World History and Art Research Paper

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World history, almost by necessity, is often interdisciplinary in its approach and research methods. So far, however, it has not connected very closely with the visual studies disciplines, especially art history. Some recent scholarship suggests this might be changing and non-textual evidence will play a larger role in how we see world history.

The great pioneers and popularizers of world history in the first half of the twentieth century— Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History; Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West—reified the visual arts as a unique expression of the animating spirit of the “Great Civilizations,” whose rise and fall was the core of world history. Art measured and reflected those life cycles.

The new world history taught in the United States since the 1960s has largely abandoned a separate-civilizations approach to world history in favor of interconnections and comparisons, especially more material ones—trade, the transfer of technologies, the spread of disease, and impacts on the environment. The importance of art in this new context has consequently declined. Does art have any significant role to play in world history in the twenty-first century other than as textbook illustration?

Art: Illustration or Content?

In his enormously influential though misleadingly titled The Rise of the West (1963), a comprehensive one-volume survey of the entire human past, William H. McNeill strove to give art and visual material a meaningful presence in a global narrative that still used civilizations as its basic building blocks but made cultural diffusion between civilizations the real motor of historical change—with art being a prominent part of that story. McNeill not only insisted on illustrations—these were lesser-quality, black-and-white photos compared to the lavish color that would become de rigueur once world history had established a large textbook market—but they were tightly linked to the historical narrative. He also made his publisher (University of Chicago Press) commission the Hungarian- born artist Bela Petheo, who drew a series of diagrammatic maps and sketches to convey some of the book’s interpretations and narratives—particularly those having to do with contact and diffusion. Petho’s illustrations combined words and symbols with the gestures of, and the spatial relationships among, simply rendered human figures.

Subsequent world history textbooks, including McNeill’s, developed the use of art as illustration but seldom as an integral part of the narrative itself. As material history became more important the emphasis on nonmaterial culture declined. Illustrations functioned more as vehicles to break up large blocks of text, and the lessons art could teach about history, including the history of cultural diffusion, seemingly diminished. When McNeill co-authored his next venture into macro-history, The Human Web (2003), art had shrunk to a few passing one-line references. This is not so surprising, for the many subjects McNeill tackled in influential books and lecture series during the years after The Rise of the West dealt with “harder” fields of history—military power, demography, disease, and the environment, for instance—topics seldom interpreted through the visual enhancement (or evidence) provided by art.

This should not be interpreted as criticism. It reflects the general interest of McNeill’s time in questions of economic development, of power and organization, and of material culture. The other influential world historians of the last fifty years, from Leften Stavrianos to David Christian, pacesetters in the development of world history as a respectable field of intellectual inquiry, followed similar paths, or rather blazed new trails, but none explored the visual dimensions of world history. Patrick Manning’s Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past makes this point clear. Manning’s volume, which in his preface he calls “an overview and critique of world history as a field of scholarship and teaching” (2003, ix), includes a chapter called “Cultural History.” A discussion of nonmaterial culture is part of that chapter, but it draws heavily on anthropology; so art is once again marginalized—not necessarily because of any anti-artistic prejudice on the part of the author—but perhaps reflecting the author’s Africanist background.

World History Research: Where is the Art?

Surveying research publications in the field of world history one finds very few books, monographs, or scholarly articles by historians that have anything to do with art. The Journal of World History, an official publication of the World History Association, has run exactly two articles with an art theme—“The Pilgrim’s Art: The Culture of Porcelain,” and “Weaving the Rainbow: Visions of Color in World History,” both by Robert Finlay—in its twenty years of publication. A newer journal, the U.K.-published Journal of Global History, appeared to be following the same track in its first four years until in the July 2009 issue it published “Dionysus and Drama in the Buddhist Art of Gandhara,” co-authored by the art historian Pia Brancaccio and the world historian Xinru Liu. The article is a model of what interdisciplinary scholarship can do to draw more cultural and social history out of a topic, especially one so well covered as Greek influence (between the first and third centuries CE), in what is now northern India and eastern Afghanistan. But its interpretive use of artistic evidence (sculpture) is very much the exception in world history research.

One other seeming exception should be mentioned. Timothy Brook, a globally conscious historian of Ming China, takes the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer as the starting point for his 2008 book, Vermeer’s Hat. But the art is almost incidental to the episodic story Brook tells of how in the seventeenth century the European search for the riches of the Orient, with China at its center, started to build the interconnected world of modern times. He focuses on one small object in several paintings (the beaver fur hat of a Dutch officer in one of them provides the title), to explain where these items came from and the history of how they got to Holland— from the opening of the New World and the exposure to furs, tobacco, and silver; to trade with Asia and the spice islands; and to changes in European customs, habits, and life styles. It is definitely world history told with grace, charm, and wit. But it does not use the art to explain the history; it is not world history as seen through art.

A more recent but better example of the historian crossing over into art history—but still asking world-history-type questions about complicated cross cultural connections or networks—is Robert Finlay’s book (expanding on the article mentioned above) The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History. He traces the invention of true porcelain in China, explains why other pottery-making cultures (and who didn’t make pottery?) had such trouble matching the Chinese combination of extremely high kiln temperatures and special types of clay seldom found elsewhere, and why this created a unique worldwide trade network when European maritime expansion connected all the continents. Most significant for cultural history, fine porcelain was an artistic product that carried all kinds of cultural baggage. East met West, China and Europe but also everywhere in between, in the pictures and designs on a Chinese china cup. It is the furthest we have come so far in making art a meaningful part of truly global history.

Still, when we turn from the research monographs to the world history textbooks it is apparent that much more needs to be done. Despite attempts at stimulating interest with attractive illustrations and graphics, they seldom integrate the art or explain why it was created, who its intended audience was, or what impact it had on the history being illustrated. In fact, rarely is any information given about the artist, or even the present location of the work of art, making art seem more like eye candy than an aspect of history. The frequent use of sidebars or “insets” to explain an illustration further separates the visual from the historical narrative rather than integrating it.

There are, of course, some exceptions: mainly textbooks that move away from the more conventional area-by-area chronology toward thematic organization. A pioneering text of this type, Kevin Reilly’s The West and the World: The History of Civilization from the Ancient World to 1700, makes a serious effort to integrate art into the history rather than just decorate it. From erotic painted scenes on ancient Greek vases in his chapter on “Love and Sex” to his final chapter on “Citizens and Subjects,” he uses a range of visual material to illuminate major social, political, and cultural developments. (A subsequent edition published in 2003 brings the reader up to the twenty-first century and ends with the chapter “Identity and Global Culture.”)

An even more thematically organized text, In the Balance: Themes in Global History by Candice Goucher, Charles Le Guin, and Linda Walton (1998), has several special sections on the arts. For instance, “The Deadly Arts: Expressions of Death in World Arts before 1500,” ranges around the globe to touch on religious and cultural beliefs surrounding this universal human dilemma. Another section, “Cultural Creativity and Borrowed Art,” meaningfully illustrates the fundamental theme of the new world history—cross-cultural borrowing and innovation.

Still, even these textbooks only scratch the surface of how it is possible to use art—and especially in these modern times, a broader visual culture—for historical analysis. But this will only be possible when the research side of world history generates more articles, monographs, and detailed case studies showing where and how art can be integrated into world history.

This rather negative appraisal of the presently existing role of art in world history scholarship needs to be balanced by two other factors: (1) the greater presence of art and visuality in the teaching of world history, and (2) the potential for help from other academic disciplines.

Art in the World History Classroom

Two publications indicate that art is finding a more prominent place in world history classrooms. In 1997, Heidi Roupp, a high school teacher and president-elect of the World History Association, edited a volume called Teaching World History: A Resource Book, part the M. E. Sharpe series Sources and Studies in World History. Of the fifty essays on teaching strategies and resources, three involved visual art. Although 6 percent may not seem like a large share, it is significant compared to the Journal of World History’s record of two art articles in twenty years (less than 1 percent). It also is significant that the other WHA publication, the Bulletin of World History, more teaching-oriented than the Journal, does intermittently have articles dealing with art’s role in world history education. That, as well as the greater interest high school teachers show in art panels at the annual and regional meetings of the WHA, seems to indicate that a movement to put more art in world history might come more from practice (teaching) than theory (scholarly research).

But this contradicts one of the fundamental principles of the WHA and the world history movement in general: the teaching needs to be informed by new scholarship and the scholarship should be relevant to the teaching. Since world historians are not producing much scholarship on art in world history, where will such research come from? The most hopeful source may be other academic disciplines with a better eye for nonwritten sources.

Interdisciplinary Solutions?

World history has always been undisciplined—that is to say, not confined within the bounds of normal academic history. The key historians in the intellectual evolution of the new world history all drew ideas and data from other disciplines: William H. McNeill from cultural anthropology, for instance, and the world economic historians—Kenneth Pomeranz, Bin Wong, and Andre Gunder Frank—from economics. David Christian, for his Big History, the twenty-first-century continuation of the meta-history tradition, turned to the natural sciences: evolutionary biology, geology, and astronomy. Is there, then, hope that other academic disciplines might bring more visuality to world history? If so, why hasn’t it already happened? To some extent it has.


The broad vision of world history, going back at least to the agricultural revolution and preliterate societies, means that archaeological evidence has been essential for reconstructing the distant global past. Few, if any world historians, have got their own fingers dirty at digs, but they have certainly made use of what archaeologists have uncovered, from crude stone and pottery “Venus figures” in Paleolithic Europe to lost cities in Africa or ancient graves along the Silk Road(s). The new journal Silk Road is a particularly rich source for archaeologically discovered evidence of trans- Eurasian contacts and cultural exchanges.

But the most startling recent research on pan-Eurasian patterns and possible connections goes back long before silk linked the far parts of what William H. McNeill called “the global eucumene.” Two philologists, Victor Mair and Miriam Robbins Dexter (2010), have produced a little book, Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia, with startling implications about the prominence of the feminine in very ancient Eurasian religion and society from China to Scandinavia. Their research uses textual as well as visual evidence, but the book is a striking example of what can be done when text and image are combined and disciplinary boundaries are ignored.

For modern times, with such variety of art and its intermixing in the age of globalization, cultural anthropology is the field that has done the most significant work. In studying mainly nonliterate small societies, anthropology has always turned to art as a vital part of “symbolic culture” and has been global in its scope. More recently, realizing that autonomous native cultures were almost all involved in global exchanges, cultural anthropology has looked at the interaction between different societies and cultures— exactly what world history does—but has given more focus to art than world history has. It has been to world history’s disadvantage that there has not been more dialogue between the two disciplines. The recent volume of collected essays, Exploring World Art (Venbrux et al. 2005), would be a good place for world historians to begin, even if most of its case studies deal with small societies—the Sepik River valley in Papua New Guinea, for instance, not China or Japan.

Cultural, Visual, and Media Studies

Some anthropologists look at art in larger societies, and they are in much closer touch with the new fields of cultural studies, visual studies, and media studies than most historians are. Those fields, products of the age of an electronically interconnected world, would seem to be more promising for world history than has been the case so far. But from a world historian’s viewpoint most of their intellectual production has been disappointing or irrelevant. There are several reasons for this.

First, the scholarship is so heavily suffused with theoretical concerns—poststructualist, Lacanian, psychoanalytic, deconstructivist—that they literally speak a different language, one foreign to most practicing world historians. More seriously, as the polymath art historian and world art theorist James Elkins has lamented (2003, 36), they show very little interest in “history,” that is, what happened before the advent of electronic images. And finally, a problem for fact-grubbing historians, there is very little first-hand research on non-Western visual cultures in the new fields’ leading journals, which are long on postmodernist theorists and short on facts or even images.

World historians should not ignore these new fields of inquiry into global culture, especially when they are really global, but the most likely source of help with visual evidence still lies in art history. How promising is that older and well-established discipline as a source of allies, ideas, and material?

Art History

Although “world art” as a conscious intellectual enterprise and curriculum component is still very much in its infancy, the last few decades have seen considerable changes in the way art history is conceptualized, researched, and taught. Most relevant for world history, it has become less Eurocentric and less focused on stylistic development and “great artists and masterpieces.”

The extent of this progress should not be exaggerated. Many art history surveys and textbooks now incorporate the word world into their title as global consciousness spreads along with economic and cultural globalization. But coverage is still much more comprehensive for the Western canon, from Mesopotamia and Egypt, through Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, modern Europe, and America. “The rest”—almost all of Asia, Africa, pre-Columbian Americas, Australia, and Oceania—on average gets one-quarter to one-third the total number of pages. Still, this is a considerable improvement over just a few decades ago.

Global coverage in itself may not be terribly useful for a world history agenda. Often written by multiple authors, these thousand-page or more tomes are organized by era and area with not much attention to connections and comparisons between them. That is not to say that the diligent world historian cannot find some examples to use in illustrating cultural contact between different civilizations. Almost all the art history textbooks discuss, more or less adequately, Greco-Roman influence in Gandharan Buddhist art and its spread from northern India to China as one of the most striking cases of long-distance transmission of artistic style and ideals. Similarly, japonisme usually figures prominently in the rise of modernism in late-nineteenth-century Europe.

Still, these beautifully illustrated textbooks and the online image banks designed for art history are strongest on the Western art canon, not yet free of “the West and the rest” approach. They remain more useful as a source of illustrations for teachers and scholars of world history. For ideas, world historians will have to search through some of the newer trends and publications in art history.

The two leading professional art history journals, Art Bulletin in the United States and Art History in Great Britain, still publish heavily on “Western art.” Since the 1990s, the number of articles on other parts of the world has risen to about 12 percent of the total, far less than in the textbooks, which give more weight to course enrollments than art historians’ professional interests. More to the point, however, very few articles in that 12 percent touch on the themes of cross-cultural contacts and comparisons which are so important to world historians. Conceptually, the discipline of art history still seems uninterested in a global approach. But is it?

Perhaps more than history, art history is a discipline in the throes of theoretical change. Much of this theory—semiotics, poststructuralism, and so forth—seems irrelevant for down-to-earth, factseeking, narrative-constructing historians. Since the turn of the century, however, there have been several major works by prominent art historians that attempt new approaches to “global art.”

John Onians and his School of World Art Studies at East Anglia University (in the United Kingdom) may be the most significant for world history. His massive, multi-authored Atlas of World Art is more truly global in its coverage than any of the standard art history textbooks. Whether or not world historians find his neurologically based theory of universals in art useful, they could benefit from his pioneering work in the discipline of art history.

More active in Europe than America, the world art studies “movement” is very broad in its vision, encompassing the world from the earliest paleo-archaeological evidence of hominid artistic creation to the present, and all relevant disciplines from philosophy to neurobiology. Judging from published essays deriving from a number of workshops held at the University of Leiden—in a 2008 volume, World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches, edited by Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried van Damme—cultural anthropology seems to be the closest ally to world art history. There were no historians included, perhaps more a comment on historians’ lack of interest in the visual than any exclusion by world art studies.

On the other side of the Atlantic, two American art historians have seriously engaged the problem of a global art history on the theoretical level. David Summers, in Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (2003), tries to come to terms with what new theories of the visual and heightened global awareness mean for the study of art history. He believes those different “real spaces” around the world can be brought into a non-Westerncentric universal art history. James Elkins, equally dissatisfied with the lingering elitist and culturebound narratives of art history in the West, is much more skeptical about the possibility of constructing a universal narrative out of the world’s various traditions of art and art history. Of his many publications, Stories of Art (2002) is probably most relevant for theories of world art history and, by implication, world history.

Three Rubrics for Research

This kind of new thinking by art historians such as Onians, Summers, and Elkins is important for connecting art history to world history, but practicing world historians might find more limited studies that examine specific cases of cross-cultural contacts and comparisons more immediately useful. Much of this closely focused research comes from younger art historians and fits easily under the three large rubrics of world history research—connections, comparisons, and global patterns.


A few examples of “connections”—cross-cultural influences in art, especially where the art is part of larger cultural, economic, and even political patterns—follow.

The Silk Roads, networks of trade and travel linking East Asia with western Asia and Europe, figure large in both world history and recent art history. The roots of this Western romance with the caravan routes go back to late-nineteenth-century European explorers like Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein, who brought the desert-preserved artistic and archaeological treasures of Central Asia to the world’s attention. More recent archaeological work and art studies have shown how much cultural contact flowed through central Asia on the long-distance trade routes. The artistic record for the transmission of Buddhism from its northern Indian birthplace to East Asia is well known, but new discoveries suggest far more contact between China and Europe in the Middle Ages than had previously been imagined. (The journal Silk Road publishes much of this scholarship.) Lauren Arnold describes in detail one particular “Silk Road journey” in her book Princely Gifts and Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China 1250–1350 and Its Influence on the Art of the West. For influence flowing the other way, Arnold has shown how the image of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus, brought to China by fourteenth-century Franciscan missionaries, was transferred into Chinese portrayals of the child-giving goddess, Guan Yin.

The question of Chinese contributions to European Renaissance art is still contentious with most art historians not accepting Arnold’s views or those postulating Chinese influence on Giotto published earlier by the Japanese art historian, Hidemichi Tanaka. But mainstream Western art history has recognized that the Renaissance was not entirely a European affair as several well-received books have appeared in the last decade or so showing the connections in art, architecture and culture between Italy, particularly Venice, and its Eastern Mediterranean trading partners in Istanbul, Cairo, and elsewhere. (See Jerry Brotton’s Renaissance Bazaar, 2002, and his collaboration with Lisa Jardine, Global Interests: Renaissance Art between East and West, 1996).

In the ensuing age of European maritime expansion these cross-cultural connections expand beyond the Silk Roads and the Mediterranean to become global, especially with the spread of the Jesuit mission. Art and the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America, 1542–1773, by Gauvin Alexander Bailey (2001), and The Jesuits and the Arts, edited by Bailey and John W. O’Malley, deal with the visual arts in this premodern occurrence of globalization. Another art historian, Michael Sullivan (1973), looks beyond the Jesuits and brings the interchange between European and East Asian art (Japan as well as China) up to the twentieth century in his pioneering study The Meeting of Eastern and Western Art.

In the four decades since Sullivan’s broad-gauged survey, other art historians have conducted more focused research on particular cases of East–West contact and intra-Asian interactions. One example is the work of Aida Wong, now a resident in the United States but significantly from Hong Kong, that meeting place of international and transnational influences. Wong’s recent book, Parting the Mists: Discovering Japan and the Rise of National- Style Painting in China (2006), internationalizes the art history and cultural history of twentieth-century East Asia. A shorter work of Wong’s, “Landscapes of Nandal Bose (1882–1966): Japanism and Populism in Modern India,” published in Shadows of the Past: Okakura Tenshin and Pan-Asianism and edited by Brij Tankha, is even more clearly world history, or world history through art, with its revelations of how pan-Asian thought arose in reaction to Western colonial dominance.

Later in the globalized twentieth century, these connections are even more obvious. To take just three of many art histories dealing with East–West artistic interchange in the last century, there is Shiji Takashima and Thomas Rimer’s Paris in Japan, published by the Japan Foundation in 1987; Partha Mitter’s Art and Nationalism in Modern India (1995), and Liliane Karnouk’s 2004 study Modern Egyptian Art, 1910–2003.

Such studies can contribute significantly to world historian’s efforts to trace the emergence of global styles, global culture, and the complex questions of cultural identity they produce. This is also the area where visual and cultural studies may be most useful, and world historians should not ignore the work on small societies by cultural anthropologists well represented in the essay collection, Exploring World Art (Ventrux et al. 2006). Beyond the small societies and tourist art described in those essays, there are other examples of globally circulating pop culture and art, such as the spread of Japanese anime and other elements of cross- Pacific pop largely through the Internet.


Comparative studies, at least in art, are less popular than they once were and perhaps not as obviously useful for world historians looking for a “web” of global connections rather than distinctly different civilizations. In 1954, the Harvard art historian Benjamin Rowland wrote in the introduction to his little book (at 140 pages, it’s an easy-to-handle volume compared to some of its thousand-page successors), Art in East and West: An Introduction Through Comparisons, that he was looking for, “accidental parallels . . . not designed to illustrate the influence of one culture upon the other” (1954, vii).

Since then, awareness of cultural influences has grown and broad categories like “East” and “West” have been much refined. But there still are comparative questions where the interests of the art historian, the social scientist, and the world historian overlap. How, in different societies at different times, does art work as an instrument for cultural cohesion, religious belief, and political control? Answering such questions requires some understanding of “style” (the language of art), as well as of social theory. For instance, look at monumentality and political authority in both the sphinxes and pyramids of Pharonic Egypt and the relief sculpture of ancient Mesopotamia—or, for the modern revolutionary period, how art was used to mobilize and indoctrinate the masses in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China. (See Igor Golomstock’s 1990 book Totalitarian Art.) Religion, of course, is another promising field for an interdisciplinary approach: the ideological functions of icons, holy sites and architecture, art and the missionary enterprise—all the numerous areas where art is a basic source for the history of belief.

Global Patterns

Finally, stopping just short of meta-projects (Onian’s atlas or Summers’ global art theory) there is the search for global patterns. There surely are others, but one of the most obvious is the virtually worldwide spread of post-Renaissance Western “realist” art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when, from Teheran to Tokyo, or from Moscow to Bangkok, it was seen as an essential component of modernity. (See John Clarke’s 1998 work, Modern Asian Art.) Closely behind that wave of Westernization comes the fusion of art and identity politics in the postmodern, postcolonial era. These are not national topics, and they are not just art history topics. At the other end of recorded history with the emergence of cities, states, and empires there may also be similarities in the functions of art that go beyond comparison of the particularities of form and style. There may be patterns, if not one line of development, and art may be the key to unlocking them.

Again, it is essential for world historians to engage in dialog with archaeologists and art historians, not just read the results of their research. Art and visual evidence in general are too important, too relevant to history everywhere to be neglected as world history goes forward in its task of creating a global past for an increasingly globalized future.


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