James Farmer and Rex Koontz

The essays in this volume emerged from a series of scholarly papers scheduled to be presented at a professional conference, the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology (SAA), in the spring of 2020. The papers were part of a session dedicated to a critical reassessment of the scholarly legacy of Dr. Terence Grieder, a leader in the field, until his passing in 2018, of Precolumbian art history and archaeology during the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Beyond merely a celebratory review or festschrift of his work, the session and this subsequent publication sought critical reevaluation of a number of his theories, ideas, and methodological approaches to his interpretation of both the specific field of Precolumbian (aka. Ancient American) art and culture, and the larger, global discipline of art historical and cultural studies. The scheduled SAA session never transpired, due to cancellation of the 2020 SAA meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but continued interest by the co-organizers and co-editors Drs. Rex Koontz and James Farmer, as well as the session participants, spurred the continued development of a publication of extended versions of the session papers, supplemented by additional contributions from other interested scholars.

The short term “Making “Meaning” in the title is by no means a novel term for scholarly titles or their contents. A simple title search on any current book database, library catalog, or commercial outlet reveals dozens of publications employing this title phrase. The vast majority of these publications, however, focus on disciplines generally outside of mainstream arts-related topics, such as business strategy, counseling psychology, psychotherapy, and educational philosophy. One broadly-shared general definition of the term is simply as the process by which people intellectually organize, understand, share, or “make sense” of life’s experiences, material objects, relationships, and the “self”. It is no mere coincidence that the term and its basic concepts experienced substantial growth in scholarly literature beginning only in the 1960s and 70s, at the very time that Terence Grieder was completing his graduate education in Art History and embarking on his scholarly career. Yet, even as recently as 2010, scholars in the field have noted that the concepts of “making meaning” have only rarely been employed for “empirical” (fact-based) research or scholarship, being relegated primarily to  theoretical and philosophical discourses (Park 2021). The term is used in the title of this collection of essays to imply, as we hope the enclosed essays reflect, that Terence Grieder was in fact an early and firm advocate of this concept, and particularly (though never so overtly stated) in his approach to art historical inquiry, writing, and the understanding of human art and culture, past and present.

For 40 years, Terence Grieder taught art history in the Department of Art at the University of Texas in Austin, retiring as David Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor of Art History in 2000. As a specialist in Ancient and Latin American art, his scholarship was driven by a firm commitment to both the positive and negative aspects of the emerging hybridization of archaeological and art historical methodologies. Though known primarily for his work in the Andes, his scholarship spanned the broad temporal, cultural and intellectual range of the Americas, including Archaic rock art of the American Southwest, Maya ceramics, modern Latin American art of Mexico, and ancient Andean ceramics and architecture. The diversity of topics included in this volume reflects this wide-ranging focus in Grieder’s work. Several recurring methodological themes, or shall we say theoretical “undercurrents”, recur throughout the bulk of Grieder’s scholarship, the echoes of which are evident (though not necessarily overtly obvious) in the included essays. These themes, though not often so clearly identified in his own work, can nevertheless be broadly distinguished in both his work and the essays, and thus provide the theoretical “jumping off” point for a reevaluation of his legacy.

Making “Meaning”: The Primary Data of Art History

Grieder was deeply engaged in the persistent and ongoing methodological conflict regarding the nature of so-called “primary data” in art historical research. A related question emerges at several points in his work: Did Terence’s art background directly affect the way he dealt with the “evidence” of art objects? Were art objects considered as “vehicles” of cultural change (“art makes culture”) or were they better analyzed as “expressions” of broader cultural shifts as seen in artistic innovation (“culture makes art”)? What were the roles of individual artists or “hands” in their impact on archaeological data, stylistic criteria, and thus art historical interpretation?


Grieder stressed the communicative function of style across cultural and/or archaeological boundaries while organizing the analysis of style into opposing dyads: “diffusion” vs. “independent invention”; “ethnological” vs. “configurational”, and “meaning” vs. “form” are some of the more important pairs for his work. These dyads tended to organize his thinking on fundamental issues and provide the structure for some of his most innovative (and speculative) thought. This theme is fundamentally rooted in a “structuralist” approach to understanding. While Grieder was a strong advocate for structuralist theory, he simultaneously constantly challenged the rigor and application of the theory in his work.

The Place of Precolumbian Art in Global Art History

Grieder constantly interrogated the specific role of Precolumbian art (“objects”) in defining the pre-modern cultural identities of an entire hemisphere, their relative value in a global art historical context, and their sophistication and integrity as opposed to the accepted dominance and traditional superiority of the Euro-centric art historical paradigm. While certain aspects of the evolution of Precolumbian art styles and traditions frequently were interpreted using deeply entrenched Euro-American (aka. “Colonial”) intellectual art historical models, Terence Grieder was part of an early generation of Precolumbianists confronted with a growing body of artistic and archaeological data that often seemed to contradict, supersede, and even negate the established  paradigms of global art history.

Precolumbian Art History and Other Disciplines

Grieder was interested in the evolving nature and role of art history as a distinct academic discipline related to but different from traditionally established (and previously deemed “dominant”) academic areas (anthropology, archaeology, history, etc.); hence Grieder’s pride and problem with being the first Precolumbian Art History PhD, as opposed to previous PhDs in this field awarded through Anthropology, Archaeology, History, or other related, but non-Art Historical disciplines. To what extent was Grieder’s sense of being the originary PhD and his evolving methodology tempered by his scholarly relationship with those he saw as art history’s giants–especially George Kubler and Erwin Panofsky?

The editors acknowledge that both themselves and a number of the contributors are former students or colleagues of Terence Grieder, and thus bring a somewhat personal and arguably biased perspective to this topic.  Yet we hope and believe that the issues and interrogations offered herein are presented neither as strictly celebrations nor denigrations of Grieder’s work and methodology, but rather as objective, ongoing evaluations and applications of such to our own independent investigations into the nature of Precolumbian Art History in the 21st century.

Park, Crystal L.
2010   “Making Sense of The Meaning Literature: An Integrative Review of Meaning Making and Its Effects on Adjustment To Stressful Life Events”, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 136, No. 2: 257–301. DOI: 10.1037/a0018301


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