A Global Shift?

By Noa Eden Wynn

Although the art historical discourse has become more global, by efforts to decolonize the Eurocentric discipline, there is still a need for major change to destabilize hierarchies and systems that have tutored the art historical gaze.

Why do we accept the concept of art history imposed by the West? In a time of tumultuous change, now more than ever, the importance of inclusivity, visibility, and decolonization are at the forefront of public speculation. Although the art historical discourse has become more global, by efforts to decolonize the Eurocentric discipline, there is still a need for major change to destabilize hierarchies and systems that have tutored the art historical gaze.  And by extension, un-training the dominant Western perspective and recognizing the multiple ways of thinking creates a true space for global art history.

A global field requires de-constructing, de-colonizing, and de-centering the foundations of art history, and in doing so de-stabilizing the discipline as a whole. Art history remains problematic as it constructed through the canons of nationalism. Often, institutional collections are based on, as art historian Beatrice Joyeux-Prunel noted, historical “nationalist and racist historiographical models.” Given this, the gatekeepers of cultural heritage, must reflect critically on ways to reframe art history critiquing Western power, and creating alternative ways of discourse, as the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor coined, “post-Westernism."

Global art history embodies contradiction, entanglement, and uncertainty, notions that undermine the discipline. Enwezor’s curatorship challenged these historical conventions through global exhibitions. Other art historians, including James Elkins, denounced art history as neither global or inclusive to non-Western approaches. In contrast, Prunel argued for the possibility of Western art historians decolonizing by including arts beyond Europe and North America. Despite the field’s uncertainties, the fundamental problems remain, how can art history progress in this regard? Is the concept of progress, itself, part of its colonialist heritage?

 

The digital age has introduced accessible platforms – shifting power, voices, and visibility, and in doing so has embraced the public opinion and popular press. A new generation is replacing traditional practices with global approaches. Categorizing art based on regional and chronological subfields, further marginalizes non-Western arts into being “peripheral” and “othered,” and in extent undermines the interconnectedness beyond national borders. The global shift underscores a transnational art historical approach.

As globalism challenges and expands traditional art historical conventions, Western methodologies, once universalized, are now ruptured.  Marginalized voices such as Indigenous perspectives, further disrupt museums and art history as a whole. They present alternative outlooks towards museum collections and materiality in ways of kinship, ancestry, and land. This forces art history to reframe its premise. A global, decolonized art history considers the ramifications of Western imperialism and colonization throughout the world as its effects are “felt, registered, embedded, in contemporary art itself.”

The global call is a reaction to forces designed to contain institutional hierarchies. Public opinion, popular press, and scholars, from fields previously invisibilized, are creating demands, accountability, and upending the very structures of art history. Global art historians reject the tutored gaze, and instead create spaces, as Enwezor stated, with “their own narratives.”The global response is essential for the future of art history’s discourse, but as an emerging practice, many issues surface including reattributing yet deconstructing power, issues of reciprocation between Western and non-Western discourses, and the discipline itself embedded on monolithic modes of thinking. Such approaches, move the function of art towards social justice or diplomacy, and away from conventional notions of aesthetics. Despite the global field’s growth, the discipline still needs significant change to overcome its elitist, nationalist foundations, as the art historical field still remains primarily Western.