Keeping the ‘art’ and ‘history’ in art history

“What happened to Africa?” an art-world friend asked. “It disappeared.”

She was right. Do a quick scan of major exhibitions in big US museums in the past few years and Africa’s barely there. The same with India. Even China, usually an easier sell, is seen only discreetly. Wasn’t the multicultural surge of yesteryear supposed to produce the opposite effect?
Another thing. A lot of new non-Western acquisitions by museums are of contemporary art. Classical African sculptures still turn up. But they’re outnumbered by dynamic, straight-from-the-studio work, like the glowing wall hangings made of bottle caps by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, and the masks pieced together from gasoline jugs and junked hardware by Romuald Hazoume of Benin.

Where the pull toward the new is particularly strong, though, is in university art history programs, the training grounds of future museum personnel. An overwhelming number of applicants now declare contemporary art their field of choice: 80 percent was a figure I heard repeatedly — but unofficially — in conversations during the annual College Art Association conference this winter.

So the situation is that our encyclopedic museums — the ones that most people visit, and look to as repositories of what we most value in art — are rarely doing ambitiously scaled, big-idea shows of older non-Western art, and American art historians of the rising generation aren’t studying it these days. (Europe is doing somewhat better on both counts.) In the craze for the new, certain areas of Western art are being neglected too. But it’s non-Western art, chronically marginalized, that is especially vulnerable.

Lack of visibility tends to lead to lack of financing, which translates into slow, halting research, leaving vast amounts of foundational field work barely started. All the while, time is taking its toll. Cultures are vanishing and changing form in urbanizing Africa. Ancient monuments are crumbling in India. Vital aesthetic traditions in China are fading fast. As an additional handicap, again, contrary to multiculturalist expectations, the numbers of new graduate students in most non-Western fields have not grown significantly in decades.

The bottom line is plain: Unless some of those few scholars stay on the case, we risk losing both the art and the history in “art history,” particularly where conservational safeguards are fragile or difficult to maintain.

That said, the reasons people pursue careers in newer art are understandable. Money is one. To an unprecedented degree, contemporary art, no matter what its geographic or cultural source, is now thoroughly tied to and buoyed by the global economy. This phenomenon is fairly recent. Not long ago the contemporary market meant Europe and America. Now it also means New Delhi, Beijing and Dubai. New art has become a worldwide industry. Industries generate jobs.

Holders of degrees in contemporary art history don’t have to limit their career prospects to the low-paying teaching gigs that remain the fate of their colleagues in more traditional studies. They can, in greater numbers than ever, become curators, corporate advisers, auction house experts and dealers in a luxury business that has, so far, floated above the prevailing economic turbulence. Sticklers for academic orthodoxy are prone to hint at corner-cutting features of a contemporary art major. Language requirements are often minimal, English being the global art world lingua franca. And with only the history of today and yesterday to deal with, primary research can be done, over a Starbucks latte, via Google.

Read More >>>>>