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Reworking the Canon

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(World) Art? Art History and Global Practice conference.

May 23, Northwestern University played host to a conference entitled (World) Art? Art History and Global Practice, in an attempt to answer the loaded question, “What if instead of attending to territorial ‘gaps’, or demanding that ‘other’ art be admitted into the halls of modernism, we were to ask different kinds of conceptual questions about Art History’s epistemology?” Certainly the art historical canon has been reworked in recent years, and continues on a path of democratization. But still, there are gaps to be sure, omissions that will, perhaps, continue on indefinitely. The term “modernism” is fluid only up to a point.

Northwestern’s Visiting Crowe Professor Christopher Pinney organized the conference, and opened Friday’s talks with mention of Art Since 1900 (2004), the survey of modern and contemporary art by October founder and colleagues Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh and Hal Foster. The textbook came up repeatedly on Friday, as it demonstrates the mainstreaming of psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and social history in addition to formalism as critical methods for approaching art history. In many schools, this has become the definitive textbook for modern and contemporary art history. Certainly its breadth is stunning, but, as Pinney points, some critics have been disappointed with its lack of post-colonial discourse. It discusses the Museum of Modern Art’s problematic Primitivism exhibition and institutional critique, but overall there is a consistently Western focus.

Saloni Mathur, Associate Professor of Art History at UCLA, gave a lecture entitled Belonging to Modernism, looking specifically at 20th century oil painting in India to examine “the unique problem of art history’s epistemology”. Mathur opened her talk with a rumination on the ways in which schools, in this case UCLA, attempt to give a broad-based, international and multicultural art historical background to students, via course requisites that must be chosen from both “Column A” (Greek and Roman, American, Medieval and Byzantine art) and “Column B” (Indian and Southeast Asian, Chinese, Islamic, African art). The more benign titles of “A” and “B” have replaced the previous ones of “Western” and “Non-Western”, one of the binaries that post-colonial theorist and keynote speaker Homi K. Bhabha strives to deconstruct in his seminal publication The Location of Culture (1994). Mathur feels that the field of art history continues to perpetrate a paradigm of exclusion and inclusion, unlike that of literature, which, she feels, has had a more successful history of “worldliness”. This posit is debatable certainly, but Mathur’s research on Indian oil painting in the 20th century allows for a multitude of important questions to be addressed, and her forthcoming book is eagerly awaited.

A key painter that Mathur examines is Amrita Sher-Gil, born in Hungary in 1913, who grew up in Shimla, India and studied painting in France and Italy. When she returned to India, Sher-Gil constructed self-referential works that addressed the “exoticism” of her position. Self-Portrait as a Tahitian (1934) is a beautiful example of her layered, referential approach to painting. Here there is reference most obviously to Gauguin, but Sher-Gil has subverted his objectification of the exotic by placing herself in the position of the “looked at”. Mathur argues that oil painting in India in the 20th century was seen by European critics as being “derivative” and “imitative”, encompassing Bhabha’s theory of “mimicry and mockery”, defined in The Location of Culture. Sher-Gil’s painting easily upsets any notion of derivativeness in its self-referential layering. Besides the Gauguin, there are references to the popularity of Orientalisme, and a mysterious shadow of a man that surrounds Sher-Gil’s figure. Mathur argues that such a picture should become more widely studied, as it brings together an art history that is not dependent entirely upon place, but upon networks of culture.

Keynote speaker of the day was Homi K. Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language and the Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University. Although his dense, dense prose is difficult (he was awarded 2nd prize in the “Bad Writing Competition” by Philosophy and Literature journal), Bhabha is a poetic speaker whose lecture The Aesthetics of Barbaric Transmission was exhilarating, despite its breakneck pace. Picking up from Walter Benjamin’s theory that all documents of civilization are products of barbarism, Bhabha sought out to define where the “transmission” of barbarism in today’s culture takes place, and why it is necessary to acknowledge, particularly during wartime. There is not enough room here to detail the lecture, but Bhabha ended with a warning against creating “an aspic of memory”, stating that a progressive temporality is still necessary, but it must always include an ethics that acknowledges the problems of the past and the fact that mistakes are not always learned from.

The issues that (World) Art? raises are engrossing, as they frame questions for our state of post-, or post-post-modernism and the place and format of the art historical canon in schools today. Approaches to viewing, discussing and creating visual art have changed dramatically in the last fifty years alone, and it will be interesting to see how the practice of art history continues to adapt and evolve.

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