(What follows is developed from a series of seminars on world art and civilizations in the Vatican museums, as well thinking about teaching world art. It turned out to be rather longer than I’d planned, once I’d warmed to my theme! Still, I haven’t posted substantially in ages.)
What is world art? When did it become a category in art history? Nowadays, visitors to museums are unlikely to be surprised at encountering statues from Egyptian tombs, Mesoamerican figurines, or ceremonial masks from Africa and Oceania, sometimes in exhibitions next to old masters. But art from non-Western cultures, as pointed out by Andre Malraux, only began to enter the world’s museums from the early years of the twentieth century. This coincided with the interest in so-called “primitivism” on the part of modern artists like Derain, Matisse and of course Picasso. The appearance of masks in such early twentieth-century masterpieces as his Demoiselles d’Avignon testifies to trips to ethnological museums in Paris to see “Negro Art.” Later, world art started to appear in surveys of art history. Even the late renaissance scholar Ernst Gombrich’s best seller The Story of Art contains illustrations of non-Western art such as Maori, Tahitian, Aztec, and Mayan art in its opening chapter; though unsurprisingly most of the book is devoted to post-classical and renaissance art.
Since Gombrich, many surveys of world art have appeared. A good example is Hermann Leicht’s History of the World’s Art (1963) which opens with “Art of the Ice Age” before going on to sweep majestically through the art of Africa, Australia and Oceania, Amerindian Art, the Near East, India, China, Japan before setting course for Egypt, Greece, Rome and the post classical world of art.  Leicht called his book a History of the World’s Art, and this is the kind of journey visitors are encouraged to make- both physically and virtually- through our monumental museums. Interestingly, Gombrich chose to name his book The Story of Art. This was an inspired choice as “Story” immediately brings to mind tales told round the camp fire, the oral tradition, a sense of art handed down rather than an organized systematic overview of the progress of the world’s civilizations which is the kind of universal cultural history promoted through the museum. Though the lion’s share of Gombrich’s book is given over to that history of western art, Gombrich was not oblivious of world cultures which is borne out by his preamble where he considers the way that cave paintings, ritual masks, Aztec carvings and other artifacts of early civilizations operate on the viewer’s mind.  In exploring these cultures Gombrich places great emphasis on magic, which he sees encoded in the ritualistic art of early peoples, their tribal customs and totems signifying deep patterns of thought incomprehensible to the modern mind. Rather than try to locate the art of early civilizations in some linear account of its history like Leicht, where after the Ice Age, art readies itself for the “ascent towards civilization, “Gombrich voyages leisurely to these disparate cultures with the aim of discovering how their art works, “wether it can perform the required magic” as opposed to simply representing such notions as the “beautiful.” What Gombrich seems to be doing here is defining ancient art in terms of process in art creation. Gombrich invites us to return to ourselves by making doodles of a face; this may be merely amusing to us, but to an ancient tribesman, it would have been a way of constructing identity out of the forms around him, and thus making cognitive sense of the world. An ancient artist in discovering the ways of creating art may indeed have looked upon this discovery as something magic, almost indistinguishable from the skill and craftsmanship which brought it into being.
This picture-making power certainly reflects the artist’s skill, but when we re-frame artistic ability within the narrative of how western civilization evolved, that magical dimension seems to disappear, or at least it is subsumed within such ineffable ideas as “genius” which, arguably, is the magic concept applied to technical skill and ingenuity?
One of the reasons why the magical aspect of art is absent from art history narratives is due to what the archaeologist Colin Renfrew calls the “tyranny of the Renaissance.”  Our notions of style and taste have been shaped by the Greco-Roman world to such a large extent that the arts of remote cultures like the Maya and Polynesians have not been appreciated until very recently, because we have not been able to accommodate them within our canons of beauty and taste, which are based on renaissance standards. It is interesting, and this attests to Gombrich’s intellectual generosity, that such an established Renaissance expert as himself was immune to this “tyranny of the Renaissance” and knew how magic and myth underpinned the art of the classical period that was responsible for giving the renaissance its cultural direction. Very few renaissance art historians stop to consider how magic or the “primitive” informed the practices of artists and the patrons associated with the canon of Roman copies of Greek sculpture found in such volumes as Haskell and Penny’s Taste and Antique.  From studying such books we might form the idea that the religion of the ancient Romans was rational and moral, mediated through anthropomorphism, or the allocation of human qualities to divine forces; but in fact that came later in the Roman’s cultural development. Long before Rome had even begun to conceive of world domination, it was a collection of tribes reliant on a religious system based on a balance between humanity and divine powers rather than a mythology embodied in a pantheon of deities dressed up in elegant garments.  Rome’s ancestral origins provide fertile soil for the excavation and retrieval of cultic and tribal ideas.
The Etruscans, supposedly the mythic founders of Rome, who would have dwelled in Neolithic mud huts, had the legend of Romulus and Remus suckled by the She-Wolf, an important iconic bronze statue donated to the people of Rome. Unlike Haskell and Penny who mainly consider the critical fortunes of the She-Wolf, Gombrich focus is on how the statue may indicate anthropological links between tribes who named themselves after animals, a “wolf-tribe,” as opposed to a frog or raven tribe, or similar. Though we don’t dress ourselves up as animals anymore, or even register the superstitious links between zoology and art, Gombrich believed that we can at least attempt to cloak ourselves mentally within ancient civilizations. By donning this mentality we might understand the image of say, a serpent in ancient Mexican art, and the picture/art-making process behind it in terms of magic and religion. Gombrich would quietly assimilate his ideas on magic and image within his book on the psychology of perception ten years later, where he discusses, amongst others: the idea of the “animal shape” within the cave painting of Lascaux; Egyptian sculpture in the context of “Pygmalion’s Power”, where an artist has to restrain himself from making the final touch lest the art come to life; the evil eye as reflected in the pictures that follow the spectators with their eyes in picture galleries, with their modern variants in advertising.
Unlike Gombrich, the anthropological adventures of Aby Warburg, his colleague and mentor, have proved more controversial. Indeed, Warburg’s own representation of himself in cowboy costume amongst the Hopi Indians in a well-known photograph has served to reinforce anxieties about how marginal cultures are constructed through the strategies of the oppressor, for example in the last post where 17th century views of cannibals are dependent upon renaissance ideas of anatomy and proportion. This has been demonstrated by Claire Farrago who alludes to this image of Warburg reproduced on the dust jacket of a book of his American photographs, which bears the title Photographs at the Frontier, and which to her suggests that modernity is “incapable of divesting its former colonial ideology.” Warburg’s highly visible ethnological project has proved unsustainable, not least because art historians are more sensitive to colonialism and histories of oppression within the era of globalisation. Gombrich’s account is far more sympathetic to ancient civilisations and it shows how it is possible to sensitively incorporate world art within art history paradigms, without mainly resorting to the ethnological and anthropological.
Themes of magic and perception, as evoked through world art, has had little impact on contemporary art history practice. Perhaps the main problem is “primitivism” which is such a loaded word, that it is either avoided completely in discussions of visual art in the classroom, or when used so qualified as to be meaningless. Magic seems particularly absent in the practices of modern museums due to the attitudes of curators who seem unaware of its significance. This problem was clearly on Gombrich’s mind since in Art and Perception, he drew on Andre Malraux’s belief that the modern museum has created a different “mental set” where the public are encouraged to see art as “species” rather than as indicators of a vitalizing force possessing great reserves of power. The recognition of this mental set is thwarted by the constraints of modern museums. For reasons of conservation we are, quite rightly, instructed not to touch objects, but that distancing moves us away from the atavistic, originary contexts of this art, especially if it is world art. Yet the situation is more complex than this because according to Gombrich there never was a “primitive stage of man where all was magic,” neither was there “an evolution that wiped out the earlier phase.” Instead, in museums and institutions these mental sets consisting of older, atavistic ideas evoked unconsciously by art and the newer ways, associated with modern museum practice, tend to overlap. As the guide takes us round a highly organised hang of painted portraits, we might have the uneasy feeling of the eyes following us, of the picture possessing something of the actualising Pygmalion life-force.
Wether this is “magic” in any traditional sense is open to question, but it does raise the question of how we should weave magic associated with the cultures of the world into the display programmes of institutions like the British Museum and the Vatican. How might the mental set operate, for example, when looking at this crucifix from Zaire, now housed in the Vatican. The Vatican curators treat it as an ethnological object, but when we learn that with the decline in importance of the religious missions, the cross transmogrified into a protective spirit (Nkangi kiditu), as well as a symbol for the chief of the tribe, we start to appreciate how complex our engagement with this art should be. We should also begin to wonder if Gombrich’s magic theme is more relevant to our appreciation of world art like this, rather than the grand, evolutionary schemes underwritten by narratives of scientific and rational progress, and so favoured by museums and institutions today
 Hermann Leicht, History of the World’s Art (1963).
 Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art (1950, rep. 1984), 19-30.
 Colin Renfrew, Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists, (2003), 58-64.
 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, (1981).
 Michel Grant, The History of Rome (1978), 19-20.