Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline

By Elizabeth Mansfield | Go to book overview
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On excluding the ethnographic subject from the discourse of art history

Claire Farago

Teleology and hierarchy are prescribed in the envelope of the question.

Jacques Derrida, “The Parergon”

So, you studied us, huh? Were we interesting?

Peter Whitley, Deliberate Acts, citing “an older
Hopi man, on learning of my prior research”

The perception of ethnography as an innovative, albeit potentially problematic, supplement to other research methods, 1 has a long history in the discourse of institutionalized art history. This chapter, in continuing the current critique of the transparencies once claimed for visual representations of ethnographic subjects, argues that the history of ethnographic illustration masks a complex rhetorical exchange between word and image that has equally informed the practice of art history as such. In particular, it argues that the persuasive combined power of word and image in framing ethnographic subjects played a key role in art history's professionalization in the nineteenth century in assigning subordinate positions to non-Western material culture.

Such a critique cannot be dissociated from the subject positions of contemporary art historians, and my own personal experience as an art historian, along with my research in a complex network of institutionalized forms of power, implicate a very specific set of ethical considerations. Articulating the ways in which one is entangled with the imperatives of one's profession is no easy matter. The format of diachronically organized microstudies has increasingly appeared to offer a cogent and effective way to address the political consequences of religious, political, scientific, and academic institutions.

I'd like to begin by asking how ethnographic illustrations came to be seen as “natural” in the first place; that is, appearing to require no particular techniques of analysis or feats of self-reflexion to distinguish between representations of ethnographic subjects and direct experience of the same (subjectivized) subjects in the world. My own interest in this topic - and the reason for presenting it in


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Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline


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