Interventions: Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery/Response: Thoughts on Difference in India and Elsewhere/Response: Provincializing Modernity: From Derivative to Foundational/Response: Belonging to Modernism/Response: Modernism in India: A Short History of a Blush/Interventions: The Author Replies

Article excerpt

With the collapse of earlier certainties, the last two decades have witnessed serious soul-searching among art historians about the future of the discipline. This is strikingly expressed by Hans Belting in two of his theoretical works-one with the melancholy title The End of the History of Art?-accepting the demise of art history as a grand Hegelian narrative.1 There is, he points out, a progressive disjunction between the awareness of the enormous diversity of art forms and practices and the narrow focus of canonical art histories. However, his fear that the canon looks increasingly vulnerable may be somewhat premature. Take, for instance, Art since 1900, the magisterial volume on the avant-garde published in 2004. The book raises immensely important questions that demand engagement. The four authors display intellectual sophistication, an exemplary attention to detail, and a masterly grasp of the broader picture of Western avant-garde art in the twentieth century.2 Because of its importance, the work has been reviewed widely and its underlying arguments scrutinized and dismantled, raising a great many urgent critical and historical issues relevant to our times. I think we must recognize the advances made by this work, which brings into question the triumphalist discourse of modernism in the opening decades of the twentieth century. It should further be acknowledged that a wide-ranging text of this sort for a general readership cannot hope to include everything.

Nonetheless, perhaps because my own work has dealt with artists in the periphery, I would have liked to have seen the authors filling more of the gaps in our knowledge of world art. The book contains few references to notable artists living outside Europe and the United States who have made significant contributions to the global processes of modernity. It would have been desirable to see even a brief mention of artists such as Jamini Roy (1887-1972), whose innovative formalism based on a primitivist reimagining of the folk art of India powerfully mediated between the global and the local; the savage, spiky images of the Mexican primitivist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982, Fig. 1); the amoebic shapes of the Brazilian avant-garde painter Tarsila do Amarai (1886-1973); and, more recently, Everlyn Nicodemus's profoundly moving representations of global genocide (Fig. 2) and the expansive work of African artists shown at Africa Remix, a recent exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London.3

The Mexican muralists are discussed, but one could run the danger of concluding from this volume that except for this major movement, there has been no worthwhile art of political resistance in the non-Western world, notwithstanding significant artistic expressions in Asia and Africa of cultural resistance to Western dominance. My latest book, The Triumph of Modernism: India's Artists and the Avant-Garde 19221947, and my previous work, Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850-1922, for instance, chart the complex relation between modernity, art, and cultural resistance in colonial India.4 Art since 1900 touches on a few isolated samples of postwar diaspora art and Asian avant-garde movements, but these owe their presence more to what they mean to the West than for their intrinsic worth. In consequence, they tend to come off as bit players in the master narrative. Thus, despite the above inclusions, the canon is not significantly enlarged. Rather, the non-Western artists are brought in primarily on account of their compatibility with the avant-garde discourse in the West.

This is not to discount the book's very wide range of topics. Among its considerable merits is that, within the parameters of its own definition of modernism, it rigorously documents the internal debates in the West on the predicament of modernity, mapping successfully its complex, dialogic, oppositional, and agonistic agenda, foregrounding its intellectual wherewithal, such as psychoanalysis, social history of art, formalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism. …