The Cultural Politics of the Brushstroke

By Powers, Martin J. | The Art Bulletin, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Cultural Politics of the Brushstroke


Powers, Martin J., The Art Bulletin


In Identity and Violence Amartya Sen observed, "A major source of potential conflict in the contemporary world is the presumption that people can be uniquely categorized based on religion or culture."1 The book in fact documents some of the unspeakable horrors that otherwise good people visit upon others because diey have learned to view them as rivals - alien beings possessing no values in common with themselves. Sen's book may be read as a sustained attack on the Huntington hypothesis, the view that scholars can identify essential and durable differences in the values espoused by cultural groups, especially between the West and "the Rest."2 Sen argues that the assumption of fundamental difference in cultural values can be misleading because no one is ever simply a "Christian" or an "Englishman" but adopts multiple roles and identities ("father," "neighbor"), many of which we may share witfi putative "others." What makes Sen's book relevant for historians of art is the fact that Huntingtonlike views have been common in our discipline since its inception in the eighteenth century. Ever since Johann Joachim Winckelmann published History of Ancient Art in 1764, art has been treated as a clue to what are perceived as fundamental values of different and competing civilizations - for Winckelmann, Greek/Western versus Egyptian /Oriental.3 Neither Samuel Huntington's nor Winckelmann 's claims, however, stand up to close scrutiny. In reality, these narratives are neither historical nor sociological; rather, they are best understood as a form of cultural politics. "Cultural politics" refers to those narratives constructed by intellectuals who see themselves as representing their own nation in competition with other nations. Intellectuals engaging in cultural politics typically seek to establish the superiority of their own nation by spinning a cultural myth that flatters their own ethnic group and denigrates others. From its inception, the history of art lent itself readily to the fabrication of self-serving cultural narratives, and so histories of art played a major role in the national myths developed from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries.4

There is nothing new in noting the complicity of our discipline in the formation of nationalist narratives, but what is less often observed is the paradox inherent in that relation. National myths, after all, stress purity of culture and stability of values: Westerners love freedom, while Orientals are slavish, to take Winckelmann 's example again. Yet the cultural politics necessitated by such mythmaking is anything but pure. Cultural politics

is by nature dialectical: it arises when an intellectual from one tradition interprets, or reinterprets, another tradition;

is often defensive, devised in response to a challenge from some Other; and

is often strategic and opportunistic rather than the product of deeply held beliefs. Intellectuals constructing a national myth may resort to equivocation, substitution, misprision, or displacement in defense of their imagined nation's honor.

Consider Louis Le Comte's (1655-1728) response to the magnificence of Chinese imperial architecture (English edition, 1697):

I confess that medley of beams, jices, rafters and pinions, bears a surprising singularity, because we must needs judge that such a walk was not done without great expense: but to speak the truth, it proceeds only from the ignorance of their workmen, who never could find out that noble simplicity which becomes at once the solidity and beauty of our buildings.5

Much of what Le Comte wrote on China adopted an us/ them framework and aimed to bolster European pride in the face of another advanced civilization. At the time, the larger cities in China were larger than any in Europe, a fact Le Comte found intimidating. But then, "One comfort, my lord, is that these proud cities which stiled themselves Ladies of the Universe, have been forced to open their gates to the Gospel, and are partly subdued by our religion.

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