Interventions: the author replies.

Author:Mitter, Partha
Position:Art history and modernism - Report
 
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With "Decentering Modernism, " I hoped to provoke a debate on "modernism and its discontents," which is possibly one of the central art historical concerns of our day. In the process, I proposed a more critical and open-ended global art history for the twenty-first century, one that challenges Hegelian teleology and allows different trajectories to flourish. I feel vindicated that the respondents in general share my objective of "decentering" the discourse of modernism, although it is quite natural that their interpretations would express different inflections from mine. Faced with such closely argued, intellectually engaging, and comprehensive responses, I will endeavor to keep my concluding reply as concise as possible. Acknowledging that the problematics such as center/periphery, inclusion/exclusion, and originary/derivative affect not only studies of art in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australasia but also the study of artists in the metropolitan center itself, the respondents offer often explicitly, and sometimes by implication, valuable suggestions as to the direction future global art history could take. This has enormous implications for revising the existing curriculum, particularly in the United States. It is perhaps a reflection of the fact that all the respondents belong to the younger generation of art historians. Unsurprisingly, there are no "dyed-in-the-wool" modernists among them who are prepared to uphold the universal values of modernism to their dying breath. Is there a danger of flogging a dead horse, or one that is about to expire? Perhaps we are witnessing the dissolution of the heroic modernism that prevailed during much of the twentieth century?

Recently, art history, even more than history or the social science, has become a battleground of contesting ideologies. Since the late eighteenth century, Western art history had boasted a monolithic cannon of taste, enunciating clearly formulated principles of artistic perfection grounded in Vasarian strictures. Even though the literatures of Europe and North America clearly differentiated high- and low-brow taste, they did not enjoy the overwhelming presence of a monolithic cannon, exposed as they had been to competing literary norms that were often in disagreement with one another. (1) In the late 1970s, this confidence among art historians received a hard knock as art history faced a new generation of radical cultural critics inspired by semiology, psycho-analysis, and poststructuralist deconstruction, During this much-needed "decolonization" of disciplines, the art historical canon faced the challenge of being seen to be complicit with the capitalist-colonialist patriarchy.

The compelling arguments of postcolonial critics stemmed from the fact that they were making an assualt on the whole epistemic structure of the Enlightenment and its claims to context-independent universality and supracultural rationality, both of which had fueled the nineteenth-century racist ideology of colonial empires. While acknowledging Karl Marx's enormous contribution to social progress, these critiques of imperialism shifted their focus from the material conditions or class conflicts in society to its intellectual superstructure. It is an interesting fact that Marx's own searing analysis of the capitalist system and state power had failed to question the intellectual foundations of capitalism, especially its innate faith in a teleological interpretation of history. Even in the wake of widespread decolonization after World War II, critiques of colonialism hardly touched its intellectual foundations, as exemplified by Octave Mannoni's Propero and Caliban (1950), whose study of colonial rule as a pathological relationship between the colonizer and the colonized seemed to place the whole onus of colonial dependency on he shortcomings of the colonized themselves.

The sea change did not take place until the 1970s, when it culminated in Edward Said's magnum opus, Orientalism, published in 1978. Quite significantly, for the postcolonial critics of empire, Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earch (1960), rather than Mannoni's Prospero and Caliban, became the key text. Fanon, like Mannoni, had also used psychoanalysis to chart the psychopathology of colonization, but unlike his predecessor, Fanon gave the first trenchant critique of colonial structures of thought, explaining the violence of colonialism as a historical process. (2) My own small contribution to this process of decolonization was the monograph Much Maligned Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art, published in 1977, which presented (dare I say) the first sustained critique of colonial art history as constructed by European art historians and archaeologists. James Fergusson, the reputed father of Indian art and architectural history, formulated influential aesthetic rules for "reading" Hindu temples in 1876. Imbued with Johann Joachim Winckelmann's dictum of the "noble simplicity and quiet grandeur" of Greek art, Fergusson preferred to assert the inferiority and perpetual decadence of Hindu art and architecture rather than study the works for their intrinsic value. (3) While I was originally trained in the discipline of history, I believe my critique of colonial epistemology has much in common with the aims and objectives of cultural theorists.

Postcolonial readings "against the grain" have brought into question earlier certainties, challenging patriarchy and colonial dominance, ideas that helped loosen the "dominant" art historical canon and valorize the important contribution made by gays and lesbians, women, non-Western, and other so-called marginal groups, who had hitherto been written out of mainstream art history. One inevitable effect of these changes has been to give rise to an agonistic relation between the new theory and "orthodox," or mainstream, art history. Nonetheless, I think we all agree that the time has come to incorporate the unquestioned gains of postcolonial critiques into the disciplinary framework of art history. Otherwise, there is the danger of dismissing the solid achievements of the previous generation of art historians as mere "detritus" of the Western history of colonialism. We have had a permanent revolution, endless textual exegesis, and cultural interrogation, and we now face an inevitable aporia.

In the light of this, I ask myself as a practitioner of the discipline: What are the task and objectives of art history? What is of enduring value in art history as a means of under-standing cultural phenomena? And how does art history relate to wider practices in the humanities, in opposition to the hard sciences? I would assert that without this concern, surely there would be no point in pursuing the subject. As I see it, art history fulfills a number of criteria: as it deals with objects, it is an index of material culture, but it also involves what Clifford Geertz calls a "thick description" of cultural phenomena, which explains human behavior as a meaningful activity in its cultural context. Geertz's "thick description" may be effectively applied to individuals in society who are engaged in the production and consumption of artifacts commonly defined as art. (4) In other words, the subjectivity and agency of both the artist and the consumer enter into the equation. But above all, I believe it is the critical approach combining theory with historical method that offers us a sound working principle for contextualizing artifacts within society.

According to their own inclination and political affiliations, art historians have gravitated toward an "idealistic" or a "materialistic" definition of art history. (5) However, whatever our personal inclination, let us not forget that we as art historians have benefited from the insights of previous generations of art historians and art critics. Learning from their art historical methods, though, does not necessarily mean subscribing to their cultural biases or anxieties bred of the particular circumstances of their historic position. Thomas Crow's remarks in this context are particularly fecund with possibilities: while recognizing the advances in interpretation made by recent theory, one needs to acknowledge the rich methodological tools developed by generations of art historians. (6) Therefore, while celebrating the powerful interventions of critical theory, the time has come to build on the past achievements of art history enriched by postcolonial thought. What I am pleading for is nuance and inflection, as I am convinced that a work of art is a complex entity and not a one-dimensional affairs. To reiterate my point, while not denying the impact of colonial dominance, which is a fact of and should be the discriminating relationship between the artist and his sources. Within the global colonial-capitalist order, artists in different regions or nations, such as east and south Asia, Africa and Latin America, have...

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