Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs & Maya Art and Architecture & Pre-Columbian Art & Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living.

From: The Art Bulletin  |  Date: 12/1/2001  |  Author: Quilter, Jeffrey


Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

296 pp.; 159 b/w ills. $55


Maya Art and Architecture

London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. 240 pp.; 57 color ills., 150 b/w. $14.95 paper


Pre-Columbian Art

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 176 pp.; 88 color ills., 32 b/w. $18.95 paper

Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. 304 pp.; 19 color ills., 77 b/w. $49.95

Pre-Columbian art history is a relatively young discipline. It was born with the appointment of George Kubler as its first professor at Yale University in 1938. Through the pathbreaking publications he produced and by his teaching he became the apical ancestor for the lineages of most contemporary Pre-Columbian art historians. That tribe is still relatively small, however. The consequence of this demographic pattern is that the field in many ways is still in the process of self-definition and the first essays on many a subject are yet to be written.

Kubler's interests were wide and varied and, as a pioneer, he had the freedom to explore uncharted territories, spending more or less time in one or another as he chose. He wrote seminal papers on topics as diverse as colonial architecture in the Caribbean, the Quechua in the colonial world, and the design and space of Maya architecture, to name but a few. As the first to venture into new regions, he had to use what tools were at hand, so his approach was interdisciplinary. At the same time that he relied on a wide variety of sources, though, he increasingly championed a distinctly humanistic approach to ancient American art, upholding his ideals in reaction to the rise of social science as the dominant paradigm for New World archaeology during the mid-1960s through the 1970s.

All contemporary art historians have inherited the issues that Kubler faced, whether they are his direct intellectual heirs or not. Central among those issues was the question of how the art history of the native peoples of the New World might take advantage of the strengths of an interdisciplinary approach yet still have something distinctly art historical to say about its subject. The material is commonly the same as that studied by anthropologically trained archaeologists. In an age when canons are being dismantled, Pre-Columbian art history is still building its own. This project has been complicated by an archaeological community that has increasingly looked toward the humanities for its inspiration at the same time that many art historians have borrowed from the social sciences. Pre-Columbian art history thus is involved in three separate conversations that frequently overlap. It argues with the rest of art history that New World native arts are worthy of study and appreciation. It is engaged with archa eologists and historians of the colonial period in making claims for its unique voice. And it has its own internal dialogue concerning what its proper business should be.

The four books here under review are involved in all of these conversations to different degrees. Two of them, Esther Pasztory's Pre-Columbian Art and Mary Miller's Maya Art and Architecture, partly respond to trends that Kubler saw only in their early stages: continuous growth in public interest in the arts and peoples of the ancient Americas, and a significant increase in undergraduate enrollments in classes on these topics. Both of these books appear to be written for interested laypersons and beginning students and would serve those groups well.

Covering the prehistoric art of a continent is a daunting task. It is so daunting that no scholar has attempted such a survey free from association with a limited set of objects from a museum or private collection since Kubler himself, in his landmark The Art and Architecture of Ancient America (1962) which is still in print. (1) In that volume, Kubler attempted to be comprehensive. The current version available is 469 pages printed in eight-point type, with columnar layout. Pasztory's 176 pages in vision-friendly format implies that her book was designed as an introductory essay rather than an attempt at full coverage. It serves that purpose well in the sense that it offers a clear theoretical framework on which to hang the "major" art styles produced in the New World from about 1500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E. Two very short chapters serve as introductions, one on the Western discovery of Pre-Columbian art and another on the aim of the book in general, which is to compare and contrast Pre-Columbian art in Mesoameri ca and the Andes. The rest of the book consists of three chapters on Mesoamerica followed by an equal number of chapters on the Andes and a two-page conclusion. The text is amply illustrated with many colorplates and the prose moves along nicely.

Pasztory's organizing principle and the thesis of her argument is that Mesoamerican and Andean art were distinct, contrasting styles. Mesoamerican art was primarily concerned with the human image. It was narrational and naturalistic in its modes of presentation. Andean art followed a different path, working with cosmic themes in iconic, conventionalized styles. For each of these great traditions, the author offers a significant style that ran counter to it. Thus, the abstraction of the art found in the great city of Teotihuacan made it unique in Mesoamerica, probably due to a social system and ideology that also were at variance with the common pattern of lord and city-state found, for example, among the Maya. The Moche constitute the counterexample for the Andes, with their veristic representation of animals, plants, and people (such as the famous "portrait heads"), at odds with the highly stylized, abstracted art of Tiahuanaco, Wari, and the Inca, Pasztory suggests that the uniqueness of Moche art within th e Andean tradition stemmed from the fact that it was a centralized kingdom, just like the Maya, instead of a bureaucratically run empire. In other words, Teotihuacan art represented an Andean-like style in Mesoamerica while Moche art was a Mesoamerican-like style in the Andes. Each of these was exceptional in its own, larger world.

Pasztory's full treatment on Teotihuacan exceptionalism is taken up in her other volume, Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. She argues that this first

huge city in Mesoamerica was founded and maintained by an ideology that shunned the dramatic and personal and instead relied on a style that stressed impersonal order. Whereas Maya art was individualized and dynamic, Teotihuacan art broadcast a message of impersonal stability through a minimalist aesthetic, reflecting a social order propagating an egalitarian ethos. This was the same ethos that she also believes typical of the Andes. The book offers a primer on the historiography of theories on Teotihuacan. It also includes an essay on how the Teotihuacan aesthetic was, literally, constructed through use of assemblage techniques, which Pasztory sees as a metaphor for and an enactment of a social and political program of integration of separate parts. She also provides a critique of why Olmec and Maya art have been so readily accepted by Western collectors an d art patrons while Teotihuacan leaves them cold. We Westerners prefer naturalism, displays of skill and virtuosity, and indulge in a cult of the "aesthetic," the latter referring to "art for art's sake." Maya art, in particular, seems to match Western criteria for what we like and value, but Teotihuacan art does not.

While she concedes that Teotihuacan art might be read differently from her take on it, Pasztory's view is that the city and its dominions formed an ordered, relatively nonhierarchical society verging on a utopia. Arguing for world civilization status for Teotihuacan, she places it on a linear scale roughly between the austere Indus Valley Harappan civilization and early dynastic China in terms of art style and political system as linked phenomena. In all of this, Pasztory approaches art as directly reflecting political and social organization. Art is seen from a functionalist perspective: style comes about or is created to serve distinct political ends and reflect well-thoughtout and deliberately propagated ideologies.

There are several different issues played out in both Pasztory's general and more focused books, some of them contradictory. On one level, by characterizing Mesoamerican art as "naturalistic" and Andean art as "abstract," Pasztory unhesitatingly draws on and plays into Western European categories. Her functionalist theories on the role of art in society partake of utilitarianist notions still held by many social scientists but challenged by many others. On another level, by highlighting Teotihuacan and Moche as exceptional within their larger cultural spheres, Pasztory engages in a deft "bait and switch" game of cultural one-upsmanship. For it is generally the Maya who are singled out as the "exceptional" art style and culture of the New World, as Pasztory herself discusses in her monograph. Her championing of Teotihuacan seems to be an attempt to dethrone the Maya and put Teotihuacan in its place. At the same time, however, Moche is recognizably the most "Maya-like" art style of Peru, and has even been paire d with that Middle American culture in recent symposia. It seems that there is no escaping the Maya, and even Pasztory succumbs to their allure, with many more illustrations of Maya art (twenty) than of any other style in her Pre-Columbian Art (the Aztecs are second with fifteen).

Pasztory's attempt to make grand generalizations about Pre-Columbian art is courageous but, like any generalization, it offers opportunities for criticism. Her view of Teotihuacan as a utopia is novel and daring but, with only about 2 percent of the entire site excavated, based on the slimmest amount of evidence. In part, this may be a reaction to a previous generation of Maya scholarship that was vigorously overtheorized. When in the early 1840s John Lloyd Stevens and Frederick Catherwood became the first modern Euro-Americans to see and report on Maya sites and sculpture, they took the monuments for what they appeared to be--representations of kings and their courts. Not soon after, there followed a long period in which archaeologists, notably J. Eric Thompson, engaged in an early exercise of deconstruction of those assumptions. Nothing was as it appeared to be: the "kings" were not kings but priests engaged in obscure calendrical rituals in places that were not cities but "empty ceremonial centers." Maya m onuments did not boast of the mighty conquests of dynastic rulers but rather celebrated complex calendrical rituals conducted by peace-loving priests who resembled Oxbridge and Ivy League professors.

But recent progress in the translation of Maya hieroglyphs has shown the straightforward interpretation of the early 19th century as basically correct. Thus, perhaps, has been born the "if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's a duck" mode of interpretation. To whit, if Teotihuacan art does not portray rulers, then Teotihuacan had no rulers. But Pasztory's qualification near the end of her book that there are alternate ways of interpreting Teotihuacan art is not altogether comforting nor the escape clause she may wish it to be. We must presume that her investment in this book means that she believes her interpretation of a Teotihuacan utopia is the most reasonable one. Perhaps, over time, Pasztory's functionalist interpretation may prove to be the case. But we likely will not have a consensus on the matter until more of the remaining 98 percent of the site of Teotihuacan is excavated and the results of such work are published.

More serious, perhaps, than Pasztory's utilitarianism and her particular views on Teotihuacan is the exclusion of many art styles in her survey book. The absence of any representative art from the region between southern Mesoamerica (El Salvador and eastern Honduras) and the north coast of Peru, save for one lonely early Ecuadorian figurine, could be excused on grounds of space restrictions imposed by unreasonable editors, if such is the case. It is harder to forgive, however, given the argument she puts forward. How can the case for Teotihuacan or Moche exceptionalism be made when the corpus in which these styles are considered and presented to the reader is so selective and so small?

Pre-Columbian art generally is defined as the creations of those people in the New World who lived in cities, or something like them, and their immediate neighbors, before the arrival of Europeans. This perspective is based on Old World notions of the urban centers as places where culture originates and from whence it spreads, despite the fact that few societies in the New World had urban centers that resembled those of Europe or Western Asia.

Pasztory's opening sentence in her first full chapter states that there were two major foci of civilization in the New World, Mesoamerica and the Andes. This is indeed how many art historians view their terrain of interest. It is an oddly formed land, reshaped by considerable gerrymandering to cut out areas that may be troublesome or that are not considered interesting enough for discussion. Mesoamerica includes most of Mexico except West Mexico (though the case for inclusion recently has been made) and the north Mexican desert. It does not, sensu stricto, include the arts of any of the native peoples who lived in what is now the United States, even though there is much evidence of shared culture and even many shared art conventions and synsbolism. When it comes to the arts, those peoples without citylike settlements in what is now modern Central America and most of South America are treated as poor cousins of the peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes, if at all, in most surveys and are completely absent in Pa sztory's book.

By failing to consider the larger cultural contexts of the particular styles and individual examples of Pre-Columbian art that draw the attention of any one scholar, "exceptional" styles and cultures may more easily be defined. Teotihuacan looks different and unique if other urban/ceremonial centers, such as Tula or Mitia, are ignored or downplayed. Granted, Teotihuacan does seem to be at the far end of a range of cultural and art styles in ancient Mesoamerica, but the range is there, nonetheless. Only when the intervening examples of variation are ignored does it become "exceptional." So, too, the Moche may be seen as distinct if their art is considered from a perspective in which the Andes is defined only as Peru and parts of Bolivia. Pasztory's "Andes" is the Central Andes, consisting of the modern nation-state of Peru and bits of Bolivia--the places that contain big architectural ruins. If modern international borders are ignored, however, Moche art can be understood as a southern extension of north Andea n art traditions, sharing some rather specific craft techniques as well as styles that included a much greater interest in veristic art than that of their neighbors to the south.

That Mary Ellen Miller's Maya Art and Architecture is the only book in Thames and Hudson's World of Art series devoted to a specific Pre-Columbian art style speaks volumes in itself. In that series, Rebecca Stone-Miller's The Art of the Andes from Chavin to Inca (1995) follows the pattern, noted above, of concentrating on the Central Andes. Miller's The Art of Mesoamerica from Olmec to Aztec is also in the Thames and Hudson roster and, like the companion Andean volume, is ordered chronologically. In writing the Maya book, Miller decided to handle her topic differently, adopting a formalist approach with a strong emphasis on sculpture.

Lacking the diachronic schema of many publications, Maya Art and Architecture may be difficult to use in classes covering materials on a time line. But running against the trend of writing historically was clearly a deliberate strategy chosen by Miller. Through use of the formalist framework she implies that the study of Maya art has come of age. In case the reader might miss that point as embedded in the organization of the book, she makes the issue clear in a final, pointed, statement in her introductory chapter, declaring that there is no need to demonstrate that Maya art is as "good" as any other and that it should be appreciated in its own right. In this, she is clearly rallying her Pre-Columbianist colleagues at the same time as directing her remarks to any doubting fellow art historians who might choose to venture into the subject matter of this publication.

As a fellow traveler, I applaud Miller in her strategy and tactics. A case in point of the coming of age of Pre-Columbian art history is the fact that more and more art history departments are hiring Pre-Columbianists and that Pre-Columbian art is receiving more attention, such as this review in the Art Bulletin. The degree to which Pre-Columbian art is now accepted as a full-fledged member of the canon of great world art is uncertain, though. True, there has been a recent spate of job announcements for Pre-Columbian art historians, probably spurred by the long-term economic prosperity of the United States. These positions and the general growth of Pre-Columbian art history in the last half century mostly have been in museums. The demand for objects worthy of display and the cultural and social worlds of museums, compared to academe, have had distinct influences on the development of the discipline. Emphasis on the Maya, with less interest in more "difficult" art styles, is but one consequence of this trend. In addition, the increased appeal for things Maya is partly due to increased tourism in Latin American countries now more stable than they have been in years and more aware of the value of archaeological sites as tourist-dollar cash cows. Still, all too often, the professor hired as a Pre-Columbianist will also be required to teach all of the other "others" in world art, especially at smaller colleges and universities.

Because the book is hermetically sealed within its topic, Miller does not have to engage in the issue of Maya exceptionalism: the matter is self-evident from the fact that the Maya constitute the only culture graced with the status of its own volume in the series. It is admittedly a fact that we probably know more about Maya art than that of any other single culture in the New World. For better and worse, Euro-American appreciation of Maya art has remained strong since its discovery; recent trends have only increased appreciation from an already high level. Miller doubles the ante, however, by positing Maya exceptionalism within exceptionalism. Her point is that Maya art was made in a competitive atmosphere in which innovation was at a high premium. Thus, no single style is typically "Maya," because kings and potentates actively sought new ways to display their powers, transmit their messages, and celebrate their claims to power: the Maya were exceptionally exceptional.

As a leading scholar in her field and a very fine writer, Miller delivers a tour de force through the deployment of her formalist approach. She provides perceptive summary statements on the way in which shape and line were employed in painting; how Maya architecture played with concepts of mass in pyramids and voids in plazas; and how low-relief jade plaques are less visually satisfying than those incised or modeled. But, because Maya artistic achievement and style are self-evident, she furnishes no concluding chapter at the end of the book. It would be a great benefit for Maya studies and Pre-Columbian art history if, in future editions, Miller provided such, a summary statement. What, exactly, makes Maya art so distinctive? In all of its diversity, what nevertheless makes Maya art so recognizably Maya, and how may that be related to the great esteem in which we Westerners hold it? How does this style fit or not fit with the rest of the Mesoamerican art tradition?

Elizabeth Hill Boone's Stories in Red and Black is a detailed, thorough introduction to and extensive discussion of the painted manuscripts of the people of central and southern Mexico. Just as Miller intends her book to sit comfortably next to texts on other great art traditions. Boone wants her manuscripts and the people who made them to take their rightful places in world history. In this she carries on the legacy of Donald Robertson, who first raised Mexican manuscripts to the realm of serious art history as recently as 1959. (2) Of course, Mary Miller's statement that the Maya now no longer need be compared with other artists hints at a lingering insecurity, a sensitivity to slights at best only recently righted. Boone's graceful prose, by contrast, carries a sharper polemical tone.

The Aztecs, admittedly, have had a rough time of it. The afterglow of the earlier trope of "peaceful Maya priests" still lingers despite plenty of recent evidence of petty kings in constant warfare with lots of sacrifices to spice up the tedium of fitful truces. The Aztecs and their proponents, though, still smart from all of those reports by the Spanish of heart sacrifices and temple steps slippery with blood. Thus, like Pasztory, Boone has a mission to counter the Maya exceptionalism status quo. But her argument also is cast in a larger framework that speaks to world civilizational status in general.

Boone responds to the thesis of the influential book by Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (1982), which sees the expansion of Europe, beginning in the 16th century, as one that embraced nonlettered peoples in a world historical process. (3) This theory, while it attempted to give non-Westerners a greater role on the world stage, still privileged the West. It was only the most recent variation of a perspective in which the peoples of the Americas, and elsewhere, were cast as underachievers or, worse, as not far along in the climb from savagery to civilizaton as defined by the standards of Western Europe. Simply put, Boone argues that the Aztecs and Mixtecs had their own history and their own writing systems and should be understood and appreciated as such without necessary reference to the Old World.

Using a wide-ranging set of examples, Boone demonstrates how Mexican painters chose different formats to best present information: Mixtec historians relied on portraying a series of linked events, as in comic strips; Aztec painters employed time segments; and both used cartographic histories and mixed formats to tell their tales. The tales told included dynastic politics; stories of migration, conquest, and political consolidation; and annals of significant events occurring in a realm over centuries. These are as fully historical as many a kingly chronicle from contemporary Europe, mixing divine origins, mythological heroes, and "real" personages and events. Thus, the reader of Stories in Red and Black not only will receive a thorough tutorial on the substance and content of native Mexican documents but also will be stimulated to consider preconceptions on the nature of history and writing.

Boone has been a student of the stories told in red and black paint for many a year, and she is fully in command of her subject matter. It is significant, however, that as the Maya have stepped out of the "shadow" of prehistory, as more and more of their texts have been translated, that the case is being made so forcefully and elegantly that the Mixtec and Aztec, too, had histories. Once again, the power of the Maya to shape Pre-Columbian art history, whether by commanding the greatest attention by book publishers and museum exhibitors or by inciting a reaction, is in evidence. In this case, Stories in Red and Black emphasizes the "history" aspect of art history to a great degree.

And at this point, the reader of this review may be wondering who exactly is writing this book essay. I am an archaeologist by training, with a research record focused on early Peru, for which little art is readily discernible in the archaeological record. More lately, I've conducted archaeological research in Costa Rica, one of those regions that may or may not be considered part of the Pre-Columbian world, depending on the author. I also have attempted to provide my own perspective on interpreting Moche art of Peru, and I am the curator of a Pre-Columbian art collection that contains some of the finest examples of the developing canon of great works of Pre-Columbian art, As I stated above, I'm a fellow traveler.

Do I have an ax to grind? Not particularly. In fact, I like Maya art as much as the next person in line for the next blockbuster exhibition at my local museum. If Maya art is indeed exceptional, though, I want to be convinced that it is so because a thorough comparison of it with other art clearly demonstrates Maya exceptionalism. I also would like to see an art historical approach to all Pre-Columbian art be done in ways in which I can learn something that I cannot learn through archaeological approaches. Many current art historical works appear to me to be variations of some kind of archaeology of the beautiful (or, at least, striking) in which the author does not bother to look at anything in too many fragments, preferring the "high-end" goods, as it were.

It also seems to me that if Pre-Columbian art history is to take its rightful place in the halls of art history departments it has to find ways to contribute something to the discipline that cannot be provided through the study of Renaissance art, the Impressionists, and the like. Such a contribution should be more than the addition of another case study in a compendium of cross-cultural comparative aesthetic systems, gathered from the art traditions of the world. Rather, it has to involve theory, as Alfred Gell has recently argued.4 So, too, many contemporary Pre-Columbian art historians like to stay comfortably close to the period of the European conquest. It is on either side of that event that the greatest number of (European) written texts are available. The most potentially fruitful, and also most dangerous, area in which to advance scholarship in Pre-Columbian art is with art that is truly Pre-Columbian, art from past eras that requires intellectual engagement without reliance on the aid of commentarie s written by Europeans.

I noted at the beginning of this essay that the study of the art history of Pre-Columbian America is very young indeed. Scholars do not spring fully formed from the head of Kronos, or Tezcatlipoca, as the case may be; they inherit problems and traditions from their mentors. The authors of these books are the second or third (depending on how one counts) generation of Pre-Columbian art historians. They are members of the first generational cohort that, though still few in numbers, could not sit comfortably around a medium-sized conference table. As such, these writers continue to work through concerns that, though several decades old now, remain not fully resolved. They find themselves in the awkward position, perhaps, of constructing a canon in a world where others are being deconstructed. They are trying to resolve old problems and continue old battles while at the same time grapple with new issues. These books represent those contradictory trends. They all are well worth reading for their own messages. They also may be read to chart the course Pre-Columbian art history has traveled, to see its present state, and to consider its future possibilities. If Pre-Columbian art history might contribute something to its parent field, perhaps its newness could be used to advantage. Perhaps it might find a way to negotiate the difficult passage, as it matures, between falling into essentializing traps, on the one hand, and the inability to generalize at all, on the other.


(1.) George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962).

(2.) Donald Robertson, Mexican Manuscript Painting of the Early Colonial Period: The Metropolitan Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).

(3.) Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

(4.) Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

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