Hayes Peter Mauro is an associate professor of art and design at CUNY’s Queensborough Community College. His newest book is Messianic Fulfillments: Staging Indigenous Salvation in America (August 2019).
A Note on Historiography
History may be done in any number of ways. To cite one famous taxonomy, the Enlightenment-era German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel gives us three main categories of historiography. Hegel argues that there is “Original History, “Reflective History,” and “Philosophical History.” In short, Hegel tells us that Original History is history done by those living at the time in question, and whose viewpoint in imbued by their being a part of the culture and times about which they write. In other words such writers lack historical distance, which may work for or against the viability of their narratives. Reflective History is done by historians living in a later time, who are more ensconced in their own time, but wish to gain a “pragmatic” grasp on events of the past in order to teach humanity lessons for the future. Sometimes critical of earlier histories, reflective historians thus transform the past into a “virtual present” so that others may more cleary discern it. Hegel tells us that unfortunately this endeavor rarely if ever works. Finally, Philosophical History is done by those wishing to discover the overarching reason in history, or the larger patterns of a civilization or time governed by this reason and manifested “locally” in their own midst. Out of this discussion comes Hegel’s famous formulation of zeitgeist.
In my field—art history—which Hegel would categorize as a reflective and fragmentary form of history telling (due to its technical focus on images and artifacts), we focus on a number of things, perhaps most notably the history of “visual culture” and “material culture.” Basically, this is the history of human-made images and artifacts. This makes sense, as art history is a materially-based discipline, and as such always requires an object/ image to be analyzed.
In my own work, I have chosen to analyze unconventional images and artifacts. What I mean by this is that I do not focus solely on the inherited canons of art history passed down by disciplinary giants such as Vasari, Bellori, Winckelmann, Wolfflin, and more recently Kenneth Clark and others, but images that fall outside of conventional academic canons. It is often these “minor” images that give us a truer insight into the broader, more popular histories of a given age; and not simply those of a consuming elite.
While variously-defined conceptions of beauty, the aesthetic, and so forth are perhaps inevitably concerns for the art historian of Modern societies, what has always interested me as much or more is the manner in which dominant institutions in any civilization make use of the visual as a means by which to consolidate power and subjugate populations. Thus, detached discussions and debates of the “beautiful” have limited use and applicability in my own work as an art historian.
Coming to this specific project for UNP, I have sought to apply this idea to the visual culture of the United States. My main concern in both my first book The Art of Americanization at the Carlisle Indian School (Univ. of New Mexico, 2011) and this one are how images are used by both secular and religious institutions in America in forwarding dominant definitions of various socio-cultural categories such as class, race, gender, and Americanness itself.
My first book concerns the role of pseudoscientific thinking during the Gilded Age and how such thinking impacted the representational tropes deployed by the progressive-minded evangelical reformers of that era. While many such reformers ostensibly deplored pseudoscience in favor of a seemingly more “egalitarian” rhetoric on race and class, scientific racism nevertheless subtly informed their thinking and subsequent policy on the topic.
What I have found in this project is that evangelical spiritualism likewise impacted conceptions of race in America throughout its history, as well as subsequent imagery made by evangelically-inspired (or hired) artists and photographers. Thus, one has the famous trope of Mormonism, laid out in the group’s founding text The Book of Mormon, in which lightness of appearance—in dermatological/ racial terms—is associated with spiritual salvation. Interestingly, this trope echoes psuedoscientifc thinking—reaching its height during the antebellum era, the very time when Mormonism was being developed by its founders—in its insistent linkage between physiological attributes and cultural, biological, and spiritual viability of the person or group in question. The “person or group in question” was of course most commonly of non-European descent, or if “Caucasian” was originated from the “margins” of Europe, such as Slavic, Italianate, and/or Jewish immigrants.
All of this discourse, whether it appeared in religious, political, scientific, or high-cultural guise, served (either consciously or not) to reinforce the dominance of Northern European and Anglo-American hegemony that has traditionally governed this country, through the implication or overt prescription of some sort of ontological hierarchy. As a historian, I deem it my duty to flesh out these discourses and reveal these zeitgeist patterns—visual or otherwise—in an effort to give the most truthful possible (if somewhat inconvenient) version of our national history.