Global Studies and the Humanities

The Art of Nations

— David Summers

Nationalism has been an extremely important factor in the institutional formation of the history of art. Not only has much attention been given to questions of nationality as evident in works of art, but art traditions are treated as if sanctioning national political order. Theorists of the history of art at the end of the 19th century argued that styles of ornament, as pure forms, most clearly expresses the spirit of a people, and there has been much anxiety about the possession of “national style”, and still more anxiety about threats to the “purity” and indigenous value of national styles. “Nation” and “nature”, “Fatherland and Motherland”, quickly touch deep passions. The problem this presents is to preserve histories and traditions as the achieved traditions of groups of people, while at the same time separating them from these natal metaphors. The best alternative is a redefinition of art traditions in terms of what George Kubler called “shapes of time”, related clusters of artifactual series, which are both open-ended in themselves and open to interaction with series from other clusters. At least in principle, this means that every group has an art and architectural history that founds its present culture, and provides a basis for resistance to incursion, and for desirable choices among new alternatives. It implies a broad definition of “art” as something like all human artifacts, and also implies that all art is shaped to human scale and purpose. A “global” art history would be an open number of shapes of time and their interactions. This project would necessitate a reconsideration of the ways in which we in the West have come to think of art (and art history) as we do, and to reevaluate the relation between art and technology, which has given new meanings, desirable and undesirable, to the artifactual.