Global Objects: Toward a Connected Art History
By Edward S. Cooke, Jr.
Princeton University Press, 2022.
Paperback, 336 pages, $35.
Reviewed by Jesse Russell.
The internet has enabled not only people but various fads to enjoy a second life. “Graphic Tees” depicting the iconography of what is now known as “classic rock” bands, which once adorned the bodies of Gen Xers and Late Boomers, now are seen on the frames of Millennials and members of Generation Z or “Zoomers.” Records and even cassettes (or at least images of records and cassettes) have become popular among young people tired of the intangible artificiality of Spotify and YouTube. One cultural figure who has made a surprising return is the comic book character Tintin created by the twentieth century Belgian artist Georges Prosper Remi, who wrote under the pen name Hergé.
Among a wide variety of young people, Tintin, along with his dog Snowy, his friend, the wealthy seaman Captain Haddock, and a host of other intriguing and loveable characters, has found his second life. In addition to its charming cast of characters as well as its attractive bright pictures, Tintin is noted for providing a delightful panoply of exotic locations in which Tintin et al. solve a host of mysteries. For many readers, Tintin provides a vision into a world at the cusp of the electronic age in which diverse cultures still flourished untouched by the reach of what would become in the twenty-first century an increasingly flat and sterile monoculture.
At the same time, Tintin has drawn controversy because of its allegedly Eurocentric focus as well as what some claim are demeaning depictions of non-European people—Tintin’s voyages to the Congo have drawn special scorn from critics. During his many adventures, Tintin approaches the world as an observer of its mystery. Nonetheless, he is always able to return home to the safety and security of Europe, which has seemingly achieved a level of civilization superior to that of most of the rest of the world. Despite some criticism, Tintin remains immensely popular the world over. In the judgment of the world’s readers, Tintin’s depiction of the predigital world is more reverential and exciting than racist.
In his recent work, Global Objects: Toward a Connected Art History, Yale art historian Edward S. Cooke, Jr. attempts to provide not only a new history of world art, but a new (potentially very controversial), innovative method of examining human cultural artifacts. In Global Objects, Cooke argues for an erasure of the divide that has separated Western from non-Western art. In doing so, Cooke provides a fascinating Tintin-esque history of many human artifacts that have truly global pedigrees. Cooke states that his goal is to avoid a Eurocentric outlook—in fact, Cooke, in a move to which some readers might strongly object, explicitly states that he desires to bracket out much of European easel painting and architecture from his discussion, instead focusing on handicrafts and furniture.
Cooke begins his work with the example of a seventeenth-century Japanese folding chair. Cooke notes that, on its own, the chair simply appears to be a very pretty East Asian Early Modern chair. However, Cooke further notes that one could argue that the chair appears to be an imitation of a Dutch folding prayer chair of the same period. As he digs deeper, Cooke nonetheless illustrates that the chair contains elements common to Chinese ornaments from the same period. Cooke does note that the Japanese chair is unique from European or Chinese chairs in as much as it utilizes mother-of-pearl as well as gold and silver powders for decoration in contrast to the European penchant for carving. Cooke further demonstrates that the chair was perceived differently by different cultures after its completion. Its mother-of-pearl and gold and silver set in lacquer created a sense of the exotic. The Japanese folding chair serves as a model for much of the rest of the book, which details how the divide between Western and Eastern or North and South or between colonizer and colonized is not as clear as has been previously understood.
Various objects hold incredible importance for the viewer. Cooke argues that objects can inspire wonder and admiration in the viewer and handler of an object. An object can further inspire the viewer to a renewed sense of wonder. Cooke thus emphasizes the importance of the craftsman or craftswoman in the creation of an object. Cooke takes note of the importance of ornament in an object, even going so far as arguing that ornament is an object’s “primary means of communication.” In an apparent attempt to further deconstruct the Western emphasis on sight and visual art, Cooke further urges a reexamination of the tactile qualities of an object. An object’s surface can further provide a history of the object as well as reflection of the ideas and tastes of a people and period. He provides the example of the Japanese Negoro lacquer, which created the appearance of aging. Negoro lacquer could make an object appear more antique than it really was and provide a sense of status to the owner—Cooke provides the illustration of a Japanese nobleman’s table or Kakeban from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, which is decorated with aged red and black lacquer.
Cooke’s goal is to change the way in which art history has been traditionally done. He hopes to move from analysis of style to analysis of objects themselves. He further hopes to shift the discussion among art critics away from a focus on aesthetics as well as the analysis of various periods or times of art history in which certain types of artifacts were produced. Cooke argues for a focus upon the properties as well as material processes that went into creating an object. He believes that examining objects themselves will lead to a revelation of various assumptions and even alleged prejudices of art historians who have been all too human in their assessment of global artifacts.
Global Objects is an interesting read. Cooke indeed makes a strong argument that some human objects have a global pedigree. However, some readers may object to the attempt to transcend a Eurocentric worldview. Certainly, there are many ways in which some Westerners have been blind to the beauty of other world cultures. At the same time, as many historians have argued, even during the colonial period, some Europeans made exhaustive efforts to understand, chronicle, and ultimately appreciate the colonized cultures. Moreover, while Cooke criticizes Western civilization for its placement of hierarchies of value and taxonomic classifications upon art and culture, other world civilizations do likewise—sometimes with greater prejudice and militancy than the West. Finally, it may be possible for deeply erudite scholars to obtain the status of citizen of the world, but, for many everyday people and even for some scholars themselves, having a place and identity and worldview is very important—perhaps even necessary. Nonetheless, Cooke does point out that, despite the importance of individual culture and identity, we humans are all interconnected.
Jesse Russell has written for publications such as Catholic World Report, The Claremont Review of Books Digital, and Front Porch Republic. His book The Political Nolan: Liberalism and the Anglo-American Vision is forthcoming from Lexington Books.
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