25 June 2005

why art history

So I'm reading Chakrabarty's book (see list of books I'm reading at right—believe it or not I'm actually reading them...heh heh). His second chapter begins with an erudite discussion of the history of the discipline of history, particularly as it relates to India. He's articulating how historians have tended toward the secular, as the discipline itself relies on a certain foundation in reason, but that the problem with this is a tendency to overlook or discount aspects of history that interweave the religious and the political. In other words, how to talk about, say the political history of modern India and the attempt to create secular democracy while allowing for strands of politics that rely on religion, spirituality etc.? How to do that while not providing fodder for a fundamentalist Hindu right? His words:

The self-image of modern Indian secular scholarship, particularly the strands that flowed into Marxist social history writing, not only partakes of the social sciences' view of the world as "disenchanted," but even displays antipathy to anything that smacks of the religious. The result has been a certain kind of paralysis of imagination, remarkable for a country whose people have never shown any sense of embarrassment about being able to imagine the supernatural in a variety of forms. (p. 25)

This got me thinking about art history, and why art history rather than (or as a focus for) the study of history? Some of the attraction for me is I think that enchanted quality of having the "object" of your study be a work of art—something visual, poetic, something that exceeds description and can be read in multiple ways. The wonderment part of art keeps art history engaged with that sense that the world can't be known, can't be controlled, something that Enlightenment reason folks assumed and tripped over to their peril. Like we used to say in grad school: you know what, it is about pretty pictures, at least some of the time. And it is about the way those images can allow access into something that isn't of this world. Like imagining an independent India, or a life without constant back-breaking labor. Little things like that.

3 comments:

Sam said...

'why art history rather than (or as a focus for) the study of history? Some of the attraction for me is I think that enchanted quality of having the "object" of your study be a work of art—something visual, poetic, something that exceeds description and can be read in multiple ways. The wonderment part of art keeps art history engaged with that sense that the world can't be known, can't be controlled...'

Damn...that's good! Make sure to put that somehwere in the book.

Kate said...

Ditto!

You know, I can't believe I've never really asked you (or anyone else for that matter) what drew you to your chosen career. I really enjoyed getting a little glimpse into it.

sageblue said...

OK, but let's have a battle royale: why art history vs. why literature? Does the choice/decision come down to a matter of learning styles (textual vs. visual)? Does it come down to a matter of cultural import (i.e. I [may] believe that the textual is more important/effective/stirring than the visual)? Does is come down to economics?

I mean, I like architecture, music, and words: what made me choose to go for the latter, rather than the former? I think some of it is haphazard: I took a class that I liked that pushed me in the words direction. Would I have gone in the architecture direction if I had taken an equally cool class lo these many years ago? But, in some ways I did: I loved the sociological aspects of architecture and was in three freakin' choirs. Then, perhaps it was something innate that drew me to words (look out! nature vs. nurture rears its beautiful head!).

At this point, I don't think I can gain back enough innocence/ignorance to parse out "the moment." Interesting questions tho'.