History, Writing, and Image in Maya Art

Article excerpt

"To reflect upon the choices and values that inform your own art-historical writing," read the letter inviting me to contribute to this issue of "Perspectives." That is what I have decided to do, but I do not intend my reflections to be prescriptions for how other art historians should work or what the discipline should be. I am reflecting on the transformations I have observed, because my field has undergone a revolution of perception and interpretation during the last twenty-five years. The driving force behind that revolution has been the ongoing decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic writing system and its contribution to the understanding of Maya cultural history. Although art historians have played major roles in this revolution, the arena of discourse has not been primarily in art history, but rather in the fields of anthropology and archaeology. This fact has meant that the response has been couched in the terms of archaeologists and anthropologists more than in those of art historians. One criticism, for example, has been that epigraphy and the study of imagery is "unscientific," and another has asserted that since everything the ancients wrote and depicted was propaganda, the corpus of information is unreliable and should be discarded. While art historians and anthropologists can study the same things-that is, the object as artifact, aesthetic product, and carrier of symbolism and social intention-the two disciplines ask questions in different ways and often work toward different goals. A historian of Chinese art once put the contrast to me in this way: "Art historians study artists and their society in order to understand an object, while anthropologists study objects in order to understand the society that made them." This is a simplistic way of characterizing the contrast, but it is one I have found cogent. Anthropological thought on social processes and evolution, state formation, economic and power structures, kinship systems, historical linguistics, ethnography, and similar areas of inquiry have been central to interpretative work on Maya art, architecture, and archaeology. For me, the critical questions have concerned how human beings organize societies, create ideologies, encode their understandings of the world, and materialize these understandings in cultural production. I have found myself in the situation of reconstructing a history and recovering a lost world view from the artwork I study, rather than using history and a world view to inform the objects. When I began my encounter with the Maya in 1970, I entered a field in which the decipherment process had reached a critical mass. The great Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff had published three seminal articles on the inscriptions of Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan proving that the contents of the writing system were primarily historical.l She identified men and women both by their glyphic names and their portraits, and she placed their actions in a chronology accurate to the day. Other Mayanists, including myself, followed her lead and began to recover the dynastic histories of individual sites.

During the early years, I worked with a group that met at Dumbarton Oaks in a series of miniconferences that occurred regularly between 1973 and 1979. The team included Floyd Lounsbury, a renowned linguist and kinship specialist; David Kelley, an anthropologist and ethnohistorian; Merle Robertson, an artist; Peter Mathews, an archaeologist and epigrapher in training; and myself, who was an artist at the time. Our collaboration not only brought different specialities and sensitivities to bear on common problems, but the synergy we developed also took all of us beyond our individual limitations. During those meetings our team worked out the syntactical and discourse structure of the hieroglyphic writing, and we used distributional and structural studies of iconography and archaeological context as parallel fields of data to tease meaning out of the archaeological record. …