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Globalising Art, Architecture and Design History?Debating Approaches to Curriculum Change in the UK

Friday 19 September 2003

London House, Goodenough College, Mecklenburgh Square, London WC1


Three years on from its inception, the GLAADH Project culminated in a conference bringing together some hundred nation-wide subject specialists and lecturers, to share information and discuss best practice in relation to questions of globalisation and diversification in the fields of art, architecture and design histories.

Professor Craig Clunas (GLAADH Project Director) welcomed delegates on behalf of the GLAADH team, with apologies from Dr Simon Ofield (GLAADH Project, Middlesex), who was unable to attend due to ill-health. For those less familiar with GLAADH's history, Clunas outlined the project's initiation with colleagues at Sussex, Middlesex, and the Open University, its objectives, strategies and subsequent developments.

The conference was punctuated by two inspiring and provocative keynotes from Professor Donald Preziosi (UCLA), whose paper was entitled, Grasping the World: Conceptualizing Ethics and Aesthetics(pdf version) or (html version)and Dr Kobena Mercer (Middlesex University), with a paper on 'Diversity and Difficulty'. Between the keynotes ran a series of concurrent panel sessions, in which representatives from the 10 GLAADH Initiatives made presentations under the umbrella themes, 'Different Art Histories', 'Strategic Collaborations', and 'Shifting Paradigms'.

Against the US backdrop of "massively commodified 'globalisation' of departments of art history", Preziosi posed the following questions: "What would an 'art history' that attended to otherness not simply 'look like', but how would it actually work? What would it mean to actually practice such an art history? What would it mean, today, to practice an 'ethical' art history from within and against globalisation? Is it even conceivable any longer to link together ethics and the discursive practice of art history; to speak of them, honestly, in the same breath?" Mercer challenged the term 'history' in the discipline's nomenclature to ask, "What does it mean to study art historically?" What is the relation between the contemporary and historical? For art from the black diaspora, attention to the historical has sometimes led to the neglect of the aesthetic. If intellectual enquiry is limited and finite, what are the implications and contradictions of 'globalising' imperatives for discursive knowledges? Noting a growing discrepancy between the administrative and intellectual demands of 'difference', Mercer cautioned against the risk of merely 'performing' globalisation in and for the curriculum.

Seeking strategies to address and challenge the prevailing eurocentric canon, to explore collaborations between individuals, academic institutions and museums, and to posit paradigmatic shifts in the configuring of art histories and visual cultures, the day's discussions stimulated many critical and constructive responses. The enthusiasm, caution, and sometimes ferocity of opinion expressed by delegates can be taken as a mark of the conference's success, articulating the multiplicity, complexity, and sensitivity of issues that inhere to any 'globalising' endeavour. Some of the questions, observations and challenges posed over the course of the day are summarised below:

Inserting elements into existing curricula has great advantages: flexibility; accessibility by non-specialists; illuminating comparisons; greater responsibility for students. However, the approach at APU is not a solution to the greater project of shifting the eurocentricity of the British curriculum.

There may be something in the distinction between ontological and epistemological approaches to unfamiliar art for art history/practice students… which raises a more general question about the curriculum being taught on fine art degrees. What kinds of knowledges should these students acquire or develop? It is a question that causes general consternation. Beyond 'contextual understanding' and 'critical awareness', history is abandoned and also much art beyond what might be called the Atlantic world. There's clearly a deep-seated nervousness about introducing students to work outside of a strict cultural perimeter, in case there might be attempts at appropriation. There are exceptions, but there's very little of what might be regarded as 'GLAADH territory' in fine art degrees - it's sort of prohibited territory.

The history of African art history is one that relies upon the relationship between Africa and Europe. There are all sorts of inter-knit sets of crossovers and histories… What would an African theory of African art history look like? What would an African art history of Africa look like?

'Africa' is much larger than 'West Africa' and 'Central Africa'. South/Southern Africa offers an important paradigm for grappling with issues of multiculturalism, cross-culturalism, propaganda art, post-colonialism and cultural identity. It's also important to recognise that compared to literatures on West Africa, the literatures and knowledges around South Africa are still not freely circulated.

Standard surveys of Modernism and architecture belie much in the geographies represented; by looking at a process of dissemination, Modernism seems to become the same thing everywhere. What does Modernism look like in Mexico, Brazil, Palestine in the 1930s, Malaysia in 1950s/60s, Singapore, Nigeria etc? With Palestine, Modernism is imposed but it's seen by the British and the Zionists as indigenous… in Malaysia there is a quite a complex idea of Modernism - it is outside nationalist views of what the country should be... Singapore has a wonderful moment in the 1960s when Modernism seems to represent the colonial past and then suddenly this is swept away with the modernisation of the city. Staff at Edinburgh and Leeds attempt to turn conventional approaches around; can this be done while avoiding the dangers of a kind of advanced tourism?

It's important to reflect on modes of representation, especially the preponderance of photography; and to consider perspectives other than the architect's often 'God's eye view'. What use can be made of oral and local histories?

With limited resources, a fuller picture is impossible, yet it's still viable to perturb the curriculum, to complicate it.

By 'othering' Modernism geographically and ethnically, we bypass 'other' Modernist buildings in Europe and the US. Isn't it better to get an impression of the global from the local?

It's exciting to re-think how we teach - to teach, in Plymouth's example, through making collaborations and contact with things, working alongside objects. It's both interesting and very positive to be able to create an unease in students, to point to the tension between fitting things in to a structure and seeing how structures fall apart.

Points of 'failure' in UCE's project actually provide very interesting moments, as do emphases on students' personal investments and values - getting away from 'preciousness' as a fear. Is it possible however to make it 'too easy' on students by dramatising material? Is there a danger of teaching and learning becoming entertainment rather than challenge?

It's pertinent to consider the prevailing western mediums and modes of representation by which we often encounter non-western art and subject matter; to start with this encounter, processes of 'domestication', and making/building these difficulties into the teaching project.

There's vast body of material in central and eastern Europe that, in the canon we are used to here, doesn't feature very prominently at all. The body of visual and material culture to which students are presently exposed is indicated at St Andrews University library, where rack after rack of Italian Renaissance art sit next to a little shelf of Polish or Hungarian art. As a result of the 'Other Europes' project a larger body of art has been opened up to students. And students have really taken up an interest - writing dissertations, going on to postgraduate studies and hopefully then spreading the word that Europe is much bigger than we have come to see through the Cold War. The project has helped to counteract that vision as just one means of accelerating change.

The deployment of local resources at Kingston and De Montfort - the 'what's on your doorstep' approach - is very striking.

I've always said that I grew up in the north of Scotland where the local museum couldn't show me an Italian Renaissance painting but it could certainly show me Chinese decorative arts from 17th/18th/19th centuries. - So in fact the idea of what's close at hand and what's far away is really quite complex in this country - and we must engage with the question, 'Why is this here?'

There is a sense that what students know or ought to know (from European history from 1750 to the present, to aspects of Indian architecture) is shifting, which might be to do with administrative restructuring, research units and subject areas merging or colleagues collaborating, and also to do with student expectation and resistance. It will be interesting to come back to these projects in five years time…

These projects are stages in ongoing processes, with a focus on what people are doing - that whole 'doing' is hopefully informed by various framing arguments and issues - around categorisations and distinctions that do not 'fall from the sky', and fundamental philosophical questions. It's perhaps too soon to gauge 'successes' or 'failures', though it is possible to say that constituencies are definitely expanding, and money is being funnelled into these expansions. In more pessimistic moments, the dominant paradigm seems not to be shifting at all; in more optimistic moments, it's not actually quite as bad as it was; the continually imposing vitality of the term 'non-Western' is striking but everybody knows they shouldn't say it… we're at a moment of discursive change, a shift, which must also be a collective effort

What do we want students to know? How far are people engaging with this question in terms of curriculum design?

Interesting question about specialisation - Sheffield Hallam's students gain specialist knowledge by building it up themselves and drawing on an external museum's expertise, while Birkbeck has brought an academic over from Brazil to fulfil a specialist role. Is the role of the 'specialist' disappearing? Are we all becoming 'generalists'?

How appropriate or viable are interventionist practices - introducing 'a week' on a course etc? One word not yet heard today is 'embeddedness' - a word used in the GLAADH literature….

Will the problem of the 'specialism/generalism' divide be made worse by the government splitting up research intensive universities?

A key issue is having a budget for staff teaching. We don't have a staff development fund in our own faculty - all the money goes to research. A dynamic curriculum is healthy but how do we do that if we don't have money?

There seems to me to be an ethical/pedagogical/intellectual responsibility in representing the world 'adequately'.

At SOAS we have a weird mirror image, a curriculum which is very, very, specialised in Oriental and Asian studies and in some ways so exclusionary of, for example, Latin American studies. Maybe we could try and sneak Monet into a course on 19th century Japanese art!?

The work done by art historians in Britain that shows an engagement with the issue of cultural diversity in Britain and art in Britain over the last 50 years, is taking place by and large at institutions whose primary focus of production is in Africa, Asia etc. - Those two things are not contradictory… and it is absolutely crucial that it is not done in isolation.

The range of innovative projects to encourage and stimulate are impressive. Yet there is a discrepancy between the administrative and the intellectual in terms of competing forms of rationality; the consequences of trying to do one without the other might have some interesting, unintended effects. Maybe the way out of the present moment, or hiatus, is to find those linking concepts that can inform the curriculum change around the interactive, dialogic, mutually modifying relationship between the 'west and the rest'. The worst-case scenario for a cynical realist would be that of a post-humanist performance culture where activity is really triangulated into administration, information and entertainment… in other words, a curriculum 'stuffed' full of difference and in a world of increasing specialisation, where you don't have to worry about linking, mediating and articulating because it's 'stuff', it's there - and if you don't respond to the intellectual demands of difference, how do you evaluate the 'stuff' other than the fact that it performs globalisation for your curriculum?

We should never underestimate art history as a practice. I've spent a lot of time in Egypt in recent years looking at the foundation of museums in Cairo and the ways the British and French re-organised Egyptian identity in terms of 'ethnic groupings' in Egypt… And during my studies I was noticing you would see groups of school children in the museum copying designs etc. and this is same in other museums. This is a shared material culture that had been carved up by colonialist Europeans so as to create a fiction of ethnic identity as a specific identity… and you wonder about the effect of this upon the evolving Egyptian identity… And I realised the power of what it is we do as art historians - there is a power and a fascination to this: the idea that somehow you are perfectly emblematic of who you are. We are the heirs to this extraordinary fiction which is very difficult to peel away. One has to really fundamentally re-think the assumptions that make such fictions possible - and art history so successful. It's a question which we are only beginning to be able to ask, let alone articulate an answer.


Many thanks to all the speakers, discussants, and delegates for their continued interest and commitment to the wider projects and interrogations which GLAADH has sought to illuminate and faciliate. Thanks also to Goodenough College, especially Damien Gott, and to the conference assistants, Milena Cavada, Vassiliki Dimitripoulou and Rachel Fleming-Mulford for all their work and support. For further feedback on the conference please select Feedback in the Conference menu.

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