Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 1, 2000
Esther Pasztory Pre-Columbian Art Cambridge University Press, 1997. 176 pp.; 121 color ills. Paper $18.95 (0521645514)

On the cover of Esther Pasztory’s 1998 book we witness today’s most celebrated pre-conquest Maya sacrificer, Lady Xoc, performing the act for which she is most notable: the Maya noblewoman lets blood by threading a thorn-studded rope through her tongue. Shield Jaguar, her male consort and eighth-century lord of Yaxchilan, stands close by brandishing a torch that illuminates the sacrificial scene. In recent years the sculpted lintel with Lady Xoc and Shield Jaguar, Yaxchilan Lintel 24 has emerged as the veritable metonym for Maya, perhaps even pre-Columbian, art. For this reason alone the image makes a fitting cover for a volume entitled, Pre-Columbian Art.

Yet despite the difficult subject matter, the lintel scene radiates photographic allure. Brought to the fore by dramatic lighting, the sensuous contours of Maya bodies contrast with blocks of hieroglyphic text that date and commemorate the auspicious sacrifice. Though we expect visual drama on illustrated book jackets, Yaxchilan Lintel 24 is not simply a handsome artifact. Its deep shadows betray twenty-first-century lighting technicians at work and, by extension, the caressing gaze of modern eyes. The lintel thus appears part pre-Columbian work, part modern vision. This tension—between objects from the deep past and modern desires to see and know them—infuses not only this book-cover but the entire enterprise Pasztory takes on in Pre-Columbian Art.

Cast in the mold of succinct introductory text, this book is truly ambitious. Rather than focusing upon a single culture or geographic region, as do most other pre-Columbian art surveys, Pre-Columbian Art considers both Andean and Mesoamerican culture. It also addresses historiography, temporality, style, and iconography. While this range of topics is expansive, the book feels neither hurried nor overly condensed. In fact, this text encourages its readers to reflect upon significant issues—as well as consequential objects—in pre-Columbian art history. Beyond this, the juxtaposition of Andean and Mesoamerican traditions allows the cultural diversity and broad patterns that mark pre-Columbian visual culture as a whole to emerge with clarity.

Six chapters form this book’s core: three address Mesoamerica, three the Andes. Each triad progresses culture by culture, from ancient to more recent times. The first three chapters, on Mesoamerica, open with female figurines from Tlatilco and conclude with Mixtec manuscripts and Aztec sculptures. The Andean sequence traces a similar course. Pre-ceramic-period gourds and Chavín de Huantár appear first, Inka stone carvings and textiles last. Although this approach is fairly standard, Pasztory disrupts the traditional account by focusing the middle chapter in each triad on a regional culture that “swims against the tide.” Teotihuacan differs from the rest of Mesoamerica, the Moche stand apart from other Andeans. The point Pasztory stresses: in both Andean and Mesoamerican history there emerges a middle period that complicates and challenges long-standing cultural and visual practices; yet in neither region do these innovators set the course for future developments.

Pasztory’s pre-Columbian art history, then, is the history of patterns and traditions interrupted, but not fundamentally transformed, by intense periods of divergence and innovation. While this perspective is not canonical, it has its intellectual merits. Moreover, this approach leads one to ask an important question: to what extent should introductory texts foreground their arguments? What Pasztory does, then, which is still quite unusual in the pre-Columbian field, is make her arguments about art and its history an explicit component of the introductory narrative.

Admittedly Pre-Columbian Art does not succeed equally well on every front, yet overall it achieves the clarity, visual richness, and insight that characterizes the best introductory art writing. Framing Pasztory’s central argument and presentation of monuments are a short introductory section and concise conclusion; both take up serious topics (e.g., the Euro-American discovery and reception of pre-Columbian objects, relationships between pre-Columbian visual culture and those of other ancient peoples). The book also includes a short bibliography that emphasizes recent publications in English, a timeline, and a significant number of good, color illustrations.

Pasztory has done an excellent job with the vocabulary and comprehensibility of her text. While experts may be disappointed by some of her exclusions and organizational choices, “canonical” works like the Olmec heads, Aztec Calendar Stone, Maya murals of Bonampak, Inka site of Machu Picchu, and Paracas weavings all make an appearance. Indeed, among the book’s strengths are its images and its focus on broad issues. Beginning students, I have found, crave many good-sized color pictures and explanatory captions. And Pasztory gives us both. Not every photograph is equally faithful to the current appearance of its object, but the visual materials should make Pre-Columbian Art a valuable aid for classroom use. Beyond this, the book considers topics that undergraduates and nonacademic readers should find compelling. Discussions of gendered imagery, while not elaborate, are informative and engaging, as are Pasztory’s comments about archaism, mimesis and abstraction, temporality, and representations of the human form.

For all its virtues, Pre-Columbian Art does construe the field in some unorthodox ways. For instance, one of the book’s most interesting recurrent themes is the performativity and theater of pre-Columbian visual culture. Yet Pre-Columbian Art renders the sites, the built environments, the architectural frames for pre-Columbian performances oddly insubstantial. Of 121 plates, there appears just one site plan (Cuzco), no architectural reconstructions, and only about a dozen architectural photographs. The written text does treat the organization of <a href= >Teotihuacan’s central section, Maya corbel vaulting, the building history of Chavín de Huantár, and the arrangement of compounds at Chan Chan. What is eclipsed is the visual explication of these key architectural themes.

It’s not simply that one might prefer more (or other) sites and buildings, fewer sculptures and textiles. The problem is more acute: the absence of plans, reconstructions, and architectural photographs minimizes the significance of pre-Columbian built environments and physical contexts. More specifically, Pasztory’s presentation could lead to the implication that sculptures, textiles, and masks carry greater cultural meaning than do either pre-Columbian architectural works or their spatial relationships—a conclusion which I suspect the author would not endorse. In museums, today, objects receive far more glory than do buildings, and physical contexts are often of minimal concern. In the pre-Columbian past, however, this was not always the case. It is therefore unfortunate that Pre-Columbian Art could not devote more serious attention to the theaters of pre-Columbian visual culture.

Also slighted is the cultural significance of materials and forms. On one hand, the text and captions are model in identifying the materials worked in pre-Columbian times. This subtly but insistently reminds readers that the materials of pre-Columbian art were not inconsequential. On the other hand, images and text together privilege the pictorial content and abstract geometry of pre-Columbian arts over their material constitution. Often, for example, the text interprets and the plates illustrate details selected from a larger textile, screenfold, or ceramic vessel. While this makes immanent sense for an iconographic discussion, nowhere are we shown a full-view of any pre-Columbian screenfold, nor can we examine how painted figures fill the space, and curve around the walls of any Maya vase. Consequently, our desires to know images iconographically, our desires to see “up close,” as it were, take precedence over the shapes, forms, and visual armatures created—and experienced—by pre-Columbian peoples.

No book, however good it may be, permits us to see pre-Columbian sculpture, painting, weaving or architecture as did their creators and viewers. Nevertheless, Pre-Columbian Art might have made more of the ways in which our modes of seeing differ from those of the past. At times the book does engage this topic directly, in its cross-cultural comparisons and discussions of “discovery,” reception, and different notions of time. More often than not, however, it is only by implication—through the shadows raking across the lintel with Lady Xoc—that our ways of seeing impinge upon those of pre-Columbian peoples and their objects. Perhaps this is as it should be. After all, the legacy of survey writing lies in teaching us what can be seen, not how such sights are produced.

Ultimately, the issue that Pre-Columbian Art raises reaches beyond pre-Columbian art history, and pertains to art historical pedagogy in general. For in complicating the traditional introductory approach—wherein monument follows monument, and time coupled with culture provides the primary undergirding for our introductory narratives—this book asks whether other narratives might be more apt. While traditional approaches offer the apparent advantage of “objectivity,” no presentation lacks an interpretive agenda. Taking this point as given, Pasztory’s book suggests that we lose an important form of expertise when our introductory art histories make no explicit arguments. Certainly, some will not agree with Pasztory’s positions on pre-Columbian art. Nonetheless, her arguments are those of substance; they are claims that students and readers outside academic circles will be capable of addressing and will find provocative. And to my eye, introductory books that are provocative are as desirable as they are rare.

Dana Leibsohn
Department of Art, Smith College