Artophilia  •  6088   •  8 August 2015

The geography of art

Is there such a thing as geography of art? Such phrases as “fascination with Asian culture”, or “the nature of Scandinavian culture” are widespread in the mass media, so the notion “geography of culture” should not surprise anyone; it seems to be clear and indisputable. What is more, TV shows have been recently dominated by such topics as dance, cuisine, and broadly understood “lifestyle”. It seems that exactly these topics: dance, cuisine, fashion, or various ideas of wellness and healthy lifestyle are now considered the main components of culture. What is sometimes forgotten, at least in the popular culture, is the important component of culture: art.

© Ed Fairburn Map

© Ed Fairburn

Since art is a component, and in my view a very important one, of cultures which have their own geography, then can we also talk about “the geography of art”?

I think if we were shown the works of Hokusai and Rembrandt, we could easily classify them as the products of their appropriate cultures. Most of us know the difference between European and Asian art. And so the notion “geography of art” tentatively appears in the sociology of art. It may at first glance seem easy to understand – after all there is the Asian art and European art. For ages we have known terms such as “the art of ancient Greece”, or “Dutch painting”. But what will happen if for a moment we consider this: didn’t European art draw inspiration from Asia and Africa? And wasn’t it thanks to the Dutch invention that oil paints found their way to Italian artists? We can further complicate this by adding the geography of gender, social status, etc…. It becomes increasingly difficult to determine who was inspired by what and how culture and art of one group affected another. It is clear that cultures intermingled. We should therefore have a more universal look at “geography of art”, adjusting and specifying it as needed. Through a series of articles on contemporary art of the Middle East I would like to demonstrate that we may be witnessing the birth of the New Geography of Art, where the geography of art is treated as a hierarchy of certain centres and peripheries.

For a European the centre is certainly in the culture of the West, and the peripheries are what lies beyond, what does not belong to it, what is exotic, and often not fully comprehensible without a thorough examination of the context. In my opinion we should consider whether or not peripheries are gradually becoming new centers. It is not a process of “moving the capital city”; it is coexistence, rather than replacement.

Large centres could not appear and develop but for the exchange of information, inspiration, and communication. The concept of “transculturality”, or the aforementioned “intermingling of cultures” is therefore very important.

The notion was coined by Wolfgang Welsch (born 1946), a German art historian and philosopher, and a keen observer of the phenomenon. He turned to dust the nationalistic concepts of the 18th century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (who claimed that valuable culture is a culture closed and isolated from foreign influences). Welsch formulated the following conclusion: “cultures are intertwined, they will not be closed within nations, and their influences are well accepted in other cultures” 1.

Wolfgang Welsch

Wolfgang Welsch

We could say that the thought is not particularly innovative. It may not seem very original, but since it was only in the late 20th century that someone considered the topic worthy of attention and negated Herder’s theory of “closed cultures”, it means it was only then that a need for a new notion and a shift in thinking occurred. For us, living in the era of low-cost airlines, the intermingling of cultures is obvious and necessary.

And if I mention transculturality, I think it’s appropriate to mention also such interesting phenomena as Non-Western Culture and Non-Western Studies. Recently, we can observe the birth of a trend where the focus shifts to “non-Western” cultures. It is based on the desire to learn about cultures that have not grown on the European continent. The curiosity may be rooted in both the growth of trade with countries in the broadly understood East, in migrations, as well as the expansion of tourism. I think this has led to the introduction of Non-Western studies to universities.

If you search for inspiration or you would like to know and understand more, please join us in the journey by reading our series of articles on contemporary art in the Middle East. It will be a journey full of excitement, providing plenty of opportunity for reflection.

Written by: Marta Maksymiec

Translated by: Paulina Dzwonnik
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  1. W. Welsch, Transculturality – the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today,