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Art history and the global: deconstructing the latest canonical narrative

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 October 2019

Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel
Faculté des lettres, Université de Genève, 2 rue de Candolle, 1211 Genève 4, Switzerland


This article reconsiders the breakthrough of global approaches to art history within a broader historical, sociological, and institutional context. It also puts into perspective the interdisciplinary openness of global-oriented approaches, and their impact in the discipline. Aiming at historicizing them up to the present, it questions the notion that the origins of global thinking in art history are to be found in the 1980s with the so-called postcolonial turn among art historians, which has become the canonical narrative. Postcolonial awareness emerged very late among art historians, only in the early 2000s. This contrasted, however, with a long-standing interest in non-Western artefacts and visual cultures among certain art historians, who were also interested in global comparisons and transdisciplinary approaches. These scholars borrowed from other fields such as history, anthropology, philosophy, and psychology, but their work was gradually put aside in the process of building art history as a discipline. This article will try to explain why this happened, and will also argue that the globalization of the art market played a greater role than postcolonial theory in encouraging art historians to adopt a globalized approach.

© Cambridge University Press 2019 

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1 This is the case for Elkins, James, ed., Is art history global?, Abingdon: Routledge, 2006 Google Scholar, which has contributed to blurring the question of global art history.

2 See, for instance, Jones, Caroline A. and Nelson, Steven, ‘L’histoire de l’art aux États-Unis et le tournant vers la mondialité’, Perspective, 2, 2015 Google Scholar, (consulted 12 September 2018). See also Allerstorfer, Julia, ‘The West and the Rest? De- und postkoloniale Perspektiven auf Kunst und Kunstgeschichte(n)’, in Allerstorfer, Julia and Leisch-Kiesl, Monika, eds., ‘Global art history’: transkulturelle Verortungen von Kunst und Kunstwissenschaft, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp. 2946 Google Scholar.

3 Elkins, ‘Art history as a global discipline’, in ‘Is art history global?, p. 20.

4 See Jones and Nelson, ‘L’histoire de l’art’; Allerstorfer, ‘The West and the rest?’.

5 See Moretti, Franco, ‘Conjectures on world literature’, New Left Review, 1 (2000)Google Scholar, (consulted 29 March 2019).

6 At the University of Leiden, a BA minor opened in 2003, followed by an intercultural course on art in internationalization after 2005. At the ENS in Paris, a course on modern and contemporary art in a global perspective was launched in 2006, with courses on the arts of Islam beginning two years later. At the Freie Universität Berlin, the 2008 programme Kunstgeschichte in einer globalen Perspektive focused mainly on Asia. Similarly, global art history programmes opened in various European universities, including Sussex, Copenhagen, and Heidelberg.

7 At INHA, a ‘globalization’ research programme was created in 2005.

8 Anderson, Jaynie, ed., Crossing cultures: conflict, migration and convergence, Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing, 2009 Google Scholar.

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10 Pomian, Krzysztof, Collectionneurs, amateurs et curieux: Paris, Venise XVIe–XVIIIe siècle, Paris: Gallimard, 1987 Google Scholar. One finds curiosity cabinets later outside Europe, e.g. in southern India in the late eighteenth century in Tanjore: see Nair, Savithri Preetha, ‘Native collecting and natural knowledge (1798-1832): Raja Serfoji II of Tanjore as a “centre of calculation”‘, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series, 15, 3, 2005, pp. 279302 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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18 Charles Blanc, ‘Introduction’, Gazette des beaux-arts, 1 January 1859.

19 For instance, Chesneau, Ernest, Les nations rivales dans l’art: peinture, sculpture; l’art japonais; de l’influence des expositions internationales sur l’avenir de l’art, Paris: Didier, 1868 Google Scholar. For the ‘cosmopolitanism of the national’, see Thiesse, La création des identités nationales, p. 66.

20 At the Zurich Polytechnic School in 1855, at the university of Vienna in 1863, in Bonn in 1860, in France in the 1880s. See Passini, Michela, L’oeil et l’archive: une histoire de l’histoire de l’art, Paris: La Découverte, 2017, pp. 1819 Google Scholar.

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24 Ziljmans, Kitty and van Damme, Wilfried, ‘Art history in a global frame: world art studies – introduction’, in Rampley, Matthew, ed., Art history and visual studies in Europe: transnational discourses and national frameworks, Leiden: Brill, 2014, pp. 217–48Google Scholar. See also Pfisterer, Ulrich, ‘Origins and principles of world art history: 1900 (and 2000)’, in Zijlmans, Kitty and van Damme, Wilfried, eds., World art studies: exploring concepts and approaches, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2008, pp. 6989 Google Scholar.

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30 Franco Moretti’s criticism of methodological nationalism, for instance, is clearly outlined by Jernej Habjan in this issue: ‘The global process of thinking global literature: from Marx’s Weltliteratur to Sarkozy’s littérature-monde’.

31 See, for instance, Elkins, Is art history global?

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34 Geneviève Bresc-Bautier, ‘Courajod, Charles Léon Louis (22 février 1841, Paris–26 juin 1896, Paris)’, in ibid. , 2016, (consulted 20 July 2018).


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41 See Katja Naumann, ‘Long-term and decentred trajectories of doing history from a global perspective: institutionalization, post-colonial critique, and empiricist approaches, before and after the 1970s’.

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44 Ibid ., vol. 1, p. 130.


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104 Such as Third Text, E-flux (, founded in New York in 1998, with an online journal in 2008), or Hyperallergic (, founded in Brooklyn in 2009).

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106 Belting, Hans, Buddensieg, Andrea, and Weibel, Peter, eds., The global contemporary and the rise of new art worlds, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013 Google Scholar; Wai Jim, Alice Ming, ‘Dealing with chiastic perspectives: global art histories in Canada’, in Jessup, Lynda, Morton, Erin, and Robertson, Kirsty, eds., Negotiations in a vacant lot: studying the visual in Canada, Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2014, pp. 6690 Google Scholar; Casid, Jill H. and D’Souza, Aruna, eds., Art history in the wake of the global turn, Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2014 Google Scholar; Joyeux-Prunel, ‘Ce que l’approche mondiale fait à l’histoire de l’art’.

107 For example, the Asia Art Archive,; ‘Documents of 20th-century Latin American and Latino art’,; the Africultures project,; the Mathaf encyclopedia of modern art and the Arab world,; and the Artl@s project and its global exhibition catalogues database, (all consulted 2 July 2019).

108 For instance, Bak (basis voor actuele Kunst), founded in Utrecht in 2000,; the transatlantic network Red conceptualismos del sur, founded in 2007,; the Former West project, launched in 2008 in Utrecht,; the Artl@s project, founded in Paris by the author in 2009,; and Modernidad(es) Descentralizada(s)/(MoDe(s), established in Barcelona in 2015, (all consulted 2 July 2019).

109 ARTMargins, (consulted 2 July 2019).

110 Artl@s Bulletin, (consulted 2 July 2019).

111 See (consulted 2 July 2019).

112 As Terry Smith noted in ‘Writing the history of contemporary art’, in Anderson, Crossing cultures, pp. 918–21. See also Weibel, Peter and Buddensieg, Andrea, eds., Contemporary art and the museum: a global perspective, Berlin: Hatje Cantz, 2007 Google Scholar.

113 As shown by the publication in 2014 in the Art Bulletin of a survey in which all these fields were covered: Pollock, Griselda, ‘Whither art history?’, Art Bulletin, 96, 1, 2014, pp. 923 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mukherji, Parul Dave, ‘Whither art history? Whither art history in a globalizing world?’, Art Bulletin, 96, 2, 2014, pp. 151–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mattos, Claudia, ‘Whither art history? Geography, art theory, and new perspectives for an inclusive art history’, Art Bulletin, 96, 3, 2014, pp. 259–64CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mukherji, Parul Dave, ‘Whither art history? A global perspective on eighteenth-century Chinese art and visual culture’, Art Bulletin, 96, 4, 2014, pp. 379–94Google Scholar.

114 Heinich, Nathalie, Le triple jeu de l’art contemporain: sociologie des arts plastiques, Paris: Minuit, 1998 Google Scholar.

115 Cusset, François, French theory: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze et Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis, Paris: La Découverte, 2003 Google Scholar; Boschetti, Anna, Ismes: du réalisme au postmodernisme, Paris: CNRS, 2014 Google Scholar.

116 See, for instance, Grosfoguel, Ramón and Cervantes-Rodríguez, Ana Margarita, The modern/colonial/capitalist world-system in the twentieth century: global processes, antisystemic movements, and the geopolitics of knowledge, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002 Google Scholar.

117 Ziljmans and van Damme, ‘Art history in a global frame’.

118 For example, Sharing Exoticism (5th Lyon Biennale, 2000); J’aime Chéri Samba (Fondation Cartier, 2004); or Africa Remix (Pompidou Centre, 2005).

119 An issue raised at the symposium ‘Médiation passé, présent et futur: récits historiques et art du XXe et XXIe siècles – dialogues avec les expériences des pays du Sud’, Kinshasa (DRC), March 2016, reviewed in Emi Koide, ‘Œuvre d’art comme récit historique (Rapport des discussions du groupe de travail)’, Artl@s Bulletin, 7, 1, 2018, pp. 85–92, (consulted 23 September 2018).

120 Enwezor, Okwui, ‘The postcolonial constellation: contemporary art in a state of permanent transition’, Research in African Literatures, 34, 4, 2003, p. 58 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

121 See the essays on eastern Europe in Rampley, Art history and visual studies in Europe.

122 Piotrowski, Piotr, In the shadow of Yalta: art and the avant-garde in eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London: Reaktion Books, 2009 Google Scholar, introduction. See also Grusiecki, Tomasz, ‘Going global? An attempt to challenge the peripheral position of early modern Polish-Lithuanian painting in the historiography of art’, Polish Review, 57, 4, 2012, pp. 326 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

123 For example, the Brazilian painter Tarsila Do Amaral (1886–1973), the Uruguayan abstract artist Joaquín Torres García (1874–1949), the Czech surrealist Toyen (1902–80), or the junk artist and performer Marta Minujín (b. 1943), who all passed through Paris in the early stages of their careers.

124 For instance, Summers, David, Real spaces: world art history and the rise of Western modernism, London: Phaidon Press, 2003 Google Scholar.

125 See, for instance, Bertrand, Romain, L’histoire à parts égales: récits d’une rencontre Orient–Occident (XVIe–XVIIe siècles), Paris: Seuil, 2011 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

126 This is the position of the Artl@s project, (consulted 2 July 2019).

127 Joyeux-Prunel, Béatrice, Les avant-gardes artistiques: une histoire transnationale, 3 vols., Paris: Gallimard, 2016 Google Scholar.

128 Gell, Alfred, Art and agency: an anthropological theory, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998 Google Scholar; Latour, Bruno, Changer de société: refaire de la sociologie, Paris: La Découverte, 2006 Google Scholar.

129 Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ‘Par-delà l’incommensurabilité: pour une histoire connectée des empires aux temps modernes’, Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, 54, 4 bis, 2007, pp. 3453 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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