Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Theory, Method, & the Future of Pre-Columbian Art History

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Theory, Method, & the Future of Pre-Columbian Art History

Article excerpt

Introduction of the session

Cecelia F. Klein-Professor Emérita, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles, has taught and written about Pre-Columbian art history since 1972, when she began her teaching career at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, after earning her doctorate at Columbia University. A specialist in the iconography and political functions of Aztec art and culture, she wrote her dissertation (later published by Garland) on frontality in Pre-Columbian Mexican figurai imagery. Since then she has written numerous articles on the Aztec rites of autosacrifice and human sacrifice, as well as the symbolism of human body parts. Long interested in the role of visual images in the construction of an official Aztec ideology of gender, she edited and contributed three essays to Gender in Prehispanic America (Dumbarton Oaks, 2001). Klein has long been interested in, and published on, the history and methodologies of her field.


Welcome to the open forum on the future of Pre-Columbian Art History. I am Cecelia Klein, the organizer of the session, so let me start this off by explaining why I chose our topic today. As the session statement in your program makes clear, it has been my observation that Pre-Columbian art historians are increasingly specializing in a single geographic area, or so-called "culture," and sometimes a single, often very short, time period within that culture's history. This occurs to the near or total exclusion of the myriad other places, peoples, and historical moments covered by the field of "Pre-Columbian art history." Many younger scholars do not seem to be trying to make their work relevant even to Pre-Columbianists specializing in other areas and periods, and evidence even less interest in engaging the broader issues and theoretical debates within their own discipline. The questions before us today are: Is this a good trend or a bad one? And what is behind it?

I realize that what is happening to Pre-Columbian art history is part of a much larger problem vexing the humanities as a whole. It is also tied to the growing disinterest in deep history in favor of preoccupation with the rapidly changes taking place in the world we are living in today. The study of history in general clearly has a problem. Nonetheless, these factors have not kept the field of colonial Latin American art history from expanding at the same time that Pre-Columbian art history seems to be losing ground. There must be something else at play here. Toward the end of provoking the discussion and debate that I hope will follow, let me propose that it is precisely the distancing of the Pre-Columbian art field from the humanistic roots of the discipline of art history and the theoretical issues that drive it that has lessened Pre-Columbian art history's appeal in recent years. This drift has had practical ramifications, for if I am correct, it also accounts, at least in part, for the reduced number of new faculty positions allotted to Pre-Columbian art history in recent years, for the relatively fewer exhibitions of Pre-Columbian art, and for the increasingly rare appearance of serious articles on a Pre-Columbian art topic in the major disciplinary and humanistic journals.

To fire up debate on this matter, I invited five of the most senior Pre- Columbian art historians in the field briefly to take turns sharing with us some of their thoughts about it. These five have been working in the field long enough to have personally lived through some of the changes it has undergone over the last three to five decades. In addition, I asked Claudia Brittenham, a young scholar starting out her career, to serve as a discussant in the hopes that she will represent her own viewpoint as a younger scholar in the field and thus provide a generational perspective. I realize that those of us who have been around the block a few times are likely to see the situation very differently from the younger generation, and not necessarily for the better. …

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