Unseen Art
Release Date:17 Jan 2023

Unseen Art

Making, Vision, and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica

University of Texas Press

In Unseen Art, Claudia Brittenham unravels one of the most puzzling phenomena in Mesoamerican art history: why many of the objects that we view in museums today were once so difficult to see. She examines the importance that ancient Mesoamerican people assigned to the process of making and enlivening the things we now call art, as well as Mesoamerican understandings of sight as an especially godlike and elite power, in order to trace a gradual evolution in the uses of secrecy and concealment, from a communal practice that fostered social memory to a tool of imperial power.

Addressing some of the most charismatic of all Mesoamerican sculptures, such as Olmec buried offerings, Maya lintels, and carvings on the undersides of Aztec sculptures, Brittenham shows that the creation of unseen art has important implications both for understanding status in ancient Mesoamerica and for analyzing art in the present. Spanning nearly three thousand years of the Indigenous art of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, Unseen Art connects the dots between vision, power, and inequality, providing a critical perspective on our own way of looking.

Unique, insightful, nicely theorized, and important, Unseen Art will stand alone among studies of Mesoamerican art produced in the last hundred years. This book will be a service to art historians and archaeologists studying ancient Mesoamerica but other parts of the world as well. Cecelia Klein
In Unseen Art, Claudia Brittenham looks deeply into the images and sacred things left by the peoples of Mesoamerica. She explores what it meant to 'see' beyond the sense of sight, whether in relation to concealed Olmec pavements; Maya lintels that offered, at best, partial glimpses; or the 'radical invisibility' of Aztec carvings—not a few with hidden surfaces that were never meant to be viewed. With insight and élan, Claudia Brittenham teaches us new ways of understanding Mesoamerican images. In so doing, she shows that the esoteric path to knowledge both privileges sight and, at times, transcends it. Stephen Houston
Ultimately, Unseen Art brings to the forefront questions about the power of looking that are vital not just for scholars of Indigenous art of the Americas, but for all of art history. The interventions presented here ask us to consider the meaning of looking; the role of the body in relation to works of art; and connections between visibility and power that resonate in the present as well as in the past. caa.reviews
Claudia Brittenham’s new book delves into the question of why Mesoamerican cultures produced works that often restricted or occluded the act of 'seeing.' . . . She convincingly argues that how and why works become difficult to see has much to do with how their creators and audiences understood the nature of vision . . . Brittenham proposes that if we begin to understand how these objects were intended to be seen or not seen in their culture, we might have a better understanding of power in Mesoamerica and perhaps even reconsider our own ideas about seeing and experiencing as art historians. Latin American & Latinx Visual Culture

Claudia Brittenham is an associate professor of ancient American art at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is The Murals of Cacaxtla: The Power of Painting in Ancient Mexico.

  • List of Tables and Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Seeing and Knowing
  • Chapter 1. Making: Building Community at La Venta
  • Chapter 2. Vision: Seeing Maya Lintels
  • Chapter 3. Power: Carving the Undersides of Aztec Sculpture
  • Conclusion. The Language of Zuyua
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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