Decolonising Art History

This blog post was inspired by an OCA workshop on the subject attended by about 20 OCA students from a range of courses. Having studied History of Art with OCA over three modules I was interested in the topic and the viewpoints that other students would bring.

To consider the concept of decolonising art history I think requires us to separate art history from Art History. I use the term art history very loosely and as a conjunction of history and art meaning that art is considered in its historical context. Whereas I take the term Art History to refer to the theoretical study of the topic at educational institutes, the practice of curating and displaying art in cultural settings such as museums and galleries or the writing of literature on the topic. Art History involves Art Historians looking at art history and forming and promoting their own viewpoints.

A major criticism of Art History as currently practiced is that it is completely Eurocentric. To investigate this, I thought that I would look back at the Art History courses I have studied with OCA. My Level 1 module was titled Understanding Art 1: Western Art so it is not surprising that its stated aim was to give a “broad understanding of the development of visual culture in the west from Ancient Greece to the present day”. While it is understandable that an introductory course might concentrate on art that many students new to the subject might be more familiar with, there was no reference in the course notes or in projects or assignments to any art outside of the Western European/North American tradition. The course pack included the main textbook for the course A World History of Art (Honour & Fleming 2009), which does indeed include chapters concerning art from outside Europe/North America. Although as art from the rest of the world occupies just 7 of the book’s 22 chapters the Eurocentric nature of the book is plain.

One problem with Art History as taught at many institutions is that:

“The most widely-used textbooks still organize the history of art in terms of the well-developed Western canon, with other art traditions presented as holistic, geographically based addenda that reduce the span of entire continents and multiple centuries to single chapters.” (Art history and world art history s.d.)

My second OCA Art History course was History of Art 2: Pathways into Specialism which claimed to allow “a deeper study of art from a broader cultural base”. This course did introduce art from different countries and cultures, but it was only a small proportion of what was mainly looking at art from a Eurocentric perspective.

My level 3 studies have been very different, I have been encouraged to investigate Orientalism and helped to adopt a post-colonial approach to the topic I am researching. Perhaps because of this I am keen to learn more about decolonising Art History.

One of the first exercises in my Level 1 OCA course concerned the Canon – a body of work, in this case works of art, that have traditionally been accepted as ‘great’ art and therefore of particular value. One of the issues with the Canon is that it involves Art Historians making a judgement as to what art is deemed worthy of classification within the Canon, which art gets written about, is included within exhibitions etc. Until now, these have mainly displayed a eurocentric bias to their choices.

The workshop inspired me to research the issue in more detail and I found Decolonizing Art History (Grant & Price 2020) particularly interesting. The editors invited a panel of around 28  “art historians, curators and artists to respond to a series of questions that consider some of the recent calls to ‘decolonize art history’” (ibid:9).

The views of the respondents vary but illustrate the vast scope of the task. The following points are my response made in the light of the comments, and I hope that they illustrate the breadth of the viewpoints received and the scale of the work required to decolonize Art History.

  • The term Art History infers a single body of knowledge whereas perhaps we should be referring to Art Histories, which would allow a review of the history of art in any particular culture and also cross-cultural influences. Art Histories would not claim that any one history or culture is superior to any other.
  • Art Histories needs to be radical and to challenge the status quo, in particular the concept of the Canon and the nature of Art History as is currently practiced with its linear progression from Greek/Roman art through to the Renaissance and on to European/North American modernism. The study of Art Histories would diversify to include far greater concentration on works outside of this tradition.
  • Art History is not just an academic discipline but includes curatorial staff and artists themselves. Part of the problem may be the hierarchy found within art – one that prioritises art above craft, that prioritises within art such as a greater recognition for painting over other art forms and still prioritises within painting genres.
  • The influence of the art market on art and artists is huge, continuing to skew priorities within the art world and promoting the eurocentric nature of the market. One only need visit large scale art fairs or read the adverts in art history magazines to appreciate in which direction the market is driving art. Can the art market be influenced to decolonise the Canon?
  • Individual steps in curating, exhibiting, critiquing, or writing about art from a post-colonial view can, incrementally, change the viewpoint. This has already happened, with some success, with a feminist view of art.
  • The curriculum for Art Histories courses needs to change to reflect a much broader view of art and what constitutes art. Educational organisations could look at the courses they offer and consider who they might appeal to. More importantly they could then consider who might this course NOT appeal to and why. Are there groups that would feel alienated from a course of study because the content does not feel relevant to them. Student involvement in devising curricula could help but should not rely on existing cohort of students as the curriculum content may have already, unknowingly, alienated certain groups.
  • A fresh look at how we study art could be productive – perhaps art could be studied by period of history. Many courses will contain study of the Renaissance and simply look at Italian art with possibly consideration of wider European Art of the time. Studying art by period of history could look at the Renaissance alongside Mughal and Ottoman art.
  • Decolonisation cannot be divorced from other aspects of bias within Art History – racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination are interlinked and need to work together to achieve change.
  • Nearly all debates on decolonisation are based around the eurocentric nature of the issue – as this piece has been  up to now – a case of “West dominates East”. But as Professor Watanabe points out in his essay in Decolonizing Art History (Grant & Price 2020:64) other countries have been colonising powers. He gives the example of Japanese colonialism in Asia “an East versus East scenario” and gives examples from Japan’s colonisation of Korea.
  • Statues have been in the news a lot just lately, mainly concerning the subjects past links with the slave trade or racist views. Many believe such statues are emblematic of a continuing colonialist mindset and there are those who promote the removal from public spaces of these statues. The issue though can be more complex. It is widely known that the word ‘racist’ was painted on a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square. Less well reported was that the same word was painted on a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the same location. The statue of Edward Colston was the subject of much debate in Bristol prior to the day it was toppled, equally a petition was raised to remove a statue of Gandhi in Leicester and another to stop Manchester council commissioning a statue to Gandhi, both of which refer to Gandhi’s alleged racist views. But statues can also help in the decolonisation of art, a good example being Michael Rakowitz’s statue The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist which occupied the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square from 2018 to 2020. Rakowitz is an American artist of Iraqi descent and the statue is a recreation Lamassu, a winged that guarded a gate in Nineveh, now in modern-day Iraq, from around 700 BCE until it was destroyed by IS in 2015. I am not saying that all statues should be preserved whatever they represent, as James D’Emilio points out in his essay (Grant & Price 2020:22) such statues have a life span and goes on to state “Monuments with multiple, contested, and nuanced interpretations are best contextualized and used for debate”.

 

I started this piece with a comment about the difference between art history and Art History. It reminds me of a quote from the historian E. H. Carr, the author of What is History (Carr 1961), in which he argues that historical facts are simply those that the historian has chosen to be facts. He urged his students to “study the historian before you begin to study the facts” (Carr 2019). Perhaps students of art history should be advised to study the Art Historian before they begin to study the facts.

I feel privileged and fortunate to have had the opportunity to study Art History with OCA. Certainly the curriculum for the Level 1 and 2 courses could be criticised for its eurocentric nature, but at Level 3 I have been studying Orientalism and looking at art from a post-colonial viewpoint. I think it is a shame that OCA has now dropped its Art History courses, I have certainly learned a lot from them end they have helped to make a considerable change in my photographic practice.

Perhaps OCA can make a big statement and introduce Global Art Histories as modules within its degree pathways!

 

References

Art history and world art history (s.d.) At: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/approaches-to-art-history/approaches-art-history/introduction-art-history/a/art-history-and-world-art-history (Accessed 21/03/2021).

Carr, E. H. (1961) What is History?. London: Penguin UK.

Carr, H. (2019) History according to EH Carr. At: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/books/2019/05/eh-carr-what-is-history-truth-subjectivity-facts (Accessed 20/03/2021).

Grant, C. and Price, D. (2020) ‘Decolonizing art history’ In: Art history 43 (1) pp.8–66.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art 7th Rev. edn. London: Laurence King Publishing.

New Indian Express (2020) Standoff over removal of Mahatma Gandhi statue in UK city of Leicester. At: https://www.newindianexpress.com/world/2020/jun/12/standoff-over-removal-of-mahatma-gandhi-statue-in-uk-city-of-leicester-2155424.html (Accessed 21/03/2021).