Recently discussion has emerged within art historical circles regarding the prospect of world art history. The American art historian James Elkins has asserted that although there is not yet consensus over the meaning or value of world art history, its prospect is ‘[f]ar and away the most pressing problem facing the discipline’. Even if one were to disagree with Elkins’ assessment, it is difficult to overlook the range of recent publications that have sought to trace trans-continental cultural exchange and define universal norms according to which a global history of art could be written. For what is world art history, at least at first glance, if not an attempt to create a unified history of all of the art cultures of the world by establishing universal bases for their comparison? This essay interrogates the politics of this nascent turn to world art history and its inherent articulation of universality – a turn that would appear to contradict the preceding ‘postmodern’ focus on local knowledge and histories.
Huw Hallam has recently completed a BA(Hons)/BMus(Hons) at the University of Melbourne with majors in Art History and Musicology. He received Dean’s awards for his second and third year Arts subjects.