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Visual Culture of the Ancient Americas: Contemporary Perspectives

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In the past fifty years, the study of indigenous and pre-Columbian art has evolved from a groundbreaking area of inquiry in the mid-1960s to an established field of research. This period also spans the career of art historian Esther Pasztory. Few scholars have made such a broad and lasting impact as Pasztory, both in terms of our understanding of specific facets of ancient American art as well as in our appreciation of the evolving analytical tendencies related to the broader field of study as it developed and matured. The essays collected in this volume reflect scholarly rigor and new perspectives on ancient American art and are contributed by many of Pasztory’s former students and colleagues.

A testament to the sheer breadth of Pasztory's accomplishments, Visual Culture of the Ancient Americas covers a wide range of topics, from Aztec picture-writing to nineteenth-century European scientific illustration of Andean sites in Peru. The essays, written by both established and rising scholars from across the field, focus on three areas: the ancient Andes, including its representation by European explorers and scholars of the nineteenth century; Classic period Mesoamerica and its uses within the cultural heritage debate of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; and Postclassic Mesoamerica, particularly the deeper and heretofore often hidden meanings of its cultural production. Figures, maps, and color plates demonstrate the vibrancy and continued allure of indigenous artworks from the ancient Americas.

“Pre-Columbian art can give more,” Pasztory declares, and the scholars featured here make a compelling case for its incorporation into art theory as a whole. The result is a collection of essays that celebrates Pasztory’s central role in the development of the field of Ancient American visual studies, even as it looks toward the future of the discipline.

ISBN-13: 9780806155708

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press

Publication Date: 02-13-2017

Pages: 312

Product Dimensions: 8.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Visual Culture of the Ancient Americas

Contemporary Perspectives

By Andrew Finegold, Ellen Hoobler


Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5820-4


Esther and Columbia in 1966

The Early Years of Pre-Columbian Art History in U.S. Academe

Cecelia F. Klein

In 1966, as a second-year doctoral student in Columbia University's Department of Art History and Archaeology, Esther Pasztory decided to change her major to pre-Columbian art (plate 1). It was a momentous decision, for Esther was to go on to play a seminal role in the formation and subsequent development of that field. In that same year, when I was also a second-year doctoral student in that department, I too elected to change my major to pre-Columbian art history. Since the award of our degrees — Esther's in 1971 and mine a year later — Esther and I have remained good friends and close colleagues. With this chapter I honor Esther's subsequent accomplishments by situating her entry into the field in the context of the most prominent and highly controversial methods and theories dividing pre-Columbian art scholars in 1966. By so doing I hope to identify the positions on those issues that distinguished our predecessors and colleagues at Columbia from thinkers at other universities, and to show how Esther's own subsequent work not only reflects but also expands upon and sometimes challenges them.

Let me begin by setting the stage. Prior to entering Columbia's art history doctoral program, Esther had written her M.A. thesis at Columbia on group compositions in traditional sub-Saharan African sculpture. I had filed a thesis at Oberlin College on the historical transmission of figural wood carving styles throughout Polynesia. We were therefore what, both within the department and throughout the Western world at the time, were called "primitive art" historians. Our advisor was Douglas Fraser, then an Oceanic art historian who would later become an Africanist. In the first two years of our doctoral study we accordingly took a variety of courses on the arts of the Pacific Islands and Africa, as well as Native North America.

In our first year, however, while Fraser was away on sabbatical, we also enrolled in a survey of pre-Columbian art taught by Fraser's former doctoral advisor — and by then departmental colleague — Paul Wingert. Having earned his doctorate at Columbia in the art history of the French Renaissance, Wingert was initially hired by Columbia in 1935 as a curator. By the time we arrived, however, he was a full professor whose interests had decidedly veered toward primitive art. In his courses and writings Wingert applied what was known as the style-area method, classifying, describing, and labeling the most "typical" and supposedly "highest-quality" art forms of particular ethnic or linguistic groups. Examples of such pre-Columbian groups would be the Aztecs and the Maya. Although Wingert did not include pre-Columbian art in his 1962 book Primitive Art, in those days pre-Columbian art was commonly included under the rubric "primitive" art. Fraser, for example, included it in his book, which not only had the same title as Wingert's but was published in the same year as well.

One reason for the conflation of pre-Columbian art with the art of other so-called Fourth World peoples was that many scholars and thinkers were still operating on the since disproved nineteenth-century assumption that all human societies evolve through the same stages of increasing complexity and accomplishment. People's mental capacities, like the aesthetic and technical quality of their art, were thought to develop apace. Because normal progression was supposedly from the simple to the complex, some social systems were seen as having remained stagnant, trapped in their own past at the most simple and hence "primitive" evolutionary stage. Many thinkers still identified pre-Columbian man as one of those curious holdovers from an archaic period. The model derived damaging support from the writings of the North American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who in his influential book Ancient Society, published in 1877, identified the three polities that constituted the imperial Aztec Triple Alliance as "tribes." Contradicting virtually all previous writers on the matter as well as current thinking, Morgan (1964 [1877], 166) denied that the Aztec government was monarchic. Within his three proposed stages of societal evolution — Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization — he placed the Aztec Triple Alliance in what he called the Middle Status of Barbarism.

Morgan's wrong-headed evolutionary schema was highly influential, making a profound impression on Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in particular. It continued to cause headaches for scholars throughout the twentieth century. In the first, 1941, edition of his influential book Aztecs of Mexico: Origin, Rise and Fall of the Aztec Nation, for example, the North American archaeologist George Clapp Vaillant characterized the Aztecs as a democratic conglomeration of tribes whose paramount leader was a mere lineage chief. The thesis was apparently criticized, for the word "tribe" was left out of the posthumous second edition of Vaillant's book. While he was a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, Vaillant taught courses on Mexico in Columbia's anthropology department between 1939 and 1942.

It was not until the summer of 1966, when Esther and I took a course at Columbia from visiting archaeologist Gordon Ekholm, then curator of Central and Southern American archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History, that we were simultaneously inspired to write our dissertations on pre-Columbian topics. Ekholm was a diffusionist who saw more pre-Columbian artistic affinities with Asian art than with the art of other so-called primitive cultures. He tried to explain those similarities on the basis of proposed transpacific contacts (e.g., Ekholm 1953, 1960). Although diffusionism later fell — hard — out of fashion, it is worth emphasizing that Ekholm and other diffusionists of the day were seeking a historical explanation for what remain to this day often uncanny visual parallels between the two continents. Another diffusionist much interested in pre-Columbian art was the Mexican writer and artist Miguel Covarrubias, whose book Indian Art of Central and South America, which had been published in 1957, likewise took a decidedly historical approach to the material. Fraser, who was also a diffusionist at the time, shared Ekholm's and Covarrubias's commitments to historical explanations of visual forms and made sure that we read their and other diffusionists' work. As we see below, advocacy of a historical approach to pre-Columbian art had already long distinguished Columbia from other universities.

Indeed, although I cannot prove it, I strongly suspect that it was Fraser who arranged for Ekholm to teach at Columbia that summer. For although in 1966 Fraser readily admitted to knowing very little about the pre-Columbian field, he took great interest in it and readily agreed to oversee Esther's and my progress along our new career paths. He had already supervised two master's theses on pre-Columbian art topics, one by John Scott and the other by Jeanette Peterson. Both of these young scholars went on to make names for themselves in the field. The field as it exists today therefore owes much to Fraser's impressive intellectual curiosity as well as his willingness to let his students explore largely uncharted academic territory that was little known to him.

And largely uncharted pre-Columbian art history was! In the United States in 1966, the vast majority of the few university and college courses that included, or probably included, pre-Columbian art were offered by anthropologists or archaeologists like Ekholm. Most of the far fewer art historians who had taken an interest in the field had been, like Wingert, trained in another art historical field. Esther's and my decisions to go for doctorates in pre-Columbian art history were therefore made at a seminal moment when the field was markedly incoherent and vaguely defined. It was largely known to art historians in this country through the writings and teaching of one person, George Kubler at Yale University. Kubler's training was in medieval art and his dissertation dealt with sixteenth-century colonial architecture in New Mexico. Nonetheless, he had, since 1938, taught a course for Yale on the "Art of Southern and Central America." Kubler was apparently inspired to this end by his experience during 1936/37 as a fellow at New York University, where he had been mentored by the anthropologist and Brooklyn Museum curator Herbert Spinden.

Spinden had earlier written a prodigious dissertation on the iconography of Classic Maya art, which he published in 1913. Kubler's first book on pre-Columbian art, in contrast, paid little heed to iconography. Nor did it give much shrift to historical context. Published in 1962, just four years prior to Esther's and my conversion, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples focused on stylistic analysis, taking up architecture, sculpture, painting, and the so-called minor arts in turn. Within those categories the book placed in their broadest spatial and temporal contexts, and then carefully described, what Kubler believed were the most important art styles of the best known ethnic groups of preconquest Central and South America. For the most part, Kubler based the importance of those styles on what he and others of his day perceived to be their aesthetic value. In the 1960s the art historian's role was, to a surprising extent, still equated with that of connoisseurs and art critics whose self-appointed job was to identify and eulogize the "beauty" of those man-made forms they believed deserved to be classified as "Art." The bases for these judgments were inevitably subjective and usually remarkably vague. Kubler (1984 [1962], 38–39), for example, defined his own criterion for placing an artwork high on his hypothetical aesthetic scale as its "peculiar perceptual quality." For many writers at the time the practice of art history included a heavy dose of art appreciation.

As a graduate student at Yale, Kubler had studied with the French art theorist Henri Focillon. Focillon shared with German art historians, including Alois Riegl and Henrich Wölfflin, the belief that art behaves according to its own laws. Visual forms, in other words, have a life and unfold along a trajectory of their own, largely independent of the social and historical changes taking place at the time. Focillon authored a classic 1934 ode to this thesis, the English translation of which is titled The Life of Forms in Art. The book had a profound impact on Kubler. In 1962, the same year that his book on pre-Columbian art appeared, Kubler published his own theoretical treatise on stylistic change, The Shape of Time. The concern for internal patterns of stylistic change and the "rules" that governed them was rooted, however, in the old notion that, like entire social systems, art must evolve in a regular manner, passing through a predictable sequence of stages. As such, for the historically minded, it was doomed.

Surprisingly, neither Columbia nor Yale seems to have produced the first U.S. art history dissertation to deal exclusively with a pre-Columbian art topic (Boone 1979, 2–3). Kubler's first doctoral student in Latin American art, although trained in the subject at Yale, wrote his dissertation on early colonial Mexican manuscripts. After filing it in 1956, Donald Robertson became known primarily as a colonialist. The first dissertation on a certifiably pre-Columbian art topic was therefore filed by Terence Grieder in 1962 at the University of Pennsylvania. Grieder's principal advisor, however, was the anthropologist Linton Satterthwaite. At the time Penn was one of only four U.S. universities awarding doctorates to writers of dissertations on pre-Columbian art. The fourth was Harvard University, where Arthur Miller, while working closely with Kubler, wrote a dissertation in the anthropology department that he filed in 1969.

An important factor in Columbia's decision to hire Esther permanently, one that explains her subsequent contribution to our field as well, was Columbia's long history, stretching back to academic year 1905/6, of offering courses on primitive and pre-Columbian art. None of the other three schools just mentioned had such a tradition. In 1926/27 the course titled "The Art of Primitive Man," which had been instituted in 1924 and was initially taught by Gladys Reichard at Barnard, was offered by the legendary Franz Boas. Boas taught in Columbia's anthropology department from 1896 until his retirement in 1936. As a graduate student Wingert had almost certainly taken some of Boas's courses, as we know for certain had Meyer Schapiro. The year before earning his doctorate in medieval art history at Columbia in 1929, Schapiro had taken up an art history lectureship there (Persinger 2007, 165). Schapiro joined the Columbia faculty as an assistant professor in 1936 (the year Boas retired) and went on to play, like Boas, a key role in the eventual acceptance of primitive and pre-Columbian art as "Art."

Although Boas, like Reichard, worked primarily in Native North America, he had gone to Mexico during a sabbatical, bringing back to Columbia a student, Manuel Gamio, who would go on to receive Columbia's first doctorate in anthropology. Gamio became one of Mexico's most distinguished archaeologists. Boas also founded the International School of American Archaeology for the purpose of supporting anthropological investigations in Mexico (Godoy 1977). He was, in other words, definitely interested in places south of the border. But it was Marshall Saville, Columbia's Duke of Loubat Professor of American Archaeology from 1903 to 1918, who annually offered the course "Archaeology of Mexico and Central America." That course definitely would have included pre-Columbian art. Saville (e.g., 1922, 1925) was very interested in Mesoamerican art and published studies of Mixtec and Aztec gold work, wood carving, lapidary, and turquoise mosaic work that are still valuable to scholars today. Decades later, during academic year 1940/41, Columbia's tradition of offering a course on pre-Columbian art passed from the anthropology department to what at the time was named the Department of Fine Arts and Archaeology. Kubler, having just filed his dissertation at Yale, was invited — and agreed — to teach two summer courses on preColumbian art at Columbia. Wingert and Schapiro probably had a hand in arranging this.

Regardless of who gets the credit for bringing pre-Columbian art into Columbia's art history program, it is clear, looking back, that in the mid-1960s Esther and I inherited a venerable academic tradition of offering courses on the visual culture of, not only the most complex societies in ancient Mexico and Central and South America, but a wide geographic and temporal range of the world's poorer "Others" as well. In other words, at Columbia we pre-Columbianists were also always primitivists. To my knowledge no other university had such a history. This, I believe, accounts in large part for the kinds of problems that Esther and I took up after graduating, and it doubtless helped to shape our thinking about them.

But there were other aspects of the Columbia legacy that also need to be acknowledged, for they flew in the face of some additional assumptions and methodologies underwriting studies of primitive and pre-Columbian art written elsewhere. Perhaps the most frightening of the academic dragons remaining to be slain was the widespread claim that pre-Columbian art was not really "Art" at all. At the same time that Boas was teaching at Columbia, for example, the influential but highly conflicted British art critic Roger Fry was recognizing in a series of essays what he called the "plastic" and "expressive" values of pre-Columbian art while simultaneously denigrating it for its repetitious designs. Although he was one of the first to break with the German Johann Joachim Winckelmann's famous celebration of classical art as the alleged pinnacle of Western artists' accomplishments, and despite his enthusiasm for the postimpressionist paintings of his day, Fry still followed his predecessors in equating artistic beauty with fidelity to nature. For many other thinkers of Fry's era as well, primitive forms were too abstract to be beautiful and thus did not qualify as works of "Art."

Fry, like most of the other writers who deigned to discuss pre-Columbian art in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, was blindsided by his own reactions to it. For example, he compared many pre-Columbian sculptures to Gothic art for what he perceived as their mutual expression of — in his words — a "perpetual terror of supernatural forces," and he condemned the Aztecs and Maya for what he perceived as evidence of their "religious sadism" and "revolting cruelty" (see, e.g., Fry 1962a [1939], 86, 88, 94, 95). In 1966 there persisted as well the old nineteenth-century romantic tendency to characterize pre-Columbian artworks in exaggerated theatrical and poetic terms. Many writers variously referred to pre-Columbian artworks as "tragic," "sublime," or at best "mythical" or "magical"— or they lumped all or a combination of these adjectives together. Fry's (1962a, 87) description of pre- Columbian art as having "an almost tragic cast," for example, was paralleled in Mexico in the writings of the Mexican art historian Salvador Toscano and the German expatriate art critic Paul Westheim. In 1950, Westheim (1965 [1950], 58–59) referred to the famous Aztec statue of the goddess Coatlicue as an example of "the terrible transformed into the sublime." And as late as 1954, just over a decade before Esther and I entered the doctoral program at Columbia, the great Mexican art historian Justino Fernández wrote of the statue's "supreme beauty, tragic and disturbing" (1990 [1954], 149, translation mine). Pathos and romantic misery pervade these analyses. I do not remember reading Fernández's study of Coatlicue while Esther and I were at Columbia, but two of Westheim's books on pre-Columbian art were widely available in paperback at the time. Since they were among the relatively few books written on the subject, I bought and studiously devoured them alongside Kubler's and Covarrubias's. Today they are seldom if ever mentioned by pre-Columbianists.


Excerpted from Visual Culture of the Ancient Americas by Andrew Finegold, Ellen Hoobler. Copyright © 2017 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface xi

1 Esther and Columbia in 1966: The Early Years of Pre-Columbian Art History in U.S. Academe Cecelia F Klein 3

2 Aesthetics of a Line, Entangled in a Network: A Tribute to Esther Pasztory's Vision of Andean Art Gary Urton 17

3 Humboldt and the Inca Ruin of Cañar Georgia De Havenon 31

4 From a Republic of Letters to an Empire of Images: Archaeological Illustration and the Andes, 1850-1890 Joanne Pillsbury 43

5 Life after Death in Teotihuacan: The Moon Plazas Monoliths in Colonial and Modern Mexico Leonardo López Luján 59

6 National Icons and Political Interests: Memories of Teotihuacan: City of the Gods Kathleen Berrin 91

7 Figures in Action: Contextualizing the Butterfly Personage at Teotihuacan, Mexico Cynthia Conides 103

8 An "Artistic Discovery" of Antiquity: Alfonso Caso, the Archaeologist as Curator at the New York World's Fair and MoMA's Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art, 1939-1940 Ellen Hoobler 119

9 Objects and Identities: Ten Important Artifacts in the History of the Ancient Arts of Honduras Jennifer Von Schwerin Franziska Fecher 135

10 Myth, Ritual, History, and the Built Environment: Maya Radial Temples and Ballcourts from the Preclassic to Postclassic Periods Jeff Karl Kowalski 151

13 Seasonal Images in the Ancient Art of Central Mexico Susan Milbrath 163

12 Decolonizing Aztec Picture-Writing Janice Lynn Robertson 185

13 The Axochiatl Pattern: Aztec Science, Legitimacy, and Cross-Dressing Lois Martin 197

14 The Goldsmith Emerges: Aztec Gold Ornaments in the Provinces Timothy B. King 209

15 Atlatls and the Metaphysics of Violence in Central Mexico Andrew Finegold 223

Afterword: From Primitivism to Multiple Modernities and Beyond Esther Pasztory 237

References 241

List of Contributors 279

Index 283