Regarding Art and Art History

Article excerpt

As a Pre-Columbianist of some vintage, I find it difficult to say anything definitive about art and art history. Like academics working in other fields who came late to the art historical table, Pre-Columbianists know that definitions of what is and is not "Art," like understandings of the proper scope of "Art History," have shifted dramatically over the past five decades. The same holds true for the way that Pre-Columbian objects and images have been perceived and described. All of this has become even clearer to me as I have pondered the moment, over a half century ago, when I decided to leave the EuroAmerican art historical arena for an uncertain future in what was then a nascent, still vaguely defined field. That decision was made in 1964, when, while still an art history major in the master's program at Oberlin College, I spent three summer months working in Yale University's slide library. Because I could read Spanish, the library's director, Helen Chillman, charged me with translating the labels on a collection of slides bequeathed to Yale by the Spanish art historian Martin Soria. Although most of Soria's slides were, predictably, of Spanish art objects, his bequest also included a number of unlabeled slides of Pre-Columbian objects, which he apparently photographed while traveling through Central and South America in the early 1950s. Seeing my interest in the Pre-Columbian slides, Chillman let me spend that summer in Sterling Memorial Library identifying the objects depicted in them. It was a life-changing experience. On my return to Oberlin in the fall, to the consternation of my professors (and my parents), I announced that I intended to pursue my doctorate in Pre-Columbian art history.

In the United States at that time, the vast majority of the few university and college instructors who offered courses that included Pre-Columbian art were either anthropologists or archaeologists. Their courses were usually subsumed under the unfortunate rubric, then in vogue, of "primitive art." The most important and influential exception was George Kubier at Yale. Kubier trained as a medieval art historian but by 1940 he had developed a keen interest in ancient American art and had written a dissertation on sixteenth-century architecture in New Mexico. Kubler's first book on Pre-Columbian art, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples, was published in 1962, just two years prior to my epiphany in New Haven and the filing, at the University of Pennsylvania, of the first dissertation in the United States to deal exclusively with a Pre-Columbian art topic. In short, in 1964 my chosen field barely existed and my options were few. In the end I earned my doctorate at Columbia University, one of only four schools in the United States where, at the time, one could write a dissertation on an exclusively Pre-Columbian topic within a department of art history.1

The principal reason why Pre-Columbian art history entered academe belatedly was that most academics and art critics did not consider Pre-Columbian objects and images to be "art." (Ten years later, I would be told by the chair of a first-tier art history program in this country that courses on Pre-Columbian art belonged in departments of anthropology.) Moreover, those few writers who had broken out of this restrictive mold still perceived and judged precontact American art in largely nineteenth-century terms. In the 1930s the British art critic Roger Fry had recognized the "plastic" and "expressive" values of both African ("Negro") and Pre-Columbian art but denied that their makers had had any "desire to discover beauty like the Greeks did."2 Although Fry was one of the first to break with Johann Joachim Winckelmann's famous celebration of Classical art, and despite his enthusiasm for the Postimpressionist art of his day, he still followed Immanuel Kant in equating artistic beauty with fidelity to nature.3 Fry found Pre-Columbian forms interesting and worth writing about, but he considered the repetitive designs on many Pre-Columbian objects "monotonous" and he saw in many Pre-Columbian sculptures a kinship with Gothic art in their expression of a "perpetual terror of supernatural forces," adding that they spoke to "religious sadism" and "revolting cruelty. …