take on this issue. Elkins doubts whether a global art history is possible, mainly because the discipline has been, and remains, so dominated by presumptions and procedures developed in the Western centers, and so much a part of their broader cultural purposes. Asking, “Is art history global?” when you presume that the discipline itself is inescapably Western in character can admit of only one answer. When he looks at artwriting in non-Western settings, Elkins sees, for the most part, something less than art history: art criticism, anecdote, or inauthentic imitation. His provocative posing of the question in these blunt terms has, however, had the advantage of driving many others to think hard about the issues involved. This makes a read of his edited volume Is Art History Global? (New York: Routledge, 2007) an intriguing experience, especially as one senses the increasing exasperation of his interlocutors, as he insists that they demonstrate how art history might move beyond the “tidal pull” of its institutionalization.

In A World Art History and Its Objects, Carrier concludes that a multicultural history of world art will not become possible until Chinese, Indian, and Muslim art historians write their own narrative histories (in of course non-Western ways that are as yet unimagined, or only glimpsed, in those regions, and are in principle unimaginable by non-native thinkers). Meanwhile, we in the West wait, the world waits, for the native art historians in each civilization/culture to do their thing. The accumulation, whatever form it takes, will be “world art history.”

This bald summary conveys some of the flavor of Carrier’s attempt to identify in the most open-minded way possible the issues entailed in the concept of “world art history” and to offer a clear and usable model of its core structure. This is, as he began by saying, hard to do. There remains a presumption that Western art history, whatever its limitations, does its job in ways that set the standards for the profession in the rest of the world, however much they may differ in local detail. Also that world art history will be achieved when the non-West adds on its variant narratives. Dividing the world up this way may be a realistic recognition of widespread prejudice, but it risks recurrence to the identarianism he objects to in his introduction. Although he claims to offer a “political” analysis, the implications of postcolonial critique, now three decades deep, are not grasped. The question of the national––so obviously a driver of European art history—is not tackled in any sustained way; therefore, no conception of transnationality is in play. These considerations, along with the claims and challenges of writing indigenous art history, are looming absences.

A worldly art history would, surely, be one that examines the ways in which worlds of all kinds and dimensions have been and are brought into being, in artworks as objects, in their circulation through space and time, as they resonate in the imaginations of those who see them. It would devote considerable energy to tracing the trafficking in artifacts, the exchanging of artistic ideas, the differentiation and fusion that have occurred for millennia as cultures come into and go out of contact. The interaction between these regional and global flows and local art traditions and inventions is the core “object” of any world art history worth its name.

An approach akin to this is identified as “intercultural” in what is probably the most useful publication to date on these questions, World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches, edited by Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried van Damme (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008). Van Damme’s introduction to the whole book, and his preface to the concluding section, are essential background reading. The anthology has a number of other valuable essays that represent the range of viewpoints in play within and around art history as it interacts with archaeology, anthropology, and cultural studies. These include the comparative regionalism––an essential component of a realistic worldly art history––advocated by John Clark and Matthew Rampley among others. Another, older tendency is to seek to identify qualities that may be universal, fundamental, even (in the case of John Onians’s stress on neurobiology) hard-wired. The journal World Art, currently being prepared for its launch by the School of World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia, will channel these and other approaches.

Carrier’s diagram will, one hopes, be enriched by these developments. It will be a collective enterprise, and not fit into one book, however fat. Indeed, if the 2008 Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art conference in Melbourne is a fair indication, art history as a worldwide profession is, however imperfectly, already moving toward the state of mind for which Carrier calls. The proceedings, edited by Jaynie Anderson, Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence; Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress in the History of Art (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2009), record this sea change. The next congress, at Nuremberg in 2012, has given itself the task of facing up to “The Challenge of the Object” from viewpoints “not necessarily predominantly European,” that would see art objects “as repositories of cultural content in a global framework.” What do you sense in this tentative formulation: an ebbing tide, or one that is on the rise?

[Terry Smith is a member of the editorial board of the College Art Association’s Art Journal. CAA editorial boards operate independently of one another, and Smith was not involved in the editorial process for this review.]

Terry Smith
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh