Art History & Asian Studies
Mariam Al Askari

Biographical Seeing

One Form of Knowing the Art Object

Published On

September 2015

Originally Published

NURJ Online


How do we come to know art objects? Does art history bring us closer to certain artifacts and their pasts? What do we learn about objects that find themselves within the canonically Western context of the museum? The following paper is an attempt to question the epistemological values of art historical knowledge. A traditional art historical analysis of a 15th century Buddhist statue will draw the link between the statue’s physical and biographical features. This analysis will then serve as a starting point for our reflection on those particular modes of understanding art, which museums and academic institutions promote. Through this investigation, we will explore some of the issues associated with these forms of “knowing” art objects; and in the paper’s final portion, we will propose various solutions to these limits.

Biographical Seeing: One Form of Knowing the Art Object

Currently on view at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art is the Winter 2015 exhibition, which was curated by Professor Rob Linrothe of the Northwestern University Department of Art History. This exhibition is entitled Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies; it features sacred Buddhist objects that are dated from around the eighth to the sixteenth century, and that originate in the regions of Jammu and Kashmir and Western Tibet. Among these objects are bronze sculptures, wood and ivory carvings, and thangkas (scroll paintings on cotton or silk). All these pieces appear to engage in conversation with one another—by bringing together similar objects with divergent biographies Collecting Paradise seeks to demonstrate both the multiplicity and variation within collecting practices and how such practices shape the narratives, biographies and perhaps identities of objects. According to this exhibition, practices and histories of collecting can tell us about the whereabouts, mobility and social reception or status of objects—details that continue to “make” an object after its initial, physical making.

Among the various pieces in the Collecting Paradise exhibition, I have chosen one in particular, which we will begin by analyzing through a traditional, art historical lens. Subsequently, this object will come to serve as a case study or starting point for our questioning of art historical methods and museum strategies. How do we know this seemingly foreign object, whose origins and spiritual intent are now far removed from most our circumstances, as contemporary viewers in Evanston, Illinois? How do we know art objects? What are the implications of (our) particular modes of collecting, displaying and viewing art objects, for those objects, for their original audience, and for the discipline and writing of art histories? In this paper, I will attempt to argue that within our Western modes of art historical writing and display in museum contexts, we are limited to knowing objects in a strictly biographical, ocular and informational sense. With the help of texts by authors such as Chandra Reedy, Robert Nelson and Ivan Gaskell, we will further describe this form of knowing, as well as the issues that it raises. And finally, we will conclude by proposing various solutions to these limits.

Rob Linrothe, Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies

To begin, the object that I am focusing on in this paper is a Western Himalayan bronze sculpture of a seated Buddha, which is dated to approximately 1400 C.E. (figure 1). Though it was not made in Cleveland, I will refer to this statue as “the Cleveland Buddha” since it is currently on loan to the Block Museum from the permanent collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. By comparing this piece to others in the exhibition, and through careful analysis of this object’s stylistic and iconographic features (and with the help of the exhibition catalogue), we can learn about the Cleveland Buddha’s potential origin and story. First, this statue exhibits several aesthetic elements that can be traced to an older Kashmiri style. As Linrothe notes in the show catalogue, “the thick but narrow compressed lips, strongly indented at the outer edges, and the emphatic silver in the eyes and ūrnā [the dot on the Buddha’s forehead] hint at a relationship to Kashmiri sculpture.” A similar shaping of the lips can in fact be seen on an earlier statue of a seated Buddha from Kashmir (figure 2).

Rob Linrothe, Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies

Figure 2. “Seated Buddha Maitreya”, ca. 12th century, Kashmir. Copper alloy, H. 6.5 inches. Currently at The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, on loan from Rubin Museum of Art, where it is on long-term loan from Nyingjei Lam Collection.

Nonetheless, in addition to these elements of Kashmiri-influenced aesthetic practice, the Cleveland Buddha also holds various elements of Tibetan visual culture. In front of the Buddha’s ankles, on the upper surface of the lotus base upon which this figure is seated, is an inscription, which has been engraved in the Tibetan language. This inscription informs the viewer that he or she faces Maitreya, the “Future Buddha”, who, according to Buddhist tradition, returns to the earthly realm in order to achieve enlightenment and teach the dharma (Natural Law as understood and taught by the enlightened Buddha). Further, the clothing on the Cleveland Buddha contrasts with the Kashmir Maitreya’s outfit (figure 1 and 2, respectively): the drape of the undergarment with folds that appear along the former figure’s rib cage, behind his right forearm, is a typical feature of Tibetan monks’ clothing and thereby of religious Tibetan representation. The division of the Cleveland Buddha’s robe into square units enclosing flowers is also a stylistic feature of other fifteenth century Western Himalayan representations of the Buddha, such as “The Supreme Physician” or “Medecine Buddha” (seen in the thangka in figure 3). The Cleveland Buddha and the Supreme Physician also share another characteristics of Tibetan iconography: both possess a particularly large and puffy ushnīsha with a finial at its peak. The shapes of the Cleveland Buddha’s eyes and face are specific to Tibetan artistic tradition as well. His eyes appear slim and elongated, whereas the Kashmir Maitreya’s eyes are bigger, almond-shaped and have higher relief. His face is round and cheeks are fuller than the Kashmir Maitreya whose face appears to have opposite proportions. Lastly, the spiral clouds with pointed ends on the Cleveland Buddha’s upper back is a design that is particular to Central and Eastern Asia.

Rob Linrothe, Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies

Figure 3. “The Supreme Physician (Bhaisajyaguru) and His Celestial Assembly”, 15th century, Western Tibet. Mineral pigments on cotton cloth, approx. 32 x 24 inches. Currently at The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, on loan from Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Thus, the Cleveland Buddha is a demonstration of the intermingling of Kashmiri and Western Himalayan (and even Chinese) artistic modes. This bronze sculpture is stylistically at a crossroads between Kashmir and Tibet. Nevertheless, its characteristics seem to depart from the Kashmiri aesthetic (since so few of them relate back to this style), while adhering more so to Central Tibetan culture and artistic practice. In knowing that a development of local aesthetic practices, and the revival of older Kashmiri ones were simultaneously occurring phenomena in Western Tibet around the fifteenth and sixteenth century, we, as art historians, are therefore able to posit that the Cleveland Buddha in fact comes from Western Tibet. Moreover, our close observation of this statue’s physical features, as guided by the exhibition catalogue, is valuable in more ways than one: it also informs us on the Cleveland Buddha’s potential origin in a monastery. Linrothe writes, “By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, monasteries in the Western Himalayas were closely linked through encompassing networks to artistic and religious movements in easterly centers of the Tibetan-speaking (and reading) world, that is, to Central and Midwestern Tibet.” Conversely, lay aristocrats of this period were at times still concerned with openly displaying their knowledge of and reverence for the historic legacy of Kashmir’s political, religious and cultural “golden age” (ca. eighth to eleventh century). In addition, the Drigung monastery named Phyang in Ladakh currently preserves a very similar sculpture, which might be from the same atelier if not the same set as the Cleveland Buddha. Consequently, by assembling these various pieces of information, we can more surely put forth that the Cleveland Buddha is a 15th century, Western Himalayan Maitreya that was possibly commissioned by a monastery.

Can we now say that we know the Cleveland Buddha better? Are we now closer to this object? Is it more familiar to us than when we first introduced it at the start of this essay? Can we now appreciate it better as a piece of art? Should we continue uncovering its history? Would that give the Cleveland Buddha more substance? Would it give this object more worth in our eyes? The answer to all these questions may in fact be that yes, in a certain sense, we are closer to the Cleveland Buddha. And yes, we can appreciate it more, now that this object has been attributed with a certain story, a spatial and temporal background, a life of its own. Although we may not know this object more now, it can certainly be said that we now know more about it or surrounding it. Our art historical analysis—i.e. our drawing of the relations and continuities between the object’s physical features, ethnographical evidence, and historical “facts”—has indeed provided us with various pieces of information regarding the Cleveland Buddha’s inception and past. We can thus designate this form of knowing the art object as biographical, historiographical, informational, and of course, perceptual, since it requires or at least encourages a sustained act of close looking.

Chandra and Terry Reedy accurately describe this particular kind of knowing, which we performed through our earlier investigation of the Cleveland Buddha. They write, “Art historians working with South Asian art currently use stylistic analysis of visual elements to help determine the origin, authenticity, date of manufacture, and patronage of a work; to group objects according to similarities; and to reconstruct the patterns of change, evolution and transfer of stylistic motifs.” Thus, according to this passage, art historians are interested in the biography of objects, and in the larger narratives of stylistic and cultural continuities (and ruptures), which can be drawn once these potentially overlapping biographies are read in conjunction with one another. An individual object like the Cleveland Buddha also can be seen as the present result of an entire lifetime traced by continuities and metamorphoses of identity and cultural status. Once the object physically comes into existence, its biography begins, according to the art-historical view. After the object is made through particular standardized or idiosyncratic technical practices, it begins to occupy spaces, gather social recognition, and represent sometimes changing meanings.

In Museum Skepticism, David Carrier describes this process in the following: “Identity of persons (or animals or things) over time requires some such form of continuity. Metamorphosis suggests that more radical changes of identity are possible by offering a convincing narrative linking earlier and later times.” In order to instantiate this notion that transitions and continuities occur simultaneously within a given body, Carrier uses an analogy. He explains that in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the wolf attacking Peleus’ flock turns to white marble, yet retains all its original physical features. Thus, its bodily form—like that of the Cleveland Buddha—remains constant through time (and space), while metamorphosis occurs in its foundational substance, and subsequently, in its overall color, in the way it is seen. Similarly, in the case of the art object, metamorphosis can also alter the way in which an object is “seen” or perceived. What and who an object represents can drastically change throughout its lifetime, and most notably when it is absorbed into new contexts.

Objects like the Cleveland Buddha undergo significant ontological metamorphoses once they are seen in a different light, both literally and figuratively speaking. For instance, when encased and lit in the “decontaminated” museum space, and when examined as the product or beholder of an intricate history of movements through time, places and social spheres, the Buddhist sculpture thus takes on a new status—that of the secular art object. At the Block or Cleveland Museum, the Cleveland Buddha is no longer (experienced as) a religious object. It no longer stands (or rather, sits) as an embodiment of Maitreya that one can pray to, touch, and receive blessings from. It no longer lies in the context of a temple or shrine, before which are various objects including butter lamps and vessels containing offerings of saffron-colored water, barley, and rice (figure 4). It no longer supplements written texts and oral teachings, to aid the practitioner in his or her quest for enlightenment. Rather, this sculpture is now a representation of the Buddha, with which interaction has boiled down to a purely ocular and reflective kind, typical of Western visual culture. The absorption of this piece into a new mode of understanding and public reception thus appears to have altered its status.

Rob Linrothe, Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies

Figure 4. Shrine with ca. 10th–11th-century Kashmiri sculpture of Lokeśvara and offerings. Photograph by Rob Linrothe, 2003.

But if biographical looking gives an object a new kind of status as art, historical and art-historical object, and if it can even tell us about an object’s past statuses, then does this form of knowing the object not maintain, revive, and even open up all its past and present identities for all to know? In chapter 2 of The Social Life of Things, Igor Kopytoff takes up this idea that an object’s biography is the compilation or recording of its ontological changes. He writes, “an eventful biography of a thing becomes the story of the various singularizations of it, of classifications and reclassifications in an uncertain world of categories whose importance shifts with every minor change in context.” But once again, is telling the “story” of an object’s “various singularizations” or previous identities enough to keep them all alive at once? I argue that no, description and classification is hardly enough to judiciously and phenomenologically return or re-instate an object into its previous identities. This is further instantiated in the case of sacred Buddhist statues like the Cleveland Buddha, which can only legitimately enter the profane museum space (by religious ordinance) once they are deconsecrated – that is, once a relic or other object is physically removed from the inside of the statue. Once framed within a secular or educational context, an object’s previous position as a vehicle for religious or other practical experiences becomes a mere historical fact about its past, a simple piece of useful information, or a nostalgic memory.

Moreover, biographical, art-historical knowing, which to reiterate, encompasses previous identities and whereabouts of an object through narratives, may in fact in itself represent a totalizing or sweeping endeavor. In other words, one runs the risk of seeing this (often museological) form of presenting the art object as a transparent and positivistic form, when in actuality, narratives are being drawn through particular lenses. As Donald Preziosi writes in “Collecting/Museums”, “Despite the often fragmented or abstracted state of such specimens [museum artifacts], their association in the museum constitutes a system of representation which in turn endows each item with an evolutionary direction and weight.” He then states, “As one of the most remarkable of modern European inventions, “art” has been one of the most effective ideological instruments for the retroactive rewriting of the history of human societies.” Thus, according to Preziosi (and many, many others), the writing of history through art, and its display through art museums can in fact create or craft narratives, which undoubtedly represents ethically risky business—especially in light of the questionable and colonialist foundation of Western art museums and collecting practices.

Consequently, we have exposed two points of criticism that problematize our mode of knowing the art object, the one that we initially carried out in the start of this essay. First, story telling does not actualize an object’s previous ontological status, whose ossification was not inevitable to begin with (i.e. the object did not have to loose its previous status, which would still be received today by a particular audience, had it not crossed the Atlantic and entered the museum). And second, the biographical form of looking and knowing runs the risk of “speaking for others”, since it creates specific narratives of continuity with fragments of information. So what is the solution? Is it the dissolution of biographical looking, and a return to the phenomenon, the experience, the object itself? Is the appreciation of an object’s pure aesthetic qualities a more respectful, “democratic” or politically correct solution? I think not. Formalist looking, unless intended by the artist, can make room for the justification of imperialist strategies of acquiring, since it denies that certain objects are actually deeply significant for some people more than others. How then do we in turn, see “biographical seeing” under a more just and positive light? Robert Nelson and Ivan Gaskell propose the following.

In “The Discourse of Icons, Then and Now”, Robert Nelson begins by reminding the reader that “art is made to be seen”, and that instead of focusing solely on the making, art historians ought to also consider the seeing of art in order to further understand the communicative system within which a work of art’s meaning and context is constantly shifting. Throughout the essay, however, Nelson expresses his concern that, like the previously discussed sacred Buddhist objects, Christian images such as medieval icons have lost their originally intended use and significance once assimilated into the modern museum. Nevertheless, he concludes as follows: “Viewing the same imagery from contemporary perspectives affirms the power and significance of the icon and suggests how visual and verbal discourses around it have been constructed recently and in the past.” Thus, it appears that for Nelson, the very fact that “visual and verbal discourses” continue to develop around these objects serves as proof that they still hold power as such—whether religious, historical, social or artistic. These discourses, which may be seen as products or symptoms of our times, can also tell us about our own histories and cultural beliefs.

In “Sacred to Profane and Back Again”, Ivan Gaskell recounts three instances when the “multivalency” of an “art object” was expressed, that is, when the various and sometimes contradictory statuses of objects were simultaneously respected and conveyed. One of these instances recounts when the Newark Museum in New Jersey created and displayed a “real” Buddhist altar that was consecrated by the fourteenth Dalai Lama in 1990. In his conclusion, Gaskell explains that although opposing interests may here be seen as only partially satisfied, one can also view this fusing of two spaces (the secular and sacred) as an optimistic reconciliation around the common honoring of particular physical objects. He writes, “when accommodations can be reached, with a little imagination and good will, an altogether richer, more varied and more challenging use of objects results than would be the case if they were at the disposal of one party alone.” Thus, for both Nelson and Gaskell the power or “aura” of an object, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, can in fact be maintained and even re-instantiated in the museum space, as long as the museum too can undergo metamorphosis in accommodating objects. By taking on a more malleable character, museum spaces can “meet objects half-way”. In other words, instead of imposing a strictly aesthetic, art-historical, and educational structure on objects that may call for different ways of knowing and experiencing them—i.e. instead of simply telling the story of past and present ontologies—museums can let the objects’ circumstances shape them as well!

How we know objects is dependent upon context. And here, our context is that of the museum: a very specific space with a climate and structure of its own, which is all too often incorrectly granted the privileged status of being a decontextualized, open and democratic space—a kind of “blank canvas” where the meanings and histories of objects are supposedly maintained and celebrated, yet are also free to roam (in the sense that any viewer is free to “see” objects in their own ways and imbue them with different meanings). The museum is not a blank canvas but a context of its own that begs for a certain kind of knowing: biographical, and perhaps pseudo-scientific knowing. Though its secular frame most often dominates over other frames that previously might have surrounded an art object, there have also been moments when these frames work in conjunction with one another, as Gaskell shows. These however are but rare occurrences. As a solution, if only a modest one, to the perhaps limited structure of museum-looking and art-historical knowing, we can thus call for more self-reflexive practices within these structures. Collecting Paradise is one example of a consciously and explicitly drawn narrative of art history through art objects.


Mariam Al Askari


Thank you, Professor Linrothe and Professor Normore, for your teachings; for encouraging me to explore new perspectives through Art Historical writing; and for your continual support—especially when deadlines are near!


Carrier, David. Museum Skepticism: A History of the Display of Art in Public. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2006.

Gaskell, Ivan. “Sacred to Profane and Back Again”. Art and its Publics: Museum Studies at the Millennium. Ed. by McClellan, Andrew. Blackwell. 2003. pp. 148-162

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process”. The Social Life of Things. Ed. by Appadurai, Arjun. Cambridge University Press. 1986. pp. 64-91.

Linrothe, Rob. Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies. New York: Rubin Museum of Art, Evanston: Northwestern University, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art. 2014.

Nelson, Robert. “The Discourse of Icons, Then and Now”. Art History. V. 12. No. 2. June 1989. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell. pp. 144-157.

Preziosi, Donald. “Collecting/Museums”. Critical Terms for Art History. Ed. by Nelson, Robert S. and Shiff Richard. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 2003. pp. 407-418.

Reedy, Chandra L. “Religious and Ethical Issues in the Study and Conservation of Tibetan Sculpture”. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation. Vol. 31, No. 1. Spring 1992. Maney. pp. 41-50.

Reedy, Chandra L. and Reedy, Terry J. “Relating Visual and Technological Styles in Tibetan Sculpture Analysis”. World Archaeology. Vol. 25, No. 3. Feb., 1994. Reading Art, pp. 304-320.