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.
There has never any been any comfort in using “Pre-Columbian” to modify, categorize, or temporally frame the works that a Pre-Columbian art historian analyzes. Pre-Columbia is not a place, and Pre-Columbian is not a culture. That said, these terms cannot be done without—or not, at least, if what might be thought to exist as a whole is to be designated.1 There are of course other terms, “pre-Hispanic” for one, or “medieval” or “ancient,” as well as others, but they all denote a time before.2 And for some scholars, such as George Kubler, this was a time of purity, a prelapsarian time, as it were.3 That is, unlike any other non-Western art tradition studied by art historians, Pre-Columbian art is defined as something created solely before the European invasion. African and Asian art are categorized on the basis of Ptolemaic geography. Even Oceanic art takes its name from its geography.4 So, what does time as a defining category mean for the study of Pre-Columbian art?
First, Pre-Columbian art history is a distinct field and is, in fact, unique within the discipline of art history. And while the arts of late Pre-Columbian cultures are intrinsically linked to the study of colonial American art history and vice versa, they are not the same thing at all. The former begets, in part, the latter. One cannot fully understand colonial art without knowing Pre-Columbian art, but a Pre-Columbianist, at least theoretically, does not need to know colonial art, although not to know would be a mistake, I believe.
Second, it once meant that any Pre-Columbian art historian in the United States was intellectually responsible for knowing the scholarship on, and teaching, Pre-Columbian art from Tierra del Fuego to the southwestern United States, and that is still true for most of us. (One hoped that art historians of North American art might also be interested in Native American art traditions, but because that never really materialized, the field of First Nation art history developed apart from it, most vigorously in Canada.) This ecumenical approach was and (basically still is) distinctly North American. In Mexico, the only other nation-state with a substantial number of Pre-Columbian art historians, study was originally based on Mexico’s national interests.5 Thus, the first truly synthetic survey of Pre-Columbian art was Kubler’s The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya and Andean Peoples (1962), which developed out of the courses he taught at Yale University. While his text is a decidedly uneven and idiosyncratic survey, it nonetheless represented an attempt to present to beginning students a history of Pre-Columbian art that was on a par with other art historical surveys. This, in and of itself, was critical, as the discipline of art history was beginning to expand in the late 1960s and 1970s beyond its traditional European interests. As a result, there are, at present, some nearly ninety Pre-Columbian art historians in the United States working in some capacity in museums, universities, and other institutions. Many of these positions were recently created, and exhibitions such as the recent City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan (2018, Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas (2017, Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum, New York) demonstrate the general public’s continued enthusiasm for Pre-Columbian art. So, there can be some reasonable optimism for the future of Pre-Columbian art history.
The understanding that some ancient remains of America could, and still can, be studied as art forms with a history, and that that history can be traced not only through archaeological excavations but also through the study of the objects themselves, is both intellectually justifiable and exhilarating. It is, of course, in a sense utopian in that one still meets resistance both within and outside the Pre-Columbian field to treating Pre-Columbian objects and images as art. Some art historians argue that the objects they study are not art, that the word itself is a problem, as it was not used at the time of the objects’ creation.6 The word “art” is thus sometimes replaced with the amorphous notion of visual culture, a category that has the capacity to reduce all artifacts to the same status of importance or cultural meaning without any aesthetic distinctions or artistic value.
The concept of visual culture has not been critically examined in terms of what it means for Pre-Columbian objects and images. Are there other sensorial cultures? If so, how do they intersect? How does anyone, in any culture, phenomenologically experience them? Is there simultaneity, or do these cultures exist independently? Are there commensurate regimes of experience, or is there a hierarchy? Is, for example, a visual culture more significant than an olfactory culture? These are questions that already exist within a critical art history. More to the point, however, is that while I am very interested in visual culture as an all-embracing or totalizing way of thinking about objects as a whole, something long ago proposed by Kubler in The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962), visual culture as practiced by non–art historians too often tends to use images and objects as illustrations for other issues more central to the authors’ interests and aims.7 For the art historian, the intellectual issues must first derive from the object or image itself. The object or image compels investigation by its presence or appearance. The resolution of the problems presented by the object may require other contextual investigations such as the critical reading of texts, social and or political analysis, or forensic studies. But to me, the most intellectually challenging work as an art historian is studying Pre-Columbian art for which there is minimal contextual evidence, as is the case for the Ecuadorean coastal ceramics of Chorrera and Jama-Coaque.
So, the question of whether or not there is a precise Pre-Columbian equivalent to the Western notion of art is not really theoretically helpful for the study of certain Pre-Columbian objects. Many objects are clearly “non-art” in any sense of the term “art,” but others manifest a clear and determined investment in, and understanding of, beauty and thus can be classified as art in any generous sense of the word. Of course, beauty is a subjective category, and it depends on cultural values and aesthetic norms. But the debate over whether these things are or are not art diminishes their place within art historical studies. It is more important, I think, to acknowledge that for some cultures, such as the Maya, Inca, and Aztec, we have terms and writings referring to their own emic categories and criteria for beauty. Even more importantly, these concepts are manifested both materially and formally in valued objects. Moreover, by acknowledging some Pre-Columbian objects as legitimate subjects for art historical study, as based on aesthetic criteria and what this means within the cultures that produce them, one can also sometimes question long-held truths about the arts of other cultures, including our own.
Moreover, if we no longer want to use the word “art,” there are historical consequences, for then we must dismiss the sixteenth-century assessment of the first Spaniard to compose a history of art. Felipe de Guevara wrote in the mid-1560s that the Mexicans had “brought to painting something new and rare, the painting with the bird feathers.”8 Guevara’s passage acknowledges that prior to 1492 the art of America and the art of Europe (or the rest of the world, for that matter) had not had any substantial interchange. More important, perhaps, Guevara admires the fact that, in his opinion, America had contributed something new and marvelous to art.
Guevara’s comments about newness and rarity also obliquely confirm that already in the sixteenth century, Pre-Columbian objects and practices were seen as artistic, and that Pre-Columbian art traditions probably developed solely on their own terms.9 In this sense Pre-Columbian art was already being understood as unique, a condition that in and of itself, I think, makes it worth studying. However, the study of Pre-Columbian art requires reassessing some of the traditional methods and theories of art history rather than transplanting them uncritically. What, for example, does Erwin Panofsky’s definition of iconography mean for someone studying Andean art?10 How can Heinrich Wölfflin’s sense of form be used?11 Are the technical studies of an object’s material and making process really universal, and so can they be applied without question to the analysis of a Pre-Columbian object? How do Indigenous languages situate works within referential practices that may have a very different ontological operation from what they might have in our own culture?12 For example, do they have some form of animate presence that objects do not have for us?13 (This line of study, of course, requires studying Indigenous as well as European languages, something that increases time to completion of the PhD, especially as Indigenous language courses are not always easily accessible in US universities.)14 One can suggest, then, that the study of Pre-Columbian art within academic art history departments not only contributes its unique subject matter but also can introduce new questions and methods for other areas.
Yet, from some of our colleagues whose intellectual interests are vested solely within the Western canon, one hears that perhaps things have gone too far—that the offerings have become too diffuse, and that fields such as Pre-Columbian and colonial art are peripheral to the greater needs of an art history curriculum. But emphasizing that Inca, Maya, or Aztec objects are not art in the Western sense of the term only feeds into this reactionary move back to the canon, in which students are introduced only to select objects and cultures within an art history curriculum. This would leave some cultures and their aesthetic sensibilities to be studied elsewhere, be it in anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, or visual culture. Thus, just as it was never helpful originally to place most Amerindian objects (or African or Oceanic objects) into natural history museums while other objects were being proudly displayed in art museums, so too it is not helpful to exempt Pre-Columbian objects from the artistic criteria deployed to study objects from other areas of the world. Among other problems, it reduces everything to the binary of art versus not-art, dependent upon a temporal category of “when is art?”15
This critique of temporality as a defining criterion is exacerbated, I fear, by a growing narrowness within the field. There are scholars who self-identify as Andeanists, Mesoamericanists, and Mayanists rather than as Pre-Columbianists, and whose intellectual interests focus only on certain areas or time periods, even single sites and monuments. Of course, one’s own research interests cannot encompass the entire, ever-growing body of literature and objects. But it is remarkable how few scholars venture outside their intellectual comfort zones to try on new and different subjects, cultures, and/or media. This narrowing of interests will eventually lead to specialists whose capacity to relate to the issues and interests of even their closest colleagues breaks down. There is the very real risk that an Andeanist will not really talk to an Aztec specialist or a Mayanist, instead only talking to other Andeanists. Or worse, that one will not even teach beyond the narrow confines of research interests. What does it mean for the future of Pre-Columbian study as art history if Pre-Columbianists cannot even deeply engage with one another’s work? Why, in other words, should our colleagues in other areas of the world be interested in what we do and write if we teach only Mesoamerican or Andean art, write only about a narrow area, and do not address larger issues?
It is no accident, I think, that the growth of Pre-Columbian art in terms of positions in universities and colleges has slowed almost to a standstill, while the modern and contemporary Latin American art fields have expanded exponentially. There is, unfortunately, a move toward presentism everywhere. History is no longer thought to be of any real value, even in the academy.16 Moreover, the market for contemporary Latin American art is very strong, as are institutional interests such as those evidenced at the Getty, the Americas Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.17 Modern and contemporary Latin American art are also free of the restrictions that are rightfully placed on the collecting of Pre-Columbian and colonial art. Yet there is, I believe, still great interest among students and the general public in seeing and understanding what we call the art of Pre-Columbian America.
This interest is slightly different from interest in the field of archaeology, which is called upon to perform different operations. Sometimes, archaeological and art historical inquiries coincide or intersect in expected and unexpected ways. And so when the interests of the two disciplines overlap, collaboration rather than competition is often the best way to get at mutual interests. There certainly are archaeologists who have no affinity for the arts and eschew them as “epiphenomenal.” I remember several practitioners of the “new archaeology” explicitly telling me this when I was in graduate school. Their positivism reduces cultural production to a rather mechanistic understanding of the world of power relations, a world that no one actually solely inhabits. Thankfully, many archaeologists do not share their positivist views, and I have had the real intellectual pleasure of working as productively with archaeologists as I have with many art historians. This kind of collaboration is not something that many humanists are accustomed to, and it is here, I think, that Pre-Columbian art history can provide a new model for working in the humanities.
Nonetheless, if the study of Pre-Columbian art by art historians is not to go the way of the study of Egyptian art, Pre-Columbianists cannot speak to or write for only themselves, nor is it intellectually useful not to ask larger questions of the material that might engage fellow art historians as well as archaeologists and historians. I do not mean that we should force ourselves to find some kind of universal relevance for everything we study, but there are occasions when the material exerts itself, by virtue of its appearance and/or the material from which it is made, to provoke questions or make us rethink historical certainties and givens. At the same time, because Pre-Columbian art developed in isolation and may have had a very different set of ontologies, one must exercise caution in studying Pre-Columbian images and buildings.18 We must have and maintain an interpretive framework that is rigorously critical on every level, and not provide interpretations based on tautological arguments. What one thinks one sees should not be unquestioningly projected onto a work as the basis of a totalizing explanation. Interpretations, if they are to be at all useful, must be carefully weighed. Ancient arts, especially Pre-Columbian arts, sometimes unfortunately fall prey to wild imaginations. We do not need to produce our own versions of Chariots of the Gods. Rather, we should look to the scrupulous, labor-intensive studies of the kind that Elizabeth Hill Boone has produced, or at Richard Townsend’s study of the iconography of Tenochtitlán, which is still an insightful examination of Aztec art.19
The work of these two scholars also points to the fact that the majority of those who identify as Pre-Columbian art historians work in the later periods. This is in part because there is more material and better context. The other area that has greater textual context is, of course, the art of the Maya, who developed a hieroglyphic and phonetic system of writing. Other traditions, such as that of the Moche of north coastal Peru, have a pictorial system that seems to lend itself to iconographic interpretation. These differing but related conditions provide immediate contextual evidence. Here context is first produced by the sites where images and objects are found, such as cities, burials, and/or natural formations modified by the culture under study. This has, for example, allowed for detailed studies of the Maya paintings at Bonampak by Mary Miller, the murals at Cacaxtla by Claudia Brittenham, the murals at Pañamarca by Lisa Trever, and Inca stonework by Carolyn Dean.20 This work is allied to iconographic studies that have served as critical means to interpret what is being portrayed. Without going into the debates between those who suggest the validity of the direct historical approach in interpreting the iconography of very ancient images versus those who claim of the impossibility of continuity, citing Panofsky’s theory of disjunction, one can at least find evidence for interpretations of earlier practices.21 For example, the binaries that structure Inca expressions find resonance in Moche and many other earlier Andean cultures. The Maya murals at San Bartolo can be interpreted through a reading of the early eighteenth-century alphabetic transcription of the Popol Vuh by Father Ximénez.22
We do not have comparable evidence for the art and architecture of many other Pre-Columbian cultures. As mentioned, context is therefore often extremely limited and sometimes nearly nonexistent. The object itself, or objects as a collective body, become even more central as it or they reveal their meaning and importance in relation to their material, structure, and technology. The conscious technical and aesthetic choices made by the artists are deduced solely through the study of the object, as is demonstrated by María Alicia Uribe-Villegas and Marcos Martinón-Torres for Muisca metal work, Diana Magaloni for Mesoamerican color, Andrew Hamilton for Andean art, and Elena Phipps for Andean textiles.23 Of course, these studies are assisted by archaeological studies, but they are art historical investigations first and foremost.
This short essay is not meant to be proscriptive or prescriptive. There are many methods and theories that can be applied to, or better yet developed out of, the study of Pre-Columbian art and architecture. However, I would stress that the most important aspect of Pre-Columbian art history is that the objects of that history provoke and compel their study. This may be more emphatically true because the field of Pre-Columbian art history is central to the health of the discipline and the humanities in general. Pre-Columbian art must be shown to present issues and problems that both require the analytical focus of the art historian in general and present new and different issues that question our received ideas about art. Pre-Columbian art is compelling both in terms of its immediate aesthetic appeal and (most importantly) the intellectual problems it poses, with problems that may not be fully resolved but are nonetheless important to study. Here, we can ally with archaeologists such as William Fash, Stephen Houston, David Stuart, Izumi Shimada, and others who are aware of the aims, interests, and methods of art history. Yet if the field is to expand intellectually, it cannot rest upon its laurels and simply add to what has already been accomplished. Scholars, young and old, must continually push beyond the boundaries that are presented to them.