Connected Art Histories?: a Response to Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Explorations in Connected History

The Getty Foundation’s motivation for the use of the phrase “Connecting Art Histories” for a group of awards was clearly manifold. As the Getty’s website explains, the projects they fund seek to bring together scholars from around the world in order to “strengthen art history as a global discipline.” 


“Connecting Art Histories” possesses yet another meaning related to method.  Economic historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam first put to use the term “Connected Histories” in various publications beginning in the late 1990s. In fact, he employs it in the titles of at least three publications. His 1997 article “Connected Histories: Notes toward a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia” explores early modern “Eurasia” and its networks of commercial exchanges. In this context, he writes: 


"Speaking of supra-local connections in the early modern world, we tend to focus on such phenomena as world bullion flows and their impact, firearms and the so-called ‘Military Revolution,’ or the circulation of renegades and mercenaries. But ideas and mental constructs, too, flowed across political boundaries in that world, and––even if they found specific local expression––enable us to see that what we are dealing with are not separate and comparable, but connected histories" (748).


Not only did “ideas and mental constructs” flow across political boundaries but artistic production, designs, objects, and theory traversed borders.  Artistic exchange makes visible connected histories.


In his full-length study Explorations in Connected History: From the Tagus to the Ganges (2005), Subrahmanyam reevaluates early modern south Asia through a global perspective.  He ties the notion of “connected histories” to a new conception of India before British rule focusing on “questions of empire, trade, travel, and acculturation.”  He examines early modern India as a site of exchange and interaction between numerous groups: Mughal, Ottoman, Malays, Javanese, East Africans, Portuguese, and beyond.  This book considers the reception of Asia through a variety of documents (chronicles, letters, diplomatic papers, travel writing) and interrogates the validity of the sources themselves.  Most interesting to us, he cites Serge Gruzinski, who used the term “connected histories” in a 2001 article, Subrahmanyam states that “early modern imperial formations themselves became key arenas of circulation, whether of political ideas, institutions, forms of art or religious expression” (9).  Here Subrahmanyam recognizes the work of art historians who engage with visual and material relations between far-reaching regions and who draw links between them in order to reveal social and economic relations.


Subrahmanyam’s 2007 article, “Holding the World in Balance: The Connected Histories of the Iberian Overseas Empires, 1500-1640” argues that Spanish historians have held too long to the notion that Spain’s and Portugal’s activities in the sixteenth century were separate. Subrahmanyam demonstrates their “connected histories” through concrete examples in the New World and in Asia that reveal interactions with trade, the consolidation of territories, and expeditions.  The two powers fed off one another and at times, overseas territories mirrored one another. Examples of influence, inspiration, and impact inform this study.  For instance, with one example, Subrahmanyam asks, “Can we legitimately speculate that the moves both in Brazil and in the província do Norte in India were part of a groundswell to create an encomienda-like institution in the Portuguese imperial context?” (1371) Art historians might similarly ask if architectural styles in Africa and South America derive from the same Jesuit sources.


So, how can we define Subrahmanyam’s “Connected Histories” based on these three texts:


-it derives from Joseph Fletcher’s term “integrative history”

-it is not comparative history but rather looks at connections, contact, exchanges between regions

-it is anti-nationalistic

-it is not interested in “who failed and who succeeded”

-it is macro-history as opposed to micro-history

-it is against “area studies”

-it is tied to periodization and particularly the “early modern”


Many of these traits or stipulations of “connected histories” are relevant to the art history we are seeking to develop in this group since we too are examining contacts, exchanges and connections between places and peoples through the study of objects, goods, materials, artists, artisans, etc.  Is the term “connected art histories” useful to us? Can it be used similarly to Subrahmanyam’s “connected histories”?  Can we escape early modern notions of “nationalism” or regionalism?  Does micro-history no longer have a function? Is the term “early modern” relevant to our studies?


Thanks to Nicolás Kwiatkowski for bringing our attention to Subrahmanyam’s provocative work. 




Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, "Connected Histories: Notes toward a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia" Modern Asia Studies, vol. 31, no. 31, Special Issue: The Eurasian Context of the Early Modern History of Mainland South East Asia, 1400-1800 (July 1997): 735-762.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Explorations in Connected History: From the Tagus to the Ganges (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, "Holding the World in Balance: The Connected Histories of the Iberian Overseas Empires, 1500-1640" The American Historical Review, vol. 112, no. 5 (December 2007): 1359-1385.