Hegemony

Eric Solomon

Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, Netherlands, after the Fire, 1660-1661. Painting. Mauritshuis, Netherlands.

Figure 1. Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, Netherlands, After the Fire, 1660-1661. Oil on canvas. Mauritshuis, Netherlands.

Hegemony is a term traditionally used to refer to one state’s economic, political or military dominance over another. The use of the term dates to ancient Greece where individual city states often exercised coercive power over other city states. An example is Athens’ economic dominance of the Delian League in the fifth century B.C.E. In this sense of the term, hegemony refers to the hard power one state has over others.

More recently, however, hegemony has come to be associated with soft power. This type of hegemony was first theorized by the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci in the twentieth century. Cultural hegemony refers to the ways in which dominant powers justify power relations through the manipulation and imposition of the cultural beliefs, practices, and values which work to support their rule.1

Hegemony, in the most complete sense of the term, denotes a combination of these two uses and can therefore be described as follows:

Hegemony is the enrollment of others in the exercise of your power by convincing, cajoling, and coercing them that they should want what you want…it represents the binding together of people, objects, and institutions around cultural norms and standards that emanate over time and space from seats of power (that have discrete locations) occupied by authoritative actors.2

As such, hegemony works to reinforce power dynamics across multiple strata of society. This layering effect results in hegemonic institutions often working together to mutually support one another. For instance, academic disciplines are often shaped by hegemonic practices, which reflect the socio-economic power of their practitioners, as well as the cultural values of the ruling class they espouse. An example of this can be seen in the ways in which traditional art historical discourses have achieved hegemonic dominance with a specific set of aesthetic values. These values have established a canon which, in turn, has served to support larger hegemonic principles such as patriarchy.

Svetlana Alpers’ article “Art History and Its Exclusions: The Example of Dutch Art” (1982) discusses this kind of hegemony as it applies to art history. Alpers notes that the discipline of art history was historically based on the study of Italian Renaissance art: “Since the institutionalization of art history as an academic discipline, the major analytic strategies by which we have been taught to interpret images—style as proposed by Wölfflin and iconography and proposed by Panofsky–were developed in reference to the Italian tradition.”3 This gestation of art historical methodologies around Italian traditions (in particular, portrait painting) has led to the formation of a hegemony of Italic aesthetic norms.

Alpers goes on to describe this hegemony as well as the dangers it presents in regards to the evaluation of non Italian art:

The rhetoric, the very language with which we talk about a painting and its history is, I would claim, Italian born and bred. This is a truth that art historians are in danger of ignoring in the recent rush to diversify the objects and the nature of their studies. Italian art and the rhetorical evocation of it has not only determined the study of works, it has defined the practice of the central tradition of Western artists. This definition of art was internalized by artists and finally installed in the program of the academy.4

Alpers describes hegemony in all its iterations. She claims that the power of Italian art operates on several levels: first, it has hard power in the sense that those traditions have been institutionalized by the academy; second, it has soft power in the sense that those norms have seeped into the cultural consciousness in ways which work to support and normalize hard power. Finally, she points out that this hegemony is dangerous in that it prevents us from being able to properly analyze art from other cultural traditions.

Alpers sees this danger in the ways in which Dutch art was traditionally viewed. Dutch art did not receive the attention it deserved because it did not conform to the aesthetic traditions of Italian art. She uses the example of Vermeer’s View of Delft  (1660-61) [Figure 1].This painting differs from Italian paintings in several ways. First, Italian paintings stressed the human figure; second, Italian paintings tended to frame the subject in such a way that the world seemed ordered or taxonomized by the painter. By contrast, in View of Delft, the human figures are ancillary to the central content of the image. Further, the painting seems to extend past the frame, thereby implying a lack of authority over the painting. Traditional art historians have labeled the painter’s lack of authority over the subject matter as a weakness. This lack of authority (or strength) was even labeled feminine by early art historians.

This example also shows how the hegemony of Italian art was in some ways legitimized because it consciously operates within other normative hegemonic institutions such as patriarchy. Dutch art was labeled as feminine because it didn’t conform to the conventions of Italian painting. This, in turn, supports the hegemony of Italian art because it infers that Italian art was (in contrast with Dutch art) masculine. Alpers’ article is a specific example of how hegemony works in the discipline of art history because it describes the ways in which power legitimizes itself through association with other dominant institutions.

Finally, Alper’s scholarship is also an example of how hegemonic institutions can be challenged. Alper’s scholarship consciously works to undermine hegemonic power structures by showcasing the value of Dutch art, and assessing it on its terms.  As such, Dutch art now enjoys an exalted position in the canon of Western Art.

Footnotes

  1. Walter Adamson, Hegemony And Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 19800), 169-202.
  2. John Agnew, Hegemony: The New Shape of Global Power (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 2.
  3. Svetlana Alpers, “Art History and Its Exclusions: The Example of Dutch Art,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany, ed. Norma Broude et al. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982), 185.
  4. Alpers, 185-186.