Escaping art history’s little boxes

It’s the difference between a crisp line drawing and modeled, shaded painting with plenty of blurred lines.  Not as easy to describe in short sentences, but oh so rewarding.  That’s how I feel about the shift in art history from a discipline of strict categories and linear progress to one that celebrates the porousness of cultural borders, the effervescnt curiosity that animates art, and the squiggly lines, radical turns and even dead ends that mark artistic journeys.  Just look at some current shows — Made in the Americas at the MFA, Boston, and before it Interwoven Globe and Lost Kingdoms at the Met, and a show I just saw at the Dallas Museum of Art, Inca: the Conquests of the Andes, which could be a prequel to the story told at the MFA.

Why am I so excited?  Here’s my simplistic recap of history.  Scholars and curators have, yes, long pointed out how artists have borrowed motifs from imported good or styles from earlier works.  But this has usually been done within art history’s tidy little boxes, each representing a distinct, well-defined movement or style.  There are good reasons why the discipline developed this way.  We’re hard-wired to think and analyze by sorting data into categories — we name forests so we don’t get bogged down by all those trees.   So it makes perfect sense that as  men and women of the Enlightenment set out to understand the world around them, they made lists and created groupings.  With the concept of nation-states came additional impetus to place art in well-defined and separate categories.  If people could claim a distinct culture, they constituted a “nation.”  They could draw borders around their land and  claim the right to govern themselves.   Throw in the additional notion of  progress, and all those little boxes line up into straight, forward pointing vectors.

So what about objects that don’t fit into a box or stray from the path of progress?  Easier to push them to the margins, label them anomalous, or ignore them altogether.  The alternative was to attack the very  sanctity of those boxes — which is exactly what is happening now.  IMG_0741

Look at this desk-cum-bookcase: as I point out in my WSJ review, its exterior has Mudéjar flair (Mudéjar already being a swirling mix of Moorish and Spanish, whatever that really means); its interior adopts the colors of Chinese lacquer imports, using a technique borrowed from the Inca; and the scenes depicted are South American complete with palm trees, enslaved Africans and haciendas.

The form itself, of course, comes straight from Europe.  And, yes, I am well aware that to describe this I am invoking all those categories this piece of furniture defies — which just goes to prove what useful tools these abstractions are.  But that is what they are: abstractions, not mirrors of reality.   What is exciting about the shift in art history is that what used to be marginalia are now celebrated as  the physical traces of  exciting, multi-layered, ever-shifting cultures.  Inca art itself, as the Dallas Museum show illustrates, has elements of other Andean peoples.  Take this tunic (which I love to imagine swaying with every step the wearer takes): made sometime between 1400 and 1540, it shows highland styles seeping into coastal areas (or so the label says — not my area of expertise.)  The take-away here is the same: cultural borders have always been porous because artists have always been curious, inventive, and experimental.  Want even more evidence? Check out Ferozkoh: Renewing the Arts of Turquoise Mountain.

Tunic, 1400-1540 Peru (Dallas Museum of Art 1989.W.2433, should you want to look it up)
Dallas Museum of Art 1989.W.2433, should you want to look it up

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