Following an introductory essay, six short contributions by academics and museum curators in the United States (US) and Europe tackle the current state and future of Pre-Columbian visual culture studies. They explore the field’s impressive growth in this century, as well as some of the dangers it currently faces as a result of that growth. Several trace its present state to its origins and the part played by early Mexican and US nationalism, the popularity of world’s fairs, and the civil rights movement, among other factors. Also considered are problems inherent in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century separation of the preconquest past from the newly labeled colonial period, as well as the concurrent embrace of the term “Pre-Columbian.” Other essays take a hard look at the present and future relation of art history to archaeology and cross-disciplinary studies within the field, which is defined in part by their dependence on, or skepticism regarding, iconography. Whereas academics wrestle in these essays with the implications of a declining job market, museum curators struggle with limited funding. Nonetheless, possible new strategies and opportunities for the future are proposed, including engagement with issues posed by the rising interest in decoloniality and global indigeneity.
RESUMEN Luego de un ensayo introductorio, seis contribuciones cortas de académicos y conservadores de museos en los Estados Unidos y Europa abordan el estado actual y el futuro de los estudios de cultura visual precolombina. Se explora el impresionante crecimiento del campo en este siglo, así como algunos de los peligros que enfrenta actualmente como resultado de este crecimiento. Varios colaboradores trazan el estado actual del campo hasta sus orígenes y notan la influencia en él de las primeras manifestaciones de los nacionalismos de México y los Estados Unidos, la popularidad de las ferias mundiales y el Movimiento por los derechos civiles, entre otros factores. También se consideran los problemas inherentes a la separación entre el pasado precolombino y el llamado período colonial que se establecía entre fines del siglo XIX y principios del siglo XX, así como la aceptación simultánea del término “precolombino”. Otros ensayos analizan detenidamente la relación presente y futura de la historia del arte con la arqueología y los estudios interdisciplinarios dentro del campo, que se define en parte por su dependencia o escepticismo con respecto a la iconografía. Mientras que los académicos discuten en estos ensayos las implicaciones de un mercado de trabajo decreciente, los curadores de museos abordan las restricciones presupuestarias. No obstante, se proponen posibles nuevas estrategias y oportunidades para el futuro, como la participación futura en cuestiones planteadas por el creciente interés en la descolonialidad y la indigeneidad global.
RESUMO Após um ensaio introdutório, seis curtas contribuições de acadêmicos e curadores de museus nos Estados Unidos e na Europa abordam o estado atual e o futuro dos estudos da cultura visual pré-colombiana. O impressionante crescimento do campo neste século, bem como alguns dos perigos que atualmente enfrenta como resultado desse crescimento, são explorados. Diversos colaboradores traçam o estado atual do campo até suas origens e o papel desempenhado pelo nacionalismo inicial do México e dos Estados Unidos, a popularidade das feiras mundiais e o Movimento dos direitos civis, entre outros fatores. Também são considerados os problemas inerentes à separação, no final do século XIX e início do século XX, entre o passado pré-conquista e o recém-rotulado período colonial, bem como a aderência simultânea ao termo “pré-colombiano”. Outros ensaios dedicam olhar atento à relação presente e futura da história da arte com a arqueologia e estudos interdisciplinares dentro do campo, que é definida em parte por sua dependência ou ceticismo em relação à iconografia. Enquanto os acadêmicos lutam nesses ensaios com as implicações de um mercado de trabalho em declínio, os curadores de museus lutam com recursos limitados. No entanto, são propostas possíveis novas estratégias e oportunidades para o futuro, incluindo o envolvimento futuro com questões levantadas pelo crescente interesse na decolonialidade e na indigeneidade global.
Introduction: The State and Future of Pre-Columbian Visual Culture Studies
My first university teaching job, which I accepted in 1972 upon receiving my art history doctorate at Columbia University, was the only job advertised that year for someone qualified to teach Pre-Columbian art. I had, in other words, no competition. This was the case because, at the time, one could count on one’s fingers the other scholars in the United States (US) whose doctoral dissertations had focused on a strictly Pre-Columbian art historical topic—and all eight of them already had a job.1 As did, of course, George Kubler at Yale, whose dissertation dealt with religious architecture in colonial New Mexico, but who had published The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples in 1962.2 Like many Pre-Columbianists to come, Kubler and his first doctoral student, Donald Robertson, who by 1972 was already teaching at Tulane University, worked on both sides of the early sixteenth-century Spanish conquest of the Americas. By 1972 as well, Jacinto Quirarte, who was born in the United States but earned his doctorate at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), was teaching Pre-Columbian art history at the University of Texas in San Antonio and Austin.
Kubler, Robertson, Quirarte, and at least six other Pre-Columbian art historians—among them Terence Grieder, who in 1961 received the very first Pre-Columbian art doctorate in the United States, and who went on to teach for decades at the University of Texas, Austin—are no longer with us. Their legacy, however, is evident and important. Today in the United States there are at least eighty-eight living scholars, including nine retirees, who wrote their art history dissertations on a Pre-Columbian or related early colonial topic. An additional nine are deceased. There are also at least twenty-seven US scholars currently working on preconquest art history who earned their doctorate in a related discipline, such as anthropology or archaeology, as well as several others in that category who are deceased. In contrast to the four universities that offered a doctorate in Pre-Columbian visual culture when I was a graduate student, at least eighteen US universities now offer the degree. Clearly, in the forty-seven years since I took my first teaching job, Pre-Columbian visual culture studies in the United States has blossomed into a veritable industry.3
But is this growth sustainable? And has it been matched in other countries where scholars likewise make important contributions to our understanding of ancient American visual culture? Do those practitioners encounter the same problems, and adopt the same premises, as those in the United States? Is there a possibility that the US field is becoming oversaturated, and/or are there signs that Pre-Columbian art history may soon be subsumed, or at best left behind, by the rapidly expanding, increasingly popular fields of colonial and modern Latin American visual culture studies? Why is this trend toward the present occurring, and why now? Is the situation different for Pre-Columbianists who work in a museum rather than in academia? At the same time, what is to be made of the evidence that art historical approaches to Pre-Columbian visual culture—in particular iconographic analysis—are increasingly being taken up by archaeologists and other social scientists? Are we likely to reach a point where art historical and social science methodologies actually blur to the point of becoming indistinguishable? If so, will that be good or bad? Finally, how might the new theoretical interests in globalism, decoloniality, and Indigenous studies affect future approaches to Pre-Columbian visual culture? What, in other words, is the field’s path forward from here?
These are some of the questions that were put to the six scholars who contributed an essay to this forum. Which and how many of the questions they chose to address was left up to them. All were asked, however, to answer the questions from the perspective of their own particular geographic location, academic training, professional experiences and responsibilities, research interests, and moment along their career trajectory, and to consider the current and future of the field as a whole. The contributions are accordingly diverse. Lisa Trever is a relatively junior, Harvard-trained art historian specializing in Moche visual culture, who for five years taught at a major west coast public university before relocating in 2018 to the east coast to take up the chair formerly held by Esther Pasztory at Columbia University. Thomas B. F. Cummins, who was Trever’s doctoral supervisor, and like her principally an Andeanist, has taught at Harvard since 2002, but earned his doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where I taught Pre-Columbian art history for thirty-five years before retiring in 2011. Another senior Andeanist, Joanne Pillsbury, who received her art history doctorate from Columbia, works in a large public museum rather than in academia, most recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The other museum curator to provide an essay here is Matthew H. Robb, a Mesoamericanist trained at Yale who is currently the chief curator at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, a museum traditionally dedicated to so-called non-Western and “ethnic” art. Robb addresses some of the issues and problems posed by smaller university museums.
Finally, two scholars working outside of the United States, both with doctorates in fields other than art history, have provided their distinctive perspectives on the state and fate of Pre-Columbian visual studies both in Europe and internationally. Jesper Nielsen was trained, and now teaches, in the department of American Indian Languages and Cultures at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, in a program dedicated to cross-disciplinary studies of the Americas. Elizabeth Baquedano, another Mesoamericanist, likewise provides a view of the field from Europe. Born in Mexico, Baquedano received her BA in the history of art in Mexico City, but earned her doctorate in archaeology at the University of London. She now teaches in University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. Baquedano notes that Pre-Columbian visual culture studies in England are relatively rare, and usually conducted by archaeologists and anthropologists. Throughout Europe, in fact, doctorates in Pre-Columbian art history, rather than some other field, are virtually nonexistent. This is also true of most of Central and South America. Baquedano’s birth country, Mexico, represents an important exception. Nonetheless, although Mexico formally trains art historians at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (IIE), the number of art history doctorates it awards to Pre-Columbianists is comparatively few in comparison to those granted in the United States. There too, most writings on Pre-Columbian antiquities are by archaeologists.
That by far the greatest number of specialists in Pre-Columbian art and architecture are in the United States therefore raises the question of whether the job market can accommodate all of them. The answer is surely overdetermined, but it relates to the concern expressed in several of the following essays that the field may be “slowing down.” For one thing, there have been years when very few new jobs have been advertised, and indeed some recently minted Pre-Columbianists have not found a job at all. Robb mentions, for example, that when he initially went on the job market in 2007, there was not a single available teaching position for a Pre-Columbianist.
A number of possible explanations for the current job shortage exist. For one, it is widely recognized among Latin Americanists that the popularity of Pre-Columbian art, at least in academia, has been losing ground to the burgeoning fields of colonial and modern Latin American art history. Some Pre-Columbianists might suggest that this is because colonial and modern Latin American art is easier to work with, and for readers to understand, because it does not require knowledge of little-known, if not extinct, languages; puzzling, if not nonexistent, nonalphabetic writing systems; limited, late, and heavily biased written sources; and complicated, if not impenetrable, iconographic codes. Second, as Cummins points out in his essay, we are witnessing a national, if not international, scholarly trend toward “presentism”—that is, a growing preoccupation with the modern and the contemporary at the expense of deep history, which accompanies an alarming decline in interest in, and support for, the humanities writ large. Third, since the untimely death in 1998 of Linda Schele, who had galvanized the field, no one has come forward to propel the Pre-Columbian past into the national and international consciousness, let alone keep it there. Thus although Pre-Columbianists are usually well versed in early colonial visual culture, young scholars primarily trained as colonialists and modernists are now getting the lion’s share of the new jobs.
Yet another possible explanation for the decline in employment is the current trend, noted by several contributors, to specialize narrowly in the art of a particular culture or time period. The vast majority of schools advertising entry-level art history teaching jobs for Pre-Columbianists, like so many museums hoping to host an exhibition of Pre-Columbian art, seek professionals who have considerable breadth of knowledge. For example, most major art exhibitions, as Pillsbury points out, encompass the Pre-Columbian field as whole rather than focus on a specific culture’s art tradition. At the same time, most of the teaching jobs open to first-year Pre-Columbian art historians advertise for a generalist, someone who can cover the visual culture of all ancient American cultures, if not also at least some other “non-Western”—and even “Western”—cultures. New graduates lacking the necessary breadth of expertise and experience are out of luck in these instances.
Increased competition in the job market may also be attributed, at least in part, to the increasingly blurred line separating Pre-Columbian art historians from archaeologists and anthropologists. Nielsen urges in this issue that we all adopt a cross-disciplinary approach, that we dissolve the artificial borders and boundaries that divide us, not just geographically but also academically. Indeed, Cummins celebrates his frequent collaborations with archaeologists and anthropologists, whereas Trever locates her work at the interface between art history and archaeology. Convinced that interdisciplinary research makes for better scholarship, Trever urges all Pre-Columbian art historians to adopt at least some of the archaeologist’s tools and methods. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the impending dissolution of the former divide between Pre-Columbian art history and the social sciences is the recent hire of an archaeologist, Alicia Boswell, to teach Pre-Columbian art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Boswell also represents the growing interest in Pre-Columbian Andean visual culture. In the past five years, Andeanists have held the job of teaching Pre-Columbian art at three of the five largest universities on the west coast.4
The fusion of Pre-Columbian art history with the social sciences has also been abetted by the fact that most students of Pre-Columbian visual culture tend to concentrate on identifying subject matter—that is, they specialize in iconographic analysis. There are several reasons for this, not least of which is the rarity of Indigenous writings as well as the obvious difficulty in deciphering them. Understanding what we are actually seeing in a Pre-Columbian object or image is, as a consequence, challenging by any standard. Nonetheless, the attitude among many non–art historians is that anybody can do this and do it well. Nielsen, for example, as an iconographer sees himself as “doing” art history. Art historians may protest that social scientists don’t see as well, have a “wooden eye,” can’t analyze an image, or can’t mediate the distinctions between what the eye perceives, how the viewer understands it, and how the object or the image was understood by the artist and his or her viewers, but few, if any, social scientists seem to agree with them. Moreover, the current interest in the materials of which artworks are made, and the techniques used to make them, effectively fuses art history and social science.
But their focus on iconography and blurring of interdisciplinary boundaries also alludes to US-trained Pre-Columbian art historians’ vexed relationship with their own discipline. The current popularity of the term “visual culture” over “art” (and related words such as “artist,” “artistic,” and “artful”), as manifest in the title of this journal, reflects the problem. Cummins notes that by leveling the playing field, the term “visual culture” diminishes the possibility of writing, teaching about, and exhibiting works perceived, whether today or in the past, as special and—yes—as beautiful. In other words, by exiling aesthetics, the term “visual culture” excludes a topic that has been traditionally, and for many still is, the backbone of the discipline of art history.
In addition, because we do not have the names of more than a very few Pre-Columbian artists, let alone know much about them, it is almost impossible to write at great length about patronage, another staple topic for European, North American, and Asian art historians. Nor is there much room for discussions of such venerable art historical topics as representation, agency, mimesis, visuality, the gaze, and narrativity. Ironically, when such themes are taken up in relation to Pre-Columbian art, it is often by a social scientist rather than an art historian.5 For reasons uncertain, most Pre-Columbian art historians do not make use of art historical theory.
A final sign of Pre-Columbian art historians’ troubled relation to their own discipline is that although they usually claim to be proud of their disciplinary affiliation, most of them eschew presenting their work in the discipline’s chief institutional venues. Instead, they tend to present it in a social science, interdisciplinary, or field-specific venue. Most Pre-Columbian art historians, for example, opt to orally present their material at scheduled meetings of organizations such as the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), the American Society for Ethnohistory (ASE), and the International Congress of Americanists (ICA), rather than at the annual meetings of the College Art Association (CAA), the Society for Architectural Historians (SAJH), and the International Congress in the History of Art (CIHA). Similarly, they tend to publish their writings in journals like Ancient Mesoamerica and Ethnohistory, and their books with university presses especially friendly to books on Latin American topics, such as those of Colorado, Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. Since its founding in 1913, CAA’s flagship art history journal, the Art Bulletin, has published only a handful of articles on Pre-Columbian art topics. While Pre-Columbian art historians often complain that they cannot get their material accepted for publication in professional art history journals, the truth is that most do not even try. We are guilty, in other words, of not working very hard to converse with fellow art historians in other areas. We seem to prefer, for the most part, to communicate with one another and with social scientists whose interests and experience align with our own.
The current state of the field may be partially rooted in its origins. As Cummins notes in this issue, the earliest students of Pre-Columbian visual culture in Mexico were openly inspired by nationalist motives, and Pillsbury points out that this is true for the United States as well. In the United States, Pre-Columbian objects came to the forefront of peoples’ attention during the 1930s and 1940s, when the US government, concerned about the international rise of fascism, was pushing Pan-Americanism, “hemispheric unity,” and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy. A major patron of Pre-Columbian art, for example, was Nelson Rockefeller, who collected it along with the art of other “primitive” peoples, and who, between 1940 and 1945, headed up the US office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs (see Pillsbury).6
The role of the government is less well known, however, with regard to academia. As Walter Mignolo pointed out in a 2000 interview with L. Elena Delgado and Rolando J. Romero, the academic field of Latin American studies was created in the United States, not in Latin America, and by the government, not by academia.7 The decision to major in Pre-Columbian studies at the university level in the United States received significant governmental encouragement in the late 1950s, when the country, alarmed by Russia’s 1957 success in launching the first human-made satellite into orbit, established a set of government fellowships to support doctoral students planning to pursue a career in college teaching. My entire doctoral education at Columbia University, for example, was funded by a Title IV fellowship, one of many awarded to certain schools, beginning in 1958, under the auspices of the National Defense Education Act.8 Preference at Columbia University, where I was enrolled, was given to new students planning to work in a “non-Western” field. In this the Title IV fellowships were similar to the concurrent Title VI fellowships, which, according to Jeffrey Kuenzi, reflected “the special priority placed by the federal government on FLAS [Foreign Languages and Area Studies], especially with respect to diplomacy, national security, and trade competitiveness.” The program, Kuenzi notes, arose out of “concerns regarding terrorism arising from foreign regions which are infrequently included in American postsecondary curricula.”9 FLAS fellowships continue to be awarded to certain schools, but the Title IV program ended in 1968.
By then, a prime motivator to pursue graduate education in the field was the civil rights movement and the new university area studies programs that resulted from it. Subsequently, many a young person’s decision to enter the field of Pre-Columbian visual culture studies was inspired internally, by older scholars’ teaching and publications. Nielsen notes, for example, that he was motivated to enter the field in the 1990s by admiration for the work of Schele and her coauthors, and Robb acknowledges the early influence of the curator Gillett G. Griffin at Princeton University. As noted above, together with other Mayanists, including the art historian Mary Miller and the archaeologists David Freidel and Peter Matthews, Schele had succeeded in making Pre-Columbian visual culture, at least for a time, internationally popular. By this time, however, direct US government support for students working with Pre-Columbian visual culture had long since dried up.
The political interests that underwrote the origin and growth of Pre-Columbian visual culture studies become even more salient when, as Cummins and Pillsbury point out, we take a critical look at the origins and implications of the term “Pre-Columbian” itself. Cummins notes that the rubric is unusual in demarcating a very broad temporal and geographic divide rather than specifying a particular place, time period, or culture. The question that arises from this is: What purpose(s) did—and does—the term “Pre-Columbian” serve? Cummins locates the field’s roots in the political interests of nineteenth-century Mexico, which is when writings on that country’s history first began separating the preconquest period from the period they now christened “colonial.” Benjamin Keen relates the new divide between the pre- and postconquest eras to a reaction against the Black Legend, which portrayed the Americas’ Spanish colonists as cruel, oppressive, and greedy.10 It was, in other words, what Richard Kagan describes as a pro-imperialist sign of rising sympathy for Spain in the aftermath of the Spanish-Cuban-American War.11 The Mexican government, which funded most of the earliest excavations in Mexico, still supports most of the research conducted there on the country’s preconquest past.
Pillsbury, on the other hand, in this issue ties the mounting popularity of the term “Pre-Columbian” in the United States to the propagandistic world’s fairs and expositions of the 1880s and early 1900s, which marked the rise of nationalism and the growing awareness of, and felt need better to understand, lesser known, non-English-speaking peoples regarded as potential threats. In a 2002 article I argued that the semantic, and subsequently academic, divide between the Pre-Columbian and the colonial accordingly carries with it some unfortunate implications.12 For one thing, the term “Pre-Columbian” implies that the peoples inhabiting Central and South America before the conquest were significantly different from those who lived there afterward, and it implies that their cultures, like them, are very dead. Worse yet, separating later peoples from those who lived before the conquest encourages the idea that the former were homogeneous—that they shared a single culture. Despite the fact that the Pre-Columbian past comprises tens of thousands of years and involves an enormous geographic spread over two continents, Pre-Columbian peoples, as a result of the implications of the rubric, have been and often still are understood as not only “not like us” but also “all the same.”
As Pre-Columbianists know all too well, the negative implications of the semantic distinction between Pre-Columbian and colonial dog our field to this day. On an even broader scale, they are also impacting the descendants of the peoples who lived in the Americas prior to the conquest in undesirable ways. We see this especially in the US government’s current abuse of Latin American refugees and immigrants, and in the ways in which members of Indigenous groups are often mistreated within their own homelands. Semantic and categorical (mis)representations of the past, in other words, affect the present. Trever acknowledges this with her analogy of President Trump’s wall, which is intended to separate “us”—that is, the United States—from “them”—meaning, the very people whose history we Pre-Columbianists are studying. That odious wall, Trever notes, contrasts with the many other “walls” currently being broken through, pulled down, and breached in the world of Pre-Columbian scholarship. Pre-Columbian visual culture studies, she points out, therefore provides an important antidote to the current state of US politics in the form of opportunities to help decolonize the field.
By so doing, the Pre-Columbian visual culture field would align with the current theoretical fields of decoloniality and global indigeneity, which ask how a researcher’s work is likely to benefit—or harm—the people whose pasts they are helping to describe. It would provide a means for people living in a colonized place to have their own voice, to describe and use a vocabulary from within. Some Pre-Columbianists are already working along those lines. For Trever, one way to go is to initiate more discussions about cultural appropriation, in particular with artists, scholars, and activists, be they Latin American or Latinx. A few Mayanists, in turn, have for several decades been teaching the descendants of the people they study to read, understand, and subsequently teach their ancestors’ hieroglyphic writings and coded imagery. Research, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith emphasizes, is never innocent.13 It is always tied to the current political situation and the larger question of who, in the end, controls history.
In that regard, I close by pointing out that the vast majority of scholars in the United States and Europe who study Pre-Columbian visual culture do not descend from a Pre-Columbian people. With very few exceptions, we are white. Space limitations preclude speculating as to why there are not more nonwhites working in the field other than to acknowledge that the situation mirrors that of the discipline of art history itself. CAA, with its newly created office of vice president of diversity and inclusion, is currently trying to reverse the situation at the level of the discipline and the arts as a whole.14 White scholars outside Latin America who speak specifically to the Pre-Columbian past, however, need to keep in mind that they do so as outsiders working from a usually highly privileged and inevitably culturally distant position. Mignolo warns that academic disciplines are often based on one or more “Western macro-narratives” that have not been constructed around the idea—or the experience—of coloniality. They arose instead in specific historical contexts outside of the colonized world and do not work well for it. Instead of reproducing these Western universals, Mignolo suggests, disciplines need to engage in what he calls “border thinking,” that is, in “thinking otherwise” by moving beyond the semantics and the categories created and imposed by Western epistemology to subaltern discourses that are politically and ethically transformational.15 If he is right, those of us who write about, teach, and exhibit Pre-Columbian artworks need to change our narrative.