Atlas of World Art.

Author:Silver, Larry
Position:Book Review


Atlas of World Art

London: Oxford University Press, 2004. 352 pp.; 300 color ills. $120.00


Toward a Geography of Art

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 490 pp.; 91 b/w ills. $65.00

Art historians have always given themselves a mandate to study the visual culture of all regions and periods, yet rarely does the millennial turn toward "globalism" manifest itself fully. To proffer responsible scholarship, art historians inevitably must specialize and focus. Their need to learn indigenous languages as well as historical or cultural specifics requires them to concentrate on individual regions and periods. After all, history itself is about specifics, not general rules. To indulge in academic jargon, it is "idiographic" rather than "nomothetic." (1)

Thus, the ambitious and comprehensive project to produce the Atlas of World Art necessarily depended on an army of specialists, each engaging one or several maps of a region in a period. I counted no fewer than sixty-eight contributors, including both Onians and Kaufmann, to this handsome and widely comprehensive book. Issues arising from their contributions were discussed in the session "Mapping the World's Art" at the annual meeting of the College Art Association (CAA) in New York, February 2003. Both Onians and Kaufmann presented papers, and other scholars examined the varied specifics of Romanesque architecture (Eric Fernie), Dutch painting (Elisabeth de Bievre), and Islamic art (Jonathan Bloom). While the Oxford Atlas clearly ascribes individual contributions, as Onians notes in his introduction, the wide variety of frameworks, defined from each individual field rather than according to some common formula, allows for (or demands) a "diversity of assumptions" that avoid culturally specific or predetermined categories of visual art (though the very concept of what constitutes art itself must remain moot and gets left up to the particular contributor).

Geography itself cannot be taken as a given. Certainly, even the boundaries of continents have no intrinsic reality, despite the long European division of its own region from both Africa and Asia, as well as Onians's claim that the Ural Mountains provided a persistent physical barrier. (2) We note that even the medieval T-O maps imposed a cultural construction of three continents well before much was known about them, let alone any "real" natural borders. In fact, there was nothing to require someone to construe "Europe" out of the essentially continuous area of "western Eurasia" or to distinguish the area as a physical and cultural region, equivalent to a subcontinent, such as India. (3) Thus, built into the Oxford Atlas is already a wide set of tacit cultural assumptions about what units constitute meaningful regions and scales of presentation for these legible and attractive maps. (4) Moreover, many of the decisive changes mapped over time, such as movement or migration (from west to east or from north to south), are presented by Onians in his remarks as "natural." Major behavioral shifts leading to "new ways of life" (agriculture, industry, war, religion) are taken to be formative of distinctive periods (presumably, so are their stable, even static continuities), even though "progress" is neither assumed nor explicitly valued.

In his general introduction Onians identifies his object of study as "the history of material visual expression" and the "story of the art of their own region ... [as well as] the story of their neighbours' art and, indeed, everybody else's" (p. 10). Bold claims. Of course, questions immediately arise, which, to be fair, were clearly acknowledged by Onians in his CAA address. How much of cultural geography is in fact conditioned by the natural or environmental circumstances of a region? (5) How much is shaped by political, or by religious, outreach? Language groups and their borders as well as their interactions can provide a measure of other cultural interactions, since linguists are forever tracing the complex histories--and hybridities--of languages and dialects. (6) Are local distinctions of race (not to mention class and gender) submerged by viewing a region's dominant culture? We can certainly cite plenty of examples of how disparate tribal or ethnic groups can be lumped together within larger borders, whether in ancient empires or in modern nation-states. How finely should a map attempt to distinguish subcultures or regions within such larger political or dominant cultural entities?

Even the means of transmission or interaction cover a wide range. One thinks of a spectrum of contact, ranging across conflict and rivalry at one extreme to trade or alliance at the other, as preconditions of visual "influence." Indeed, isn't the issue throughout this cultural mapping just a macrocosm of the traditional art historical preoccupation with influence, with origins and outward diffusion over time as well as space? In effect, such historical maps present what Mikhail Bakhtin defined as a "chronotope," a configuration of space and time in a (fictional) setting, where relations of power become visible and certain agents and actions can occur. (7) A historical map, in sum, posits a narrative and implies agents who act on the broader scale of visual culture.

But the wider the time span or the geographic stretch, the harder it is to make many fine distinctions. The tidiness of the Reformation dictum Cuius regio, eius religio (in his region his [the ruler's] religion) rarely works out so neatly in historical realities. And the maxim applied during an earlier era in African visual studies, summarized by the reductive principle "one tribe, one style," has been amply criticized by recent specialists of that continent's diverse, interactive visual culture. (8) During some striking moments in history a powerful conqueror adopts, even cultivates and extends, the visual culture of a dominated people. Roman assimilation of the Greeks or Mongol adoption of either Chinese (Yuan dynasty) or Iranian (Ilkhanids) cultural practices provide ready examples on a grand scale. (9)

The growing complexity of recent time, abetted by the greater accumulation of surviving objects and historical evidence, means that periods covered by the Oxford Atlas grow progressively shorter as one approaches the present, with the most extended attention accorded to the 20th century. (As for the choice of the Common Era for dating, something had to be chosen, and the audience for this book is reading in English with the use of a Roman alphabet, so the dominant cultural heritage is evident, but the conventional terms BC and AD are uncritically maintained.) At least literacy is not prioritized as the basis of choosing an art tradition for consideration, nor is urban art production, even though Onians asserts (in ways that are not borne out by the maps themselves) that this presentation is "acknowledging that we are animals and seeing the production of culture as part of our nature" (p. 11: the very inverse of the claim advanced so boldly by the historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, though at times the extremes do touch). For Onians, if not his collaborators, humans have been making art over all these millennia "because our biological nature has led us to do so." It is doubtful whether many of his contributors, including Kaufmann, would agree with this claim. (10)

The basic organization of the Atlas of World Art is by time as much as by continents. This model implies that influence moves more dynamically across boundaries in the dimension of time. One could opt for a basic stability of space and influence within a single region; this model pertains in some more self-possessed cultures (China comes to mind, as well as subcontinental regions in India. Africa, or Central America). Moreover, nationalist histories of art often tend to stress such indigenous continuities as a "heritage" or "patrimony." But the structure of this atlas certainly offers something new--and more truly global--by emphasizing contact between regions and cultural change rather than constancy as the objects of study. After all, we already have books on the art history of regions, usually identified with modern nation-states.

The Oxford Atlas uses six major time divisions, diminishing in size (as noted) as they approach the present and largely defined in terms of social structures: hunting and gathering (40,000-5000 BC), agriculture and urbanism (5000-500 BC), war and empire (500 BC-AD 600), religion and the ruler (600-1500), exploitation and display (1500-1800), industry and science (1800-1900), and "ideas and technology" (1900-2000). In each segment the survey proceeds to inventory the continents in the same order: the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia and the Pacific. Each two-page spread or opening features a wider view at left and a close-up or two at right as well as one or more illustrations of representative artworks. Captions are generous and informative, reproductions clear and helpful. Of course, each map varies according to the individual specialist who determined the choices of objects and map designs. Onians claims that "each spread visually presents a similar set of information on such subjects as topography, both of landscapes and of cities; raw materials, both local and imported, and their processing; art, its production, use, display and displacement; artists and their movements...

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