Posts Tagged ‘art history’

I have been very much enjoying visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum several times these last few weeks. They have three exhibits up right now on different aspects of Okinawan modern art, which not only provide the opportunity for me to learn new things, to continue to work towards an ever-fuller (though never complete) vision, or understanding, of the infinite depth and breadth of all that is “Okinawa,” its people, and their history & culture, but they also remind me of who I want to be as a scholar. I feel in my element, in a way, in those galleries. I am not someone whose passion lies chiefly in wrestling with complex conceptual interpretive problems about how our society functions, or what anything “really” “means,” so much as I am someone who revels in learning new things – stories, images – and then sharing them with others.

I am not a specialist in modern art, and none of these exhibits really do much to inform my research in any direct way. They are addressing a different period, a different set of themes and questions: problems of modernity, of identity amid a particular context of 20th century political and cultural experience. But these are still Okinawan objects and images, Okinawan stories – stories that are only just now beginning to be told; stories I am glad to be learning, deepening and expanding my knowledge; and stories that I am eager to share with others, should I ever be fortunate enough to get the opportunity to teach a university course on Okinawan art history, or to curate an exhibit.

The museum’s exhibition calendar for 2016-17, which I’m putting here as a stand-in for the notion of Okinawa bijutsu no nagare, the “flow” of the history/development of Okinawan art.

The first of these exhibits is part of an ongoing, or at least quite frequent, series of rotations of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, constructing and conveying a standard narrative of the history of Okinawan art, as well as a canon for that art history. On those rare occasions when Okinawan art appears at all in museum exhibitions outside of Okinawa, or in textbooks or course syllabi, it almost always takes the form of folk arts or decorative artstextiles, lacquerwares, ceramics – or, if you’re really lucky, you just might see discussion of the aesthetic world of the Ryukyu Kingdom more broadly, one drawing heavily on Ming Dynasty Chinese styles, in terms of the bold colors of Shuri castle, and of the court costume of the Confucian scholar-officials who peopled its government; not to mention ships, paintings, traditional Okinawan architecture otherwise… Or, you might maybe see something of far more contemporary work, political art, speaking to contemporary indigenous identity struggles and/or the ongoing protest campaigns against the US military presence. And all of these are fantastic and wonderful in their own ways. But, what you won’t see at other institutions, and what therefore makes these exhibits at the Prefectural Museum so exciting, is the fuller narrative of how Okinawan art got from one to the other – and the fuller narrative of everything that happened in between.

Right: Nadoyama Aijun 名渡山愛順, one of the giants of Okinawa’s early postwar art scene.

Having studied Japanese art under John Szostak, a specialist in late 19th to early 20th century “modernist” movements in Japan, I have something of a basic knowledge of the vibrant and complex developments of that time. As Japanese artists began to engage with Western “modern” or “modernist” art, and with negotiating their own place in the “modern”/”modernist” art world, many took up European oil-painting (J: yôga, lit. “Western pictures”), creating works that drew heavily upon and emulated – sometimes more closely, sometimes less – the styles, approaches, and themes of French Academic painting, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and so forth, albeit while still creating works distinctively Japanese in their subject matter, thematic concerns, or otherwise. Meanwhile, other artists worked to maintain “traditional” Japanese painting – in traditional media, i.e. ink and colors on paper or silk, depicting traditional subjects, motifs, themes – and to adapt it to the modern age, giving birth to a movement known as Nihonga (lit. “Japanese pictures”). Both of these movements were also closely tied into issues of inventing a national identity, a set of national arts and national traditions, the creation of a canon of “Japanese art history,” and issues of performing modernity, proving to the world that the Japanese (1) can do modern art, and modernity in general, just as well as anyone else; that they are fully modern people and ought to be treated as respected equals, and that the Japanese (2) possess a history and cultural traditions that are just as noble, as beautiful, as anyone else’s.

The stories of this time in Japanese art history, of these movements in painting, and of parallel developments in architecture, textiles, ceramics, and countless other aspects of visual & material culture (or, aesthetic life), are beginning to be shared in major art museums, university classrooms, and elsewhere in the US, though they remain woefully under-discussed, under-known. Giants of Japanese art history such as Asai Chû, Kuroda Seiki, and Leonard Foujita; Ernest Fenollosa, Okakura Kakuzô, Kanô Hôgai, Uemura Shôen, and Maeda Seison; among many, many, others, along with the stories of their competing art schools, the development of the salon-style Bunten national art exhibitions, and so forth, remain almost entirely unknown even among the most regular visitors to the Metropolitan (for the example), the most devoted, cultured, informed, passionate lovers of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, or whatever. And I am most certainly eager to someday hopefully be granted the opportunity to share these stories with college students, museumgoers, or some other portion of the willing public.

But Okinawa has its art history story, too, and it is fascinating to see how these very same trends manifested in Okinawa at the very same time, in ways that sometimes closely parallel what was going on in Japan, and sometimes diverge, speaking to Okinawa’s unique, particular, cultural and historical experience. I sadly missed the earlier rotations of this Okinawa bijutsu no nagare (“the flow of Okinawan art”) set of exhibits, which would have covered precisely that period, from roughly the 1860s until the 1900s, as the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished and absorbed into the newly-born modern nation-state of Japan, and as Okinawan artists first began to wrestle with the very same issues of tradition and modernity, Okinawanness/Japaneseness vs. the Western, and so forth, creating their own Okinawan version of the Nihonga movement, as well as oil paintings, and so forth. But, even in the rotation I did see, which begins around the 1930s and features artists and artworks up through the end of the 20th century, we see many of the same themes, and we see how they played out similarly, and differently, in Okinawa.

(More on this in my next post, coming up soon. Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Okinawan Art & History Part 2)

Thanks to the Ryukyu Cultural Archives for making the photo of Nadoyama, and so many other images easily accessible on the web, while the Prefectural Museum prevents one from right-clicking to either link to or save the images from their website. All images used here only for explanatory/educational fair use purposes.

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Last term, I TAed a course on Japanese History through Art & Literature, and while the course as it was taught that term focused much more heavily on the literature, it really got me thinking, how do we teach “history through art”? Or, to put it another way, how do we incorporate art into the teaching of history, without it becoming “art history”? I struggled to come up with a good answer. Sure, you could show images in your PowerPoint in lecture, but, so what? I was going to do that anyway. It’s about the angle, the approach, the way you use the images to help convey the historical themes.

This term, I am TAing a World History course. I found the textbook extremely frustrating almost from the very moment I began reading it, but I couldn’t quite figure out why. And then, today, as I was reading a bit discussing the Incas, and contrasting them with the Mayas and other groups of Mesoamerica, it hit me. It hit me that the visuals in this textbook are terrible. Not in resolution/printing quality. And not in quantity, either. In fact, the page layouts look about as busy as a typical webpage, with all sorts of extra infoboxes on the sides. Rather, it’s the selection of which images are included, and the way that they are used.

Visuals – specifically images of art, artifacts, and architecture – can serve as powerfully useful touchstones for a student’s, or a reader’s, understanding of a period or a culture, serving as mnemonic devices or flashcards, encompassing a whole range of concepts within a single, relatively easy to remember image.

Left: Lady Xok’s Vision of a Great Snake. Limestone, c. 720s. Maya. Chiapas, Mexico.
Right: Gold back flap from the tomb of the Lord of Sipan, Moche culture, Peru.

Reading purely in text about how the Incas had more advanced metalworking technology than the Mayas seems abstract, seems hard to grasp, for me at least. It makes one think of a whole bunch of intricate, complex, economic and “history of technology” sort of factors that, for an undergrad I’m sure, and even for myself, can make one quickly feel lost or overwhelmed. It’s difficult to recognize the significance of this comment about metalworking, the implications, and it’s hard to remember. But then I thought of the golden backflaps, and myriad other golden artifacts that our art history textbook provided as representative examples of Incan objects, and immediately it all clicked into place. These standard examples of Inca art given in a survey art history textbook are, many of them, gold, while the standard examples of Mayan art are all stone-carvings. Picture these in your mind, remember the image of what these objects look like and which culture or period they belong you, and you’ve got in those images a touchstone for remembering the identity or character of each culture, and a jumping-off point for remembering and thinking about further details about that period or culture, and about comparisons/contrasts with other periods or cultures.

You don’t need to talk about artistic style, composition, the individual artist, or anything else exceedingly “art historical” to use images in this way. Just include examples of images, objects, from each culture, to serve as a visual example of the character of that culture, and you’ve created an anchor, a touchstone, for helping the students remember which culture, which period, is which, and what characterizes it. The World History textbook we are using this term could have benefited greatly from this, because instead of these sorts of touchstones, we find, for example, a 17th century line illustration of a particular Andean farming technique which, really, adds nothing to the reader’s (the student’s) understanding. Honestly, do you think this image is going to stand out in a student’s mind, and help them remember anything about the key characteristics of the Inca civilization?

Maybe I’m a visual learner. Maybe I’m biased because of my art history background. But I think that visuals can be used to much greater effect in “mainstream” History than they are (or seem to be). The field of Art History has been much too marginalized, when in fact it has a lot to offer, and many Historians seem far too intimidated by the idea of art history, not realizing how easily it can be employed. Admittedly, granted, as someone without much training or experience myself in deconstructing and analyzing literature, theatre, or music, I can appreciate that art, too, requires a certain set of techniques or approaches, but, we’re not talking about in-depth analysis here, just superficial visual, stylistic, material associations. Flashcard-style recognition.

St. Peter’s Basilica versus the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia (left) as symbolic of the differences in character, in flavor, between Roman Catholicism and Arab Islam, for example. Something for the student to latch onto, as a representative example, to spark the memory for all the various concepts and facts that he has memorized about Roman Catholicism, or Islam, or the politics of the Popes, or about the Islamic Conquests – whatever. For another example, a picture of a Minuteman, with his formal-looking coat, breeches, tricorner hat, and horse, as compared to one of Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt in a 20th-century men’s suit and tie, in a 1940s-style automobile, as compared to one of JFK riding in an early 1960s automobile, to provide an instant indication of the time period, the level of technology, and again, though I know it’s a vague sort of term to use, the “flavor and character” of the period.

I think the role played by visuals in this respect profoundly powerful and useful. Art brings something alive. It gives it texture and color, makes it tangible in a way that pure facts do not. If you can’t imagine what a person or place looks like, how can you feel you know it, understand it?


Postscript: As I worked to prepare this post, read more of the textbook, and continued to think about these issues, I realized it is quite possible that in their dearth of representation of cultural character, the authors were deliberately trying to combat Eurocentrism and Orientalist approaches. That would certainly make sense given the political/historiographical trends prominent in the field right now. An advocate of non-Eurocentric attitudes myself, I certainly cannot disagree with this as an admirable political aim.

By representing all societies as simply cases of different ways in which human beings organize themselves into societies, and different ways they engage in agriculture and trade, the authors level the playing field, and do, actually, a pretty incredible job of presenting a historical narrative that truly does not privilege Europe; this textbook neither devotes a disproportionate amount of space (pages) to Europe, nor does it speak of Europe as being better, more advanced, at least not in the chapters I have read so far (extending up to the 13th century or so). But, what it gains in a more global perspective, it loses in becoming oh so much drier. My apologies to those historians genuinely interested in modes of agricultural development, but for me what makes history colorful, fun, exciting, and interesting is the visual and material culture – the cultural flavor and character of the myriad of cultures that exist (and have existed) in this wonderfully diverse world of ours.

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Given the success of my post last month on engaging with Japanese culture in the US, I thought I would delve into another, somewhat similar topic, that addresses who I am, who we are, as academics, or as those otherwise active in studying or engaging with art, history, and culture.

I’m eager to hear people’s thoughts on these matters. But, before I start, a Disclaimer: (1) Please don’t think I mean to diss any discipline. There is nothing wrong with any discipline, they all have their merits, they’re all wonderful, and I love aspects of all of them; it’s just I have been frustrated finding my space within them, and this post is part of my working through how to resolve that. (2) If you’re a big name professor or the like reading this whose opinion of me as a person, or as a scholar, is going to be shaped by this post, such that it will influence whether or not I get into a program, or whether or not I get hired, please don’t be offended or turned off by anything here, and keep an open mind as to who I am and where I stand. Thank you.

Now, getting to the heart of the matter: Why is it so frowned upon in academia to have your feet in two different disciplines? More to the point, why are certain disciplines so separated?

Pretty much every time I’ve applied to grad schools, or to certain other things, in the last few years, I’ve struggled with whether I want to be in History, or in Art History. Do I want to be a “historian”, or an “art historian”? And, I think I’ve finally settled into the answer – that it really isn’t about me flip-flopping and being unable to settle or decide on one discipline or another, but that rather I have found my interest, found my niche, found the kind of scholarship I want to do, and it rests squarely on the line. I know what I want to do, and it’s not reaching out in multiple scattered directions so much as it’s focusing on a single set of things that happens to straddle an artificial boundary.

The separation between Art History and History is really a false binary. Art history, like theatre history or dance history, or for that matter, history of science or economic history or political history, is merely one type of history, one aspect of history, and it frustrates me that it should be kept so separate. Yes, it has its own disciplinary techniques and approaches that it draws upon, in order to interpret images the way that “normal” historians interpret texts, and in terms of the scholars/thinkers/Theory with a capital T that it draws upon.

But, what is art, really? Well, art is a very broad term, and I am sure that there are plenty of things that don’t fit into these categories, but, humor me for a moment. The art that I’m thinking of:
(1) Serves as historical documents of the past, in visual form. This doesn’t mean they’re 100% accurate and can be taken at face value, but then neither can textual primary sources.
(2) Is a product of a particular time and place, that fits into a larger context of economics, taste, patronage, politics and social strata, cultural usages – whether religious/ritual or practical, etc.
(3) Is a product of a particular person, and whether we are examining the biography of an artist, or that of a political official, merchant, warrior, why should it matter? Why are some biographies “history”, and some are seen as outside of history, in the realms of art historians or literature scholars?

I have applied to PhD programs in History because I feel that this will give me the flexibility to *also* research topics that don’t rely upon visual culture. It feels quite constraining sometimes, to come up with a topic, and then feel like you have to do it through the lens of the visual, just because you’re an “art historian,” or that you can’t do it at all because it doesn’t concern visual sources or visual evidence.

I guess the best way to market myself, to define myself, is not to say that I want to be “both” an art historian *and* a historian, or to even really acknowledge the binary division between the two disciplines, but rather to situate myself as a “historian of visual & material culture,” grounded in History but also strongly interested in visual, material, cultural, aesthetic artifacts as crucial elements of the History of these people, and as indicative of that History.

The problem, perhaps, stems from the fact that the discipline of Art History itself, it seems to me, combines two fields. One being the History of Art, and/or the Art of History, which focuses on art and artists as elements within the cultural, social, political, economic context of their times, and the other (sub-)field, for lack of a better term, being something like Art Theory & Criticism, focusing on style, emotional impact, intended or unintended meanings, on the artist as inspired individual, and art as personal expression. There are those things that bleed through across the two, such as the history of stylistic developments being both a part of the History of Art, and of the interpretive side which I’m calling Theory & Criticism.

However, I am much more interested in artworks as products of their time, as firmly embedded within a commercial/economic structure, or within a literati culture of elite cultural pursuits & of gift-giving, or whathaveyou. Production, consumption, patronage. When we consider artworks as objects, as commodities, and not in isolation as “artistic expression” – that is, when we look at who made them, and why, and for whom, and what they depict, rather than how they depict it (style, composition), I think it becomes a lot more obvious how all of this, which we might call “visual & material culture,” is really no different from the study of History. That there is no reason to think that “cultural history” should be any less History than economic history or political history.

I don’t know the intricacies of the history of the development of the discipline of Art History, but I imagine that the key reason it is considered a separate discipline is for two main reasons. One, because it grew up out of an examination of the great masters of the past – Michelangelo, Rembrandt – seeking to analyze and understand the history of stylistic changes and developments, and the way style and composition are used to elicit an emotional response. There was a great focus at this time on aesthetic, and on what is and is not attractive, and why. We have since moved away from this idea of valuing art as being pretty or not pretty, and have taken a different stance… But, two, because the works of later artists, including the Impressionists, and certainly the Modernists, Fauvists, Dadaists, etc. lend themselves to a narrative not of historical context in the sense of understanding the broader context of a distant time & place, but rather to a narrative of artistic movements and individual expression.

It is because of this origin of Art History in, essentially, “art appreciation”, in a focus on style, technique, and personal expression, and on the history of stylistic movements, that Art History, at its core, remains a fundamentally separate discipline even while it continues to more fully embrace approaches that would make it seem more rightfully a part of, or an outbranching of, the discipline of History.

One wonderful example of this more historical type of art history, with less connection to “art appreciation,” is a project Tim Screech has been working on for some time, looking at a literal boatload of paintings, prints, and other artworks sent by the British East India Company to Japan. While the content of the paintings may be of interest, and while there may be great meaning behind what types of paintings (what types of subjects, in what style, by which artists) were sent, what is of chief importance (I’m assuming) is not the composition, style, of the painting itself as a work that elicits emotional response, or that expresses the artists’ personal expression. Rather, it is in the political, diplomatic, economic/commercial context within which this shipment of paintings takes place that is (I presume) the key focus of interest of the project. Could a Historian do this same project? Could he do this same project and have it count towards his publishing in “History”, count towards tenure? Could he do this same project and still be considered a “Historian”, and not be ostracized, set apart, or distanced from the field/discipline? Why not?

What do you think?

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In exploring the Peabody-Essex Museum this past Sunday, and in visiting the Mahjong exhibit in particular, I came to realize that Andy, Dayna, and I are three different types of art historians; or rather, that we have three different approaches to viewing artworks.

Andy looks at shapes and colors and forms. He brings what I see as a very traditional art history of European paintings based approach to the art, focusing upon the way forms within the artwork guide the eye, and the aesthetic shapes they form. He speaks of mathematical, geometrical rules known to any historian of European paintings – it’s aesthetically pleasing to form triangles; it’s jarring and unorthodox to have a vertical line running down the middle of your painting splitting it exactly in half. He also has a lot to say about line and brushstroke.

Dayna does all of this, too. As artists, she and Andy have insights I don’t into just how oil paints (or any paints or other media for that matter) work; how an artist composes an image step by step… But she brings a more emotional approach, I feel, than Andy does. She speaks of being drawn into the painting, “reading” the emotional symbolism, impact, or connotations of particular colors, forms, patterns, or composition in the painting.

Meanwhile, I “read” a painting in the most literal sense – by reading any written language. I look for inscriptions, signatures, titles, dates, or seals. I look at the cultural and historical symbols represented in the painting. What are the people in the painting wearing, and what does that tell us about what time and place they are from, and their role or place in society? That this woman’s obi (belt) is tied in front identifies her as a courtesan, not a geisha or other common or noble woman. That these men are wearing such-and-such type of black hat identifies them as Korean.

I look at motifs that tell us the season, or that make reference to other important connotations or allusions. This figure’s red makeup tells us he is a heroic character; the three concentric boxes on his sleeves tell us he is the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō.

And, of course, I look at the style and seek to determine from that, if not from the signature, the artist, school or style, and period.

An interesting discovery/realization. The three of us offer such different insights into a given painting; it is quite fun and interesting to discuss images with these two. I miss that, in my life in NY; wish I could spend more time in Boston.

(PS, Karel, if you’re reading this, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you. I love discussing art with you; I just wasn’t sure where you fit on this spectrum of approaches, is all.)

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In art, as in most things, I rely on the “I know it when I see it” system. In my mind, there is a blatant difference between (a) the paintings you buy in the shopping mall – landscapes, European cafe scenes, the kind of thing that would look good in your living room – and (b) the kind of art that one might expect to see in a museum or elite art gallery. Certainly, within the latter category, there are distinctions to be made, such as between the stuff you see in MoMa or the Tate Modern, which is held up by the professionals as the ultimate in abstract artistic expression and which I think is complete and utter nonsense, and that which shows true meaning, drawing upon historical or cultural or artistic themes and styles.

But here’s something I got to thinking about during art class last week. If we make a distinction between “pure art” created to express the artist’s emotions or ideas (which may be later sold to a gallery, collector or museum, but which is created as a form of expression and not with the primary or sole purpose of revenue) and “commercial art”, low art created purely for the purpose of selling, purely for aesthetic purposes under commission or with the intent of appealing to the lowest common denominator to hang in their living rooms, then what happens to all the pre-modern artists, the Great Masters both East and West whose works, though today easily situated within their historical and cultural contexts, at the time were more or less purely decorative? Kanô School folding screens with paintings of cityscapes, Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, countless other medieval or Renaissance religious paintings… Are these not “fine art” as well? If they are, then what does that say about the 21st century artist who is more designer or decorator than “artist”?

I continue to believe that distinctions exist, as they must. But it is nevertheless something interesting to think about. As my previous posts may have indicated, as it pertains to contemporary art, I look for works that have a message – political, social commentary like that of Wang Guan-yi, or works that draw upon culture, history, and artistic styles and motifs of the past, like Hiromitsu and Yamaguchi Akira. I do not care for those who would cover an entire canvas in a single shade of green and call it “art”. Those who would play with light and color, shape and style with no cultural or historical themes or background, and call it meaningful. At the very least, if not meaningful, if not reflective of culture or history, art needs to be pretty.

So where does that leave all the Edo period folding screen paintings of flowers against a gold leaf background? Things which we look at today and consider to be distinctly representative of the Edo period but which have truly little other cultural or historical background to them? To call these works which appear in just about every survey textbook on Japanese art anything but “fine art”, “high art” would be to turn the entire discipline on its head… But outside of the fact that these works were generally commissioned by very wealthy and powerful samurai lords and the like, what separates these from the dime a dozen paintings we buy in the shopping mall to put up in the living room of our middle class white picket fence suburban homes?

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