With a Foreword by Jennifer Purtle
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List of Plates
Foreword: “Whose Hobbyhorse?” by Jennifer Purtle
A Brace of Comparisons
Tying Some Laces
IV The Endgame, and the Qing Eclipse
List of Plates
Zhang Hongtu, Shitao–Van Gogh. 1998.
Shitao, Landscape from An Album for Daoist Yu. Album leaf, ink and color on
paper. C.C. Wang Collection, New York.
Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night. 1889.
Top: Vincent Van Gogh, View of Arles. Museum of Art, Rhode Islands School
of Design, Providence, RI. Bottom: Shen Zhou, Scenes at Tiger Hill, Oak and
Hummocks with Three Figures at a Wall. Cleveland Museum of Art.
Zhao Mengfu, Autumn Colors in the Qiao [Que] and Hua Mountains, detail. 26–27
Handscroll, 28.4 x 93.2 cm. Taipei, National Palace Museum.
Left: Michelangelo, Study for the Libyan Sybil. New York, Metropolitan
Museum of Art. Right: Copy after Wu Tao-tzu, Flying Devil. 8th c. Hopei
Province, Chü Yang. As reproduced in Benjamin Rowland, Art in East and
West, plates 7 and 8.
Top: John Marin, Maine Islands. Washington, Phillips Gallery. Bottom: Ying
Yujian, attr., Mountain Village in Clearing Mist, one of the Eight Views of
Hsiao and Hsiang. Handscroll. Tokyo, Matsudaira Collection. As reproduced
in Benjamin Rowland, Art in East and West, plates 41 and 42.
Left: Matthias Grünewald, The Temptation of St. Anthony, detail. c. 1510.
Germany, Colmar. Right: Li Cheng, Reading the Tablet. Sumiyoshi, Abe
Collection. As reproduced in Benjamin Rowland, Art in East and West, plates
31 and 32.
Left: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men in Contemplation of the Moon.
Formerly Dresden, Gemäldegalerie. Right: Ma Yuan, Sage Contemplating the
Moon. Toyko, Kuroda Collection. As reproduced in Benjamin Rowland, Art
in East and West, plates 37 and 38.
Guo Xi, Early Spring. 1072. Hanging scroll, 158.3 x 108.1 cm. Taipei,
National Palace Museum.
viii List of Plates
Li Cheng, attr., [Temple Amid Snowy Peaks], detail. Boston, Museum of Fine
Ma Yuan, Landscape with Willow and Bridge. Album leaf in fan shape, 24 x
24 cm. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.
Zhao Mengfu, attr., Orchid Flowers, Bamboo, and Rocks, detail. 1302.
Shanghai Museum of Art.
Huang Gongwang, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, detail. Taipei, Palace
Ni Zan, The Jung-hsi Studio. 1372. Hanging scroll, 74.7 x 35.5 cm. Taipei,
National Palace Museum.
Wang Meng, The Forest Grotto at Chü-ch’ü. Hanging scroll, 68.7 x 42.5 cm.
Taipei, National Palace Museum.
Wen Zhengming, Cypress and Old Rock. 1550. Handscroll on mulberry bark
paper, 10 1/4 x 19 1/4 in. Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Gallery.
Dong Qichang, Landscape after Lu Hong’s “Ten Views of a Thatched Hut.”
1621–1624. Album leaf, ink and color on paper. Image: 56.2 x 36.2 cm.
Kansas City, Nelson-Atkins Gallery.
Wang Hui, Pictorial Representation of the Poem by Yuweng, detail. 1686.
Shanghai Museum of Art.
Wang Shimin, Cloud Capped Mountains and Mists, Riverside, detail. 1658.
Shanghai Museum of Art.
Dong Qichang, Mountains in Autumn, detail. Shanghai Museum of Art.
Qian Du, The Bamboo Pavilion at Huang-Kang. Cleveland Museum of Art. 104–5
Dai Xi, Endless Range of Mountains with Dense Forest, detail. 1859. Shanghai
Museum of Art.
Fu Baoshi, Resting by the Deep Valley, detail. 1943. Shanghai Museum of
Yun Shouping, Album Leaf (one of five), detail. Shanghai Museum of Art.
Zha Shibiao, Searching for Secluded Scenery, detail. Nanjing, Cao Tian
Gong Xian, Eight Views of Landscape, detail. 1684. Shanghai Museum of
Bada Shanren, Fish and Ducks, detail. 1689. Shanghai Museum of Art.
Shitao, Gathering in the Western Garden, detail. Shanghai Museum of Art.
by Jennifer Purtle
I read the manuscript for this book expecting to hate it. Rumors about the manuscript
bemoaned a non-specialist author who presumed to tell specialists in the field of Chinese
painting history working to recover traditional Chinese ideas about painting that and how they
practiced Western art history. Moreover, the author allegedly did so in terms not interesting
to many specialists in the field of Chinese painting history, nor fully intelligible to some.
To propose the Westernness of the practice of art history in the field of Chinese painting
history—which has, since the middle of the twentieth century, sought means (including
rigorous sinology) to recover traditional Chinese ideas about painting—might be construed
by some as proposing the failure of that enterprise. For some, the manuscript thus proposed
the fundamental impossibility of thinking about Chinese landscape painting history in its
What does it mean to consider the history of the art of non-Western cultures in their
own terms, especially when those cultures, despite the presence of sophisticated, indigenous
strategies for thinking and writing about images and things—and/or art—lack an enterprise
approximate to the Western discipline of art history? Can such a project be undertaken within
the discipline of art history? Is such a project better suited to anthropological approaches to
art, even though the question of what constitutes “art” outside the Western tradition remains
difficult to define? Or, does such a project, even as it closes the distance between nonWestern art and the Western scholar or viewer, necessarily transpose the object of inquiry
into Western epistemological frameworks and strategies of academic inquiry, thus leaving
an uncrossable, irreducible gap between the non-Western object and the Western practice of
Universal art histories and world art, both firmly grounded in Western practices of
art history (and often in the nomenclature of the nation-state), impose the epistemological
limitations of their creators and practitioners on the objects of their study. Objects, moving
within and beyond the conceptual borders of art history, problematize both the entry of
objects into art historical discourse and the reception of these objects in that discourse. As
a result, the movement of things from one culture into the discursive fields of another is
as an object lesson in cross-cultural hermeneutics. When the things are Chinese landscape
paintings and the discursive field is Western art history, this object lesson reveals that the
study of the history of Chinese landscape painting is defined by epistemological structures
and hermeneutic practices entirely alien to it. It is precisely this point that Elkins makes in
this controversial text.
Loading the Deck
That the history of Chinese landscape painting might be defined by epistemological
structures and hermeneutic practices entirely alien to it is not limited to the historiography of
Chinese landscape painting studies. In a series of paintings called Repaint Chinese Shan Shui
Painting—some of which were shown in Shuffling the Deck (an exhibition in the Princeton
University Art Museum in 2003 that “explored the dialogue between contemporary thought
and artistic practice”)1 —the Beijing-born, New York–based artist Zhang Hongtu (b. 1943)
made Chinese landscape painting Western art history. Zhang Hongtu did this by repainting
the compositions of famous masterpieces of Chinese painting in the style of Western
Fig. A: Zhang Hongtu, Shitao–Van Gogh. 1998.
Fig. B: Shitao, Landscape from An Album for Daoist Yu.
Album leaf, ink and color on paper. C.C. Wang Collection,
Fig. C: Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night. 1889.
nineteenth-century masters. In a work from this series, Shitao–Van Gogh of 1998 (fig. A),
Zhang takes a famous composition, Landscape from An Album for Daoist Yu (fig. B) by one
of the most famous Chinese landscape painters, Shitao (1642–1707), and repaints it in the
style of Vincent Van Gogh’s (1853–1890) The Starry Night of 1889 (fig. C).
To the viewer who knows both traditions, Zhang’s Shitao–Van Gogh, like the remainder
of paintings in this series, is wry and funny, the improbable meeting of two great masterpieces.
In reprising a famous composition by Shitao, an egoistic painter who rejected prescriptions
for painting in the style of Chinese Old Masters, Zhang Hongtu’s hybrid playfully makes
Shitao the proleptic progenitor of Van Gogh.2 But Shitao–Van Gogh, like the other paintings
in Zhang’s series, is a pointed meeting of Chinese landscape painting with Western art
history, one with disturbing implications for historians of Chinese art: viewers unfamiliar
with Chinese landscape painting see Shitao–Van Gogh as Van Gogh. When viewers who do
not know Chinese landscape painting fail to recognize the Shitao composition, they render
it invisible, eliding the status and influence of a masterpiece of Chinese landscape painting.
Such viewers thus blithely assimilate one of the single most iconic compositions of Chinese
landscape painting into Western art history, shuffling the deck—or rather loading it—in
favor of Western art historical outcomes.3
Just as Zhang Hongtu’s Repaint Chinese Shan Shui Painting shows how easily Chinese
landscape painting can become Western art history, in Chinese Landscape Painting as
Western Art History, James Elkins proposes six hypotheses that, based on Elkins’s sustained
engagement with both Chinese and Western traditions, push his audience to consider how
Chinese landscape painting is Western art history. The six hypotheses are a bracing call for
art historians in all subfields, including but not limited to specialists in Chinese painting,
to meditate on the conceptual framework and historical evolution of their discipline, and
to consider these with respect to the practice of art history. Briefly summarized, these
hypotheses: 1) propose the inherently Western nature of art history, and the place of Chinese
landscape painting history as example or examples within Western art history, rather
than as a co-equal of Western art history; 2) problematize comparison (entrenched in the
discipline of art history), especially cross-cultural comparison; 3) advise that art history
is so inherently a Western discipline that any history of Chinese landscape painting is a
Western endeavor, even if written by a Chinese person in Chinese for a Chinese audience;
4) state that comparison of historical perspective (that is, a sense of relative position with
respect to one’s own tradition) reveals assumptions about the nature of art history and its
sequences, and shows affinities between Chinese and Western periods; 5) note that Chinese
painting has an odd structure, exemplified by decline in the late Ming and derogatory, if
not absent narratives of the Qing (a counter-hypothesis contends that late Ming and Qing
artists appear to art history as a form of postmodernism); and 6) plead for sustained inquiry
in considering art history as Western, aware that when inquiry into art objects transcends
Western assumptions, it will no longer be recognizable as art history.
Though rarely voiced, some scholars of Chinese art history know, from their own
working practices and institutional situations, the substance of Elkins’s hypotheses—even
as their colleagues in Western art history may never have considered the odd synthesis
of Western discipline and its Chinese objects that preoccupy their colleagues. For some
historians of Chinese art history, Elkins’s text is an affront because he, a non-specialist,
presumes to tell specialists in the field what they already know; for others, the text is an
affront because he tells them something they do not know.4 For still others, the affront comes
from telling specialists that the history they have constructed for the tradition that they study
fails to meet basic standards of plausibility for European language art historical scholarship,
thus making that history an exceptional and unusual artifact of cross-cultural encounter that
privileges Western art history even as it purports to understand Chinese landscape painting
in its own terms. Still other specialists find the book irrelevant because it falls beyond the
questions they ask, and constructs its narrative outside the range of texts that they use to
consider the history of Chinese landscape painting.
Finally, some specialists take offense at the absence of Chinese scholarship in Elkins’s
text. Here, the Westernness of Chinese painting history manifests itself twice over. First,
Elkins does not read modern Chinese, so cannot read this literature; he is, in this way, the
archetypal Western scholar of Chinese painting history. But second, were Elkins to read
Chinese, and thus to more fully engage Chinese language scholarship of Chinese painting
history, this encounter would only reinforce Elkins’s position: for, unlike its Western
counterparts, Sinophone scholarship of Chinese painting, from all parts of the Sinophone
world, has, until the 1990s, tended to focus more on describing connoisseurial and
documentary detail than on crafting grand narratives informed by Western presuppositions
about historical and art historical writing. This stems partly from the fact that it is only
from the late 1990s that it has been possible to earn a PhD in Chinese art history in the PRC
or Taiwan (and to write that thesis in Chinese), and also partly from the fact that Sinophone
scholars trained in the West often write in Western languages, and from the vantage of
the Western art historical tradition in which they were trained. Thus while Sinophone
scholarship serves as a foundation of the field—few among us in the field of Chinese
painting history could imagine working without the great connoisseurial contributions
of Xu Bangda (b. 1911),5 for example, and without the ground-breaking documentary
contributions of Chen Gaohua,6 Mu Yiqin,7 and many others—it is only recently, perhaps
through a process that some might call the globalization of art history,8 that Sinophone
scholarship has become imbricated, institutionally and intellectually, in the messy web of
Western art history and its idiosyncratic expectations for Chinese landscape painting. In the
past, Sinophone scholarship did not leave itself open to Elkins’s critique, thus reinforcing
Elkins’s point about the Westernness of Chinese painting history.
Specialists in the field may not be the sole or primary audience for this book. Indeed,
the number of rejections the manuscript has received suggests that whoever has reviewed
it does not see its worth, or a point in its publication. But if Chinese landscape painting,
and Chinese art history more generally, are Western art history (not all will agree!), then
perhaps it is interesting, and even beneficial, that Elkins’s hypotheses usefully explain, in
the language of a theoretically- and historiographically-informed Western art history, the
cross-cultural position of the field to larger art historical audiences. In an ideal world, I
would hope that colleagues in Western art history would read the scholarship of colleagues
in Chinese art history; but in a more instrumentalist world, I would hope that colleagues in
Western art history would engage the idea of Chinese art history, even if it is this book—and
not a work written by a specialist—that serves as their portal. The deck is already loaded in
favor of Western art history; why not make that condition more transparent to those seeking
to study Chinese landscape painting?
Speaking Art History
Some of the funniest things I have read about Chinese art history I have read in the context
of the unpublished manuscript on which this book is based. Among them is a rejection
letter in which a reviewer of the manuscript writes that they are sure that Jim Elkins cannot
understand Chinese painting history because he does not know Chinese. What makes the
letter so funny is that its writer goes on to say that because of their own very vague (but
presumed superior) familiarity with Chinese culture, including having once studied Chinese
(but lacking any real, current facility in it), they know what Elkins can or cannot know about
Chinese landscape painting. In a move reminiscent of Zhuangzi’s (fl. fourth century BC)
“The Pleasure of Fish,”9 this reviewer, who admits that someone who does not know Dutch
might write about Dutch painting, vehemently defends the position that someone who wants
to write about Chinese landscape painting must know Chinese. The point that is missed is
that Elkins does not want to write about “Chinese landscape painting,” but rather about the
“history of Chinese landscape painting.” The language of Elkins’s primary sources is
The idea that a generalist or non-specialist—fluent in predominantly Anglophone, but
also Europhone, art history—could shape perceptions of a non-Western field of art history,
let alone that of Chinese landscape painting, troubles some, if not the majority, of scholars in
the field of Chinese art history. But one must ask: what about the generalist or non-specialist
is or should be offensive to specialist study? Of course a generalist or non-specialist might
not be well equipped to study a non-Western tradition in which they have little to no language
training. But using knowledge of the discipline to analyze the historiography of the subfield,
might such a scholar add value to the larger debates within a non-Western subfield of art
Formalist inquiry and Western-language secondary scholarship are two avenues through
which a generalist or non-specialist can approach Chinese landscape painting. Formalist
approaches to the history of art serve as a putatively universal approach to works of art, and
thus putatively give equal access to works of art to any art historian trained to use them. The
specialist presumably acquires greater facility in the formal analysis of the type of work
they study. But the non-specialist might also, over time, acquire similar facility—or perhaps
even greater facility than some specialists whose arguments rest largely on textual sources
rather than on the study of the object.
This book is brilliant, except for the places where it is dead wrong in the ways that
an outsider is wrong because they do not know Chinese and thus cannot read beyond the
secondary scholarship. Lacking language skills in modern and classical Chinese, a nonspecialist is forced to read the secondary literature of the field. Given their linguistic
limitations, non-specialists—and I think this is true of Elkins—read the European-language
secondary literature more carefully than specialists, who see such literature as bringing
concepts and ideas that they know from primary sources into focus in European languages.
In other words, specialists read the secondary literature of the field in dialogue with, and
as indexical of, primary sources. In contrast, non-specialists readers read the secondary
literature in its own terms—as art history—and hold that literature to a standard that might
be accepted in any subfield of art history.
Just as Elkins posits that Chinese landscape painting is Western art history, Elkins reads
the secondary scholarship of Chinese landscape painting as Western art history. Based on
twentieth-century secondary literature of the field, Elkins argues, in his third chapter, that it
is during the Yuan Dynasty that “a sense of the shape of the past” takes form, that the period
functions as a renascence and as Renaissance. This analogy of painting of the Yuan Dynasty
to that of the Renaissance, coupled with narratives of painting of the late Ming and later
periods that suggest the end of art and its history, to borrow a concept from Hans Belting
(b. 1935), suggest a profoundly different sense of history than that constructed in narratives
of Western art; while Belting sees the history of art end with contemporary art, Elkins aptly
notes that the history of Chinese landscape painting once ended after the late Ming, circa
1644.10 What interests Elkins here might be called, to borrow a phrase from George Kubler
(1912–1996), the shape of time.11 Yet Elkins’s interest lies not in temporaneity and artifacts
in the abstract, as was the case for Kubler, but lies instead in the way in which art historical
narrative is constructed for Chinese landscape painting, a narrative that sketches swaths
of time simultaneous to those described in art historical narratives of Western art, but a
narrative that does not conform to a Western sense of an archetypal shape of the past.
Elkins not only analyzes the ways that other scholars have written Chinese landscape
painting as Western art history, but he intentionally writes Chinese landscape painting as
Western art history. Citing Georg Hegel’s (1770–1831) philosophy of history, specifically
Hegel’s sense of the awareness of the subject and his perception of history, for example,
Elkins positions Yuan Dynasty landscape painting as a parallel to the Italian Renaissance.
The move is one that some historians of Chinese art have made. In Beyond Representation,
Wen Fong makes exactly this point, as do others in a variety of texts Elkins cites.12 When
scholars of Chinese landscape painting have made this point, they have looked to the
Chinese tradition, not to Western philosophy, to justify their point. Yet, is it not possible that
a single phenomenon might be analyzed both with conceptual paradigms current within a
cultural system,13 and by those outside it? Might it not be productive—and provocative—to
understand how any number of interpretive frameworks illuminate an interesting problem?
By positing, reading, and writing Chinese landscape painting as Western art history,
Elkins identifies peculiarities of the secondary scholarship of Chinese landscape painting. In
the third and fourth chapters of his text, Elkins questions the way in which Chinese landscape
history has posited the Yuan Dynasty as a renascence, examining the narratives of artistic
decline and absence of artistic production that were told, in the twentieth century, about
the landscape painting of the late Ming and Qing Dynasties, and the void of scholarship
about Chinese art of the twentieth century. Whereas specialist scholars of Chinese landscape
painting constructed and largely accepted this narrative in the twentieth century, they rarely
probed its strangeness. While these narratives no longer have the same force that they did in
1991, when Why Chinese Landscape Painting Is Western Art History was written, it seems
that it took an outsider reading secondary scholarship of Chinese landscape painting as art
history to see—or at least to comment eloquently upon—the strangeness of the narrative that
the field constructed for itself. While the field has changed in the nearly twenty years since
Elkins first completed his text, the lesson that might be learned from the disjunction of his
text with established narratives of Chinese landscape painting is that specialists, beguiled
by the exceptionalism of a non-Western tradition putatively understood “in its own terms,”
fail to recognize the implausibility of such narratives, or the historiographic factors that
create them. In such moments, the perspective of the outsider, the non-specialist, can serve
as an intervention into a literature that, despite the quality of its scholarship, fails to make
adequate sense with respect to larger worlds of historical inquiry.
In this book, Jim Elkins, who does not speak Chinese, speaks art history. This is perhaps
why he does not make much sense to some historians of Chinese painting, who, as a group,
are variably fluent in Western art history. By writing in the critical and theoretical language
that circulates in the academy these days, Elkins provocatively recalibrates questions and
problems in the writing of the history of Chinese landscape painting with larger questions
across disciplines about humanistic inquiry and historical writing. By speaking art history,
Elkins offers a historiography of Chinese landscape painting that may encourage wider
and more fruitful engagement with Chinese landscape painting by specialists and nonspecialists alike.
Points of Departure
In speaking art history, Elkins’s text departs from the established reference points for writing
the history of Chinese landscape painting. Rather than ground all arguments in the primary
and secondary literature of the field, Elkins at times uses literature written by other nonspecialists who engage the history of Chinese painting as a starting point for his inquiry.
Elkins also uses works of Western art history as a point of departure for his discussion of
Chinese landscape painting and its history. More often than not, specialists in the history
of Chinese landscape painting ignore non-specialists’ writings; at times they even deride
specialists writing in more general ways. Thus when Elkins addresses Hubert Damisch’s
(b. 1928) use, in his Traité du trait of 1995, of only Chinese examples in his first chapter
“Pinceau” (brush)—following Pierre Ryckmans (b. 1935) commentary on Shitao’s Huayu
lu and revisiting Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology (which he does elsewhere in the
text)—he unpacks the intellectual context of the Traité, and shows how ideas about Chinese
painting history, whether or not acceptable to specialist scholars, function in a wider
intellectual context. The point that those who impugn Elkins’s text miss is that whether or
not Damisch, Ryckmans, and Derrida corporately make a statement that specialist scholars
might accept as being “true” of Chinese landscape painting, they nonetheless contribute
an idea—and an influential one in art history—of what is at stake in Chinese paintings.
What this manuscript does, then, is inscribe other non-specialist texts as potential points of
departure for inquiry into Chinese landscape painting.
To facilitate conversation, Elkins’s text also opens up the history of Chinese landscape
painting to texts and ideas of Western art history that specialists in the field may not read
or otherwise engage. Using works of Western art history to talk about Chinese landscape
painting has been a staple of the writing of Chinese landscape painting history in the twentieth
century. But Elkins positions those writings differently than would a specialist in Chinese
painting, using them to leverage big ideas in ways different from the specialist. Elkins, for
example, thinks through the case of the Bulgarian modernist Detchko Uzunov (1899–1986),
makes references to classics of art history such as E.H. Gombrich’s (1909–2001) The Story
of Art first published in 1950, uses Hegel to think about the abrasive nature of comparison
and the self-awareness of the historian. In considering Western art historians who study
only Western art, Elkins leads his reader to Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968), E.H. Gombrich,
Meyer Schapiro (1904–1996), and Hans Belting, effectively forcing the reader interested
in Chinese landscape painting to confront authors of foundational texts of art history that
might be useful in terms of thinking through larger issues of the discipline. Similarly, Elkins
leads his reader to confront more recent authors such as John Onians (b. 1942), Norman
Bryson (b. 1949), and David Summers (b. 1941)—all Western art historians with sustained
interests in non-Western topics. Many specialists in Chinese landscape painting know these
texts. But rarely are we asked to think about them with respect to our own work, let alone
in rapid-fire succession. Elkins’s book is thus a stimulating and provocative read for the
specialist scholar, asking them to rethink their basic assumptions about art history and the
relevance of its important texts to the history of Chinese landscape painting.
Curiously, nearly a decade before the publication of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential
book Provincializing Europe (2000), Elkins’s text provides a detailed, though some might
say idiosyncratic, account of the ways in which Western art history serves as the framework
for the study of Chinese landscape painting. Elkins’s hypotheses are hardly radical in light
of recent work in postcolonial and critical area studies. Such studies make clear the implicit
colonial and imperialist assumptions present in Western academic disciplines and area
studies, namely, the formatting of knowledge in Western terms.14 Even though Elkins’s text
might now seem dated or derivative, this is merely an artifact of not being able to get this
manuscript published circa 1991. Strangely, in 1991 Chinese landscape painting could not
serve as a point of departure for thinking about the implicitly colonial practices of art history
… and only now, when such practices have been revealed in their broadest senses in other
disciplines, will the subfield acknowledge them.
Who speaks for Chinese landscape painting? For whom might Chinese landscape painting
serve as a hobbyhorse—perhaps not the narrowly iconological hobbyhorse of Gombrich that
barely applies to Chinese landscape painting, but a larger, shape-shifting hobbyhorse, even a
Chinese one, a zhuma—useful for considering any number of art historical questions? And
The time has come for specialists to consider how the material that we study might
be of interest to non-specialist or generalist art historians. Some historians of China have
already made this leap: the Harvard China Historical GIS project seeks to make as much
data as possible available in English so that social and economic historians not trained in
Chinese might begin to analyze the wealth of Chinese data compiled in the project, and thus
cast comparative light on the social and economic development of China.15 The approach of
the Harvard CHGIS suggests that the intelligent non-specialist, knowledgeable of another
subfield of the discipline, has something to offer the specialist in the subfield as well as the
larger world of ideas.
If historians of Chinese landscape painting and other forms of Chinese art embrace the
position that the Harvard HCGIS promotes, this raises the stakes for those of us in the field
about training non-specialists who, like Elkins, take our classes. Do we subsequently expect
the non-specialist with some training and interest in our subfield to do nothing further with
the knowledge they acquire? Is it simply the case that such courses were either a convenient
way to fill a blank in a course schedule, or a means of fulfilling a distribution requirement?
Or do we instead hope that the non-specialist/generalist will use their knowledge and
considerable intelligence to forge useful ideas that illuminate the subfields on the basis of
different knowledge bases?
When a non-specialist takes Chinese landscape painting as their hobbyhorse, they
might alternatively serve as an interlocutor between specialists, or between specialists in the
subfield and specialists in other fields and/or generalists in the discipline. As an interlocutor,
Elkins functions effectively. His text is illuminating, especially when it is right, but even
when it is wrong. Moreover, specialists are likely not to agree on what is “right” and what
is “wrong”; and, they would do well to remember that errors are not the sole province of
the non-specialist, for even specialist authors get things wrong at times, things that peer
review does not always catch. As an interlocutor, Elkins questions the narratives of the
field established in the twentieth century, narratives that have lost their force with newer
scholarship, but that have also not been revisited. While the field has moved on in terms of
the shape of the past that it presents, no specialist has stepped in (or perhaps will step in,
given the small size of the field and its need to keep moving forward rather than to look
back) to write the history of these narratives, to expose their oddness. Elkins does work that
no specialist will do any time soon; the interlocutor takes up a project that would otherwise
remain undone. Specialists may not agree with the way Elkins connects the dots of secondary
scholarship in his historiographic narrative. For, by speaking art history, Elkins’s text loads
the deck in favor of new ideas about Chinese landscape painting. But rather than provide
the final word on the subject, Elkins’s work becomes a point of departure, a text from which
to open debate to any number of art historians for whom Chinese landscape painting might
serve as a hobbyhorse.
Author James Elkins Isbn 9789622090002 File size 4.7MB Year 2010 Pages 208 Language English File format PDF Category Art Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare This is a provocative essay of reflections on traditional mainstream scholarship on Chinese art as done by towering figures in the field such as James Cahill and Wen Fong. James Elkins offers an engaging and accessible survey of his personal journey encountering and interpreting Chinese art through Western scholars’ writings. He argues that the search for optimal comparisons is itself a modern, Western interest, and that art history as a discipline is inherently Western in several identifiable senses. Although he concentrates on art history in this book, and on Chinese painting in particular, these issues bear implications for Sinology in general, and for wider questions about humanistic inquiry and historical writing. –Jennifer Purtle’s Foreword provides a useful counterpoint from the perspective of a Chinese art specialist, anticipating and responding to other specialists’ likely reactions to Elkins’s hypotheses. This book is a stimulating read for the specialist and non-specialist alike, challenging them to reconsider their fundamental assumptions about art history and to rethink the art historical project in broader terms.–James Elkins teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago–“The issues which Elkins raises are . . . fascinating, thoughtful, and provocative. Only an ‘outsider’ to the field could raise them, and Elkins is perhaps the only outsider who could . . . . Exemplary.” – Jerome Silbergeld, Princeton University- Download (4.7MB) Theorizing Visual Studies: Writing Through the Discipline Concerning the Spiritual and the Concrete in Kandinskys Art Beauty in the City: The Ashcan School The Horizon Book Of The Arts Of Russia The Art of the Yellow Springs: Understanding Chinese Tombs Load more posts