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Piotr Piotrowski’s concept of horizontal art history


Piotrowski raised the question of how, by whom and from which position the general history of art is written. He distinguishes two approaches: horizontal and vertical. The vertical approach implies a hierarchy in art, a division into a center and a periphery. According to it, models of art are developed in the center, which is located in the West (Paris, New York, etc.), then they are transferred to the periphery and distributed throughout the world. Thus, when art historians speak of international or global art, it is the Western art narrative that dominates the art of other regions. Therefore, Piotrowski proposes to carry out several operations to get out of the vertical approach and move to the horizontal one.

One of them is the localization of the speaker. To do this, we should answer two questions: from what geographical point does the art historian speak, and who is he talking to? Piotrowski remarks that a Polish or Romanian art historian never forgets where he speaks from, in what socio-political and institutional context he exists. In contrast, Western art critics often speak from an empty place that is above everyone, making their narrative appear as universal. Therefore, the speech of a Western art critic (American, English, etc.) should be put on a par with art critics from other regions. It is necessary to name and localize each narrative connecting it to the specific context in which it was produced.


Another operation is to consider local art scenes as “actors” rather. than “fields” onto which models and ideas from other regions were transferred. Instead of speaking of the so-called “peripheries” adopting the models of the “center”, we should rather consider trends and phenomena inherent to a certain historic period and the ways they interact with the particular cultural traditions, socio-political context, and institutional system of each region generating specific artistic and cultural forms.


The circulation of ideas between different territories is another important point. Piotrowski notes that the so-called “peripheries” often compared themselves with the art of the “center”, but did not establish connections between themselves. In the 1980s, Polish artists often compared themselves to Western art, just like Romanian, Russian, etc., but they were not interested in what was happening in neighbouring countries.


Therefore, it is important to frame the artistic phenomena and their contexts and to consider the particularities of the local art process. That is why Piotrowski suggests speaking about transnational art opposing it to “international global” art.