Monday, May 04, 2009

Postcolonial Medieval Studies and Art History

by J J Cohen

Congratulations to Eva Frojmovic of the University of Leeds for the Arts and Humanities Research Council funding of her project "Postcolonising the Medieval Image." Many good things will come of this project, including sessions at Leeds and Kalamazoo, and a postgraduate study day, and many publications.

Here is the portion of the proposal I found most intriguing:
During the last 30 years, postcolonial theory has transformed literary and film studies, yet in the last decade, only a few medievalist historians and literary scholars have used postcolonial thought, while almost no medievalist art historians have engaged with postcolonial theory. Why should this neglect matter? For two (related) reasons: first, the canon of medieval art has become fossilised through remaining defined by now outmoded methods; secondly, methodological separatism is leading to a split within the art historical community, with many medievalists isolated from their modernist colleagues. Exceptions aside, the study of medieval art and visualities has remained eurocentric in its canon and old-fashioned in its approach. The main tools are still stylistic and iconographic analysis, and the pursuit of "historical context". "Influence" is still a key concept, and tends to leave intact the old assumptions that artistic ideas have origins in self-contained cultural formations. These models in turn perpetuate the exclusion of "marginal" or "minority" subjects from the canon and help reinforce borders around Europe. Certain ideas are then "owned" by certain cultures, and anyone making use of them is an "imitator" - an essentially chauvinistic model. With the petrification of the canon and the entrenchment of methods, no methodological breakthroughs can be made, and medieval art historians struggle to communicate with their modernist counterparts. Moreover, medieval art is in danger of losing relevance and losing its place in the imagination of students and the public if it is seen as having meaning only within the past.
Many of these statements are true about medievalists in general: historicism continues to be our communal and dominant mode of analysis. But why, do you think, art historians (Michael Camille aside) have been reluctant or slow to embrace the methodologies that their colleagues in literature and history have found to be so energizing?

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

I think this would be a great question for Asa Mittman, and I also think one hopeful sign of change in this area is the new online journal "Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art":

Asa and Debra Higgs Strickland are co-editing an issue on monstrosity, some of which I know will take up post-colonial themes.

From my own experience, I recall last February when I was at a conference organized by Erin Labbie and her colleagues at Bowling Green State University on "Beholding Violence" in the medieval and early modern periods, and the conference was specifically kind of designed around a literary studies/art history studies axis, so in a lot of sessions there would be a literature paper, then an art history paper, and so on. This conference can in no way be said to reflect a "state of the field" in art history [that would be unfair], but I do remember being struck by how many of the art history papers stuck to very close readings of the formal elements of paintings and such in relation to narrowly-defined [temporal-wise] socio-historical [often local] contexts.