Unresolved Problems in Global Art History by Professor James Elkins

Category - essays and articles

by Rohaya Binte Mustapha –

The Second MA Asian Art Histories Annual Lecture on 17 April 2013
Unresolved Problems in Global Art History by Professor James Elkins

It takes someone of heavy credentials like world-renowned art historian and prolific publisher, Professor James Elkins from the Art Institute of Chicago to talk about the unresolved problems regarding the practice and theorization of art history worldwide. It seems like a provocative idea to deal with something called “Global Art History” when the term “global art” remains unresolved in definition although widely used in contemporary art discourses. But the phenomenon of global art has awakened the discipline of art history and its practitioners cannot escape having to deal with the daunting question of whether a global art history can actually be tenable.


Indeed, the main question posed by Prof Elkins is whether there could possibly be a global art history. He rightly forewarned the audience that his lecture is speculative and his approach is heuristic. This can be easily forgotten as his lecture was delivered with lists, tables and figures which make the qualitative nature of his argument less apparent. Fundamental to this pondering of possibility is a need to understand what makes up western art history. Prof Elkins used the term “working definition” pointing to the fact that western art history’s definition can also be tenuous.

The first sense of the “western-ness” of art history is its institutional associations which recognise its discipline and its place in the universities. The second sense of its “western-ness” is focused on Modernism and involves questions of textbooks and introductory narratives which students of art history have to acquaint themselves with. With this in mind he then posed the question whether there is anything viable as art history outside modes originating in the Euro-American zone. His personal answer to this is that there is no clarity as yet based on his study of the problem.

Prof Elkins presented a rather interesting survey of the geography of art history. His survey involved charting out where the art history departments and centres are located across the world. He also surveyed the number of refereed art journals against the population of a country and revealed with amusement how the Netherlands came up tops in this respect. The survey which he qualified as not up to date and is likely not to have covered the ground completely shows that statistically, art history is a discipline practiced mainly in Western Europe and North America, a not unexpected conclusion. However he qualified that this does not mean that there is little art history outside of this zone because basically we are still trapped in what we understand to be art history. The surveys conducted are also reflections of what is recognised as art history according to western ideas and does not take into consideration what may lie outside of it.

The desire to discover other non-western discourses of art history is definitely there but the act of discovery is fraught with the inability to escape western art history as comparison. This ‘trap’ manifests itself in three ways. Firstly, the privileging of oppositional and cultural practices in art history; secondly, the worldwide institutional resistance to the adoption of non-western interpretive methods and thirdly, the lack of named art historical practices that are different from Euro-American practices. If these can be overcome, then unfamiliar practices of art history when encountered may get a chance of not being considered as partial, provincial or belated.

Another problem raised by Prof Elkins is that many practices of art history are focused on the definition and elaboration of their national and regional traditions and not the global tradition. He recommend a reading of the book “The Germans and their Art” by Hans Belting which he sees as an allegory for other nations’ scholarships. He surfaced yet another surveyed observation that although many journals have an international reach, far more journals are resolutely tied to the discussion of national art. In his usual style, he took the same observation and turned it around and saw the possibility that the tendency to privilege national art be considered an integral part of global art history.

At the core of the impasse of having a global art history is the inability of language to transcend cultures. Prof Elkins gave examples of terms which are specific in their own cultures and there are many more which are simply not translatable into the English language. Thus practices in places like Tbilisi and Beijing are apt to be misconstrued as partial versions of western art history. Although attention to local discourses can ameliorate problems of cultural representation, there still remains the problem of interpretive approaches in other cultures being enclosed by western scholarship in some way or another.

His survey on events and conversations on art history has revealed that there remains a desire to understand art history in other regions. He brought up the example of the Clark Art Institute’s Mellon project to study world art histories. However, there remains a tendency to identify only with those which can be co-opted into western ways of thinking in art history. He said that the Institute tended to visit places which have practices which they can understand which means that the western art history frame is still being applied leaving those outside of it occluded from study. Prof Elkins also brought up his own experiences with conversations in China during which he discovered that art history as practiced there is fundamentally different from the west. The discussions were so problematic that the misunderstandings arising from differences in practice prevented him from writing and publishing books about these conferences.

Prof Elkins provided a sliver of hope when he said that perhaps we must look at the literary tradition which lies outside of art history which can offer a model for global art history. In the literary field, other traditions of research and scholarship which are different are just accepted as different. Unfortunately, he did not elaborate much as to how we can use this model. He does not, however, believe that we should just dispense with everything we know of art history as that will be stepping out of art history altogether. In response to the question as to whether this anxiety about art history’s limitations arose from the construction of a problem that is not really there, Prof Elkins good humouredly applied a Freudian perspective and said that those who do not feel this anxiety in art history “must be repressing a lot”.

(This seminar has its roots in The Art Seminar, James Elkin’s series of conversations on art and visual studies, specifically the volumes entitled Is Art History Global? and Art and Globalization)

Rohaya Binte Mustapha is a graduate of the MA Asian Art Histories programme at LASALLE College of the Arts.