Global objects: A ‘messy’ view of functional creations and their makers

In his new book, Yale art historian Edward S. Cooke Jr. offers a “radical” new approach to exploring art history.
Edward S. Cooke Jr. with his new book “Global Objects”

Edward S. Cooke Jr. (Photos courtesy Yale University Art Gallery)

Objects are messy,” says Yale art historian Edward S. Cooke Jr.  Specifically, unlike objects typically called “fine art,” the stories of functional objects, such as furniture, textiles, and ceramics, are often neither chronological nor limited by a specific geography or culture. Yet, to have a fuller understanding of art history, he argues, we would do well to consider the stories of these pieces.

In his new book, “Global Objects: Toward a Connected Art History” (Princeton University Press), Cooke breaks down traditional hierarchies in the field of art history by bridging the divide between “fine art” — paintings, architecture, and sculpture — and material culture through an examination of these more functional objects from around the world.

In doing so, Cooke, the Charles F. Montgomery Professor of American Decorative Arts in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, presents a more inclusive and expansive perspective on made objects and their uses, meaning, and cultural value through time. He challenges the notion that certain artistic genres and materials are superior to others, and shows how objects made of materials such as wood, metal, cloth, and clay by craftspeople for daily use are equally deserving of their own life stories in a more human history of art. He shows how these objects often transcend geographic boundaries, moving through the world and taking on new meanings in different spaces.

Cooke recently spoke with Yale News about “Global Objects,” which he wrote during days of isolation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and why the project offers a “radical” approach to looking at made objects. The interview is condensed and edited.

Cooke showing a teapot to students

You dedicated “Global Objects” to your students. How did they inspire the book?

Edward S. Cooke Jr.: The book grew out of my survey course on global decorative arts. My students inspired it by the types of questions they asked, during a time when I was increasing my own understanding of the production and flow of objects across a wide geography. I also have been fortunate to have teaching fellows who have expertise in many different fields.

Having the students’ and the teaching fellows’ excitement about what I was doing and then sharing their own perspectives really helped me flesh out the ideas for the book. As someone trained as an Americanist, I think about material culture more from the inside out rather than simply the exterior of a finished object. By exploring in the book functional objects from across the globe, I was not as tied to identifying styles or national origins or anything like that. It’s very freeing in some respects, but at the same time daunting.

When people ask me about my survey course, they always say, “Where do you start?” To me, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding because there isn’t really a simple chronological narrative when talking about made objects. It’s really a story of movement. It’s about ideas and objects and people crisscrossing all over the globe. And that’s where having students who are from all over and who have diverse specialties really inspires me and reaffirms what I’m doing. They get excited about my approach and how it impacts their own scholarship.

You describe your book as a “radical” new approach to looking at art history. What has the traditional approach been and why is your approach different?

Cooke: The traditional approach has oftentimes favored certain genres. There’s a hierarchy of expression, so that painting, sculpture, and architecture are usually given top billing.

There used to be a slide library here at Yale, and the slides in my corner (American decorative arts) were labeled the “minor arts.” Or, if you were to talk about objects’ materials, greater value is placed on silver than on copper or copper alloys, iron, brass, and things like that.

Global Objects” pushes back against those kinds of hierarchies. If you want to talk about art on a world stage, you can’t just rely on painting on canvas, sculpture, and architecture, things that oftentimes are fixed in place.

By and large, the kind of objects I deal with in the book have been elusive. People don't know who made them. They move. They often get altered and changed over time. They might get repurposed, reused for something other than what they started off being.

So I’m pushing back against hierarchies and this idea of a sort of purity about art objects. I’m also pushing back against the chronology that we always want to have — an evolutionary story about the rise, flourishing, and decline of certain objects, genres, and so on.

You also say that objects should be looked at “on their own terms.” What do you mean?

Cooke: I talk about understanding an object from the inside out rather than projecting a formal aesthetic series of questions on it. To me, there’s a whole way in which you can talk about an object on its own terms. Take the material it is made from and its maker, for example. Is it made from imported materials or local materials? Is someone who is of that local community fabricating it or someone from outside of it? Is it made for one purpose?

And then as soon as an object leaves the shop into somebody’s hands, it changes use. Maybe it was originally intended for use on a table and then it’s sent out and it's put on a wall. Or the ways in which, say, a copper alloy object made in Cairo becomes a talisman, an object of reverence, and then in West Africa becomes part of burial goods, and then it later resurfaces again somewhere else as part of national patrimony. So objects keep serving different purposes in different contexts, and that’s the messiness.

We like to think about such objects in their purest state, when actually thinking about purity is very much a colonial projection. In reality, objects have their own lives. As they move, different people handle them. Different people bring different kinds of expectations to bear on them.

Does a new approach to art history mean we should also rethink the way we publicly exhibit objects in art museums?

Cooke: You know, there is a tension between the way I tend to think about objects and how one might display them, because the display matters so much in a lot of places. How do you display things that emphasize the messiness?

I’m teaching a graduate seminar on modern craft in America, which covers the period 1890 to 1940, and we’ve been talking about the arts and crafts movement. A standard way in which the arts and crafts movement is talked about within museums is to find all of the known makers, then display the best examples, such as Greene and Greene furniture, Grueby pottery, or Kalo silver. We can highlight them as the best makers. But does that really capture what the arts and crafts movement really is?

I’ve got this perverse dream, which is to have a whole wall of mis-hammered copper and wobbly ceramic pots — things that didn’t quite make it but are part of that broad-based kind of amateur work that was done. That actually might be the most important part of the arts and crafts movement. It’s not aesthetically coherent and pleasing. It’s wonky, but that’s what defines the arts and crafts movement to me. It’s about this completely decentralized empowerment of middle-class people who are learning something about materials and processes to provide self-fulfillment amid the drudgery of white-collar jobs. So maybe we can talk about — for lack of a better term — outtakes, the things that get left on the editing floor of the arts and crafts movement.

As you note in your book, objects by Indigenous people are often displayed in a natural history museum rather than in museums of art. If you had the power to design museums the way you’d like, would you change that?

Cooke: Yes. Indigenous objects are fascinating because some of those objects are considered non-human beings. So you don't want to put a plexiglass vitrine over them.

There are African objects that are deliberately meant to be worn out and almost disposed of; they are meant to have a limited life. Part of their power is their fragility.

But that’s antithetical to what a museum is about, which is conservation, preservation, and presentation. So I think that in trying to figure out what things should be displayed, what sort of things should be used, or handled, it’s going to take different kinds of museums. Perhaps in some cases you display reproduction objects. But then people get bothered by that, so it’s complicated.

Cooke looking at a wooden box with students

Are your students also interested in studying art history in a more global context?

Cooke: Very much so. If I teach a straight American course, there’s not as much interest in it. I don’t know whether it’s because students are suspicious of American exceptionalism or whether they’re more worldly than earlier generations of students.

I’ve grown as a scholar in response to my students’ world view. And I think that’s what makes teaching art history interesting. It’s never the same. It’s always evolving, always changing. This doesn’t mean I lose track of where I came from or how I approach it. My global survey course is an intro to art history designed to foster systematic rigorous visual and material analysis, but it's intended also for non-history majors, for students in STEM and other disciplines as well.

What do you hope your students gain from the more expansive view of art history?

Cooke: There are two things I hope that they come away with. One is a curiosity about their built environment and the other one is tolerance, to not automatically assume one culture is superior to another. One way to understand a culture is to look at its way

of making and using things. I encourage my students who travel to find makers. I say, “Can you find people who are making things and go spend time with them?” Because they’re amazed when I bring in objects and videos and images of different makers that I've visited throughout India, Japan, China — you name it. They’re just amazed. And that makes everything they are learning tangible to them.

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