Response: provincializing modernity: from derivative to foundational.

Author:Brown, Rebecca M.
Position:Partha Mitter's Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery - Report

Partha Mitter's "Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-Garde Art from the Periphery" makes explicit a major shortfall within recent efforts to include the art of regions outside the broadly defined northern Atlantic. (1) Simply by providing in-depth, complex, and convincing readings of both Gaganendranath Tagore's and Jamini Roy's works, Mitter makes clear that South Asian modern and Contemporary art can no longer be ignored in our understanding of the landscape of global art in the twentieth century. Mitter's critique of the unmarked (European) modern and his call to contextualize twentieth-century art and artists within their particular relation to colonial, imperial, or indirect forms of Western hegemony move us closer to a time when ignoring Roy of Gaganendranath will be impossible. The rereading of these artists and their peers in Bengal, within the context of the growing resistance to colonial rule in Bengali politics from the 1880s onward, allows us to see their art in light of their history rather than as lesser derivations of a grand European tradition. Mitter's research, alongside that of others working in this area, will enable colleagues concentrating on other global regions (including Europe) to attain a more precise and focused understanding of the development of modernist ideas within this particular regional and national context. (2) As his essay argues, this will produce a "more inclusive art history" that expands the definition of modernism to encompass the "artistic modernisms of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australia." The discipline demands this kind of expansion of the canon, and many within it--including many scholars of European modernism--echo Mitter's call for a through questioning of the monolithic of modernism.

But is expansion the answer that we, alongside Mitter, seek? Feminist art historians, as Mitter notes, have pointed to the unmarked nature of modernism. Yet feminist art history also works to undermine the masculinist framework of the modern itself--to question the underlying structure of the modern not in order to include women artists within it but to mount a holistic critique of the universalizing, imperialist nature of the modern. (3) In my response to Mitter's effective intervention into the modernist canon I propose to push us more fully toward a critique of the modern. Yes, we need to study art within its local, regional, and national contexts, and we must therefore acknowledge the ways in which this art engages with the art of Europe and North America. However, seeing the so-called periphery means acknowledging its status as emphatically not peripheral but, rather, central to the production of the modern. The study of twentieth-century visual culture outside the northern Atlantic offers an opportunity to scholars of European art to understand the colonial, imperial, and capitalist roots of modernity, and to do so from the spaces where they arose: the southern Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Ocean regions.

Thus, the project of reframing modern art means more than expanding the canon to include the many movements, artists, and schools outside the narrow Paris - New York corridor, as Mitter acknowledges. The problem with inclusion as either a tactical-pedagogical strategy or an analytic framework is that it only tangentially or secondarily seeks to undermine the foundations of modern art. If we seek to include, we accept the existing terms of modern art, by which works from the periphery remain derivative, placed on the map in relation to their more famous cousins: Maqbool Fida Husain next to the Cubists: Francis Newton Souza next to Georges Rouault; K. C. S. Paniker next to Paul Klee. (4) We see a geographic relation of influence articulated in these pairings echoed by a temporal...

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