by Claire Farago, University of Colorado Boulder
I am not sure when I started to think that something was fundamentally awry in U.S. mainstream politics, but it was the impetus for my current book project. The following remarks adapted from that work in progress are my tribute to Professor Monica Juneja whose leadership on pivoting the focus of art history from a national culture model to one that stresses transcultural processes has been effective institutionally and inspirational to many students and colleagues, myself included.[i]
One watershed event that stands out for me is the horrifying moment when the ‘Pussy Tapes’ appeared and the Republican Party maintained its support of Trump’s candidacy for President anyway. This betrayal of all women is etched in my consciousness because that day I had to meet my undergraduate seminar, consisting mostly of women about to graduate, and I could not wrap my head around the fact that a major political party in the United States was supporting such a gross display of sexism and misogyny. Nor could I stay silent. I am now writing post-retirement from my tenured university position with new-found freedom as an independent scholar. The sorry history of racial violence and injustice in the United States is front and center today, on the first-year commemoration of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer and exactly one century after the long-suppressed Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Massacre in 1921. At the same time, in Brazil, in Monica’s India, Covid-19 is raging out of control. The uneven playing field and the historical and political causes of social oppression around the globe are also on full view. Yet the success of efforts to enact social justice reforms, such as ensuring the basic right to vote and protecting people of color from police violence, is far from assured even and especially in the United States, the “land of liberty.”
Even at this bleak moment there is much to be thankful for, including the community of scholars where this post appears. How to write a global history that gives voice to the marginalized and dispossessed has been on the table for discussion across the humanities for several decades now. My own efforts to reorient the discourse in art history to focus on transcultural processes has been ongoing for more than a quarter of a century.[ii] When my good friend Monica and I first met in 2015, it was because she had invited me to participate in a roundtable on the “peripatetic life” of objects. I was utterly astonished by our first encounter: not only was she familiar with my anthology, Reframing the Renaissance (1995), Monica had also read most everything else, even studies far outside her research interests. What really surprised me was the way she linked one project to the next. Monica understood why the intellectual sources of Leonardo da Vinci’s Paragone arguments were relevant to the Reframing project, and why a case study of religious icons produced in nineteenth- and twentieth-century New Mexico was the natural outcome of a project to rethink early modern sub-disciplinary frameworks and research agendas. Monica saw the connections clearly that no one else apparently had. Why?
It has to do with historical connections between the modern categorization of the fine arts and scientific theories of race, both of which were first articulated in the second half of the eighteenth century. There is no scientific basis for a typological understanding of essential racial differences, yet “race” and ethnicity defined in these terms remain a widespread social construction, where exclusionary accounts of identity based on autonomy and cultural “purity” fuel hatred and violence today. By the 1850s, the notion that races formed a graded series with Europeans at the top and Negroes invariably at the bottom had become one of the cornerstones of racial science.[iii] Polygenists argued that the different races of humans were so different in physical, mental, and moral attributes as to form not merely varieties of a single species, but several distinct biological species.[iv]
The revolution in thinking about the history of life on this planet that Darwin initiated with the publication of his theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859, published abstract), still relies on pre-evolutionary theories of human development. Darwin argued that racial traits arose very early in the prehistory of man and were not biologically adaptive. He imagined the history of humans beginning with all human individuals as racially alike. As human populations divided into small groups and spread into new parts of the globe, different physical traits appeared by spontaneous variation, and then proceeded by natural selection based on sexual preferences to develop the physical, racial diversity of humankind. Pre-evolutionary racial scientists correlated outward appearances with mental abilities, which they assumed were measurable by the shape and size of the cranium. These traits were therefore relatively fixed in character. Darwin joined other racial scientists such as his frequent correspondent in the mid-1860s, Russell Wallace, who argued (until he changed his mind around 1869 in favor of ideas supported by the anti-evolutionists), that natural selection was no longer a factor once humans could adapt through inventiveness: eventually, according to scientific racial theory, all the inferior races would become extinct.
Darwin’s theory of evolution was unprecedented in arguing for the continuity between humans and other animals, but he used the “lower races” and “savages” to fill the gap between them.[v]
In this he followed many earlier writers who were indebted to the Christian idea of universality articulated as the great chain of being. Although evolutionists were monogenists by conviction, they adopted polygenist styles of typological analysis used by physical anthropologists who were committed to a science of fixed and unchanging essences assigned to different racial “types.”[vi] To a typologist, every individual belonged to an underlying essence and bore its characteristic features: the task of the scientist was to explore the stable essences behind variation, to reconstruct the pure and distinct racial stocks that comprise contemporary mixed populations.
Why would Darwin have invoked such a static model of absolute human differences to formulate a theory of human (non)evolution when his close studies of biological specimens indicated just the opposite for all other animals? To understand his recourse to pre-evolutionary theories of human development, it is important to locate Darwin’s ideas in relation to the widely diffused discourse on national taste that first emerged in seventeenth-century art criticism among writers who distinguished different manners of painting by national and regional “schools.” Among noteworthy contributors were the Papal diplomat Giovanni Battista Agucchi (1570-1632), the painter/engraver and Academician Roger de Piles (1635-1709), the painter, antiquarian, and biographer Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613-1696), and others associated with the Roman branch of French Academy of Painting and Sculpture where French artists emulated their Italian counterparts in close contact with one another. A competitive discourse on national taste developed by the mid-to-late seventeenth century in French, Italian, and Spanish writings and spread quickly in the European literature and institutional contexts associated with the visual and plastic arts.
Cultural anthropologist George Stocking, along with historian Nancy Stepan, who has studied the critical role played by the idea of race in the natural sciences in Britain, identifies the following tension in Darwinian evolutionary theory: evolution is a theory of continual change, so it is opposed to typological or essentialist thinking. However, scientists in the nineteenth century and beyond interpreted evolution in a way that made natural selection no longer operative on physical humans because their theories preserved the idea that racial types were extremely old and fixed. By contrast, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), posthumously recognized as the founder of modern genetic science, was able to establish the actions of “invisible” genes in transmitting the traits of organisms. Mendelians believed that the fundamental laws of inheritance would be discovered by experimental breeding and the study of cells, not the statistical study of the complex traits of individual organisms, which is the approach taken by racial scientists. A synthetic theory of evolution that united genetics and evolution by natural selection did not develop until the 1930s and ‘40s, primarily because many biologists accepted the claim that once archaic humans became truly human, they escaped the force of natural selection through their inventiveness.[vii]
As studied recently by historian Eric Michaud, in conceiving art as the natural function of a body of people, a broad spectrum of writers employed the term “race” in various roughly interchangeable ways along with the terms “nation,” “maniera,” and “style.”[viii] Writers shared the idea that psychological characteristics manifest in concrete works of art were hereditary and transmissible. The earliest theorists of racial science such as the French naturalist Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) and Johann Blumenbach (1752-1840), whose De l’unité du genre humain et ses varieties (1798) is considered the founding text of racial anthropology, drew on these commonplace notions originating in seventeenth-century French and Italian art criticism to develop scientific theories about the “national varieties” of inherited physiognomic characteristics. The invocation of racial determinism to account for the separate cultural trajectories of different groups of humans is Eurocentric in the specific sense that Samir Amin, Edward Said, and others define the factors that produce the view of European superiority due to their advanced culture and technology. At present there is an unacknowledged disjunction between earlier and later senses of the term “race.” Darwin was not alone among nineteenth-century writers who used the term “race” in the older sense referring to “national style” or ethnic identity while also associating this meaning with scientific theories of human development – many art historians did as well.
To come to terms with these entanglements between the history of art and racial science, critical art historians need to dig deeper into the epistemological assumptions of our unmined founding texts as one of the framing conditions for a future history of world culture that is not Eurocentric in its approach to collective identity. The manifold sources and manifestations of these categories and habits of description in cultural geographies, travel literature, theological and philosophical texts, costume books, natural histories, illustrated maps, and other visual and textual genres have a much broader and longer history in Europe than any single disciplinary formation could possibly encompass. It is important to bear in mind that there were no nation-states in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when the sense of collective identity was expressed in terms of family or regional ancestry, or by association with the Roman Empire. The dominant forms of collective identity were multiple, clustered in overlapping groups defined by family, profession, religion, and region.[ix] A federal national consciousness did not emerge until the formation of the first modern nation-states in the late eighteenth century.
But let’s dig deeper into our inherited epistemological categories. I’ll continue with a brief reconsideration of human exceptionalism. Science still routinely claims that the animal mind is unknowable, but longstanding distinctions between human and animal intelligence are currently being reassessed.[x] Could the new research have bearing on the way the planet’s cultural history is conceived? As long as we refrain from defining consciousness on exclusively human terms, marine biologist and ecologist Carl Safina argues, extensive evidence indicates widespread consciousness in the animal kingdom and in some cases the overlap between animal and human intelligence is astounding. Elephants, for example, recognize hundreds of individuals and live in vast social networks of families and friendships, forming deep social bonds developed through many years. Abilities said to make us human, Safina maintains, exist to varying degrees among other minds sharing the world with us: all animals with backbones share the same basic skeleton, organs, nervous systems, hormones, and behaviors. Even plants, with no apparent nervous system, make the same chemicals – serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate – that serve as neurotransmitters and help create mood in animals.[xi] Many kinds of animals (elephants, primates, wolves, hyenas, dolphins, birds of the crow family, some parrots) even understand third-party relationships, such as knowing who the baby’s mother is. Dolphins also perceive the rank-order of humans, such as the difference between the principal scientist or trainer and the assistants. Parental care, satisfaction, friendship, compassion, and grief didn’t just suddenly appear with the emergence of modern humans, Safina writes, they began in pre-human beings “in the long cauldron of living time.”[xii]
Aristotle questioned the intentionality of animal behavior, not necessarily the behavior itself. However, his distinction that animal intelligence is hardwired by “instinct” is contradicted by modern evidence that animals improvise, solve problems, pass on their learned behavior, mourn their dead, nurture and teach their children, even use human language to communicate (not just to parrot words), and engage in many other remarkable behaviors that research scientists and other careful observers of animals have recorded. Should animals be included in a planetary history of culture? On what grounds does one exclude or include animal behavior? The fundamental issue at hand is the extent to which and the manner in which behavioral differences are transmitted intergenerationally through social learning. Until the 1990s, field studies were anecdotal but today there is great interest among scientists in systematically documenting social learning in animals. Eytan Avital and Eva Jablonka provide an overview of ongoing research on behavioral inheritance they call “animal traditions” (2000) that sets the issues into a historiographical context.[xiii] They argue that social learning can be an important agent of evolutionary change and thus should be given a prominent place in evolutionary theory. They define social learning as learning from the experience of others, spreading patterns of behavior among individuals that may then spread in specific populations. Individually acquired inventions may be combined and accumulate, producing traditions that change the lifestyle of animals. The ability to transmit acquired characteristics is the outcome of natural selection over generations as animals adapt more or less successfully to their environment.[xiv] “Animal traditions” or “culture” act as an interactive evolutionary agent that affects the selection of genes: genes provide limiting conditions of behavior.[xv]
Whose life is worth recording? Remembering? Whose rights are restricted to “bare life,” treated as disposable? The responsibility of intellectuals to society and to the planet has shifted in the current era of human-induced climate change. Global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient, and barrier-free, writes journalist Naomi Klein, that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response.[xvi] In the wake of human-induced environmental disaster, we also witness demographic shifts on an unprecedented scale accompanied by the rise of populism and totalitarianism worldwide. At the center of theoretical efforts across a wide span of methodologies, subjects, and scales of research for the past quarter century has been whether a global art history inevitably follows the logic of economic globalization, or whether – paraphrasing Monica Juneja – it can offer an alternative conception to effectively theorize relationships of connectivity that encompass disparities as well as contradictions and negotiate the multiple subjectivities of the actors involved.[xvii] This is precisely the challenge we face – and this is our mission if we choose to accept it.
Happy Birthday, Monica! Thank you for seeing what is at stake with your lucid third eye.
[i] Claire Farago, Borderless Histories of Art: The Future of Cultural Memory in the Era of Climate Disruption, (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2022).
[ii] Beginning with Claire Farago, ed., Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin America, 1450-1650 (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1995).
[iii] Nancy Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1982), 5.
[iv] Polygenesis had always been the popular answer to why different races exist, but now racial science, which initially rejected polygenesis, accepted its assumptions and described them in the language of science. Stepan, Idea of Race, 29. The following summary of nineteenth-century racial theory is based on Stepan.
[v] Stepan, Idea of Race, 47, cites Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, as conceiving of the human races in the old terms – many aspects of the old racial science passed more or less intact into the post-Darwinian decades. Darwin cited his cousin Eugene Galton’s Hereditary Genius, 1869, to argue that differences between people varied individually and racially (collectively).
[vi] George W. Stocking, Jr., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
[vii] Citing Stepan, Idea of Race, 87.
[viii] Eric Michaud, Les Invasions barbares: un généologie de l’histoire de l’art (Gallimard, 2015). There is currently a fierce debate in Germany about the current validity of schemes proposed by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German art historians who first proposed a “universal history” of art. In defense of these schemes, see Horst Bredekamp, “Fanatics of Purity,” Frankfurter Allgemeines Zietung (FAZ), March 8, 2021; and the rebuttal by Matthew Volgraff, “A Response to Horst Bredekamp,” boasblog, DCNtR, March 17, 2021. My thanks to Bill Sherman for these references. Further on German anthropology’s debts to diffusionist theories that associate artifacts with specific cultural traits, see Suzanne L. Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), especially 227–236; Dan Karlholm, Art of Illusion: The Representation of Art History in Nineteenth-Century Germany and Beyond (Bern; Vienna: Peter Lang, 2004); and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Toward a Geography of Art (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2004), which provides brief descriptive epitomes of the historical texts under discussion. Regardless of linguistic, institutional, or national setting, all writers before the twentieth century and many through and even beyond World War II share untenable assumptions about the relationship between visual appearances (in art and human physiognomy) and mental capacities.
[ix] See further, Claire Farago, “‘Vision Itself Has its History,’” in Reframing the Renaissance, 68–76.
[x] On the abilities of animals currently reevaluated, see Simon M. Reader and Kevin N. Laland, ed., Animal Innovation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). My thanks to Matthew Walsh at the National Museum, Copenhagen, for this reference and for discussing the topic with me.
[xi] Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel (New York: Picador, 2015).
[xii] Safina, Beyond Words, 30.
[xiii] Eytan Avital and Eva Jablonka, Animal Traditions: Behavioural Inheritance in Evolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
[xiv] Avital and Jablonka, Introduction to Animal Traditions.
[xv] Avital and Jablonka, Animal Traditions, 3, noting that term “animal culture” is also used by behavioral scientists.
[xvi] Reporting on a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in 2012, Naomi Klein, “Why Science Is Telling All of Us to Revolt and Change Our Lives Before We Destroy the Planet,” Alternet, October 30, 2013, accessed on February 28, 2019, at http://admin.alternet.org/print/environment/naomi-klein-why-science-telling-all-us-revolt-and-change-our-lives-we-destroy-planet.
[xvii] Monica Juneja, “‘A very civil idea…’: Art History, Transculturation, and World-Making – With and Beyond the Nation,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 81 (2018), 461–486.
Claire Farago taught Early Modern art, theory, and criticism until her retirement in 2017 and today is Professor Emerita at the University of Colodaro Boulder. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is an Affiliate of the UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Farago has published widely on the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, Early Modern art theory, cultural exchange, the materiality of the sacred, the history of style, museums and collecting practices. Her anthology, Reframing the Renaissance (1995) is widely recognized as a groundbreaking contribution to cross-cultural studies. Her most recent book, The Fabrication of Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della Pittura, with a scholarly edition of the editio princeps (1651) (2 vols., 2018) is the product of a decade-long collaboration with Leonardo specialists. Her new work focuses on artisanal knowledge as a transcultural category.