Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Analysis of Robert S. Nelson's Living on the Byzantine Borders of Western Art

Nelson's essay presents a critique of the western view of art history claiming that this view is 'a manifestation of Orientalism'[1]. He uses the term in its negative meaning, as presented by Edward Saïd in his 1978 book by the same name.[2] According to Nelson, this Orientalist presentation of art history points to Western Europe's (and America's) way of developing its cultural identity and political systems and that this Orientalist view is not necessarily concerned with saying something about the visual culture of particular people and institutions, but rather used as contrast to define Western Europe's/America's cultural Art History and by consequence contemporary Western Europeans and Americans.[3] As an example of this trend in the western view, Nelson brings the treatment of Byzantine art within the context of art history. After a brief introduction detailing his own personal experience with art history academic structure and his study of Byzantine art within this structure, he uses two main methods to illustrate his claim. These methods draw on essentially the same element (that is, the art history survey book's treatment of Byzantine art) to illustrate his point, but he uses the very chronological inversion that he speaks of in his critique to render them distinct from each other. The first method used is an analysis of art history survey books currently in use within the art history academic sphere and their way of dealing with the Byzantine period. The second method is a return to the Western European beginnings of the now standard art history survey book and a look at how these beginnings shaped the texts and structure currently in use presented in the first part.

Beginning with his first argument, he presents an array of art history books from the last century (including even the one in use for the very course this essay is written for) and the various ways that they present the Byzantine period. He explores the thematic, chronological and even visual (a good portion of this part deals with the various tables of contents, the general organization of the books and the placement of the chapter dealing with Early Christian and Byzantine art in relation to the other chapters) aspects of these books. Eventually he reaches the conclusion that all the books use the various elements to distance the Byzantine period from the medieval period in Europe which was chronologically happening at the same time. Be it by the previously mentioned chronological inversion[4] , presenting it in a different period in history (Ancient instead of Middle-Ages) or grouping it with other, less related art periods (such as ancient Chinese, Indian or American art), Byzantine art is presented as separate than medieval art, according to Nelson.

But while this supposed non-coeval and thematically different presentation against medieval art serves to distance Byzantium from Western Europe, it is not until Nelson's return to the roots of today's art history books that we are presented with an actual negative view of Byzantine art. This view, exemplified by Nelson through, among others, colourful quotes from G.W.F. Hegel's 1820's Lectures on the Philosophy of History, deeming the Byzantine Empire a 'disgusting picture of imbecility'[5], paints a rather grim portrait of Byzantine art. While Nelson is quick to diffuse the strong words as 'the rantings of an elderly man, projecting onto a safely distant Other his deepest fears' he nevertheless gives credit to the general attitude in the text as being 'less the projections of particular authors and more the manifestation of a process by which Europeans developed their own cultural identities and political systems.'[6]

In his conclusion, Nelson advocates a different art history while providing a few guidelines of what this different art history might look like (a less divisive approach, a transcendence of ethnographic narratives and a blurring of the boundaries created by post-medieval nationalism). This suggested different art history, however, runs the risk of falling in the very trap that Nelson talks of when describing the 'New Art History' and its 'exciting new methods that sweep through our formerly isolated discipline' which just 'reaffirm the canon', 'reinstate traditional genres' and 'validate the old paradigms'.[7] Nelson himself being educated in the system that he is criticizing (mentioned having studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in the 70's) means that he is evaluating the system within the same boundaries that this very system imposed on him. He did not mention if he was ever a part of any different system nor did he bring such an alternative perspective anywhere within his discourse short of the hypothetical one when he considered the Russian/Eastern-European/Greek/Turkish/Egyptian narrative[8] (though again, this grouped association of non-Western-European countries in his discourse just further points to his lack of a perspective other than the one he is criticizing). While his critique brings about important notions, one wonders if an entirely non-Western-European perspective would indeed be, as Nelson claims, 'an entirely different story' or would it be completely dismissed by the larger Western-European art history community due to a lack of cultural affinity to the culture from which such an alternative perspective might come. Essentially, such a different perspective might be so jarring that it might be dismissed as invalid because it does not fall within certain cultural boundaries far deeper than the Orientalist ones Nelson is describing. It is here, perhaps, that Marx's quote, about the petrified relations being forced to dance by singing to them their own melody,[9] from the beginning of Nelson's essay, resonates the most.

[1] Robert S. Nelson, "Living on the Byzantine Borders of Western Art," Gesta 35, no 1(1996): 3

[2] Ibid., 4

[3] Ibid., 8

[4] Ibid., 4

[5] Ibid., 7

[6] Ibid., 8

[7] Ibid., 3

[8] Ibid., 5

[9] Ibid., 3

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