08 April 2006

AAH and Others

I am blogging now (although not able to post this) from the grand hall that centers the AAH conference. On the one hand, it's a big conference, with I suppose several hundred people attending. On the other, it's small compared to the major national conference in the US, CAA. It also is very much unlike CAA in its dearth of non-western papers or panels. Certainly no panels entirely made up of non-western scholars or focused on a particular region, something you have all the time at CAA. It indicates a crucial difference between the disciplinary shape of art history in the UK and its shape in the US.

This difference I think stems from the rise of Area Studies in the US in the 1960s as government funding to study the Other (primarily the USSR, but other regions were of course crucial in this, Central/South America, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa) encouraged the study of these regions not just at the graduate level but also at the undergraduate level, in concert with the movement in support of a multicultural ideal in the 1980s. That area studies-multiculti convergence means that in the US we have a tokenism of Otherness, with each art/art history department feeling a need to have a representative of the 'non' as I call it, so as to appear at least nominally balanced in the way art history is taught. Often this situation masks the reality that western folks continue to teach as they teach and simply tack on some classes taught by the nons into their curriculum. I, by the way, am the result of such a curriculum, in which we were required to take one 'non' and I did and here I am. So I can't entirely knock it.

What it means now is that we have this relatively large group of scholars who specialize in the extra-Euro-American world (there's no good phrase. sue me.) teaching at small institutions in the US and giving papers at big conferences where they huddle together in their regional quonset huts, talking only to one another. Sometimes this is breached, and done successfully, but often it is not.

So the atomizing (no, not in terms of perfume spray! really, people. come on now. stick with me) of the discipline in the US is not matched in the UK. They kind of stuck with the whole Europe = Good thing and why should we start teaching something else anyway, and we're not qualified, and what about the costs of library resources and... This is an approach which has a lot of merit (cite: John Seery's essay in his book America Goes to College regarding the import of the Great Books program at Stanford) and I think fails to succumb to the politically-correct tokenism of multiculti approaches that have led to the atomization of which I speak. (can you tell I've been at a conference for the past few days?)

As a result, the UK seems to be a space of great opportunity to rethink the way Asian art, for example, might find a place for itself within the academy. Rather than as a tangential add-on, it might be something else. Not sure what that is yet. I'll report more later. Must dash to hear a talk on Shirin Neshat blah blah.

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