Regarding Art and Art History

By Klein, Cecelia F. | The Art Bulletin, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Regarding Art and Art History

Klein, Cecelia F., The Art Bulletin

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Regarding Art and Art History


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.