Echoing the Mother Discipline

Article excerpt

ECHOING THE MOTHER DISCIPLINE of history, which studies change over time, art history concentrates on changes of style, or the distinct manner of an artist, a school, or a period. The bedrock of mainstream art-historical analysis has been the morphology of styles in terms of line, color, texture, composition, motif, and other formal elements. Developments since the advent of modernity have radically disrupted the entire concept of style, yet it remains--however much we might protest--the principal analytic tool for studying the evolution of artistic traditions.

Two aspects of style have dominated art history: first, style as a canon; second, stylistic influence as "engine" of change, because without change there can be no history. From both perspectives, style is an instrument of authority. And Western art history, with its cultural baggage of a universalist canon and a linear trajectory that ranks world art according to a powerful teleology, has provided the model for global art history.

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Let me illustrate this with an example from Indian art, which is my field of study. Colonial art historians, almost without exception, were disturbed by the rich polychrome surface decoration of South Indian temples, which they described as tasteless, overripe, and decadent. Such responses stem from Neoclassical criticisms of nonclassical art: Similar charges were leveled against Baroque and Rococo art. Johann Joachim Winckelmann's famous dictum about artistic perfection--"noble simplicity and quiet grandeur"--goes back to Giorgio Vasari, who codified classical taste and thereby created an instrument for imposing authority. In the nineteenth century, Hegel's classical bias led him to declare that Indian civilization displayed a staggering contrast between the gross materiality of sacred eroticism and the highest abstraction of Indian philosophy, a remark based on his perception of Hindu sculpture.

As a consequence of such views, art teaching in colonial India in the nineteenth century was predicated on instructing pupils in Victorian academic art, on the assumption that two-dimensional Indian miniature paintings, however beautiful they were, fell short of the high humanist ideals of Renaissance illusionism. Against the dominant academic canon, Indian nationalists projected the style of these miniatures as a reflection of Eastern spirituality, which became for them a banner of cultural resistance. …