The word “classic” in the title of this special issue of Selva might seem to some a misnomer. Rather than consistently use any of the rich traditions of the concept from various sub-discplines of art history—say, Mesoamerican or Chinese—or address the contested self-identification of the academic field of “Classics” itself, I have thought about the operational role of this word in all the different art histories I have worked with. (I was for a few years responsible for creating and managing a non-Eurocentric introductory art history course with the help of colleagues and collaborators. My level of engagement in various subdisciplines is more or less superficial, but has been broad and undertaken in earnest.)
Operationally, a “classic” work in any given tradition is one that notionally sets a transhistorical standard and/or possesses notionally eternal, if shifting, value within a given community; often, that community will assume that a classic work could potentially set the standard and hold value for all communities. In this framework, how do works become classics? This may go without saying, but to be transhistorical, an object, site, or image must first of all endure. This endurance need not be strictly material. Verbal or ritual traditions may preserve the importance of an object. I like to ask Euro-American academic audiences to think about the Shield of Achilles: this object is surely a cultural classic or functions as one. And yet this Shield endures without ever having existed…
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