Posts Tagged ‘history’

Illustration from H.M. Stanley’s book In Deepest Africa, used here as an image of the metaphorical wilderness. No further implication of African, colonialist, etc. contexts is intended or desired.

Post-modern theory tells us that, either, there is no Truth out there to be discovered, or that it is out there, but it is simply unattainable. Everything is reflections and representations. Everything is subjective. Nothing is sure.

This exchange from West Wing (ep 1×03), taken completely out of context, expresses I think my feelings on trying to do history in a world governed by such attitudes.

Pres. Bartlet: “what the hell are we doing here?!”
Leo: “Of course, it’s not good. There is no good. It’s what there is. … It’s what our fathers taught us.”

There was a time not that long ago when we thought we knew so much. And now, we believe we know nothing. All is in doubt. Everything is in question. Nothing is true. And, so, what can we do? What can we do, but to just keep moving, keep doing history like our fathers taught us. Post-modern critique tells us there is no good history, there is no good scholarship. There is only what there is. We do what we can.

One of my professors calls doing history in the wake of post-modern discourse “pitching a tent in the wilderness.” And wilderness it is, indeed.

In a sense, I feel we have come full circle. In the early days of the historians’ profession, there was so much left unknown. So much to be learned. Even as we began to meticulously record, or narrate, the details of our own histories – for US & UK historians, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Tudor and Stuart Dynasties, the Norman Invasion – massive fields went untouched. In those early days, there was so much yet unwritten (in European languages, at least) about China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Middle East, not to mention about Latin America, the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. A wide open wilderness, it was. Documents yet to be read, entire histories yet to be told (in European languages). … Our supposed “knowledge” eventually expanded to encompass many of these histories, though, of course, there was always more out there to be uncovered. … And then it all came crashing down. So, today, with everything in doubt, with nothing known for sure, have we not, in a sense, returned to where we began, knowing nothing? The key difference, of course, is that where before we thought we had solid ground to walk on, today, the wilderness is made entirely of quicksand.

I think my tent is sinking.


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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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Time Travel

I’ve been working on PhD applications the last few weeks (again), and have as a result been thinking more about what type of history (or art history) I like, where my interests lie, what sort of approaches I like. It’s the sort of thing I think about all the time, actually, justifying to myself my choices, and trying to work out where I stand.

I am sure there are many different ways of putting this, many different aspects; it’s a complicated thing, “what kind of history do you like?” But here’s one thing that I think I have always stayed true to, even if I didn’t quite know it or articulate it to myself as such.

For me, the study of history is like traveling in a time machine. My interest is in the actual time and place, how it looked, and what you might find. My interest is in fashion, architecture, and perhaps most of all in famous historical places, people, and events, and how and where they intersect.

There are those who study history in order to better understand how societies work, how nations or states rise and fall, or any number of other abstract and relatively universal concepts not necessarily tied down to a given time or place. Many are not interested in Japan because of its culture, its aesthetics, its Japaneseness – for them, it might as well be Portugal, or Benin, so long as certain societal or political structures are in place to be studied and analyzed. They are the kind of people who are interested in the Meiji Restoration as an examination of a relatively non-violent transfer of power, a revolution from the top down (i.e. not initiated or otherwise performed by the peasants or commoners), in which the ruling class willingly gave up their own superior class status, etc. etc. The kind of person who studies revolutions, regardless of when or where they occurred, being chiefly interested, rather, in how they occurred. And that’s wonderful. That’s a perfectly valid and extremely important type of historical research. But it’s not me. I, on the other hand, am the kind of historian who sees the Meiji Restoration as a very specific time and place, with a particular aesthetic, feel, or flavor, and as a nexus point where numerous people of great historical significance with extremely interesting life stories come together. I am not the political theorist, the societal structural analyst. I am the time-traveling tourist standing across the street from a group of important-looking people, holding an illustrated “who’s who” guide, and gasping to myself, “oh my god, that’s Saigo Takamori! And omg, that’s Kido Takayoshi and Ôkubo Toshimichi!” … Or, that is, I am the historian attempting to capture that experience through reading history books and otherwise researching and teaching history.

For me, what’s important about the Meiji Restoration is not the type of revolution it was, or whether it’s something we can call “a revolution,” or precisely what kind of political structural shifts took place at that time, in some kind of abstract way, as an example of “X type political structures” in some broad global-view comparing X-type politics to the Y-type politics seen in 13th century England or the Z-type political structures of 21st century Sri Lanka. For me, what’s exciting and interesting about the Meiji Restoration is what it must have looked like and felt like to be on the streets (or in the halls of government) at that time, as elements of Western dress, architecture, language, Western people themselves, begin to appear and to become incorporated into the urban landscape, alongside the traditional buildings, fashions, and lifestyles that continue (for now).

And I think this is where I struggle… against what I (perhaps mistakenly) believe to be a widely and strongly held perception in academia that it is the more abstract, structural, type of scholarship that is more valued, and that is, in fact, expected and required of anyone calling themselves a real scholar. For me, it has always been about the people, places, and events, about their stories, how they intersect, and about the colorful, exciting, interesting environments in which these stories take place – stories filled with samurai, townspeople in kimono, streets lined with machiya. I ask the who, what, where, and when, and revel in how the answers help me visualize vividly the scene. Yet, are we not expected to be focusing more on the how and why? And the why of the why? … Perhaps I am mistaken, and my approach, my kind of history, is more widely accepted and valid than I think. But I’m afraid to ask… afraid to be fully honest about my interests in my PhD applications, giving them instead what I think they want to hear.

What do you think? What sort of approach, what aspects of history do you find most interesting? Do you think one type or another is privileged and more appreciated and accepted in academia?

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