The map of art history.

Author:Nelson, Robert S.

From the nineteenth century, History was to deploy, in a temporal series, the analogies that connect distinct organic structures to one another. . . . History gives place to analogical organic structures. . . . This event, probably because we are still caught inside it, is largely beyond our comprehension. - Michel Foucault(1)

This is an essay about knowledges of space and time that aspire to be global but remain local, and about their inscription in the discipline of art history. It proceeds from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from particular points on the spatial surface of art history to its broad, totalizing plane, and thence to an awareness of the jagged, gerrymandered divisions of art history itself. It wends its way from moments in the present and the lived past to distant pasts dimly remembered in a discipline that typically studies the histories of everything but itself, conveniently forgetting that it, too, has a history and is History. The intent is to examine notions that exist, as Foucault suggests, at the level of a disciplinary unconsciousness and to argue that Order, History, Space, and Time do matter. Through them, art history is constituted and, in turn, constitutes objects, narratives, and peoples. Yet what is made can be unmade or re-sited, re-structured, and re(-)formed, and what has become tangible and reified can revert to mere heuristic category, if first consciously addressed.

The argument takes for granted that contemporary art history, like any other academic subject or learned profession, is a practice, a discipline, a narrative, and a rhetoric with its own history, protocols, and institutional structures. In the admittedly small but growing body of literature about the history of art history, investigations of individual art historians have dominated heretofore. There is, however, more than a little need for studies of the poetics of art history(2) and of the means and consequences of its rise to the status of a discipline over the past two centuries.(3) As discipline, art history acquired and has been accorded the ability and power to control and judge its borders, to admit or reject people and objects, and to teach and thus transmit values to others.

If these structures are seldom noticed, much less studied, they are always present. They are revived and replicated whenever a student attends an introductory class, reads a survey book, or follows a prescribed curriculum, whenever a colleague retires, a chair justifies and a dean endorses a replacement position, and a recent Ph.D. is hired, and whenever the discipline or a subfield, such as Renaissance or medieval art, convenes its members or publishes its journal - acts of scholarship but also of ritual, with their attendant consequences for the production of social meanings and identities. And they are in operation whenever someone looks for a book on a library shelf, or when a visitor to an art museum walks through its symbolically charged spaces, thereby enacting and embodying a narrative of art, as Carol Duncan has recently explained.(4)

In this essay, the space and time created by the disciplinary gaze are at issue and the issue. They can be encountered in a multitude of sites and performances. I choose three: a grid of fields into which new Ph.D. dissertations are set, a library classification of art history, and the structure of basic survey books. Because I seek to explore the typical, ordinary, or commonplace of disciplinary order, I have deliberately avoided its most public and visual manifestation, the museum. A topic of sustained interest these days, the art museum, both as a model of and model for art historical classification, is certainly relevant to the inquiry, but that investigation is being ably pursued by others.(5)

In using the word "map" in the title of this essay, I am aware that I risk its being swept up into that torrent of recent scholarship about maps and mapping, taken literally and allegorically.(6) Art history's general relation to these important and ongoing discussions is by no means "surveyed" here. The senses of map that I intend are surely allegorical, but they also are prosaic, commonplace, or literal. That literalness comes easily to art historians: we work daily with maps, plans, or diagrams. My inquiry extends that disciplinary routine to the visual and spatial aspects of art historical classification. Thus, I take map as metaphor, but also, following Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift, as

a fetish, a speculum, a bounded and purified re-presentation of mapper, mapping, and mapped. . . . Maps are not empty mirrors, they at once hide and reveal the hand of the cartographer. Maps are fleshly: of the body and of the mind of the individuals that produce them, they draw the eye of the map-reader.(7)


In June 1995, the annual listing of American and Canadian dissertations appeared, as is customary, in the Art Bulletin, the principal journal of the art historical profession in North America. There each year the work of beginning scholars is duly certified by the "little seal"(8) and classed according to traditional categories:

Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern, and Classical Art; Early Christian, Byzantine, and Medieval Art; The Renaissance; Baroque and 18th-Century Europe; 19th- and 20th-Century Europe; Photography and Film; Art of the United States and Canada; Native American, Pre-Columbian, and Latin American Art; Asian Art; Islamic Art; African Art; African Diaspora; Art Criticism and Theory.(9)

The list is neither natural, consistent, nor logical according to our cultural categories, much less those of other societies, and presumably is a function of its compilers and the material to be compiled. Only our familiarity with this ordering prevents us from laughing, as Foucault did when, in the famous beginning to Les mots et les choses, he encounters Jorge Luis Borges's description of the classification system of animals in "a certain Chinese encyclopaedia."(10)

Presumably, what had amused this philosopher and historian of science was the incongruous classification of animals - incongruous, that is, by the criteria of Western rationality. But that same rationality may be turned, as Foucault did and as I wish to do, on Western systems of order. The ways and means that a certain version of logic is contravened in the Art Bulletin's listing is both puzzling and revealing. The word "art," for example, is found in all categories except, for reasons unknown, the "Renaissance" through "19th- and 20th-Century Europe" and "African Diaspora." Less arbitrary, surely, is the use of the definitive article "the" for only one category, "The Renaissance," thereby making it a monolithic entity of unique significance. It is the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages, that presides at the middle of a five-part narrative from the beginning of art to the present in Europe. In this context, the Renaissance functions like China, literally the Middle Kingdom, at the center of Chinese maps, or like Europe or America in maps from these cultures.(11) Indeed Renaissance art similarly presides at the heart of various museum collections of universal intent(12) and inspires the architectural styles and semiotic messages of American museums from the Gilded Age, such as the Art Institute of Chicago,(13)

In the Art Bulletin, this grand Western narrative, known in the trade as "Pyramids to Picasso," is isolated from the United States and other geographical categories, and from the rest of the list, by the heading "Photography and Film," the only artistic medium listed. Not surprisingly, given the site of the periodical's publication, North America is the first continent to be appended to art history's aging but ever vital canonical core. South America, Asia, and Africa follow behind. Between Asia and Africa is the list's only religious category, "Islamic Art." At the conclusion comes "Art Criticism and Theory," as if only this category were either critical or theoretical.

Chronologically, the list proceeds in temporal sequence from antiquity to twentieth-century Europe, then moves more or less laterally to photography and film (nineteenth and twentieth centuries), the United States and Canada (sixteenth-twentieth centuries), and Native America (mostly nineteenth-twentieth centuries). Then there is a flashback within the same category to the Pre-Columbian. Forward progress resumes with the next term, Latin American Art. Asian, Islamic, African, African Diaspora, and Art Criticism and Theory occupy temporally ambiguous positions. European art is accorded the greatest number (five) of chronological subdivisions. The art of North and South America has two divisions, the explicit Pre-Columbian and the implicit post-Columbian, that is, all the rest (United States, Canada, and Latin America, and, I suppose, Native American). Asia and Africa are undifferentiated temporally.

Geographically, the tabulation begins in Egypt and the "Near East," that is, northeast Africa and southwest Asia, continues to western Asia, northern Africa, and southern Europe (antiquity), to western Asia and Europe (Early Christian, Byzantine, Medieval), and then narrows to Europe exclusively (Renaissance to present). Next it vaults the Atlantic for the Americas (United States, Canada, Latin America, in this order), jumps back to Asia and Africa (Asian and African art), and somehow negotiates the combination of Asia, Africa, and Europe that encompasses Islamic art. Inserted into this narrative are the spatially ambiguous Photography and Film, African Diaspora, and Criticism and Theory.

To identify geographical categories, the list uses the long-accepted names of continents, with the sole exception of the term "Near East." Logically, the latter makes sense only from some point to the West, such as North Africa, but we understand that this is the Near East from the perspective of a Europe that is unaware that Persia, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Arabia lie to the...

To continue reading