The Problem of an Inclusive Art History: Reconciling the Universal and Particular through Photography
thesisposted on 2020-05-01, 00:00 authored by Jacki Marie Putnam
This thesis addresses the tendency of the representation of the history of cultures that fall outside of the traditional European/American narrative to follow either universalizing or particularizing approaches. The opposing concepts of universalism and particularism not only create tensions between differing ways to view humanity, but also prevent the construction of a truly inclusive and global art historical narrative. While universalism asserts that there are shared elements of humanity uniting us all, it fails to accommodate differences in culture and lived experience. As a result, what is presented as a universal is often exclusive and, therefore, not a true universal. Conversely, while particularism validates these differences, it can be divisive and incomplete through its emphasis on marginalized experiences. When applied to the writing and teaching of art history, both universalist and particularist approaches result in incomplete narratives. Universalist art history, the narrative most often taught at the introductory or undergraduate level, perpetuates the traditional Eurocentric art historical canon and thereby omits marginalized groups or presents them as solely peripheral to the standard canon. Particularist art history focuses solely on these marginalized groups, creating a fragmented narrative that interacts with the traditional canon but is never fully integrated. Thus, in order to create a more inclusive (and truly universal) art historical narrative, it is necessary to find a way to reconcile the two seemingly incompatible approaches of universalism and particularism. Through a series of case studies examining the works of Augustus Le Plongeon, Timothy O'Sullivan, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Morna Livingston, and Gerardo Suter, photographs of indigenous material culture created in colonized and formerly colonized areas are considered through the lens of the writings of G.W. F. Hegel, Slavoj Žižek, and Judith Butler. While the photographs by Le Plongeon, O'Sullivan, Man Ray, and Weston can be clearly categorized as either universalizing or particularizing, the more contemporary photographs by Livingston and Suter suggest attempts to visually realize the synthesis of the universal and the particular, albeit through differing approaches. While Livingston's work follows Butler's concept of cultural translation between competing universals, Suter's work displays attempts at revising the past as a movement towards synthesis, recalling Hegel's concept of the concrete universal. Ultimately, this study finds that both Livingston and Suter fall short of fully reconciling the universal and the particular. However, a combination of the approaches of Suter and Livingston, and thus of Butler and Hegel, appears to be an ideal solution to the task of fully synthesizing the particular into the universal.