Where does art come from? This is the type of question that we don’t often consider carefully because it feels so simple. Duh… art comes from where it is made! You’re probably asking why a textbook about art history even asks this question (and, perhaps, why it is written so informally; for that refer to “How to Read this Book”). The question is actually really important when you want to consider all art, not just some of it. We’ve got to question what we have been taught about what ‘art’ is and/or is allowed to be. This requires understanding the history of art history.
An admittedly very brief and condensed history of Art History
The title of ‘first art historian’ usually goes to Giorgio Vasari, an Italian artist and architect who wrote Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (Vasari 1550, 1558) but this is debated (see more below). From the title of Vasari’s book, you already get a picture of what his art history was like. He offered biographies of famous painters, sculptors, and architects who worked during the Italian Renaissance (a French term that was given to this period after Vasari’s time but reflects his use of the Italian term rinascimento, meaning ‘rebirth’). He praised the artists who achieved what scholars today call realism and/or naturalistic representation (rendering of subjects very close to the way we see things in real life). These ideals were adopted from ancient Greek and Roman (i.e. Classical) artists. This came in contrast to subsequent Medieval artists, whose work was “shapeless and clumsy,” according to Vasari (1550). After the Medieval period, the Renaissance was the ‘rebirth’ of Classical ideals, intellectualism, and visual style.
Vasari is pretty clear about what types of art interest him. One big distinction made early on in art history was the difference between ‘art’ and ‘craft.’ Paintings, sculpture, and architecture were classified as art while objects like ceramic vessels, baskets, or beaded jewelry were crafts. A related distinction created by later art historians contrasts high art and low art. High art requires more and scarcer resources to produce than baskets or pottery, and appeals to the so-called higher classes of society (those with wealth, power, and prestige; we’ll expand on this in “Why Do They Have More Than Us?”). Low art primarily features commonplace and cheap materials. High art is primarily function-less, and therefore only made to be admired and contemplated. There are exceptions, like highly decorative porcelain dinnerware that adorned lavish tables and served tasty meals! Low art is primarily functional, such as a basket used to transport many small things at once but happens to have interesting visual qualities. Low art that has strong cultural resonance for lower status people, sometimes called the ‘common folk,’ is often labeled ‘folk art.’
Any guesses who the high status people associated with high art were when art history was just getting started? They were European. They were white. They were wealthy and/or from noble families and they were predominantly men. So, high art was for and about old rich white men and their families. Those are the patrons of art that you read about in traditional art history textbooks. P.S. ‘Patron’ derives from the Latin pater, meaning “father.” The gender bias (favoring or advantaging of one gender over another) is clear.
Who made high art like that? They were skilled (and sometimes high status) artists paid to glorify the heritage, power, and wealth of those old rich white men. Most of those artists looked a lot like their patrons, albeit with less fancy adornments. For example, almost all the artists mentioned in Vasari’s (1550, 1558) Lives are white men. Vasari included four women painters. Vasari’s art history successor, German artist and scholar Karel Van Mander, wrote Schilder-boeck (The Book on Painting, 1604) to expand the collection of valued artists to include those of the Netherlands (aka Northern Europe) and also mentioned several women. But, we cannot ignore that the vast majority of valued artists of high art were men.
Before Vasari and Van Mander, one of the earliest recorded attempts to describe high art is now known as the Seven Wonders of the World compiled by the Greek historians. These were architectural marvels, often adorned with marble sculpture or mural painting, that housed the activities and/or graves of the social and political elite. Most of these ‘wonders’ were built during the early part of the Classical Period. Overall, this period spans the development of the Greek city states and the Roman Empire. The term ‘Classical’ was applied to those periods after the time of Vasari and Van Mander but they shared the sentiments it relates. The term ‘classical’ (as a proper or regular noun) is synonymous with ‘harmonious,’ ‘pure,’ and relates to phrases like ‘the epitome’ of something. Thus, the term implies a sense of ‘rightness’ and superiority to the arts produced during the Classical period.
In Schilder-boeck, Van Mander included a section dedicated to Greek and Roman, as well as Egyptian, artists because scholars of the Renaissance saw a line of descent from the Classical artists to the artists of their day (thus, the ‘rebirth’). Greeks saw links between their culture and that of the preceding Egyptians (including direct political links because the Greeks conquered Egypt in 310 BCE and established the Ptolemaic Dynasty). That’s why Van Mander included Egyptian artists in his Schilder-boeck, because the vaunted Greeks already made the connection to them. (P.S. Another of the original Seven Wonders was the Great Pyramid at Giza).
After Vasari and Van Mander came Johann Joachim Winckelmann. This German art historian wrote Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (The History of Art in Antiquity, 1764) focused on Greek and Roman arts. He was the first to arrange Greek and Roman artists into periods and structure our view of ‘Classical’ art. His work wasn’t just a list of artists and their dates. It solidified an underlying message or narrative of art history started by Vasari and continues to this day: Classical arts, and those that relate to their ideals (namely Renaissance and Neoclassical arts) are set above, as in superior to, other arts. This is the foundation of art history. When a school teacher uses an image of a Greek marble sculpture to introduce children to art, they are being taught ‘taste’ and to have an ‘eye’ for the ‘Classical’ beauty and sophistication of such arts. They are being taught the ‘Western Canon.’ The term ‘canon’ derives from the practices of the Christian Church but is also generally used to describe a group of ideas/things that have been established and accepted as ‘the rule’ or standard for judgment. We’ll focus on the more specific canon of art (not the canon of music, literature, etc.).
The Western Canon
The Western Canon of art is a collection of artworks, usually organized on a timeline, that Western scholars agree should be understood as the best examples of art. And here, we get back to our ultimate question… Where do those best examples of art come from? Yep… you got it… the so-called ‘Western World’/’the West.’ So, what’s the ‘West’? It’s not just whatever place is west of where you are right now. It’s West with a capital ‘W.’ This term derives from the Latin occidens, meaning ‘sunset’ or ‘West.’ Its contrast was oriens, meaning ‘rise’ or ‘East.’ These were directional terms relative to Rome. The term ‘Western’ came into prominence with the division of the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This is where we get the modern terms of Western Europe and Eastern Europe.
So, in the Western Canon, arts from Western Europe (by white men) are prioritized. There are a few exceptions. As art history developed over time, scholars started to contextualize ancient Egyptian art with examples from the Levant (aka the eastern Mediterranean coast; present-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria) and Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Egyptologists realized that ancient Egyptian leaders had long-established contacts in the Levant and Mesopotamia. Biblical references to the Mesopotamian cities of Ur and Babylon also inspired investigations of these regions. It is not a coincidence that the trajectory of Judeo-Christian-Muslim (aka Abrahamic) history laid out in Biblical texts features prominently in the Western Canon. But, it is important to note that Egyptian religion and the social systems of places like Babylon are not represented favorably in the Biblical tradition. Thus, there is a question whether Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures really belong in the Western Canon. Interestingly, there are many antecedents of the Abrahamic traditions within Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture, such as the Goddess Isis and her son Horus (forerunners of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ).
Overall, the Western Canon is biased towards European and Mediterranean art, especially high art, and is fundamentally Eurocentric. It is a master narrative of prestige, power, and progress. Many art historians now recognize that as art history was developing so too were the early European countries (aka nation-states). As Shelly Errington (2007, 417; also Tchibozo 2007, 235 citing Summers) writes,
Emerging European nation-states depended on their colonies not just economically but imaginatively, coming to define themselves artistically, photographically, architecturally, and in innumerable other ways in contrast to their colonies in the set of binaries all too familiar – the civilized versus the savage, the agent of history versus the passive recipients of history, the emblems of progress versus the emblems of backwardness and decadence.
These notions of ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’ are still ever-present in Western culture today. They derive from this period of setting Europeans and Euro-Americans (people of European origin who colonized the Americas) apart from the rest of the world (that, in their eyes, was open for colonization). The concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ so tied to the history of the United States and settlement of the Americas, derives from the perception that Europeans and their descendants are ‘active’ and ‘civilized,’ while all others are ‘passive,’ ‘backward,’ ‘uncivilized,’ ‘primitive,’ ‘savage,’ and ‘tribal.’ These ‘others’ needed saving, so the heroic European colonists set out on their “civilizing mission” (Errington 2007, 420) to save the day (please, notice the sarcasm). These are the types of sentiments, implicit or explicit, that fueled severe violations of basic human rights, such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. These sentiments supported the intent to actively suppress and oppress peoples without European heritage.
FYI: Xiyang or “The West” was also a term developed within China to refer to the areas west of the boundaries of Zhongguo (“the Middle Kingdom”; the name of the historic territories of what we now call China today). Xiyang did not refer to Europe but to Central and Western Asia. Zhongguo was ‘civilized’ while Xiyang was ‘barbarous.’ Such derogatory perceptions were not just limited to the history of European/Western expansion and foreign relationships. The communist government of China today does not hold to the values of Zhongguo, as a system of dynastic imperial rule, but does demonstrate prejudice against populations of Xiyang (more specifically Xiyu), such as the predominately Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
Sentiments of prejudice and superiority also justified the theft and/or exportation of cultural objects from their places of origin into Europe as ‘curiosities’ of ‘primitive culture.’ From the European perspective, these objects were interesting for their difference and for their ‘anti-artness’ and how ‘low’ they were in comparison to the high arts of Europe. This difference is summed up by the term ‘Non-Western,’ a catch-all that could identify whether something was part of the Western Canon or not. This term developed as people started seeing the flaws in the narrative of civilization inherited by European colonists from their ‘perfect’ Greek and Roman Western predecessors.
People started asking, so what about all the other art? There had been trade along the Silk Roads for thousands of years prior to the development of the Western Canon. This trade brought the arts of Asia into Europe and vice versa. These were always curiosities and exotic luxury goods but weren’t really treated seriously. Starting in the 1500s CE and ramping up in the late 1800s CE, the arts of East Asia flooded into Europe. Famously, artists like Vincent Van Gogh became fascinated with Japanese prints. The distinct approach of abstracted elements seen in these prints helped fuel the Impressionist and Modernist turns away from Classical realism/naturalistic representation. Modern art (with a capital M; see “How To Read This Book”) rejected realism and sought to experiment beyond the boundaries of the traditional Western Canon of art. But who were those Modern artists, you ask? Yep… mostly white, European men. Even though they messed with and threw out the Classical ideals, artists like Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali were immortalized in the Western Canon. The narrative of progress and prestige shifted from getting closer and closer to picture-perfect realism to experimenting with the boundaries of painting and sculpture. SPOILER: We’ll discuss how lots of this early Modernist experimentation was inspired by arts from around the world and not just Japanese prints. Those revered artists benefitted and profited from the study and exportation of ‘Non-Western’ art to Europe.
As artists like Van Gogh and others started taking arts beyond Europe seriously, we needed a way to describe those ‘other’ arts. That’s where ‘Non-Western’ came in and investigations of various geographic regions ramped up. One society that didn’t necessarily influence European artists but impressed scholars of the late 1800s CE was the ancient Maya. The crew of Columbus’ last voyage probably came in contact with a large Maya trading canoe traversing the Caribbean sea in 1502 CE. Europeans didn’t know much about Mesoamerican cultures until Hernán Cortés and Pedro de Alvarado reported back to Spain after the conquests of what became the present-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. In the 1520s CE, Catholic missionizing started swiftly. Plantations and colonial cities like Mexico City were built (over existing indigenous infrastructure). The ancient cultures were of interest but the colonial mission was more important for a long time.
By the late 1800s CE, the field of archaeology formally developed in Europe. Archaeologists started undertaking expeditions to ‘discover’ ‘lost’ Maya cities. (Make sure to notice the quotations marks in that previous sentence. Those cities were not ‘lost’ to local inhabitants and descendants. They were very much aware of their existence; that’s how the European explorers knew where to look.) Many archaeologists focused on the Maya because they found an affinity for their art styles. Maya artists were very adept at the representation of the human figure, realistic proportions, and detail in painting and sculpture. These characteristics put them high up on the rungs of the Non-Western ladder of art.
In fact, early Maya archaeologists used the term ‘Classic’ to refer to certain examples of Maya art. Today, we still use these terms. The Maya Classic period ranges from about 250-900 CE. Scholars designate the period before as the Preclassic period (ca. 1000 BCE-250 CE) and the period after as the Postclassic (ca. 900-1541 CE) (really imaginative, huh?). This ‘Classic’ designation is different from equating it with ‘Classical’ (Greco-Roman) culture but it demonstrates that a certain bar of sophistication was met by the Maya, according to the preferences of the Western Canon. Today, Maya archaeologists realize that what earlier scholars prioritized is not necessarily what the Maya would have prioritized and that the arts of the Preclassic and Postclassic give arts of the Classic period a run for their money according to internal Maya conceptions of visual value. Eventually, other traditions were provided with the ‘Classic’ term, typically denoting when the art styles became the most Western-looking/feeling. For example, the so-called Classic Veracruz culture demonstrated orderly architectural design and skillful figural ceramic sculpture.
Applying the term ‘Classic’ to cultures outside Europe wasn’t about challenging the Western Canon but developing a hierarchy of Non-Western traditions. Scholars are competitive and they want the culture they study to be regarded well. Eventually, Chinese art, Japanese art, Maya art, and the art of specific periods like the Gupta Empire of India or the Benin Kingdom of Nigeria took top prizes in those rankings. Still, the convenient division of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (Western versus Non-Western) persisted for a good while.
Then, the world changed. The World Wars slowly but surely made people rethink what nationalism (nation-statism) was about and how art history could be used to bolster racialized nationalism (think about Nazism here). In addition, the Post-War period included a succession of independence movements within European colonies, such the independence of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh from the British Empire in 1947 CE. New nations were building out of old colonial powers.
Post-war sentiments lit a cultural fire called Postmodernism. As the name implies, Postmodernism was a movement to move past modernism, and actually challenged the assumptions of modernism (here used as a cultural term and not specifically referring to Modern art but oftentimes relating to it). In a nutshell, cultural modernism refers to systematic as well as order- and progress-focused thinking typical of European and Euro-American traditions from the Industrial Revolution to the decade after World War II. Think of the first skyscrapers of the 1890s CE: big, geometric, industrial, and so-called symbols of progress. Think about the stereotype of the 1950s housewife and nuclear family.
Postmodernism was a rebellion against those things. This is when we got Andy Warhol printing large-scale images of Campbell’s Soup Cans and telling the world he didn’t care about the intellectual property of a big industrial giant. We also saw strongly Feminist artists making statements like Your body is a battleground by Barbara Kruger, demonstrating that modern society wasn’t as progressive as it thought it was. Post-War Postmodernism also coincided with Postcolonialism and rethinking of the intersecting colonial, industrial, and Eurocentric agendas of the past. Recently, for example, this re-thinking has inspired the disuse of the term Non-Western, because it feels like a negation of the very traditions it is meant to describe, in favor of terms like ‘global art’ or ‘world art.’
Many people argue that we’re still in the Postmodern period right now and that when art history is written about our contemporary period, it will be classified as Postmodern along with Warhol and Kruger. Others disagree. But, the recent Coronavirus pandemic and events of summer 2020 CE in the US indicate that Americans and the world at large are still grappling with the legacies of colonialism and the embedded biases of concepts like the Western Canon.
So, what happens now?
What do we do with that history of art history? How do we deal with that baggage? Firstly, we have to understand it and not just sweep it under the rug, pretending that art history is “neutral” or unbiased (see Orfila 2007: 312). As Kitty Zijlmans (2007: 293, after Mosquera 2005) states, “We cannot … unwrite the art history that has been written … What we can do, and what has been happening for the past decade, is to reevaluate how art history has been written and question why it happened in such a way…” (her emphasis). The Western Canon and the appendages of Non-Western art are what we have to start with but they don’t have to define what we do moving forward. For example, many art history faculty are rethinking what they teach and how they teach it.
So, let’s start by asking ourselves why a textbook offered for global art history courses has focused on Europe and Euro-America so much. That’s an excellent question! Many art history scholars have asked themselves similar questions. In fact, that became the theme of a scholarly debate in The Art Seminar series, which produced a book called Is Art History Global? (Elkins 2007). We’ve already quoted many of the contributors from that volume in this chapter because there were so many important voices collected together to debate this deceptively easy question. You can say, “Sure, art history is global,” but the people who actually work in art history day in and day out know that it’s not as easy as that.
Check out books that explain this history of art history in more detail, such as James Elkins’ (2002) Stories of Art, an ironic riff on E. H. Gombrich’s (1950) tome The Story of Art. Gombrich wrote one of the preeminent textbooks of art history, used to teach countless high school and undergraduate college students about art history for many years. It is the grand narrative of the Western Canon, with beautiful imagery and engaging descriptions of naturalistic forms. Our brains always love a good story and Gombrich offers one. More recent art history textbooks like the long-lived Art Through the Ages first developed by Helen Gardner in 1926 CE, which is now in its 15th edition, continue this narrative with Non-Western or global art sprinkled in.
Contrary to what these textbooks imply, Elkins (2002) highlights that there isn’t just one story of art. In fact, he mentions several examples of art histories written by non-European scholars, including:
- The 1606 CE Persian Calligraphers and Painters by Qadi Ahmad (Ahmad and Minorsky 1959)
- The Stalinist Universal History of Art by the Institute for the Theory and History of the Visual Arts at the Academy of Arts (1956) in Moscow
- The works of Zhang Yanyuan ca. 850 CE (Tang Dynasty China) called Fashu Yaolu (法書要錄 Compendium of Calligraphy) and Lidai Minghua Ji (歷代名畫記 Famous Paintings through History) (Zhang Yanyuan 1993-2000)
Each of these art histories was written with distinct narratives in mind. To consider this revelation that there isn’t just one story of art history further, let’s just focus on some of the most well-known ways of perceiving and presenting a narrative of art history, following examples provided by Elkins (2002, 11-36):
|Who’s Perspective?||Basic Structure of the Narrative|
|Erwin Panofsky (famous art historian focused on the Renaissance||Classical (Mycenaean; Hellenistic)
Medieval (Carolingian; Gothic)
Renaissance (Early Renaissance; High Renaissance)
|Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (famous Western philosopher)||Symbolic/Primitive stage (Ancient art)
Classical stage (Greek and Roman)
Romantic/Neo-Primitive stage (Post-Classical)
|A Modernist’s view of art history||Before Art (Prehistory; Classical Greece and Rome; Middle Ages)
Art (Renaissance; Baroque; Modernism)
After Art (Postmodernism)
|Gombrich in The Story of Art (1950)||Pre-Realism (Ancient and ‘Tribal’ Art)
Realism (Greek and Roman)
Loss of Realism 1 (Medieval)
Return to Realism 1 (Renaissance)
Loss of Realism 2 (Baroque, Rococo)
Return to Realism 2 (Neoclassicism)
Loss of Realism 3 (Modernism)
Continued Loss of Realism 3 (Postmodernism)
|Gardner and subsequent editor Fred Kleiner in Art Through the Ages: A Global History (2008)||Ancient art (Africa; Europe; Near East; Egypt)
Early Classical art (Minoan; Mycenaean; Greek)
Early Asian art (India; China; Korea; Japan)
Later Classical art (Etruscan; Roman)
Late Antiquity and Byzantine art
Early art of Africa and the Americas
Medieval and Gothic art
Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo art
Late Asian art (India; China; Korea; Japan)
Late art of the Americas and Oceanic art
Late African art
|Most museums today||Non-Western Art
Western Art (Pre-Modern art; Modern art)
International Postmodern Art
|Many practicing artists today||Art History (for anywhere in the world or specific locations that the artist favors)
The Present (i.e. their own work and that of their peers)
All this variation demonstrates that there isn’t just one story or narrative. It’s actually up to the author or reader to make the narrative into what they want it to be. We all have that choice.
So, what’s this book about?
Firstly, we want to challenge the narrative that prioritizes Europe and Euro-America at the expense of the indigenous traditions that they exploited and colonized. We recognize that tacking on new threads to the old narrative does not help. So, for starters, we’re not tackling global arts in a timeline or geographic travelog and we’re not using the standard map.
Have you ever considered what this standard map (Fig. 1.1) implies about the world? If you get out a ruler and measure the center of this image, where does it land? Have you done it yet? It hits right about at the toe of present-day Italy (since it looks like a boot).
Why is that? Cartographers (mapmakers) like Gerardus Mercator who developed the basic Mercator projection of maps (flattening the spherical earth out onto a 2D image, because the earth is NOT FLAT) were… European! They made maps for European navigators in the 1500s. Thus, they centralized Europe so that any way expeditions went, you could draw a path from your starting point out to your destination. Have you realized that this also means that people who already visualize Europe as the center of the world now have physical evidence that this is the case? That’s what maps can do for you, offer a tangible picture of how you view the world. BTW, Arab cartographers focused on Muslim traditions chose to center their maps on their holy city of Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia.
In addition, the famous Mercator projection also presents geography of the global south (such as South America and Africa) as much smaller than the global north (such as Canada or Russia). This is a result of cartographic choices and incorrectly represents the surface area of southern continents, relative to others. Maps like the Peters World Map (Fig. 1.2) offer projections that accurately present the relative scale of continents.
Another map called the AuthaGraph, invented by Japanese architect Hajime Narukawa in 1999, accurately represents continent and ocean area sizes relative to each other and reduces distortions (Fig. 1.3). It presents a completely different arrangement of continents, which may look strange, but actually more accurately represents our world.
Since we’re trying to reduce the baggage of the Western Canon, we’ll use a different map than the one you probably expect (Fig. 1.4). We’re not centering Europe; we’re centering a part of the Pacific Ocean with no land or occupants. That feels more objective, doesn’t it? This map also visualizes how big the Pacific Ocean is, whereas Figure 1.1 breaks it up. It may take a bit to get used to seeing the Atlantic Ocean broken up (Columbus would hate it!), but you’ll get over it! Our map does not reflect accurate relative surface areas or other ways to project continent arrangement but that is something we are working on for the future.
So, what else are we doing in this book? We’re asking questions that most people ask themselves throughout their lives. Each chapter is dedicated to a human question, about identity, birth, death, relationships, and how we live. We’ll engage with the categories of art and think about visual qualities, including very subjective qualities like beauty, but our discussions will focus on the human element of art.
As Hans Belting (2011) argues in his book An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, an image (anything with visual content) is both the physical stuff that an artist creates and the way that a viewer sees/considers/interacts with it. The viewer is the body that interprets the artist’s work into what we call images, or art or visual culture. Thus, any study of art must consider the viewer, the user, the audience, in addition to the maker. As the title of his book demonstrates, Belting was interested in using anthropology (literally meaning the study of humans) to better understand art. We don’t think divorcing humanness from art does much good. We find that the best studies of art keep humanness at the forefront. Here, we will prioritize the various dimensions of our personal and social lives and how art relates to them, as both producers and viewers/users of art.
This priority means putting people first. When we are talking about traditions outside the Western World, that means European and Euro-American audiences need to invest time in learning about people around the world, who have been ignored, devalued, and demonized. In this book, indigenous traditions are prioritized and recognized as ‘active’ (not ‘passive’) agents of culture and change. But, AND THIS IS A BIG BUT, we have to realize, as Elkins (2007, 100) notes, “[We] can never hope to attain cognitively the kind of seeing and habits the original audiences had when such objects entered their consciousness, but only hope to arrive at some approximations of them.” This existential obstacle doesn’t mean that we can’t seek to learn about distinct traditions and seek to build relationships with people who live, think, and see the world differently. We’ll discuss this more in “Who Am I?” and “Can We Live Together?”
Our prioritization of indigenous culture and art is a reaction to colonization. It is part of the process of decolonization and the Postcolonial movement, including (but not limited to) removing the interpretations imposed upon indigenous traditions by non-indigenous people. FYI: decolonization and Postcolonialism are sometimes considered synonymous but they are distinct, as a number of scholars discuss in an online forum about the distinction between these terms on Research Gate (P.S. this forum demonstrates that such terms require discussion to pin down and scholars don’t always agree).
Generally, Postcolonialism refers to the time period and processes of change after the end of colonialism in any particular area. But, that’s not the whole story. Postcolonial movements often begin before independence, when people are seeking independence and defying colonial culture. Decolonialism is often used today to refer to the broad processes of removing colonial biases from education, museums, and other social institutions. Overall, decolonialism is an approach focused on “disobedience […], de-linking” (Mignolo 2011: 122-123; 2007: 450) and “reconstruction” (Quijano 2007: 176) as well as “eliminating the […] tendency to pretend that Western European modes of thinking are universal” (Okumu 2021 citing Mignolo 2000: 544). Check out “Decolonization is not a metaphor” (Tuck and Yang 2012) to learn more.
Colonialism and colonial legacies globalize European and Euro-American traditions, reducing the cultural and social space for many indigenous traditions. For example, many indigenous languages have gone extinct with the prioritization of English and other European languages though colonization. The last speaker of the indigenous Australian language Awu Laya (aka Gugu Thaypan/Kuku-Thaypan) died in 2016. His name was Tommy George Sr. (Snowchange 2016). With him died immeasurable knowledge and oral history. Recognizing and sharing these traditions (when appropriate) works against the idea that Western culture is universal, privileged, or ‘right.’ Keep that in mind as you move through this book.
Given that art history has often been exclusionary and biased, it is important that authors offer their readers visibility on who they are. Subjectivities are important and influence how we write and read. We don’t want you to assume that the ideas presented here are universal. So, we, the authors and contributors to this text, want to be clear about our identities. We are (in alphabetical order):
- an agnostic African and Caribbean American queer woman.
- an agnostic Asian cisgender woman.
- an agnostic Euro-American white woman.
- an agnostic-leaning Mexican-American trans person.
- an Asian-American cisgender man without religious affiliation.
- an atheist white European woman.
- a Muslim Lebanese-Canadian woman.
- a non-practicing Catholic Mexican-American cisgender woman.
- a non-practicing Catholic white, cisgender woman.
- a non-practicing Jewish-American cisgender man and descendant of German-Lebanese WWII refugees.
- a non-practicing Muslim Lebanese-American woman.
- a practicing protestant white, Euro-American, cisgender woman.
- an unreligious white, Euro-American cisgender queer woman.
- a white-passing Mexican-American cisgender woman with spiritual ties to Omnism.
Overall, we offer this book as a way to make art history, in its broadest sense, relevant to your life, a life you lead in a Postmodern, Postcolonial, and decolonizing world. So, we hope you think about the questions that form each chapter and the intriguing artworks that we discuss in them. Consider how they relate to your life and the way you see the world. Consider how other people see the world, what you share with them, and how your perceptions differ.
- Interested in some humorous (and sometimes raunchy) jokes about the Western Canon and Western artworks? Check out “Classical Art Memes” on Instagram.
- Check out the documentary “The Last Trackers of the Outback” (2007) that follows Tommy George Sr. and his brother George Musgrave.
Where Do I Go From Here? / The Bibliography
Institute for the Theory and History of the Visual Arts at the Academy of Arts, Ullrich Kuhirt (translator). 1956. Universal History of Art. Moscow: State Publisher.
Okumu, Johanes. 2021. “Re: What is the difference between postcolonial and decolonial thinking?” ResearchGate Question. Accessed Feb 17, 2021. https://www.researchgate.net/post/What-is-the-difference-between-post-colonial-and-decolonial-thinking/601d0c9e7123a2311332a6c7/citation/download
Snowchange. 2016. “A ‘Legend’, Indigenous Australian Leader, Knowledge Holder Tommy George Passes on.” Snowchange Cooperative. Accessed Feb 17, 2021. http://www.snowchange.org/2016/07/a-legend-indigenous-australian-leader-knowledge-holder-tommy-george-passes-on/
Vasari, Giorgio, Gaston C. DeVere (translator). 1550 (1558). Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects). Florence, Italy.
Zhang Yanyuan 張彥遠. 1993-2000. Lidai minghua ji 歷代名畫記 (Records of famous paintings in successive periods). Preface dated 847, juan 9. Reprinted in Zhongguo shuhua quanshu 中國書畫全書 (Compendium of classical publications on Chinese painting and calligraphy) vol. 1, edited by Lu Fusheng 盧輔聖. Shanghai: Shanghai shuhua chubanshe.