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First Europe, Then Elsewhere?

[I]nsofar as the academic discourse of history—that is, “history” as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university—is concerned, “Europe” remains the sovereign theoretical subject of all histories, including the ones we call “Indian,” “Chinese,” “Kenyan,” and so on. There is a peculiar way in which all these histories tend to become variations on a master narrative that could be called “the history of Europe.”
– Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference
Between ‘antiquity’ and ‘modernity’ Art History enjoyed its occasional pioneers. However, it was truly ‘born’ and institutionalised as a discipline in the eighteenth century, largely in German-speaking countries. Just as the timely combination of particular professors, students and socioeconomic conditions at the National College of Arts in Lahore, initiated the renewal of miniature painting during and after the 1990s, Art History has also been periodically shaken into shape by specific and timely shifts within particular departments and among particular groups of scholars working in fortuitous proximity. These shifts, like stones thrown into a pond, have sent out their ripples into the rest of the field and disturbed (often deliberately), the undulations of previous interruptions and movements. The shape and ‘form’ of these stones have included major events such as world wars, to apparently ‘small’ events such as weekend conferences, academic appointments, and the publication of particular books and essays. What unites these diverse events is the limited scope of their physical location: the discipline of Art History has largely been shaped in European and then Euro-American countries.
While scholars throughout Art History have scrutinised ‘non-Western’ art practices and the methodological issues that such scrutiny has raised, it was only recently that the global expansion of the Art Historical canon has felt so urgent and necessary. Almost exactly twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall fell, signalling the end of the Cold War and the increased liberalisation of world markets. It was the start of our age of High Globalism. While the political and economic shifts that led to our post-1989 era go back to antiquity, have accelerated with European colonial expansion, and lurched forward in the early and mid-twentieth century, the last twenty-five years have seen a monumental shift in how culture, markets, technology, and academic disciplines operate. That combined with the impact of postcolonial theory and ‘identity politics’ within the academy, presents Art History with a renewed need to examine its geographical and historical scope, along with the question of whether it even has the capacity to accommodate the diverse array of artistic practices and conditions that it now encounters. Among various forms of Art History, the sub-field of ‘Contemporary Art History’ has become a prime site for these encounters to be questioned within the academy, the field of contemporary art – as we know – being quickly absorbed by the global machinery of biennales, triennials and the internationally expanded art market.
The utopian view of where ‘we’ are now tends to indulge in the comforting idea that under High Globalism, ‘centres and peripheries’ have collapsed into one another, that equal exchanges of knowledge and material have never been so possible, and that a diversity of intellectual, political and social material can finally come rushing in: it’s a big global carnival and we’re all invited. The reality, of course, is far from carnivalesque. Old assumptions, habits and conservatisms persist. Indeed, how could it be any other way? Considering the discipline of Art History and its roots within the European academic and intellectual system, the problem is obvious. Such a geographically and intellectually entrenched discipline will clearly have difficulty adapting to the diverse forms of knowledge, practice and politics that the world now asks of it, along with the issue of how to ‘place’ these forms within its own methodological canon.
To an extent I experienced this question when applying for PhD programmes in Art History. Having spent more than five years engaged with Pakistani contemporary art, my proposal was of course wedded to this part of my life. My proposed research however, was not to work on Pakistani contemporary art alone but rather to consider the issue of how artists from contexts such as Pakistan are absorbed within today’s contemporary art world at large. Thus I aim to examine how that ‘art world’ even evolved in the first place: “How did we get here?”. Interestingly, many of the professors that I interacted with couldn’t quite get past my time in Pakistan and would refer me on to the ‘South Asianists’ in their respective departments, even if those ‘South Asianists’ specialised in Gandhara, Mughal Art, Buddhist painting, and so forth. Though important, these fields are generally unrelated to my project. It seemed that my proposal would have made much more sense had I put down an intention to study ‘Pakistani contemporary art’ as a discrete field and to stay safely within that niche, dutifully ‘inserting’ the potted context of Pakistan into the Art Historical canon. But how can such ‘insertion’ even take place? Should it even take place?
Dipesh Chakrabarty’s book Provincializing Europe describes this problem within the field of history and historiography. The core issue from which Chakrabarty’s analysis begins is the fact that post-Enlightenment European intellectual thought takes an unequal though sovereign place within now academic, social, historical and political discourse, world over. Via processes of direct colonisation and material dominance (linguistic, academic, economic, and otherwise), European intellectual and political thought has been absorbed beyond Europe itself. Further, European academic paradigms inevitably form a hegemonic ‘centre’ against which other paradigms are considered, often as derivatives and ancillaries rather than autonomous and important bodies of knowledge in their own right:
“That Europe works as a silent referent in historical knowledge becomes obvious in a very ordinary way…Third world historians feel a need to refer to works in European history; historians of Europe do not feel any need to reciprocate.”[i]
While the task is to work against such intellectual and historical hegemony, Chakrabarty also cautions against the absolute relativism of an historical practice that would wholly reject and eliminate the inevitable and persistent presence of a dominant centre. Given the historical reach and power of ‘sovereign European’ within discourse, it has made itself ‘indispensable’ and often to reject it would be to produce fatal absences within one’s work. Within and beyond Europe, for example, this has been a major issue for Feminist Art History, which cannot hope to insert women artists into the historical canon and acknowledge the inequalities of that canon without engaging with the fact that it is, in the end, a canon produced by the adversary. Similarly, one cannot write a valuable history of the development of miniature painting within Pakistan without taking into account histories of European colonialism, the development of colonial art academies, the influence of European on educational curricula, the development of the ‘idea’ of the artist as solo operator, and the fact that global economic and cultural dominance still resides within the Euro-American centres that support the global success and dispersal of contemporary miniature painting today. This may seem rather depressing, and taking into account these hegemonic ‘centred’ discourses could be read as a capitulation to the same old dominant powers that, in receiving continued attention, will only persist. But at the same time I would argue that there is much pleasure to be found in absorbing these discourses comparatively. Given the difficult and sometimes radical challenges that ‘non-Western’ Art Histories and practices presents to European art history, a comparative analysis can be extremely fruitful and exciting.
After Imran Qureshi cast buckets of red paint over the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year[ii] – producing a beautified representation of an apparent suicide bombing upon its surface – I would argue that an opportunity for some fascinating critical and academic debate was lost. An encyclopaedic institution based on a European model, the Metropolitan Museum stands as a powerful symbol of Western intellectual, material, cultural and political domination – held by bricks-and-mortar institutions and the Humanities disciplines (Art History, Archaeology, History, etc.), in general. A Pakistani artist throwing a representation of bloody violence upon that roof could be read as a defiant act of institutional, geopolitical and intellectual critique. The work could have been read as a radical attack on what such a sovereign institution represents to sovereign histories today. But instead the work was quarantined within a passive, sympathetic and aestheticised rhetorical framework that ‘deradicalised’ the critical and political power of its representation. It was safely held within its geographical (but not its political) niche.[iii]The ‘fault’ does not lie with the artist here, though. The same process occurs to a greater or lesser extent for contemporary artists around the world, even those emerging from less controversial contexts than Pakistan. Writing on Croatian artist Sanja Iveković’s work, Ruth Noack, for example, argues that:
“Canonisation affects work and artist in diverging (and ambivalent) ways: on the one hand a piece is taken care of, interpreted, made visible to a larger audience; on the other it is cut off from its potential meanings, functions, publics. An artist might gain agency through canonisation and at the same time to lose the power to determine the meaning of this.”[iv]
The fact is that when the ‘centre’ institutionalises work produced outside dominant cultural centres, the artist partially loses the ability to commit to or even acknowledge that antagonistic content resides within that work, and that such work may include controversial ‘projects’ and critiques. Yet further, it is also extremely difficult for artists who depend on fostering positive relations with the institutions that support them to attack those same institutions. These same institutions also have a peculiarly adaptive ability to absorb attack in such a way that they eventually benefit and become stronger; the history and legacy of 1970s practices in ‘Institutional Critique’ would testify to that fact.[v] The fault here lies not with individual artists then, but with the wider system and its failure to recognise its own provincial intellectual and political genealogy, along with its own compulsion to neuter threats to the stability of that genealogy.
So where do we go from here? In the end, Art History remains a subject of great beauty and power. And of course things will change, perhaps slowly, perhaps in leaps and jumps. And things will change not only because they need to, but because questions of provincialising Europe, of provincialising the museum, the market, intellectual politics, Art History, and so on, are generative, interesting, bountiful, expansive, difficult, pleasurable, and even sometimes quite radical.
Gemma Sharpe is a writer and critic based in London.
[i]Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, (Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford, 2000), p28.
[ii]Imran Qureshi, And how many rains must fall before the stains are washed clean? Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rooftop commission, 2013.
[iii]For further analysis of the ‘pacification’ of art from the ‘Islamic world’ in American institutions see: Jessica Winegar, ‘The Humanity Game: Art, Islam and the War on Terror’, Anthropological Quarterly, Vol 81, Number 3, Summer 2008: 651-681
[iv] Ruth Noack, Sanja Iveković: Triangle (Afterall Books: London, 2013), p36.
[v]“Has institutional critique been institutionalized? Institutional critique has always been institutionalized. It could only have emerged within and, like all art, can only function within the institution of art.” Andrea Fraser, ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’. Artforum. New York: Sep 2005. Vol. 44, Issue. 1. Available online here: [Last accessed: 18th November, 2014].


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