A Matter of Interpretation: Is All Art History Western Art History?
It’s human nature to try to understand something new by comparing it to something we already know. We always interpret the present based on past experience. But when we make that interpretation via comparison, are we being fair to the new experience, or the old one, for that matter? “Comparisons are like mercury,” writes art theorist James Elkins in his controversial new book, Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, “the big blobs can be cut and divided into little droplets, but they can never be entirely dissolved away. Even the tiniest atomized droplets, which seem so isolated, can be virulent.” That virulence stems from each comparison containing “a microcosm of assumptions,” in this case about how we view Chinese art through the lens of Western art. In Elkins view, the use of Western examples to understand non-Western art, including Chinese art, does a disservice to both fields. Perhaps even worse, the very study of art history itself is incurably Western thanks to the infection of past practice. How then do we ever understand art beyond the Western tradition?
Elkins admits his book is a messy affair in a long introduction detailing his 20-year odyssey of steering the manuscript into publication. Calling all art history Western art history undermines all non-Western art history. Elkins, an admitted outsider to Chinese art study who speaks and reads little Chinese, realizes that Chinese art specialists will push back hard against him as an ill-informed outsider. University of Toronto Chinese art specialist Jennifer Purtle represents those disgruntled specialists in a foreword to Elkins’ book that is almost comically condemning and praising at once. “This book is brilliant,” Purtle exclaims, “except for the places where it is dead wrong.” Although Elkins’ erroneousness stems from his lack of a Chinese art background, Purtle is intellectually honest enough to see the diamonds in the rough philosophical territory Elkins ventures across. This book won’t tell you much about Chinese art history, per se, but it will get you thinking about it nonetheless and, by extension, all art history practice. Purtle calls Elkins an “interlocutor” in this book rather than an instructor. “His text is illuminating,” she concludes, “especially when it is right, but even when it is wrong.” That “damn the torpedoes” approach by Elkins makes for often frustrating but never boring scholarship.
Elkins begins by reviewing the past practice of comparing Western art figures to Chinese artists. Michelangelo’s Study for the Libyan Sibyl stands next to Wu Tao-tzu’s Flying Devil. Kandinsky’s idea of “inner resonance” in art finds a kin in the concept of qi. But, ultimately, Elkins asserts, “you cannot compare Shen Zhou and Van Gogh, or Caspar David Friedrich and Ma Yuan, as several writers have done, without fairly seriously misrepresenting the artists on both sides of the equations.” The convenience of labels such as “Baroque” or “Romantic” fail to capture the essence of the artists they were originally conceived for; so, applied to artists literally foreign to the tradition, they fail even more tragically and, perhaps, destructively.
If there’s a supervillain lurking behind the scenes of this problem for Elkins, it’s Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel’s integrating philosophy of opposites coming into some coherent whole haunts most practices of history, including art history. “Hegelian ideas about the meliorist progress of historical periods and the linking of phenomena within a single period drive art historical narratives in all specialties,” Elkins writes. “[T]he shadow of Hegel on contemporary scholarship is so large it is largely invisible.” It’s that invisible Hegel on our shoulder that whispers the Romantic hopes of bringing disparate facts together into a coherent whole—whispers so soft and comforting that we barely realize we’re still listening.
Perhaps the most destructive aspect of this lingering listening to Hegelian hopes comes when we just can’t make attract opposites into a whole. Elkins sees many narratives of Chinese art ending with the 17th century artist Dong Qichang—a Picasso-esque figure who gobbled up influences from the Chinese tradition and issued forth his own vision (one example above). Somehow, everything after Dong Qichang fails to resound with art historians. “In the twentieth century all the elan is lost, and in every domain of art one finds only topor and decline,” Elkins quotes from a history of Chinese art that covers the 19th century in a page and the 20th century in that lone, woeful sentence. “It is impossible, I think,” Elkins mourns, “to overestimate the oddity of this elision. Its precise parallel in the West would be a four-hundred-page volume on European art with two pages on painting since Jacques-Louis David, culminating in a single, intensely derogatory sentence on the art of the last hundred years.” But why is modern (and not so modern) Chinese art dismissed so powerfully? Elkins believes that comparisons drawing parallels between older, traditional Chinese art and modern Western art have left Chinese art with nowhere to go. Somehow they’ve reached “postmodernism” too soon, with nothing of interest left, or so the story goes. In effect, art history silences modern Chinese art for ruining the neat narrative set up over the years.
So, where does that leave art history itself to go? Elkins offers no solutions. To step outside the Westernized, Hegelian realm of art history as we know it is to stop practicing art history entirely. Such writing becomes pure poetry or literature along the lines of Vasari’s Lives—more agenda driven mythology than dispassionate analysis. Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History raises more questions than it answers, making for often frustrating reading, but it’s that discomfort that forces us to reevaluate the comfortable assumptions we commonly make about art of our own and other cultures. Elkins’ writes an uncommon book of discomforting ideas that might just be crazy enough to work as a primer for a new self-conscious kind of art history.
[Image: Dong Qichang. Thatched Hall (detail). 1597.]
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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