A Small Matter of Agency

From Art Journal 81, no. 1 (Spring 2022)

Paul Wood, Leon Wainwright, and Charles Harrison, eds. Art in Theory: The West in the World—An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021. 1,160 pp. $50.95 paper

Elizabeth Harney and Ruth B. Phillips, eds. Mapping Modernisms: Art, Indigeneity, Colonialism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 456 pp.; 13 color ills; 103 b/w ills. $30.95 paper

The steps may have been tentative at first, but some of the main art historical institutions in the North Atlantic region—its museums and university departments, its publishing houses and academic journals—might finally be shedding their staunch sense of parochialism. Gone, hopefully, are the days when esteemed New York critics could claim that nothing “really good” had yet reached their desks from “the provinces” about “the problematic of provincial art.” In its stead has emerged belated recognition of what we might call the three “de’s” of contemporary discourse and practice: the need to decentralize the normative North Atlantic navel-gazing in which New York succeeds Paris as the art world’s trendsetter while everywhere else is derivative of that center; to demarginalize the voices, practices, methods, and narratives of those “provinces” and to champion their importance for a more complicated, more entwined and conflicted sense of what art’s histories might be; and to learn from those practices and practitioners in order to decolonize art’s histories and repositories, and to transform those institutions from within. Witness the rise in course offerings and job postings in “global modernisms”—especially in North America, far in advance of Europe, Asia, or Australasia on this front—or the growing numbers of anthologies dedicated to presenting important primary documents and secondary reflections from regions beyond the North Atlantic and in languages other than Europe’s colonial stalwarts: the Museum of Modern Art’s “Primary Documents” series from Communist and Post-Communist Europe, and from postwar Brazil, China, Japan, and the Arab world; and the 2012 anthology Modern Art in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, subtitled An Introduction to Global Modernisms and edited by a team of six specialists. Even such stalwart journals as October and Art History have undertaken extensive questionnaires on decolonization in art history—although, with just four of the sixty-nine separately named contributors to those questionnaires located outside the North Atlantic region, the journals’ longstanding parochialism, their belief that North Atlantic expertise is the only expertise of relevance even when thinking through decolonization, is all too disgracefully clear.

Entering the fray are two new anthologies born of longstanding collaborative projects. One—Mapping Modernisms, edited by Ontario-based Elizabeth Harney and Ruth Phillips—stems from an international network funded by the Clark Art Institute and the United Kingdom’s Leverhulme Trust, and brings together scholars from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand to “address … the silence surrounding indigeneity in established narratives of modernism and the continuing marginalization of indigenous arts in the growing literature on global modernist histories” (1). The other is the fourth in the Open University’s Art in Theory series, begun in 1993 by Paul Wood and Charles Harrison and subsequently joined by Jason Gaiger and now by Leon Wainwright, a scholar of Black British and Caribbean art histories. Whereas the three previous volumes excerpted documents from the great and good of Western art history and aesthetic philosophy, The West in the World seeks to chart Western “ideas about the art of other societies and ideas stimulated by those cultures more generally” (xxxi, emphasis in original). Its explicit aim is to resist a “monolithic” view of Western insularity—a view for which the editors frequently take postcolonialism to task—by articulating a more complex narrative of encounters and shifting relationships between “the West” and “the world … to show that that autochthony has always been leavened, to a surprisingly significant but under-acknowledged extent, by interaction with Others” (662).

At first blush, the two anthologies seem to complement each other’s differences well. Mapping Modernisms upholds the template of a tight network of new research chapters dedicated to specific case studies, from Zulu carving and Inuit stonework to Arrernte watercolors and Paris as a meeting point for global decolonial struggles. The West in the World, by contrast, offers roughly 360 samples of writings that have, for the most part, been published previously (important exceptions include Gordon Bennett’s unpublished “Letter to Jean-Michel Basquiat” of 1998, and Colin Campbell’s dispatch as governor of Ceylon to Lord Stanley in 1846, now held in the British National Archive). And where Mapping Modernisms focuses on visual and material cultures from its worldwide array of contexts and communities as they grapple with dialectics of localized “traditions” and externally sparked “transformations” through the twentieth century, The West in the World seeks to add much greater historical depth to its breadth, reaching back to the thirteenth century and Europeans’ travels east (to Constantinople by Robert of Clari and “Cathay” by Marco Polo) to articulate the West’s ever-shifting infatuations with Orientalism, imperialism, primitivism, and, now, globalism. Primary accounts of travels and conquest, making and misinterpretation, proffer the foundations from which the revisionist accounts of protagonists today can develop and “speak back” to historical accounts that were themselves revisionist in their frequent and often willful misunderstandings of the work, practices, and materials of other worlds.

The core difference between these two approaches, however, lies in their response to modernism and modernity as evolving through narratives that are at once universal and universalizing. Should we, per Harney and Phillips, contest such narratives of “the shared evolution of modernism, the outline of which has been set by developments in EuroAmerica” (7), through microhistories that speak to notions of multiple modernisms, operating distinctly in different contexts as they encountered, modified, and resisted the capitalist-colonial complex? Or should we, per Wood and Wainwright following Fredric Jameson, reject this pluralization of modernisms as “an emergent orthodoxy” to emphasize instead a “singular modern condition of uneven and combined development, to which aesthetic responses differ according not only to when they were made but where” (663)?

While such distinctions may seem like splitting hairs, they speak to a significant difference in perspective and ultimately of agency. The latter approach trains on modernism as a centrifugal force, borne by North Atlantic travelers and settlers whose mobility instigates transformations in both “the world” and “the West.” Hence Wood and Wainwright’s focus on evolving conceptions of international struggles and intercultural relationships as they were explored and written by those travelers and settlers: however under-acknowledged it might be, the development and modulation of philosophies of the Enlightenment and Romanticism (with their self-conscious majuscules), as well as primitivism and the avant-garde, cannot be thought in isolation from the contemporaneous expansions of imperialism and colonialism—and the new opportunities, inspirations, and social and cultural hierarchies afforded by those expansions—from the thirteenth century until today. The counterapproach in Mapping Modernism stresses the effects of those expansions on the colonized: whether to remodel or reject “customary” or “received” practices or worldviews; the subsequently shifting aesthetics and politics of appropriation and rejection as markers of “modernization” or decolonial nation building or Indigenous sovereignty; the new opportunities, exchanges, and international collective resistance offered by the trade routes between, say, the Inuit communities of Cape Dorset and Eastern European cities (as in Norman Vorano’s superb chapter) or between Senegal and Guadeloupe through the cafés and art schools of Paris (as Elizabeth Harney deftly elucidates).

There is certainly usefulness to both approaches. The West in the World spotlights neglected passages from canonical texts and neglected authors from canonical histories for us to imagine them anew. Mapping Modernisms proffers deep dives into modernity as struggle, not only with the diktats of Western colonizers but with the influences and experiences of international socialism or other non-Western communities, and with the very definition of what “modern,” “primitive,” “tradition,” or especially “Indigenous” might be and whether those definitions should be embraced or troubled. The results in both cases can provide some excellent surprises. Stand-out inclusions in Wood and Wainwright’s collection are the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s curdled definition of “negro” from 1884 (here, set alongside excerpts by Karl Marx, Solomon Northup, and Friedrich Nietzsche), Ram Raz’s celebration of Hindu architecture from 1834, and Léopold Sédar Senghor’s speech at the First World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar in 1966, as well as writings by artists Uche Okeke, Papa Ibra Tall, and Richard Bell that are crucial for any understanding of the stakes and debates at the forefront of contemporary art history and practice. Harney and Phillips’ editorship shepherds some consistently strong scholarship, whether on the Marae as a template for Māori models of curatorship (in Damian Skinner’s chapter); Ian McLean’s brilliant take on the watercolors of Albert Namatjira, an Arrernte artist from Australia’s Central Desert, in light of evolutions within Arrernte philosophy and politics (a kind of Arrernte social art history); and Erin Haney’s reflections on studio photography as the record for West Africans’ ever-changing self-fashioning, and of Accra in the world, in the nineteenth century.

What Mapping Modernisms also highlights, however, are the steep challenges facing series like Art in Theory today, especially in the wake of decades-long scholarship on the histories of art and visual cultures beyond the North Atlantic by scholars from those regions, many of whom write and certainly read in non-European languages. There will always be a certain thanklessness to quasi-encyclopedic series like the Open University’s, always those curious inclusions and omissions we do not agree with—although the exclusion of Aby Warburg’s travels to Hopi country, Aina Onabolu’s or Toussaint Louverture’s or Trinh T. Minh-ha’s writings, John Cage’s fascination with the I Ching, or pretty much anything to do with the war in Vietnam seems all the more striking given the inclusion of three texts by Guillaume Apollinaire alone, and excerpts by Michel Foucault or Walter Benjamin or Nicolas Bourriaud that relate little to the parameter of “the West in the world” (let alone whether the essentialist term “the West” is adequate to the geo-cultural transformations wrought by migration, uneven socioeconomic conditions, or demands for Indigenous sovereignty).

The more concerning exclusions, however, are those of the very voices, practices, and modes of temporality and recall that have, for centuries, been excluded by Western colonizers because they do not fit the prejudices of what constitutes a “recognizable record” of “history” (nor, for that matter, of “art”). Anglophone accounts overwhelmingly dominate the roughly 360 excerpts on offer, far beyond the numbers of translations from French or Portuguese or Spanish, let alone other languages “in the world” (as though writers in Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, or any other language had no ideas about what “the West in the world” meant to them). Fewer than thirty of the contributors are women, a shocking statistic that barely improves in the material since 1945 (in which 18 of the 107 contributions are by women). Oral histories and song lines are omitted for not being written down. Works of visual or material culture that evidence and reflect on intercultural contact—barks and rock art documenting Yolŋu and Bininj exchange with Makassan fishermen or European explorers are one well-known example; so, too, is the groundbreaking Yirrkala Bark Petition of 1963 demanding recognition of Yolŋu sovereignty and cosmology; the photographic portraits of West African self-fashioning as a reflection of independence and interdependence with others, per Haney, might be another —are similarly excluded for not being written texts. Evidence of other cosmologies, other accounts of encounter, other understandings of how time and thus “history” itself operates, become ventriloquized through the very voices and colonial apparatus that have stripped the agency from those other ways of being.

So what is to be done? One thing is to understand that citational politics matter, especially when generating a 1,000-page account of the world’s evolving self-understanding through 800 years of intercultural exchanges, influences, and transformations. But so, too, does a sensitivity to other ways of presenting and recalling that exchange (and even more so when it is two white British men who are collecting the ideas of the world, with the historical connotations that immediately brings to mind). The internet is a crucial if still underused resource for art historical anthologies, not only because so many of our students acquire knowledge through it but because it allows us to link to and present material that a writing-only, hard-copy book does not. I am thinking about moving image, still photography, sound files: the kinds of material that allow us to expand our understanding of, and access to, how events are recalled or remembered, or how theories about our worlds are presented, and whose omission Wood and Wainwright lament on at least six separate occasions, emphasizing that the Art in Theory series needs to be updated from its pre-internet origins.

But as shown by other series, such as the Museum of Modern Art’s “Primary Documents” anthologies as well as Mapping Modernisms, it is not just “the West” as protagonist in the world that demands yet more study but other kinds of exchange, influence, and resistance as well. These could be between Indigenous communities, whether already contiguous or brought together through colonial and postcolonial experiences and spaces, as Harney, Phillips, and their collaborators reveal. They could run along vectors that do not always involve, and are thus often ignored by, “the West,” whether they be “South–South” or exchange across Asia or Africa or the Indian Ocean rather than the North Atlantic. But if it is the perspectives, methodologies, and agency of “non-Western” protagonists and observers that are most sorely missing in the Art in Theory series—or journals such as October or Art History, for that matter—then it is these that can subtend an even richer future for both art and theory, beacons in art history’s “changing ideas” both past and to come.

Anthony Gardner (Naarm/Melbourne, Australia) is professor of contemporary art history at the University of Oxford, where he teaches at the Ruskin School of Art and the Queen’s College.