Art History and the Challenge of Apprehending the Familiar: A Conversation with Vardan Azatyan

Vardan Azatyan is an art historian, theoretician and translator. He is Associate Professor of Art History and Theory at the Yerevan State Academy of Fine Arts. He also teaches at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Yerevan. Azatyan has taught at Columbia University and the Dutch Art Institute. His articles were published in Oxford Art Journal, Springerin, ARTMargins and other international publications. Together with Malcolm Miles, Azatyan edited Cultural Memory (2010). He is the author of Art History and Nationalism (Yerevan: Actual Arvest, 2012) and has translated George Berkeley and David Hume into Armenian.

Angela Harutyunyan: Your 2012 book Art History and Nationalism: Medieval Arts of Armenia and Georgia in the 19th Century Germany (In Armenian) shifts the tone and terrain of current art historiographical debates informed by postcolonial studies and global art historiography in at least three ways: first, you discuss the problem of art historical methodology as it was developed in 19th-century Germany not in relation to politics and ideology. Instead, you consider methodology itself political. This approach is driven by the way in which art history developed as a discipline in 19th-century Germany. That discipline’s subsumption of various art histories into a universal canon was subsequently used to construct “local” art histories in Armenia and Georgia. Second, and departing from the first point, your discussion of these local art histories does not consider them “other” to the universal art historical canon, but rather examines them as constituted from within that canon. Third, you argue that art history’s method was crucial for the constitution of the national subject in the 19th and 20th century in the context of the construction of the nation states across Western Europe and its peripheries. You further believe that art history’s method is formative in the way that Georgian and Armenian art historians have internalized the “pedagogy” of 19th-century universal art history, claiming the superiority of their own respective national tradition. Could you elaborate on how you arrived at this topic and the methodology you have developed to investigate it?

Vardan Azatyan: I spent some eight years researching and writing the book, and throughout these years, my research underwent many significant changes. My initial efforts were directed at developing a critique of the 19th century German art historical canons, as represented in art history survey texts published during that time. This critique stemmed from the fact that the peripheral traditions of Armenian and Georgian medieval arts were strongly underrepresented in these texts because of the nationalist and patriarchal prejudices that informed the writing of art history in 19th-century Europe. Methodologically, my initial research took up a poststructuralist critique as a starting point, and was informed by theoretical contributions from postcolonial studies, neo-Marxism and Feminism. Meanwhile, I was reluctant to accept the poststructuralist idea of the discursively constructed nature of reality that considers art history a museographic practices (Donald Preziosi). For Preziosi, museography is constituted by the discursive practices, which construct the past in an ethically useful way in order to provide “human ideals” for the present. I on the other hand remained convinced that there is a politics that exists outside museographic strategies and that to some extent determines the priorities of art historical writing. This was especially so in the case of my subject, the early period of art history writing, when the discipline had not yet been formed and when those who wrote art history books lacked academic art historical training. These were the main concerns that informed my research.

I was guided by a deep mistrust of 19th-century theoretical and historiographical paradigms. That mistrust has today become commonsensical because of the contemporary theoretical discourses, which for me, at the period of writing, constituted a kind of “Archimedean point” from which to observe and criticize general 19th-century German art history. At the same time, however, since my work was based on a close reading of 19th-century texts, I could not help being surprised by the pertinence of many of the assessments German art historians such as Carl Schnasse and Franz Kugler made of medieval Armenian architecture, without ever actually seeing a single Armenian monument. Moreover, it occurred to me that the way Armenian medieval art was represented in those surveys provides a possibility to challenge not only 19th-century art historical methodologies on their own terms, but also to reveal the shortcomings of contemporary methodologies driven by poststructuralist theory. Generally, German universal art history as it was developed in those 19th-century surveys was a totalizing system with two dominating axes representing the perfect heights of the development of the history of art: ancient Greek and Gothic art.

This system, however, is not static; it is shaped by inner contradictions that unfold between various arts due to their stylistic merits. These are conditioned by, but cannot be reduced to, geographical, national, political, religious and moral determinants. One of the crucial characteristics that mark these contradictions is the hierarchical difference between Europe and non-Europe, particularly the East. But since these hierarchical differences are immanent to the history of art in general, they also shape the development of, and the relationships between, the non-European arts. And so, the arts of the great empires of the East (Chinese, Arab, etc.) are considered subordinate to European art, but superior to those peripheral arts of the East. And, only the first are granted the status of Europe’s Other. It emerges, thus, that the history of art in 19th-century Germany is consciously constructed as the history of power: the power to be free as the highest ideal of human history and art. Interestingly, power itself is conceived as something all-embracing; it penetrates everywhere and nurtures the history of style by turning it into a political history in and of itself.

AH: What are some of the implications of this discovery for your case study of medieval Armenian art as it is treated in 19th-century German art historiography? Does that historiography reproduce the power relations that you describe, or does it somehow challenge them?

VA: The way in which Armenian medieval art is represented in the grand scheme of power I outlined above challenges to an extent the integrity of that very scheme. Armenian medieval art is seen as belonging to the larger Christian world, but its connection to Christianity is seen through the lens of the Byzantine art. Now, while German art historiography located Byzantine art in a culturally inferior position in relation to the medieval arts of Protestant and Catholic Europe, the art of Byzantium was nonetheless seen as possessing higher artistic merits than Armenian medieval art. But the latter was also conceived as being influenced by cultural trends coming from Persian and Arabic arts, which were in their turn understood as being superior to Armenian art. In this power-map, the status of Armenian medieval art is highly problematic. It is inferior not only because it is “Oriental” in relation to Europe, which would make it possible for it to positively become the Other of Europe and to theoretically fit into the critical framework provided by postcolonial studies; but also because it is inferior to the arts of Eastern powers such as “the Near East” or India, the true candidates for the role of the West’s “Other.”

The major role Byzantine art plays in explaining Armenian medieval art further problematizes it and makes it hard for the art historian to follow a postcolonial path and to say that Armenian medieval art is marked by the “ambivalence of the colonial discourse,” because it is a subject of difference; “almost the same, but not quite.” Instead of being marked by this kind of ambivalence, it is marked by the miscellany of the stunted. In the beginning of the 20th century, while summing up 19th-century German interpretations of Armenian medieval art, Karl Woermann used the word Mischkunst, a hybrid or mixed art. Armenian medieval art, therefore, was seen as embodying the mixture (which does not level up to synthesis) of contradictory cultural trends and stylistic features. All of these remain in an inferior position vis-à-vis the arts that were considered closest to the ideal within art’s universal history. Interestingly, 19th-century German general art history was not only shaped by the strategies of “othering”, but also by accommodating hybrids within its theoretical structure.

And so, as I mentioned, in 19th-century German art history, Armenian medieval art occupies a position that does not amount to the “privilege” of being the (inferior) Other of Europe. I call this position sub-other, which indicates a figure of double inferiority, of being subordinated to the subordinate. Eventually I came up with a concept that was derived from an immanent reading of German art historical texts themselves, which I had once used to analyze from “outside” by drawing on contemporary critical theories.

AH: How is Mischkunst different from postcolonial conceptualizations of hybridity? The term hybridity was once a marker of colonial difference in a negative sense (in 19th-century racial theories it designated that which was not pure), and was then retooled as a marker of difference in a positivesense? And isn’t it this negativity-turned-positive that postcolonial studies scholars argue provides the possibility for the subversion and transgression of colonial domination?

VA: My position is in many ways different from that of the proponents of both postcolonial studies and global art history. More often than not their position overlaps with the postcolonial field. Global art history is informed by an urge to come to terms with the cultural differences that mark the history of art throughout the world. To put it somewhat bluntly, I do not believe that entertaining differences will work without going deep into the power discourse that claims to universally define identities and differences.

Of course there are many aspects to my work that overlap with some pressing questions posed by postcolonial theory. Besides, you can take one aspect of my work, like the strategy of reusing the concept of the powerful, and see it as a postcolonial strategy, but the basic difference is in the theoretical commitment. I do not foreground the ever-unstable identities and interstitial difference that define “cultural hybridity” as a subversive interrogation of fixed identifications. I instead take seriously traditional theories’ capacity to come to grips with difference, even if this is done within the hierarchy of more or less fixed identifications. I suspect we tend to underestimate the flexibility afforded by traditional theoretical discourses, such as Hegel’s, and their capacity to entertain highly complex and apparently opposing theoretical schemes. And since they do this without a special conceptual apparatus and within the limits of what we might perceive as common sense, we are inclined to see these theories as constituting a discourse of totalizing power, one that naturalizes itself by appealing to the common-sense logic of binaries. I think we need a thorough revision of our attitude towards traditional Western theoretical discourses. As Hegel points out, the real challenge is to intelligibly apprehend what is thoroughly familiar to us.

AH: Speaking of the challenge to apprehend the familiar, your book was not only concerned with 19th-century European readings of Armenian medieval arts, but also with how Armenian intellectuals read European texts on art in the processes of the formation of the Armenian nation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This brings me to your current research on Armenian modernity and intellectual history. It was this research, and the discovery of an erased, forgotten, and falsified local tradition of Marxism, that triggered the foundation of the Ashot Johannissyan Institute for Research in the Humanities in Yerevan in 2014. How do you consider this local tradition of Marxist thought without falling into the trap of nationalist identitarian discourse? And what role does the Institute fulfill in today’s Armenia?

VA: I found out that there was a local intellectual tradition in the first half of the 20th century that dedicated itself to critically revealing Armenia’s highly complex and painful experience of modernization in its intricate rela­tionship not only with Europe, but also with Russia, Iran and the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps the most fascinating part of this research came from local Marxist scholars whose interest in the history of Armenia’s modernization was not a matter of purely academic interest, but a practical one. The historian and politician Ashot Hovhannisyan or Johannissyan (1887-1972) (in Latinized transliteration) was perhaps the best representative of this tradition. And the goal of founding a research institute that bears his name was not so much about promoting specifically Marxist scholarship, but about finding ways to contribute to historical awareness in relation to Armenia’s current post-Soviet path to modernization. I think this is important, since the post-Soviet present creates what I would call a deficit of temporality, a sense of existing outside of time, that triggers the need to hastily catch up with “contemporariness” while at the same time fabricating “national roots” in order to save oneself from the alienating effects of modernization.

AH: It is from within this context of local Marxian thought that, as far as I understand, your forthcoming book Art History of Idea: Humanism, Cold War, and a Soviet Periphery attempts to excavate an emancipatory tradition. The book project traces the journey of Idea from the tradition of German Idealism through the 20th century art historiography of the cold-war USA and the USSR. In this context, your “local” case study does not merely function as a footnote to the grand art historical battles, but as a lens through which these battles themselves appear in their sharpest outline. However, this is a theme for another conversation, one that will hopefully take place after the publication of your book.


Angela Harutyunyan is an art historian and curator. She teaches art history and theory at the American University of Beirut. She is co-editor of ARTMargins. Her book titled The Journey of The Painterly Real: The Political Aesthetics of the Armenian Avant-garde is currently in press.