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Periodization of the Arts - Periodization And Globalization: Mesoamerica As A Case Study

maya classic western periods

When scholars encountered the artistic traditions outside of the Western world, they applied conventional systems of periodization that had initially been developed to organize the investigation of Western art. One non-Western region to which conventional, formalist periodization was applied was ancient Mesoamerica. Present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras constitute a region described as Mesoamerica, based on its position between North and South America and a number of cultural practices and characteristics shared among the many peoples who occupied this area between 1800 B.C.E. and the sixteenth century C.E. When the explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in the New World early in the sixteenth century, he immediately became interested in indigenous artworks fashioned of gold and precious stones. Cortés sent a sampling of Aztec-crafted gold objects back to Spain as evidence of the potential richness of the region, along with a few Aztec books and maps. Despite this early appreciation of indigenous artworks, within a few years of the Spanish arrival, Spanish governors and religious leaders ordered the mass burning of thousands of native books and the destruction of sculptures. Europeans entering the New World saw native artworks as dangerous purveyors of indigenous religious beliefs, as crafts, and as "idols," which were far inferior in quality to known Western art.

It was not until the nineteenth century that scholars took an interest in analyzing the aesthetic qualities of the arts of the ancient Americas. An early system of periodization was designed by Wendell Bennett and Junius Bird to classify the great variety of artifacts from the central Andean region of South America. Bennett and Bird consciously addressed theoretical issues involved with the creation and application of periods in artistic traditions outside Western, literate society. They noted that the choice of features by which a culture was identified was in some respects an arbitrary outcome of historical preservation and archaeological recovery. They further recognized that the problem of determining general periods was compounded by the absence of absolute dates and by the use of differing relative systems of dating employed in local regions. These relative systems included dating by the use of stratigraphy, surface collections of ceramics, sampling pits, and trade pieces. In addition, Bennett and Bird realized that a single system of periodization risked obscuring regional cultural variation within the central andean region.

Nonetheless, Bennett and Bird argued for the definition of overall cultural horizons as a means to permit the central Andes to be treated as a single unit and to be compared in its cultural developments and achievements with other parts of the world. The system designed by Bennett and Bird simplified relative chronologies of different regions named after local sites into cultural horizons named by terms that cross-cut local terminology. Their system of periodization employed accessible period names, in part because period names were based on Western perceptions of indigenous economic and political organization. Those periods were termed Early Farmers (c. 2500–1200 B.C.E.) Cultist (c. 1200–400 B.C.E.), Experimenter (c. 400–1st C. B.C.E.), Master Craftsman (c. 1st c. C.E.–900), Expansionist (c. 900–1200), City Builder (c. 1200–1450), and Imperialist (after c. 1450–1532). The sequencing of periods in a linear progression suggested an evolutionary model of development.

The principles by which the Andean system of periodization was created were subsequently adapted for use in Meso-america. The occupation of the region was divided into Archaic (prior to 1500 B.C.E.), Formative (c. 1500 B.C.E.–250 C.E.), Classic (250–900), and Postclassic (after 900). While this periodization utilized less descriptive names, it was nonetheless based on the same Western perceptions of indigenous economic and political organization as the Andean scheme. Thus Archaic corresponded to Cultist, Formative to Experimenter, Classic to Master Craftsman, and Postclassic to Expansionist, City Builder, and Imperialist. Similarly to the Andean scheme, this periodization suggested an evolutionary model of developmental progression in its linear serialization while the subdivision of periods into phases echoed Vasari's organic model of biological cycles.

Still another Western model of periodization was also applied to Mesoamerica. The artworks created by the ancient Maya particularly interested Western scholars, and Maya artworks and style became a measuring stick against which all Mesoamerican artistic traditions were judged. The Maya occupied much of the eastern portions of Mesoamerica. Between 250 and 900 C.E. they constructed numerous large cities, with elaborate palace complexes, soaring temples, and vast plaza systems. They lavished their built environments with hieroglyphic inscriptions, paintings, and large-scale sculpture. The great architectural achievements evident in ancient Maya cities, combined with a style of sculpture that portrayed the human subject in an especially naturalistic manner, impressed Western viewers, who saw affinities between Classic Maya art and the celebrated Greek art of the Classic period (480–323 B.C.E.).

Like Greek sculpture during the Classic period, Maya art created between 250 and 900 seemed to exhibit the highest degree of naturalism and idealization, as though the indigenous artists looked to nature for their models and fused this observation with native ideals. Like the Classic period in Greece, the Classic period for the Maya was seen as the pinnacle of civilization—a time in which the Maya excelled in the realm of sciences, especially astronomy, and a time when Maya scribes recorded temporal and mythical histories using sophisticated calendrical systems. Western scholars also saw the Classic period as a moment in which theocratic rulers, guided by piety, religion, and logic, governed the activities of the Maya cities (an assumption that has subsequently been disproved in both the cases of Classic Greek and Classic Maya periods). With the term classic denoting a period of brilliance and the pinnacle of Greek cultural production, classic was similarly employed to describe the apparent florescence of the Maya world between the years 250 and 900 C.E.

The periodization of Maya art thereby grafted Western perceptions of qualities described as "classical" or "less than classical" into a system of periods originally based on Western principles of economic and political organization. The resultant schema resembles the pendular models of periodization based on physical mechanics and parallels Gombrich's theory of periodization and style. In the literature on Maya art, the time period that chronologically preceded the Classic period frequently was termed the Preclassic rather than the Formative. The choice of this term suggested that the period represented a stage of infancy that would eventually mature and blossom into the splendor of the Classic. In examining the artworks created after the Classic period, scholars observed that artists no longer lavished monuments with lengthy hieroglyphic texts; artists no longer focused their attention on building large-scale architecture; and sculptors no longer placed priority in inscribing each monument with the most sophisticated systems of calendrical notation. In addition, Maya artists no longer imbued the human subject with the elements of naturalism and idealism that they had in the past. Thus the period known as the Postclassic was seen as a period of decline and decay.

Far-reaching consequences emerged as a result of the assumptions intrinsic to the system used for periodizing Meso-american art. These assumptions implicate the scholarly, economic, and social spheres that surround the artworks themselves. For decades, Maya art created during the Classic period received the most acclaim. Acclaim translated into importance, and Classic period art drew greater numbers of scholars than Preclassic and Postclassic art.

The desire to celebrate aesthetic qualities deemed Classical has promulgated a skewed picture of Mesoamerican art. Far greater financial support is directed, especially by North American and European institutions, toward the preservation, restoration, and exhibition of Classic period Maya art than to any other Mesoamerican artistic tradition. By extension, a distorted concept of Mesoamerican culture has also resulted. Far more archaeological investigations are proposed and funded for the purpose of studying Classic period Maya sites than any other set of Mesoamerican sites. As a result, both art historical and archaeological scholarship presents a lopsided view of Mesoamerica in which the importance of the Classic Maya period is overestimated.

By the turn of the twenty-first century scholars attempted to eliminate the attendant value judgment from conventional models of periodization by replacing value-laden terms with more neutral terms. The period named "Formative," for example, gained popularity over the period name "Preclassic." In addition, scholars strove to present the names of periods simply as temporal boundaries without attached notions of quality or sophistication.

Technology and periods in Mesoamerica.

Technologies that had been unavailable in the formulation of early models of periodization now allow for the discussion of artworks based solely on time. Radiocarbon dating, for example, provides a simple and reliable way to date ancient artifacts (if they contain organic matter), by measuring the residue of radiocarbon. Another useful dating method termed obsidian hydration is especially useful since Mesoamerican peoples frequently fashioned local obsidian into tools and artworks. Thermoluminescence, a more recently discovered dating technique, is employed to date rocks, minerals, and pottery. These recently developed methods allow investigators the option to remove artworks from previously codified systems of periodization, to reinterpret past models, and to define periods in new ways.

Western and indigenous traditions of time and periodization.

Western-imposed modes of periodization often clash with indigenous traditions of dividing time and indigenous approaches to conceptualizing their material past. Among the ancient Maya, time was seen not as a single linear progression but as a series of unremitting cycles. Divided into subcycles and almanacs, native concepts of temporality dictate that time itself possesses distinctive qualities and purposes. Unlike some Western theories of time, which operate outside the boundaries of intrinsic nature, the Maya situated time as an entity that acts upon and shapes the content that it frames.

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