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Book Review


Ralph C. Croizier, et al., eds., Art in World History. Berkshire Essentials. Berkshire Publishing Group, 2012. Pp. xxii-186. $47.95. (paperback).


     As a discipline, world history tends to neglect art, but by adjustments of method and perspective, world historians can arrive at a richer and more authentic understanding of the past (xi-xiii). This is the argument of Art in World History, a new anthology from Berkshire Publishing Group that seeks to summarize content found in the publisher’s larger encyclopedic works. Articles cover periods from prehistory to the present and address a variety of artistic traditions ordered by region, nation, or artistic medium, providing a plethora of material for teachers to draw on.

     Croizier’s introduction does a very good job of providing a theoretical background and review of the literature. He recommends the “interpretive use of artistic evidence” and art as “content” rather than illustration (xi-xii). These perspectives put art at the center of history and allow art to be used as a lens for understanding social and political values, cultural developments, and economic patterns.

     At its best, Art in World History demonstrates how artistic traditions connect over space and time and what the material products tell us about the lives of their creators. Chapters on primitive art, indigenous traditions, or neglected regions tend to be the most global in approach. Paul Oliver’s essay on structures built according to local traditions and using customary materials is a credit to the volume. Oliver has a truly global perspective, with the world as his subject and examples drawn from far-flung cultures. Craig Benjamin’s chapter on Central Asian traditions and the influences from the Silk Road and the surrounding imperial powers such as Persia and China focuses helpfully on intercultural interactions and syncretism. Lea S. McChesney on Native North American art addresses the period from 4500 BC onwards from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the Rio Grande to the Arctic Circle, illuminating the trajectory by which distinctive indigenous forms have become increasingly integrated with and recognized by the Western ecumene, while challenging its standards in ways reminiscent of other indigenous art modes worldwide. Wilfried Van Damme, on Paleolithic art, describes the origins of art in prehistoric Africa from about 2.5 million years ago through the late Paleolithic period and reveals the current state of knowledge about the origins and development of what he argues could be the earliest human art forms: for example, bead making, cave paintings, and the use of ochre in a variety of applications including as a decoration for the human body. He then uses these data to pose challenging questions about art’s origins and its meaning to humans. Robert Finlay’s chapter on porcelain, although brief, has a balanced and global approach and covers its subject from its earliest beginnings in China in 850 AD through its subsequent diffusion to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Margaret Ordoñez’s article on textiles from 6000 BC to the present addresses the topic from a materialistic and technological angle. She is equally at home with Chinese, Italian, or Indian weavers, among others.

     Joan Lebold Cohen’s and Croizier’s chapter spanning from the third millennium BC to the present on the history of art in China delineates a variety of foreign influences such as Buddhism, the Mongol invasion, and the importation of Western artistic forms, and situates these importations historically in the broader context of a changing indigenous tradition. The chapter could become required reading for courses on China.

     Kathleen I. Kimball’s stimulating, interdisciplinary chapter on world art encompasses nearly every object produced by a craftsman, deploying neurology, anthropology, and archaeology to study the nature and transmission of aesthetic traditions. It would be easy to borrow the tools she lays out for unpacking how art acts as a mirror of society as well as for making cross-cultural comparisons.

     Other contributions are of mixed merits. Kate Ezra, on African art, does a good job of weaving together indigenous traditions from 26,000 BC to the present, although she is most interested in the modern period. She uses a geological paradigm to define Africa, insisting on the inclusion of Egypt and the Mediterranean coast despite their cultural dissimilarity from sub-Saharan regions, but then proceeds almost entirely to omit North African art from her analysis. She barely mentions Islamic or Christian influences. Nonetheless she has interesting segments on terracotta sculptures, bronze-casting, and naturalistic sculptures in medieval polities as well as on masks in the modern period. She makes a serious attempt to situate African art globally by pointing to its influence on Cubism and discussing the multifaceted Western influences on Africa in the twentieth century (20-21).

     Rainier F. Buschmann’s piece on museums has little on the early modern period but is valuable for its documentation of the rise of the modern museum as a repository for artifacts from “disappearing” cultures. The article is at least suggestive as to practices of artifact collection in non-Western, pre-modern societies (157).

     A serious concern with Art in World History is that some of the chapters have omissions that prevent the reader from being able to contextualize the subjects globally. Jerome Feldman, writing on Southeast Asian art from about 3600 BC onward, attentively describes the beautiful hybrid artwork created through the intermixture of Buddhist and Hindu art and even addresses tribal art forms but shows little interest in Islamic, Christian or European influence. With the Muslim invasion of western Indonesia, the author withdraws coverage in favor of Bali (132). Similarly Robin F. Rhodes does an excellent job of explaining the architectural and sculptural connections between Rome and Greece, describing among other things the flight of Damaratus from mid-seventh century Corinth and the importation, particularly through his son Lucius Tarquinius, the first Etruscan king of Rome, of Corinthian monumental art forms that ultimately had roots in Egypt as well as in Greece (26-7). This is a fascinating story and Rhodes is good at telling it, but the reader is unable to glean any understanding of how these Mediterranean cultures were also part of a larger group of civilizations that even in ancient times spanned Eurasia. The same sort of problem can be found in the articles on Japan, Russia, and South India.

     The interpretive or evidential use of art that Croizier advocates, particularly as it relates to society and culture, is extremely useful but not all the authors in the volume attempt it. Walter B. Denny, in his chapter on West Asia from 6500 BC to the present, discusses the succession of empires that ruled it, the outlying states that influenced it, the great variety of peoples who lived in it, and the far-flung trade routes that it enjoyed with China and Europe but his descriptions of architecture, mosaics, textiles, calligraphy, paintings, and many other genres are so thick and rich that they distract him from making attempts at interpretation or at putting the art into a global context. Danielle L. Pierce on pre-Columbian Central and South American art is descriptive, not interpretive.

     A few essays cannot be recommended. The contribution on European art not only fails to situate the region globally but skips most of the early modern period, which saw an extraordinary influx of ideas and products to the region and was also one of its most vibrant artistic periods. The article on Leonardo da Vinci appears doubly out of place because it makes no attempt to globalize its subject and is the only article in the volume named for a person. David M. Breiner’s essay on monumental and major architectural projects nods to global history but is thoroughly Eurocentric; for example, Stonehenge is mentioned, but not Göbleki Tepe. Robert J. Poor’s essay on East Asian and European artistic connections appears promising at first if only by its title—it is, after all, one of few essays focusing on connections in the midst of a sea of works that are divided by region—but the author does not seem aware of the excellent work that has been done on early modern artistic exchanges: not only does he gloss over the early modern period but even in his bibliography he does not cite Lach, Honour, or Reichwein, among others (62).

     Several of the articles in the volume, particularly those listed near the top of this review, successfully adopt at least some aspects of Croizier’s approach. In other ways the book is flawed: the early modern era is poorly represented, many articles privilege description at the expense of interpretation, and “global history” often is honored in its absence. Regarding this last point, organization by nation-states and regions is not conducive to the purposes of the volume and ought to have been avoided. The use of this strategy tends to privilege geological and national divisions in ways that lead to an emphasis on “purely” indigenous developments at the expense of importations, syncretism, and hybrid art forms, as is seen in many articles.

     Art in World History takes an admirably bold approach to a topic that sorely needs it. The book cannot be relied upon, however, as a “passive” source of information—something students take home to read as background on what they do in class. On the contrary, the successful use of this book will depend on the instructor’s ability and willingness to supplement it with thought-provoking lectures, discussion, and activities, especially for the purpose of crossing the geographical and other types of boundaries that the book utilizes. The reward for this comes from the worthiness of the subject itself.

Nicholas F. Russell is a Ph.D. candidate in the field of Global History at Tufts University. His dissertation explores the Chinese influence on the Spanish enlightenment. He can be reached at


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