Historian reimagines global art

A panel of four gathered at The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute last Thursday, and these panelists were divided into two camps. One side solely featured Hans Belting, an influential art historian and theorist of art history. At the discussion, Belting was the subject of an intellectual inquiry conducted by Dario Gamboni, Keith Moxey and Mark Haxthausen, professor of art history. Gamboni began the discussion with a question about Belting’s move from a large German university to smaller, newly-founded school, the School for New Media. Gamboni explained to the audience that this was a very unusual thing within the European university system, as the bestowal of academic posts was at a level of import somewhat demanding of retirement by death alone. Belting responded by pointing out that the size of the university prevented him from having an immediate relationship with students. “I lectured once a week … you had several hundred graduate students [and] you could not teach.” He went on to explain how the move gave him the opportunity to “shape the whole discipline” and explore what was most relevant to contemporary art and art history.

Smiling slightly, Belting quickly quipped that at this new school, he was a bit of “walking history,” a representation of not only a large body of knowledge that serves to ground what is most often called Western art but also of the investigative and categorizing methods of this iteration of art history. This historicizing of an approach to the field of art history was the guiding principle of the discussion taking place, which dwelled much on where exactly art history could go when its claim to objectivity had been deflated and resituated within the world of cultural and historical phenomena.

Belting explained that art history as we generally know it was not created until after the Middle Ages, a clarifying move he deemed important in the wake of the previous assertion that art of the Middle Ages was not “art” by our own definitions because it preceded the creation of the standards we use most in describing art. The discussion continued to work out the relationship between art history and time, and the relationship that art itself had to both; Belting claimed that art itself had changed because it was no longer created in response to art history or at least no longer “worked within the model” of art history.

This current transitional state, which looked back at the past to question whether it could be bridged to the future, was described as taking place within an increasingly “global” world in which art itself had become global. The distinction between world art and global art was clarified by Belting as being one of presentation: “World” art has always existed, but presumably there has been an “otherness” inscribed upon its presentation to the viewer as well as an implied primacy of the viewer’s culture. Global art, in contrast, is the work of many cultures in contact and in dialogue with one another; yet it contains its own difficulties that can stymie art historians. For example, Belting pointed out the differences between what German and American schools consider within or outside of the study of art. In America, separate visual and media studies departments have increased in number, whereas in Germany, Belting claimed, the division between the two does not exist. He attributed this partly to the ways in which images are conceived within the respective languages of the two countries: In English we have the words “picture” and “image,” whereas in German, the rough equivalent is a single word, Bildung.

This difference stemmed from a question of linguistic form that raised the issue of the actual possibility of an egalitarian global art, as a category that wouldn’t homogenize the cultures and forms of art involved but would rather allow them to interact both fruitfully and historically in spite of the difficulties in conceptual and linguistic translation. This issue seemed to garner the most active involvement by all members of the panel: It elicited one particularly interesting question from an audience member as to whether or not this new “global art,” both the making and recording of which called previous forms of understanding art into question, might not be a disguised form of imperialism by using other cultures and their art as material to be catalogued and annexed by the old Western institution.

The talk ended on a relatively positive note, with all panel members agreeing and expressing hope that such a result would not be the endpoint of the increasingly global art world. However, there was the sense of cautious, attentive waiting in all voices at the table, particularly Belting’s – a sensitivity to the newness and thrilling danger of the historical moment we inhabit now as viewers and consumers of images and media.

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