New Book | The History of Art: A Global View

Posted in books by Editor on February 6, 2022

Cover designs by Jen Montgomery.

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Published by Thames & Hudson and Norton:

Jean Robertson, Deborah Hutton, Cynthia Colburn, Ömür Harmansah, Eric Kjellgren, Rex Koontz, De-nin Lee, Henry Luttikhuizen, Allison Lee Palmer, Stacey Sloboda, and Monica Blackmun Visonà, The History of Art: A Global View, Prehistory to the Present (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2021), 1264 pages, ISBN: 978-0500022375, $207 — with a variety of purchase options (and prices), depending upon coverage, including digital options.

Priscilla McGeehon on the latest art history survey text; interviewed by Craig Hanson

After testing an early digital version of The History of Art: A Global View as a text for one of my thematic courses last year, I’m using it now for my regular survey courses. Here, I’m glad to draw attention to Stacey Sloboda’s outstanding work on the chapters addressing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. While not rejecting familiar introductory structures, there’s now a nuance built in to the text that allows one (for example) to move away from Rococo and Neoclassicism as the only significant organizational devices for the eighteenth century.

Textbooks are, of course, complicated entities–caught between myriad competing interests (including those of high school classes, thanks to AP courses). With that context in mind, I thought it might be useful to hear from the publisher. Priscilla McGeehon, College Publisher at Thames & Hudson, very kindly responded to a handful of questions I sent to her over the course of a few email exchanges. I’m very grateful for the time and energy she gave to the interview. -CH

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Craig Hanson: The survey textbook has a long history within the field of art history; indeed such books have played an integral role in defining the discipline. How might this latest book feel familiar to readers? How might it feel different?

Priscilla McGeehon: What will be familiar in The History of Art: A Global View is almost everything you’d expect to see in any of the major art history survey textbooks, including the full spectrum of canonical ‘Western’ works, along with a good selection of art from non-Euro-American parts of the world.

Most immediately unfamiliar is the organization of the chapters and the order in which the art is presented. Unlike the two top-selling survey books (Gardner’s Art through the Ages by Fred Kleiner, and Art History by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Cothren), which both isolate the ‘non-western’ chapters at the end of their volumes 1 and 2, The History of Art: A Global View is organized roughly chronologically.

Although the majority of the book is still dedicated to what’s traditionally called ‘Western’ art (more about that word in a moment), this chronological organization gives students a chance to see what was happening contemporaneously around the world. Thus, for example, the chapters on Classical Greece (600 bce–400 bce) are followed immediately by a chapter on the development of Buddhist and Hindu art in South Asia (250 bce–800 ce), and chapters on the colonial periods in Oceania, South Asia and Southeast Asia immediately follow the chapters on the European Enlightenment, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Romantic art—the styles that predominated during the period when European colonialism was taking hold around the world.

This was achieved by having chapters cover much briefer periods of time than the two books mentioned above, allowing us to interweave the Western and non-western chapters more tightly than if chapters were twice as long. Instructors who’ve piloted the book find it easy to assign two or three of these brief chapters in place of the single, much longer chapter they assigned in the past. Some of them also report an unforeseen benefit—their students are more likely to read the briefer chapters!

To tie it all together, those 74 short chapters are organized into six thematic chronological parts. Each part opens with a short, broad-brushstroke introduction to the era; a timeline with about a dozen important works from around the world made during that time period; and a global map showing where each of those works was created.

CH: What are some other ways this book differs from previous survey books?

PM: A lot of things are subtler and may only become apparent once someone is actually assigning the book. For example, language was carefully considered, and we learned to question a lot of our unconscious use of language, trying to correct it wherever we saw its implicit bias or Eurocentric perspective. There are doubtless examples of where we failed in this regard, but I’m confident that we used language and terminology more thoughtfully than any other survey book.

For example, there was a deliberate decision to avoid use of the term ‘Western’ until it was historically accurate to do so, and to avoid use of the term ‘non-western’ altogether. The Art Historical Thinking feature on p. 927 explains why. In another example, we realized that ‘West Asia’ is a more accurate term than ‘Near East’ or ‘Middle East’, as the latter clearly take a Eurocentric geographical perspective. At some point shortly after we made that change, the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline made the same switch (not that we’re taking credit for their decision—but it was affirming to see it happen there!)

We tried to avoid describing techniques or styles as more ‘developed’ or artworks as more ‘sophisticated’, to avoid implying a progression or advancement that is often attributed to some cultures more than others. And speaking of cultures, we preferred to use that word, or ‘society’, rather than ‘civilization’, which we avoided. We were careful with words like ‘shaman’ and ‘pagan’ as well, finding appropriate substitutes.

As another example of trying to use language in a neutral way, we found that there was a tendency in the European chapters to refer to European cultural groups with specific names—Normans, Franks, or Visigoths, for example—but to lump other groups into more broad swaths—for example ‘Muslims’ instead of Umayyads or Abbasids or Fatimids. Having expert authors and reviewers who were sensitive to these issues was another important factor in the manuscript development.

HECAA members might be especially interested in how Stacey Sloboda ensured her chapters, although mainly about European art and architecture, nevertheless had a global perspective. That’s easily seen in some of the artworks she chose to discuss—the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, a casta painting, Girodet’s portrait of Citizen Belley—but her chapters also address important transnational phenomena. We took great care, for example, with the discussions of race and the enslavement of Africans in Europe and the Americas. The introductions to Chapters 49 (African Art and Global Trade, by Monica Visonà) and Chapter 58 (Romantic Art in Europe and North America, by Jean Robertson) both describe the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, and Stacey included touchstone images—Velazquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja, the Wedgewood medallion Am I not a Man and a Brother?, and Benoist’s Portrait of Madeleine—to thread these important themes throughout the 17th- to 19th-century chapters.

In fact, Stacey was deeply involved in conceiving and implantation of the global Seeing Connections features, which have garnered a lot of praise from reviewers. She wrote the initial one, “Blue-and-White Porcelain: A Global Commodity,” to serve as a model for all the others, and it’s regularly cited as a favorite. She co-wrote several others, including “Mapping the World,” “The Artist’s Workshop,” “Picturing the Other in the Age of Imperialism,” and “Modern Art and War,” and played a key role by coordinating the entire team as they collaborated on writing the others.

After taking such care with the text, I realized we needed to pay close attention to the other components of the book as well—specifically the bibliography, glossary, and index. The authors were great about diversifying the Further Reading and Bibliography sections (and I admit to a tiny fist-pump when I opened the print book for the first time and saw that the first bibliography entry was Kwame Anthony Appiah.) In the Glossary, the authors pointed out that some terms which might not be considered art historical in other contexts needed to be defined in that sense for this book. For example, auspicious is an important concept when studying some Asian art; barkcloth is an important material in much Oceanic art.

Finally, I spent hours poring over the first draft of the index and rooting out some unexpected biases the indexer had inadvertently revealed. For example, European palaces and gardens were initially indexed by their proper names (Versailles, Kew Gardens) but those from other parts of the world were indexed by their geographic origin (‘Castles, Japanese’ instead of Himeji Castle; ‘Chinese gardens’ instead of Lingering Garden.) We worked hard to correct many instances like those where we found them. (For more on how indexes have been used historically to promote a particular viewpoint, there’s a recent book.)

CH: Looking into the near future, how do you understand the relationship between physical copies and digital copies? Is it a continuum for students, an either/or, a both/and, or something else?

PM: What always surprised people before 2020 was that the majority of students by far preferred print textbooks. Like so many things, the lockdown and pandemic accelerated a trend that was already underway, so that ebooks now make up the majority of textbook sales, at least in my limited view of the textbook world. In answer to your ‘both/and’ scenario—for students who purchase a new print book, we provide access to the ebook as well, so they can get the benefits of both.

Another transformation that was also already underway in 2019 is Inclusive Access, driven by the need for textbooks to be both more affordable and more equitably distributed. Historically, some students had to wait for financial aid to arrive few weeks after classes began in order to purchase their books. Clearly, they were at a disadvantage compared with students who had their textbooks from the outset. Other students would wait to see whether the instructor was going to test on the book content and if not, might never purchase one; still others decided to share with a classmate or to get through without a book. This inconsistency caused difficulty for the instructor as well as students. Now, many campuses arrange for textbooks (in ebook form) to be made available at a steeply discounted price as part of a course fee. In addition to saving students money, Inclusive Access insures that every student has a book on the first day of class. (Students who prefer a print book can opt out of the course fee.)

CH: There are a host of supporting digital materials for the textbook. Could you describe some of those? Do you have a sense that these are added-value features, or do they have the capacity to transform more dramatically what we understand art historical pedagogy to include at the introductory level?

PM:  Ten or more years ago, I was a self-described digital skeptic. What could an ebook do that a print book can’t do just as well? As the technology has developed, though, I’ve become a believer, but I still ask the question ‘how will this enhance the students’ learning?’

With The History of Art: A Global View ebook, the answer lies in the embedded animations, videos, and 360-degree panoramas. Seeing a 3-dimensional object or building definitely brings more to the experience than a static photo or illustration; likewise, watching an animation of how something is made or built makes it easier to understand than reading about it. Embedding those items in the ebook means students don’t have to follow a link to the (potentially distracting) internet.

Having immediate access to audio pronunciation of unfamiliar terms is also especially helpful for the global coverage, both for students and instructors. And finally, we’ve done efficacy studies that show that a homework tool like InQuizitive (a proprietary program from W. W. Norton, Thames & Hudson’s distribution partner in the U.S.) can raise students grades by a full point (e.g. from a C to a B, or a B to an A) if it’s assigned as part of the syllabus—that’s pretty convincing.

CH: Art historians are often pretty specialized, and it can be overwhelming to think about teaching a survey course covering large, varied parts of the world. How does that work?

PM: It’s been a real pleasure to see how people approach the somewhat daunting task of teaching art history from around the world and from prehistory to the present. What I’ve learned is that there is a lot of really great teaching going on out there! The first step seems to be to accept that you can’t be an expert in everything and then to think about how you can use what you do know to expand your comfort with unfamiliar material. Experts in 18th- or 19th-century French painting can apply the same research, analytical and interpretive skills they use in their scholarly work to an African nkisi nkondi figure or a Lenape bandolier bag.

Of course, different media and different cultures may require different approaches, as the feature “Art Historical Thinking: Clothing and Formal Analysis” p. 799 shows.) The “Looking More Closely” features guide readers through the visual analysis of various works. Another advantage of having the expertise of several co-authors is that each author could model for readers how to apply visual analysis skills to the objects in their chapters.

In class, there are the tried-and-true methods of having students research and report back to the class, or of engaging students in the process of learning about new content through a classroom activity. In larger departments, instructors may invite colleagues give guest lectures on certain topics. And now that Zoom is ubiquitous, it seems like you could bring in experts from almost anywhere in the world!

We’ve provided materials to support instructors and students with new or unfamiliar material, like the audio pronunciations for non-English terms and names. Many chapters include primary source excerpts from different parts of the world—something instructors said they felt unprepared to research on their own—with suggested discussion questions. The Discussion Questions at the end of each chapter, and chapter-specific teaching advice and chapters summaries in the Instructor’s Manual will help as well.

CH: How does the art history survey textbook work in other languages? I’m thinking especially of French, Spanish, German, and Italian?

PM: We expect the book will be translated into several languages. Thames & Hudson’s foreign rights department already has some serious nibbles, despite the considerable challenge of translating a book of nearly 700,000 words, a process that will take a couple of years.

The book will be published in the People’s Republic of China with some redaction. The authors will have a chance to consider these edits to ensure their intent is not changed, even though some works and/or artists will be removed. Our in-house Chinese reader and co-author De-nin Lee will both have a chance to review the translated version.

There is also the possibility of publication in some countries in several volumes (the six parts lend themselves to that) or even as serial excerpts in weekly or monthly installments.

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