Having reviewed the nominees (1,2,3) for the Alfred Barr, Jr., Award for museum catalogues, I move on now to The Charles Rufus Morey Book Award, which “honors an especially distinguished book in the history of art, published in any language between September 1, 2009, and August 31, 2010.”
Molly Emma Aitken, The Intelligence of Tradition in Rajput Court Painting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
Çi?dem Kafescio?lu, Constantinopolis/Istanbul: Cultural Encounter, Imperial Vision, and the Construction of the Ottoman Capital (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009)
Juliet Koss, Modernism after Wagner (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)
Hui-shu Lee, Empresses, Art, and Agency in Song Dynasty China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010)
First up: Aitken. Molly Emma Aitken’s hefty and beautifully illustrated book, which won the award, concerns Rajput painting, which “flourished between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries in the kingdoms that ruled what is now the Indian state of Rajasthan.” They “depicted the nobility and court spectacle as well as scenes from Krishna’s life, the Hindu epics, and court poetry.” (Oddly the book’s press release says “between the 16th and 19th centuries.”)
In her introduction, Aitken writes:
Studies of Indian painting have long shied from questions of why to pursue ever more refined questions of what, when, and who … Descriptions of meaning in Indian painting have typically ended … with narrative and iconography … [Q]uestions of choice and motivation have been elided by a notion of tradition, which has presupposed that Rajasthani court painters painted the way they did because they belonged to a culture that deeply valued the past … Sustained traditions resist interpretation because they are, by definition, repetitions of what has come before … However, traditions are valued only if they answer certain exigencies in the present … This book unpacks tradition incrementally, in a series of concrete, empirical case studies of the formal content of Rajasthani court paintings … In the absence of period texts on art, formal analysis is one of the only and also one of the best means we have to guide interpretations … Here is a rich opportunity to plumb a sustained aesthetic tradition for its operative intelligence.
Aitken, who earned her PhD from Columbia in 2001 under Vidya Dehejia, is an assistant professor at The City College of New York, though not for long, I suspect! Tenure seems inevitable for winners of such an award, not to mention better book sales. Stratospheric sales, probably not. You would think that, at the very least, every university library on the planet would collect a book given the profession’s top honor, but WorldCat shows recent Morey winners in as few as 300 libraries — 700 at most.