World Art Studies Research Paper

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World art—the objects and technologies humans have made from their earliest days to the present—provides a visual reference to stimulate the thinking of art historians and world historians alike. This interdisciplinary field studies resources and technologies of various cultures and the transmission of styles and ideas from one culture to another.

The emerging field of world art encompasses the study of art humans have made from the dawn of the species to the present, and across the entire globe—from Africa to Oceania and from Eurasia to the Americas. Art has many definitions: here it refers both to objects and techniques, especially those that produce an aesthetic response and leave some trace of their existence in the archaeological or historical record. While conventional, historical theories and methods are useful in the study of world art, many scholars involved in what they consider a burgeoning “world art movement” use an interdisciplinary approach, mining such fields as archaeology, anthropology, art history, and, perhaps surprisingly but significantly, neurobiology.

Traditional art history has long been associated with “fine art” (often meaning “art created by renowned individuals from cultures of the West”), while anthropology has been left to study the “crafts” from “non-Western” cultures and anonymous “artisans.” World art studies embrace diverse media: performance arts such as drama, dance, and music; literary arts of language and literature; installation and environmental arts; electronic arts; and visual arts such as painting, sculpture, architecture, ceramics, textiles, and jewelry. (Contemporary art history, of course, has broadened its own realm to include many visual genres once considered nontraditional.) Because items made from tangible materials provide evidence reaching furthest back in time, the examples used here, in a general survey of world art studies, are objects (or visual records of objects) that survive to been seen, examined, and appreciated.

Art historians address the content, context, and meaning of such objects, as well as how, why, when, and by whom they were made, but world art historians take this “see the art in context” approach further (and deeper) to make cross-cultural comparisons. For example, fiber arts comprise textiles—wall hangings, quilts, tapestries, rugs, and cloth—as well as ropes and nets. Each of these specialties involves processes or considerations that reflect social, economic, and cultural aspects of particular groups who made them: the method or sophistication of fiber manipulation and construction (including spinning, weaving, knitting, and patterns of braiding or twisting); the resources or material available (such as cotton, silk, hemp, or flax); and the purpose or occasion of an item’s use (fishing, trading, everyday or ritual clothing). Breaking down a genre of art and analyzing the specific factors that shaped its creation can often make comparisons across cultures more significant for world historians.

Key Aspects of the Field

Since art is created everywhere in the world, world art first and foremost demonstrates the universality of human neurology and nature—our sophisticated hand-eye coordination and our ability to symbolize (that is, to have one thing “stand for” another). The historian David Christian is among those who have observed that accumulated collective learning via symbolic representation is a “driving variable” in human dominance of the planet. The field of world art examines and interprets this symbolic record: art as fact (artifact, from the Latin words factum and arte, literally “thing made by skill”) provides ongoing evidence of multivalent symbolic behavior and meaning that is generated and put into context over time and space.

Humans made objects long before the relatively recent time of written records; world art provides a more complete story of humanity and extends our global, historic understanding by tens of thousands of years. As history began to unfold in text, world art continued to record evidence of human endeavors. Such visual media can be used to augment and enhance the understanding of any given historic period, and to test various historical hypotheses. World art is thus a lens through which historians can explore how individuals in a culture expressed themselves creatively, or how societies communicated values through visual representations. The world art movement’s focus—the ancient and ongoing evidence of human material cultures (art objects) and technologies (the purposes and methods of art making)—can expand the scale of study (a principle advocated by David Christian’s theory of big history) and to locate panhuman threads of inquiry.

Evolutionary psychologists have explored individual and social reasons for why humans made art—to signify wealth and status, to teach values or protest social norms, and to aid memory, for example—but they have also theorized that the artistic forms people originally used grew from views about the body’s role in humankind’s survival. These researchers propose that the widespread desirability of the hourglass-shaped female figure derived from its association with fertility—bearing offspring perpetuates the species— and thus spurred the earliest cultures to represent the female body using artistic materials. (Clay figurines with corpulent forms characterized by the so-called Venus of Willendorf and similar small sculptures of the Paleolithic era provide an example). Other scholars, notably Bethe Hagens (1991), dispute the idea of female fertility as the inspiration for prehistoric figurines and suggest, with convincing visual evidence, that they were modeled on animal brains.

The particularity and diversity of the objects humans have created reflect the ways in which ideas, skills, materials, or modes of representation have (or have not) been transmitted, preserved, or transformed. Thus world art supports specific studies that compare and contrast cultures by examining contemporaneous genres and techniques. Looking at tomb paintings and low-relief sculptures from the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) in China and at wall mosaics in classical Rome can illuminate how two different cultures in the second century CE understood and used the concept of perspective. Portraiture in general or ritual death masks in particular might be used to compare African civilizations such as those in Benin or Egypt to tribal societies such as the Yoruba. The field of world art can also support specific area or period studies: a scholar researching the year 1000 CE might find it useful to compare variations in Islamic and European medieval calligraphies by considering the surfaces on which the “lettering” was applied, the calligraphic styles, the colors used, or, especially relevant to a world historian, the purpose of the writing and what it revealed about attitudes toward creation and divinity.

The evolution of the Buddha image shows how Greco-Roman representations of deities were imported into the Gandhara region of India in the second through the sixth centuries CE and influenced the formation of a standardized (Gupta) Buddha image. In one fifth-century high-relief sculpture from Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, India, for example, a slight but broad-shouldered figure stands in a relaxed, graceful position conveyed by the open-palmed gestures of his hands; the sculptural representation of a sheer, clinging robe accentuates the body’s purity and perfection. This Gupta style was modified as it traveled through Asia, so that in different countries and at different points in time, the Buddha image also reflected individual Asian cultures and styles. The monumental Buddha carved into the rock caves at Yungang (c. 460 CE, one of the earliest examples in China’s Shanxi Province), sits in a rigid pose with short, stylized “drapery” hung over his massive shoulders; these attributes exhibit a distinctly Central Asian aesthetic influence, although the elongated ears and a protuberance on the head are elements familiar to the Gupta figure.

World art thus serves as a vantage point from which historians can study resources and technologies of various cultures, the relationship of humans to the natural, spirit, or ancestral worlds, and, significantly for world historians, the transmission of styles and ideas from one culture to another.

Approaches and Resources in the Field

Thus far the emerging field of world art has relied mostly on the work of anthropologists and art historians, so interests and biases of these fields have influenced scholarship to date. The anthropologist Arnold Rubin (1989, 17) proposed his view of world art as technology: “a system of tools and techniques by means of which people relate to their environment and secure their survival.” Rubin favored an eclectic, interdisciplinary approach to art historical surveys that would allow scholars to examine the structures in which art was produced and utilized in certain cultures, and then to “identify similarities and differences between them according to the types of social, political, and economic systems they embody” (1989, 11). The field of visual anthropology, which emphasizes the importance of visual symbols embedded in gestures, rituals, and ceremonies (as well as artifacts), focuses on the use of video and photography instead of text to document ethnography. Recently the British art historian John Onians edited the comprehensive Atlas of World Art (2004), a monumental landmark study that divides world art (from 40,000 BCE to the present) into seven periods, for which maps are his primary visual tools.

In addition to these approaches, world art studies benefit (and perhaps thrive the most) from the insights of neuroscientists and European social science and humanities scholars working on neuroaesthetics and neuro–art history, both of which inform world history. (Two of the key figures in this exploration are Onians and Wilfried van Damme of the Netherlands.) By starting with panhuman neurology, these researchers and scholars attempt to account for universal “givens” (for example, why shapes and color having meaning) to the variability of art in different times and places (why colors and shapes mean what they do in particular places and times). Onians uses research about mirror neurons (a biological explanation for mimesis), brain priming (when the brain sees an image and then automatically looks for it again), and neural plasticity (the brain’s neural firing patterns are altered by the very act of perception) to explain how art is perceived and created.

A new journal that will represent the field of world art as a whole—and the research being done using world art approaches—is slated for publication by Routledge in 2011: World Art began in March 2010 to call for research articles, essays, visual presentations, and other dialogues from world art scholars and those in interrelated fields (Taylor and Francis 2010). Several other journals relevant to world art studies include Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics (from Harvard) and Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture (from Routledge). The most rapidly growing world art resources are online databases of image and text made available by museums and academic institutions, such as the collection and timeline of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For information about specific areas, scholars often turn to regional organizations. For example, to learn more about arts of Oceania, one might turn to the Pacific Arts Association or the Association of Social Anthropologists for Oceania.

Trends and Challenges

World art often dovetails with recent trends and challenges in world history, as the following three examples explain. First, both fields reject a Eurocentric approach. But the lingering influence of Eurocentrism in many traditional disciplines, and the predominant use of English and other European languages in their scholarship, often cause scholars to misinterpret the world art movement as just being about “non- Western” art made by “non-Western” peoples. Scholars even contest what it is that constitutes language and literacy in a non-Western culture. In 1450 CE, for example, the Incan Empire extended for about 5,500 kilometers and functioned, not with a phonetic writing system, but with a “language” of tied colored threads called quipu. The Inca communicated meanings by twisting, knotting, and manipulating the strings, as well as by denoting string color and placement. Debating, as some do, whether the art of quipu is a form of literacy or numeracy tends to downplay what can be learned from its use as a viable communication system.

Second, questions about how humans and their civilizations develop are central to world history and world art studies. To what extent do people borrow (or diffuse) ideas versus independently invent them? A “world art” answer to this query might be found by looking at any number of specific art objects or their constituent parts—by examining, for instance, the relations between image and text in medieval religious documents such as the Insular Gospels in western Eurasia and Buddhist sutra scrolls in eastern Eurasia. Scholars in both fields also ask, how reciprocal are the borrowings between groups? Historically Japanese culture was itself part of a reciprocal transformation over well more than a millennium as the nobility first adopted Buddhism and next the writing and other aesthetic styles from the Asian continent; those elements spread to and eventually were entirely transformed by indigenous culture. This reciprocity is reflected in the development and subsequent transformation of Japanese ukiyo-e “floating world” woodblock prints, a genre that embodied the principles of transformation and renewal inherent in ancient Buddhism and shamanism. Artists over time adapted familiar subjects to changing technologies, formats, tastes, and cross-cultural influences; cutters carved the drawings into wood; printers chose colors, inked the blocks, and transferred to paper what had essentially become a collaborative creation (Keyes 1999). Tracing the reciprocity further, Japanese ukiyo-e prints are widely recognized for influencing nineteenth-century European painting, but it is hard to quantify or qualify whether that influence equals the powerful impact of Western modernism on twentieth-century Japanese art.

Third, archaeologists and all art historians grapple with the same issues posed by the physical and chemical dating of artifacts (material culture) because they use the same, sometimes problematic, methodologies. Physical dating relies on finding objects “in context,” that is, in stratigraphic layers or contiguous to other excavated remains; dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) is of use only on sites where trees exist. Chemical analysis may destroy at least a part of the object and is often costly, while carbon dating of objects has recently needed to be recalibrated. For these reasons many sites and objects are without firm dates. World art historians, who tend to look at greater numbers of non-Western objects, and who put their findings in a broader comparative, cross-cultural context than traditional art historians, can find their research just as hampered by these inadequacies in dating methods as archaeologists.

Comparative Aesthetics

Appreciating the aesthetics of world art requires getting beyond the familiar Western standards and habits of viewing—the most commonplace of which has the average museumgoer spending less than thirty seconds examining a work of art. Thus many museums today take a more interactive, contextual approach to their exhibitions, especially when displaying nontraditional art forms. (Opinions vary wildly, however, about the whether “guided tours” channeled through the headsets on offer at every blockbuster exhibit are enlightening or reductive.)

World art historians nevertheless have good reason to employ standard and time-tested methodologies of aesthetic appreciation. An analysis of formal elements and design, however traditional its approach, can still lead to the articulation and understanding of a particular style. Formal elements include line, shape (two dimensions), form (three dimensions), texture, space (types of perspective and negative spaces), colors (tints, tones, shades), and values (degrees of light and dark). Design principles include balance (bilateral or asymmetrical), figure–ground relations, texture, composition, pattern (repetition), rhythm, movement, contrast, emphasis, harmony, and unity. A formal analysis also addresses degrees of reality versus illusion, and naturalistic rendering versus abstraction. Comparisons of aesthetic styles between cultures—drawings by ancient Mesoamerican artists and those of the Egyptians, for instance, reveal a similar composite perspective of the human figure, in which the head, arms and legs appear in profile while the torso is depicted in a frontal view—can lead historians to explore whether such patterns across cultures developed independently or interactively.

Ideas of “beauty,” (that is, what constitutes the aesthetic) have varied in different times and places. In the first century CE, Longinus’s treatise “On the Sublime” proposed that aesthetics was the experience of beauty. Contemporary descriptions of aesthetics now include any emotional response to art and emphasize empathy between those who make the objects (or participate in events) and those who more passively view them. Beginning students and the general public might achieve this empathy by exploring another art form related to the object or the culture that produced it. For example, Western eyes may be unfamiliar with Australian “dreamings” paintings in which hundreds (even thousands) of dots are arranged in circles, spirals, and lines that evoke an aerial (if not spiritual) view of the Australian landscape as it was once traveled by Aboriginal ancestors or otherworldly beings. Such viewers might enhance (or possibly diffuse) the visual sense of “otherness” in these “dot” paintings by using their ears—that is, by listening to music played on a didgeridoo (an indigenous wind instrument developed at least 1,500 years ago). Such cross-sensory exposure, especially when it involves an aural art form capable of eliciting an emotional response, can serve as a tool to sharpen awareness of other unfamiliar customs, practices, and traditions of an indigenous culture.

The Future of World Art Studies

Encouragement for the field of world art as an expressive communication and/or information movement is accelerating and expanding through both widespread tourism (actual and virtual) and other online resources. Visual and auditory global exchanges are commonplace, and new art fields, such as “visual culture and world art,” are growing. Art education and organizations around the world show an increasing interest as public art (art displayed and performed in public places), community art (art made collaboratively within and by communities of people), and individual artists in their studios increase their use of technology in the twenty-first century. World art thus fits the temper of the postmodern age as it supports teaching diversity and accommodates multiple intelligences. (See Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences [1993], which explores the theory that individuals possess a unique blend of several types of intelligences— linguistic, musical, and body- kinesthetic, to name a few.)

The most fervent of world art supporters believe that the field has the potential to become an educational axis mundi. In the meantime, world art studies can stimulate the thinking of both art historians and world historians.


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