We Are Living in the Era of Big Art History

Tess Thackara
Feb 26, 2016 3:26PM

What does a Romantic painting by the British artist J.M.W. Turner have to do with a Neo-concrete sculpture by Brazilian artist Lygia Clark? What does the iconic architect Frank Gehry have in common with conceptual artist DJ Spooky? What histories or traditions are shared by a William Morris textile and a print by David LaChapelle? An institution somewhere near you may just have the answer.

Several museum exhibitions set to open in the coming months demonstrate a growing art-world proclivity toward grand narratives, ones that span several decades or centuries and in some cases encompass media as wide-ranging as a sound machine and a Danish recycling plant. Curators and art historians, it seems, are becoming ever more ambitious in setting out to capture the bigger picture; drawing a line across geographies, periods, and practices; and taking up the mantle of the few that have penned extensive surveys of art history (a la Gombrich)—and further expanding it.

This trend echoes a methodology for teaching world history that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates has been promoting across American schools, in the form of a program titled the Big History Project, which invites students to engage with 13.8 billion years of history, from the Big Bang all the way into the future, rather than the predominant pedagogical model of confining study to discrete periods. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent expansion of its modern and contemporary program both in size and scope—turning an eye south and east to bring much-needed diversity to the canon—is one manifestation of a similar impulse in the art world that I’ll call Big Art History. The Met will inaugurate its new space in the Whitney’s former Marcel Breuer-designed building next week with “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” a show admittedly focusing on Western art history, but one that takes in some 550 years of it, from van Eyck to Cézanne to Bourgeois and onwards.

Left: Titian, The Flaying of Marsyas, c. 1570s. Collection of Archdiocese Olomouc, Archiepiscopal Palace, Picture Gallery, Kromĕříž. Right: Willem de Kooning, Woman, I, 1950–52. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image © 2016 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Images from the exhibition “Unfinished,” courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


“Originally the show was going to cover even more than 550 years of art history; it was going to encompass thousands of years of art history,” laughs Kelly Baum, a recent curatorial appointee at the Met, who was charged with the portion of “Unfinished” exploring the beginning of the post-war period up to the present. For Baum, this span enables both a richer and more accurate understanding of our present moment. “There are many museums out there that show modern and contemporary art, and the majority, I would say, focus on the 20th and 21st centuries,” says the curator. “The drawback is that they can’t contextualize the work that they show. That presents a distorted view of the art of the past century and the art of today. It creates the impression that today’s art sprung fully formed from the heads and hands of artists, when in fact it has art-historical DNA.”

The Met’s project reflects a challenge that other encyclopedic museums have grappled with in recent years: how to make their less-fashionable, pre-modern collections of art relevant for younger audiences and bring the cultural artifacts of the past to life? Contemporary artist Grayson Perry shook up the British Museum’s holdings a few years back by inserting his works into the ages-old collection, and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum has been similarly contextualizing their extraordinary collection with new work in order to make their holdings relevant to a contemporary-hungry audience.

But this growing trend—of juxtaposing old and new—signals something deeper and less cynical than a marketing strategy. In the globalized, digital present, with the whole world (and archives of the past) at our fingertips, the largesse of Big Art History is arguably more illustrative of a shift in perspective—an impulse toward a greater inclusivity and generosity of vision, one that sees history as running alongside the present, the Renaissance alongside the contemporary.

“We still have a tendency to regard history as a long linear process,” says Sheena Wagstaff, who is heading up the Met’s expanded modern and contemporary department. “However, it is our intention within The Met Breuer program to reconcile this notion with the idea that history is an aggregate of simultaneous narratives whose significance morphs according to the time that they are encountered.” Baum reiterates this notion. “Working on the show has allowed me to see and understand the work of the past as contemporary art,” she says. “Titian wasn’t a contemporary artist for today, but he was a contemporary artist in the 1500s. So seeing Titian in a show with greats like LeWitt and Pollock helps me to see them all as radical contemporary artists in their own right. It’s animated their work for me; it’s made it something that’s more present and urgent.”

Left: Botticelli, Venus, 1490s. Image courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Photo: Volker-H. Schneider; Right: Rineke Dijkstra, Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992. Image courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery.

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is similarly busy collapsing art-historical time, some 400 years of it. Their upcoming “Botticelli Reimagined” will showcase the Renaissance master’s work alongside a few centuries’ worth of artists and designers that have drawn influence from his iconic figures, including William MorrisBill ViolaCindy ShermanDolce & Gabbana, and David LaChapelle. Among Botticelli’s supposed inheritors are those for whom there is no direct reference to the 15th-century painter, as is the case with one of Rineke Dijkstra’s monumental portraits of children on the beach that features in the show. “Rineke Dijkstra was really clear that she wasn’t inspired by Botticelli while she was taking these pictures,” says Ana Debenedetti, co-curator of the show. “But what is striking is that the girls she asked to pose, without dictating their pose, immediately took the gesture of the Botticelli Venus. It’s not a direct inspiration, it’s a kind of visual background that we all have, and that influences our behavior.”

The idea that we all share a collective unconscious that is informed by images and artifacts makes a particularly compelling argument for understanding our cultural past. “Whatever you do is informed by your cultural milieu, your background, your training,” says Debenedetti. “What is interesting to see in the exhibition is that in the first section, more than a time lapse, it’s like a geographical span. Because you have a lot of Asian artists that are questioning aesthetic canons of the West. For instance, we have this important Chinese propaganda artist Yin Xin. He turns the Botticelli Venus into an Asian Venus.”

The dissolution of cultural, racial, and temporal borders is matched, in some of these exhibitions employing Big Art History, by both a wider acceptance into the fold of media not traditionally viewed as art, and a focus on cross-pollination between different mediums. “Painting with Light: Art Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age,” opening at Tate Britain later this year, aims to illustrate the ways in which painting and photography influenced each other in the 18th and 19th centuries, in the early days of the camera—a relationship, says co-curator Carol Jacobi, that has been established in the U.S. and France, but less so in the U.K.

Left: Atkinson Grimshaw, Pall Mall, c. 1880s; Right: John Cimon Warburg, The Japanese Parasol, c. 1906. © Royal Photographic Society / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library. Images courtesy of Tate.

The Vancouver Art Gallery is also currently engaged in a large-scale project that traces the convergence of various modes of production. Their museum-wide exhibition “MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture” sees the cultural production of the entire 20th century through the lens of mashup culture, from a Cubist collage up through Dada, appropriation, 1980s graffiti, and the digital realm. It drops in on the work of Frank Gehry, T.S. Eliot, and Jean-Luc Godard, among numerous others from as many disciplines. “It’s increasingly difficult to tell the story of cultural production today without seeing it in its broader context,” says Bruce Grenville, one of the exhibition’s curators.

There is something undeniably engaging—moving, even—to think about artists’ and cultural producers’ shared concerns across gulfs of time, even while acknowledging the vast differences between them. (One hopes the nuance of these differences will not get lost amid sweeping narratives.) The risk of bigger-picture shows is that they lose a singular identity and focus, overwhelming the viewer with a cacophony of disparate objects. For Grenville, this risk is worth the reward of getting it right. “Seeing two artists like Hannah Höch and Hito Steyerl in the same context is, for me, such a big part of the pleasure of the exhibition,” he says. “To see that point of continuity, those shared values over time, obviously with very different histories but at the same time sharing something so rich. The digital realm is, of course, significantly different than what was happening in the 1920s and ’30s in Germany, but the proliferation of images at that time was also equally profound.”

So what does this attraction toward the grand narrative tell us about our time, if anything? “I think,” says Debenedetti, “we are more at peace with our dialogue with the past, and we are now exploring what it means to be in a multicultural world, where everything can be compared to everything. There is no cultural niche anymore.” When I asked the same question of The Met’s Kelly Baum, she reflected back on an issue of the arts journal October from 2009. “Hal Foster penned a letter to the editor,” she says, “which consisted of a series of questions that he sent out to curators and academics in the field: Why have curators and academics been so squeamish about writing the big history of contemporary art? Why have they been so squeamish about theorizing a grand narrative for contemporary art? Why have they been so shy about thinking about contemporary art outside of its own limited historical parameters?” Curators, it seems, are now taking on this challenge and reflecting the perspectives of a 21st-century audience, one ready to grapple with the bigger picture of global art history, the Big Art History that defines our present.  

Tess Thackara