Prof. James Elkins
"Unresolved Problems in Global Art History"
n the last decade the question of art history’s global reach—or lack of it—has appeared as an inescapable topic for art history. As the discipline of art history wakens to the possibility of worldwide art historical writing, it also revisits its relation to postcolonial theory, critical theory, anthropology, visual studies, cultural studies, and subaltern studies, all of which have been intermittently or continuously interested in art practices outside of Europe and North America. This lecture reports on the some recent attempts to understand the phenomenon, including the Clark Art Institute’s Mellon project to study world art histories; the books Is Art History Global?,World Art Studies, and Art and Globalization; and a conference Shanghai in 2012.
For the most part, scholars interested in worldwide practices of art history, theory, and criticism hope to study or practice local and regional traditions of art writing; but I will propose such traditions effectively don’t exist, and that the real challenge for the next decades is to understand apparently slightly different forms of writing as those local and regional traditions. What appears deficient, uninformed, awkward, unconvincing, inadequately researched, or otherwise not up to standard is, in effect, the local and the regional as it exists in the 21st century.
James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.
He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism.
His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes). His most recent book is Art Critiques: A Guide .
Current projects include an edited book series called the Stone Art Theory Institutes, and an edited book series called Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Art. His most recent book is What Photography Is, wrtten against Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida.
He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with specialties in Delacroix and Picasso. Jim’s interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano (contemporary "classical" music), and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.
(Note: What Photography Is is experimental nonfiction. Beginning in 2011, impelled by the general lack of experimental writing in art history, I stopped writing on art in order to concentrate on writing. I'm currently at work on a book of experimental fiction, with images. I will still contribute essays and work on edited books on art history and art theory, but my principal focus now is the production of a book whose working title is A Journey— which I hope to complete in 2015.)