This book is somewhat disappointing. If such is the case, it ought not to be so, since Kelemen is a knowledgeable, enthusiastic writer. Art of the Americas is a well illustrated paperback of handsome format directed toward the general public at a time when most works on Latin American art cost far more than this volume. Moreover, it is gracefully, persuasively written. The more is the pity, then, that the casual reader must be warned to expect numerous errors, false or baseless assumptions, and mystifying forays through time and space.
For example, to the Toltecs Kelemen here wrongly attributes the destruction of Teotihuacán and the introduction of post-and-lintel architecture in the Valley of Mexico. Like some wrathful ancient deity he arbitrarily reduces the number of lakes in this region during the pre-Cortesian era from five to two. The untutored reader is made to guess to what cultures belong such important sites in Mesoamerica as Xochicalco and Malinalco. Although the masonry at Copán is unique in the structures of Classic Maya centers because it is not limestone, according to Kelemen “[this] site is characterized by the use of . . . limestone.” Regarding the evacuation of many Maya centers during the ninth century by large numbers of people—one of the great mysteries of American archaeology—Kelemen says not a word.
He is similarly indifferent to the arts of the so-called “intermediate zone,” an area which geographically divides Mesoamerica from most of South America. In addition, on the one hand, a gratuitous chapter on the remote Philippines is appended to the post-Columbian material; on the other, Kelemen ignores stylistic analogies, recently pressed by authorities, between the sculpture of ancient Tiahuanaco and the South Pacific Island called Easter.
More satisfactory because it is not so error-ridden, the Hispanic section nevertheless serves the reader less than well. If he did not know so before, he will, after finishing this book, remain ignorant of the fine architecture produced by colonial Brazil and of the scultpure created by the incomparable “Aleijadinho.” Nor will he be likely to identify “mestizo” architecture if ever he confronts it.
Another major weakness is Kelemen’s cultivation of irrelevancy. Together, the Appendix—with its autobiographical and expository passages—and the chapter on the Philippines contain nearly thirty pages which could have been used more wisely to strengthen other sections, e.g. pre-Columbian sculpture.
Even the selected bibliography is flawed. The 1943 and 1956 editions of Kelemen’s Medieval American Art contain serious errors and are no longer reliable. Unaccountably the bibliography fails to include George Kubler and John McAndrew. By and large, then, Art of the Americas cannot be given good marks. Even the title seems infelicitous.