A Yuan “Revolution” in Painting?


A Yuan “Revolution” in Painting?

That question, meaning: was there a decisive change in the direction that Chinese painting was taking around the end of Song dynasty and the beginning of the Yuan, decisive enough to justify the common practice of writing of a Yuan “revolution” in painting?--that question may seem too esoteric and specialized for ordinary readers.  But those who read further (bless you) will find that arguing it, as I and two others have done, raises large basic questions about how we “do” art history, and may help to clarify the thinking of others who come to be engaged, one way or another, with that problem, since both my correspondents write with uncommon clarity and make strong cases for their beliefs, as I myself (I hope) do also. The main body of this text is made up of a correspondence that went on between Jerome Silbergeld, Richard Vinograd, and myself back in the winter of 2009--I have taken this long in getting around to writing an introduction to it and posting it on my website. What preceded the correspondence is what I will now outline.

Some time in 1999 I was invited to give an endowed lecture, the Haley  Lecture,  at Princeton. The lecture I gave can be read on this website as one of the CLPs:

CLP 34: 1999 "Some Thoughts on the History and Post-history of Chinese Painting." Haley Lecture, Princeton.

I had already given a similar lecture shortly before at Stanford, and got the responses of Vinograd and his students--more later on that. The lecture was eventually published as:

“Some Thoughts on the History and Post-History of Chinese Painting.” In: Archives of Asian Art LV, 2005, 17-37.

I had asked the editor of Archives, when she accepted my lecture for publication, to ask two younger colleagues,  Jerome Silbergeld at Princeton and Robert Harrist at Columbia, to write responses to be printed after it.
Both did; and when  I read them I was surprised to find that they didn’t so much respond to what I had considered the “main idea” of my lecture--the idea of seeing post-Song Chinese painting as belonging to a “post-historical” period--as to my use of the conventional designation of the division in early Yuan as a “revolution.” (I don’t have their responses here to reread, and am writing mainly of Jerome’s, since he was involved also in the subsequent correspondence. Please find and read Bob Harrist’s for yourselves.) In other words, my “big idea” that I had expected to arouse controversy in fact received little attention, and what they focused on, instead, was a term and concept that I had thought of as generally accepted and un-controversial.

What was my “big idea,” the main point of my lecture and article? It was to adopt for post-Song Chinese painting   the term and the concept of “post-historical” from Hans Belting, who had expounded it in his major book:

Hans Belting, The End of the History of Art? Trans. by Christopher S. Wood, Chicago,1987.

He argued--convincingly, I thought--that the production of art had followed a kind of “history” that can be traced--and has been, endlessly over the centuries in Europe and the U.S., until some recent time--I forget when he places it, after Impressionism & Post-Impressionism & Cubism, I would assume--after which  the production of art  longer seems to follow a “historical” or quasi-developmental pattern, so that one can no longer write “histories” of it. He points out in his book that histories of art are indeed written up to that time, and  carcely attempted afterwards. In my lecture I made the same point about Chinese painting, citing Belting: Chinese  writings on painting that can  be called historical, from Zhang Yenyuan’s  Lidai minghua ji (or earlier) up through Guo Ruoxu in the eleventh century and Deng Chun in the twelfth--and then no  more. From the Yuan-Ming-Qing we have biographical texts, theoretical texts,  technical essays--but no histories. Rick Vinograd, after my lecture, agreed that I had a strongpoint there, even though he couldn’t accept my idea as a whole.

Hans Belting

(I later met Belting, by the way, when we were on a panel together at a symposium at Japan House in New York, where his daughter was a curator, and I had a chance to talk with him. The paper I gave on that occasion is on this website as:

CLP 32: 1999 "Something Borrowed, Something New: Cross-cultural Transmission and Innovation in East Asian Painting." Lecture, Japan House, New York.)

For readings on how artists and their works can take on, over time, the pattern of a series, one following another in a quasi-orderly way, read the works of late Ernst Gombrich--and, for a very interesting theoretical discussion of this phenomenon, George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks On the History of Things. When this book appeared in 1962, all of us seriously involved in Chinese painting studies were reading it and corresponding with each other about how his ideas might apply to our subject. Young people I talk with today not only haven’t read Kubler’s book, they haven’t even heard of it--this is the outcome of a basic tenet of Big Theory: don’t bother to consider or argue against the alternatives, just reject them as hopelessly backward and outdated.

To continue with our narrative leading up to the correspondence: in 2006 Nancy Steinhardt, old friend and distinguished professor at U. Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who specializes in Asian architectural history, decided to organize a symposium on Yuan painting to coincide with the first exhibition of six important Yuan paintings in a private collection there. She phoned me and wrote to me, wanting me to be a “keynote speaker.” But, alas, it was a time when I could not travel--too soon after my heart attacks and operations of that year. The symposium, titled “New Directions in Yuan Painting,” took place on December 2nd 2006; Jerome Silbergeld gave the keynote talk,  Rick Vinograd the last (except for one by Nancy herself on Yuan tomb painting), and Bob Harrist was  discussant.

Jerome Silbergeld


Rick Vinograd

The papers from the symposium were later published in Ars Orientalis no. 37, under the title Current Directions in Yuan Painting. You can read there Jerome’s and Rick’s papers:

The Yuan "Revolutionary" Picnic: Feasting on the Fruits of Song (A Historiographic Menu)
Jerome Silbergeld

De-centering Yuan Painting
Richard Vinograd

When I received my copy of that issue of Ars Orientalis, I wrote Nancy--but  no, we have now reached the point where the main body of this essay (or whatever it is) begins. I will only add, before turning to that, that an old paper of my own alluded to by Jerome and Rick is also readable on this website:

CLP 63: 1968 “Away from a Definition of Yuan Painting.” Yuan art Symposium, Cleveland Art Museum

That symposium was held on the occasion of the great exhibition of Yuan-period art organized by Sherman Lee and Wai-kam Ho, “Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty”--the catalog, under the same title, was for many years one of the basic books in our field. At the symposium I presented a curious paper, intended as a friendly jab at Max Loehr and his insistence that we should pay attention only to the new and significant in art and ignore all the rest; I argued (just for that occasion) that if we wanted to, we could construct a non-history of Yuan painting that took into account all the painting done in that period, including inconsequential continuations of Song traditions. (My title was of course a play on the common “Toward a Definition of…”) Now that paper, which I never “published” in a true sense and which I never meant to be taken really seriously, has come back to haunt me.

(Looking at it on my website now, I see that several other papers in the symposium are also there--Suzuki Kei’s, for one--along with a long list of participants with their mailing addresses! You will have to scroll down to find my paper.)

Finally: as an indication of just how important this issue is to me, how deeply I believe in that great change at the end of Yuan (the virtual end of a great tradition of ink-landscape painting, the rise to the fore of the literati or scholar-amateur movement that casts the long-dominant professional masters into decidedly less prestigious art-historical roles), watch the Postlude to our video-lecture series, which is titled: “Arguing the Aftermath.” That, too, can be accessed through this website. (See? You scarcely need to go outside…)

Now at last (says patient but somewhat exasperated Reader) can we get to the correspondence? Yes, replies your long-winded Introducer, here it is, what you have all been waiting for,


An Early Yuan “Revolution” in Painting?

Correspondence with Jerome Silbergeld & Richard Vinograd (winter 2009)

Dear Nancy, (letter to Nancy Steinhardt)

The copy of Ars Orientalis came in the mail this morning, along with the separate offprint of your article. I had already received AO through regular subscription, and have read several of the pieces in it; not yet yours, which I’ll read now.

Although I couldn’t be there for the symposium and am not represented as an author in the volume, I feel very much there in spirit—and target, although everybody is thoroughly respectful and I am cited often, and positively. The pieces by Jerome and Rick follow up on the responses written by Jerome and Bob Harrist to my lecture article published several years ago in Archives, in which I used Hans Belting’s concept of a post-historical period in art history to propose it for the great break (as I persist in seeing it) from Song to Yuan in painting. I recommended to the editor (Marsha) that Jerome and Bob be asked for responses, and they wrote them, both fine pieces expressing the conviction of their (younger) generation, which I would characterize as: Yes, but we don’t recognize revolutions any more. I had already heard that from Rick when I gave the lecture at Stanford, and wasn’t at all troubled by it, as I’m not now. We are talking, after all, only about a concept or construction, not a historical event like the Mongol invasion and the fall of Sung; and whether one accepts that particular construction or not isn’t a matter of great moment. Jerome cites Panofsky pointing out that if one chooses, one can emphasize continuities with Late Medieval and do away with the Renaissance in Italy or Europe. So I am in the company of Jacob Burckhardt (The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, was it?), and feel comfortable there—Jacob and I have no worries about how posterity will judge our cultural constructions. I’ll send copies of this to Jerome and Rick—Hi, both of you, enjoyed your pieces, good expressions of the collective attitudes of your generation (joke from Old Professor). I’m just finishing up the recording of a series of video-recorded lectures, ending, as it happens, with the end of Sung, and some comments on what follows; so I’ll make a reference to the pieces by you two, and the whole issue or controversy, there.

Best, Jim

dear jim,

greetings! it's always good to hear from you, no matter what the message. you are in good company, not only with burckhardt but panofsky, too. panofsky faced resistance to "THE renaissance," to its rootedness in notions of period style and regional privileging, but the thrust of of his book, R&R, was to stand by the original concepts. and yet, "my" generation didn't come out of nowhere and you're not off the hook. you asked us to be alert to traditional Chinese class interests and to be skeptical of literati exceptionalism (barnhart resisted; i enthused that someone of some influence in the field felt rather like i did about such things), and i think that today's skepticism about revolutions and period style -- not throwing these concepts out but trying to account for them in increasingly complex and nuanced ways -- is the logical and natural extension of your own questioning manner. in the AO articles, we write of you (as you put it) in a way that is "thoroughly respectful," and that is not just for personal reasons but because we still find your work very much akin to our own and we remain deeply indebted to it. one phrase in my AO article is, "generational trend (by which I mean a generation of thinking, not the age of the thinkers themselves) . . . ." i always thought of you as the bridge -- the main thoroughfare -- between generations, the most forward thinking, forever young-minded and always generous to the young -- and i still do.

i hope you're doing well. fairly well, at least. and perhaps moving toward moving, south and back to berkeley. i spent three hours today with wen, going over a chapter that he's been writing, and he always speaks of his very special affection for you, with lots of nostalgia. let's hear it for nostalgia, something our ancient chinese friends understood well.

all the best from here, and stay in touch


Dear Jerome, (late night musing on your response)

It is generous and thoughtful of you to write as you did in response to my paragraph for Nancy.  Yes, I played some part in opening up different ways to construct our “histories,” or whatever we call them, in some of my writings--the “Three Alternatives”, before that the “Away From a Definition” talk, which two of the papers cite—I did that, I can’t remember why it was, but to needle Max, and it had that effect. My whole point has been that different ways of thinking about “what happens” in Chinese painting lead to different concepts of “Yuan painting,’ or whatever; and that since they are concepts, they aren’t right or wrong, but can be more or less productive or useful in opening the way to new kinds of understanding. The question of whether the Renaissance in Europe “happened” is the wrong question; asking whether it has been a productive concept is the right one, and obviously it has, when one thinks of the vast literature and kinds of understanding it’s led to. And when I adopted Belting’s post-historical idea and applied it to the Sung-Yuan “revolution,” and pointed out that the Chinese just then (as Belting, whom I quoted, says they necessarily will) gave up writing quasi-art-historical accounts of their painting, after centuries of writing them (exactly the centuries over which we can, if we want, construct a Gombrich-like developmental “history”)--I thought that might be accepted as a confirmation of the applicability of the concept to that epochal (right word?) moment in Chinese painting history. And Rick, after hearing my lecture, acknowledged that I had a point there, I recall, but still went on to do the “we don’t recognize revolutions any more” thing. I was, frankly, disappointed then, and later when neither you nor Bob tried to consider the possible applicability and usefulness of the post-historical concept to the Sung-Yuan whatever. Was the pressure to disavow that kind of formulation as obsolete, no longer acceptable, whatever, so powerful? And is it still? Does some great taboo descend on everybody below a certain age, blocking out the possibility of entertaining that concept as perhaps an applicable and useful one? My respect for you two, and for Bob, is undiminished, so I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m bewildered that the blockage is so powerful, in such good people.

Anyway, the series of recorded lectures I’m working on—which now will run to some thirty hours of talking, with nearly 2000 images—will break all those taboos again, in lots of ways. And will, I hope, help to open the way for the re-recognition of certain modes of thinking about art history that still seem to me quite productive, however “wrong” they may seem to be right now.

Enough; I’ll send this to Rick too, declaring once more that it isn’t meant as any kind of put-down of two major leaders of the generation after mine, and two old and good friends.

Best, Jim

Good, Jim.

It is always assuring to become engaged in the flow of ideas. I mentioned my three hours yesterday with Wen going over his latest manuscript, and you can be sure (as he well knows) it is not at all that we agree about what he is saying, only that it is worth saying. I have gone over most of his manuscripts for him in the past decade trying to help him determine and express what he thinks as best as he can. I write this, defensively perhaps, to indicate that I am not resistant to hearing other formulations of history; quite the opposite, without dialogue (external or internal) there is no real thought. The possibility of an artistic revolution is not one that I would rule out, and I think we would agree that the difference between there being a revolution or an evolution is largely a matter of how one looks at things, what one looks for. You and me aside, I have yet to see evidence that Yuan artists saw themselves engaged in any revolutionary activity, however one might define that. Arthur Danto wrote, in reference to Belting and himself, "It was not my view that there would be no more art, which 'death' certainly implies, but that whatever art there was to be would be made without benefit of a reassuring sort of narrative in which it was seen as the appropriate next stage in the story." One can focus here on the "narrative" or, rather, on the "reassuring sort" of narrative. Was the history of  pre-Yuan painting really organized around a narrative, a reassuring one or otherwise. If one thinks that the drive toward greater naturalism, occularity, unification of ground plane, whatever was it, then I guess it becomes easier to imagine a Yuan revolution. But if one thinks that "naturalism" itself is complex and means different things, that without the aesthetic revolution in calligraphy begun by Zhang Xu, Huaisu, and Yan Zhenqing and brought into painting by Wu Daozi (there was a revolution!), then advanced later on by Su Shi which would not have happened without the changes wrought in the structure of government by early Song emperors, there could have been no "Yuan painting" in the narrow sense of the term, and that all this is merely part of the historical picture, then where is that narrative? And if there was a Yuan revolution, then wasn't it designed to reestablish some "reassuring sort of narrative," so I would ask, how is that revolution consistent (from the Yuan literati point of view) with "the end" of a "reassuring" art historical narrative rather than the beginning of some new narrative (conceived of by them as "revived") with some new reassurances built in? Or is it only an "end" from our point of view vis a vis a modern Western history of (cum assumptions about) styles? To me, and perhaps to Rick - I'm not sure, what all this comes down to more than "revolution" and "end of narrative" is the matter of complexity, and whether we prefer to emphasize, are more comfortable with, and think of history more in terms simplicity and clarity or complexity and messiness. I stress the mess. I believe in it. But if I claimed that my generation shares that view, then I would have to believe in period style, and so that's perhaps too simple.

These are old issues, but always with us.



Dear Jerome,

Yes, complexity and messiness—but in selected situations. I used the example of the Renaissance in Italy, but I could use others. If someone is teaching or writing about the transition from Impressionism to Post—Impressionism, or about Cezanne-to-Picasso-and-Cubism, do you and others stop them and say: yes, but what about all that other painting going on at the same time? Not likely. The Sung-Yuan Whatever is quite as clear-cut an art-historical situation/formulation as those, at least. No, all the artists of the time didn’t think they were revolutionaries, but most of them, and the ones we now recognize as most innovative and important, pretty much rejected Southern Sung painting, especially Academy painting; they pretty much downplayed, even ridiculed, Mu-ch’I and the kind of great Ch’an painting preserved only in Japan (I’m doing the lecture on that now) so that if it weren’t for Japan we wouldn’t have it—and so forth. Why insist on looking at the diversity in that situation, not in others? My argument is that you and Bob and Rick could have noted that the situation is more complex than “revolution” or “beginning of the post-historical period in China” cover, as is always the case, but then paid some attention to the concept, instead of dismissing it as what we don’t do any more.

Well, we begin to repeat, we aren’t going to resolve this. As I wrote, I’m using enough outmoded & outlawed formulations and approaches in my recorded lectures to call forth all kinds of denunciations, but I trust in there being enough unbiased, open-minded people to sit through them and gain something from them. Old-person’s hopeful attitude, I suppose. We’ll see. Apparently (by the way) a Gombrich revival or reappraisal is going on in England and elsewhere—I had some correspondence with a journal editor about it. To use my familiar simile, I remember when we were all assured that tonal music was over, no serious composer could do it any more.

Enough. Best, Jim

Dear Jim and Jerome: (rec’d 1/30/10)

Thanks for copying me on this conversation. I think Jerome's initial reply must have dropped out of the string I received, but I think I can reconstruct some of what he said from the acoustics of Jim's second message, so to speak.  A little hard to sort all this out in some kind of coherent way, but here's my crack at it:

1. First, about my contribution to the AO collection of essays -- I was trying to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive or hortatory. I took a some large  parts of the architecture for the article from various things that you wrote Jim (as Jerome seems also  to have noted).  So there is the revolutionary Yuan, but also the more inclusive Yuan of "Away from a Definition" and the more Mongol-centric Yuan of your piece on Gong Kai, and the less independent or distinct Yuan of your Sogen-ga catalogue. As you say, they each have a certain validity for certain purposes, even if you prefer one formulation over all the others at this point.

2. The second part of the description was just to map where the field has been headed in the last couple of decades -- broadly, away from monographs on scholar-painters, and toward institutional, thematic, treatise and discourse  centered studies etc.. Again, not  a question of right or wrong directions, just mapping the vectors. Lots of factors contributing to this, including trends in art history or humanities studies more generally -- the higher profile of visual culture paradigms and discourse analysis for example. One could argue whether this is an enhancement of or a diversion from some sense of proper mission, but it does broadly represent an expanded field of attention and concern.  I don't mean that in a specifically Roz Krauss sense, but just that as the field  matures and grows it's more or less inevitably going to seek new topics of investigation. Mostly a good thing, I would say, but in any case pretty much inevitable.

3. So on to Wang Zhenpeng, etc. Putting Wang at the center of things is a kind of historiographic thought-experiment or provocation, to be sure. It just acknowledges that he is more connected to the multiple dimensions of what Yuan painting comprised -- court/Mongol, Buddhist, jiehua etc. -- than Wu or the other later Yuan scholar-painters. And that those are likely ongoing or growth areas for research.  I would just note that is a different order of issue than the question of whether Wang was in some sense  a better or more important painter than Wu or any of the others   --  they represent different nodes of interest, that don't readily  map onto each other.

4. A couple of parallels. Jim, you say "if you are writing about Cezanne to Picasso and Cubism, what about all that other painting?" That's a possible kind of question, like Wang Zhenpeng vs. Wu Zhen; how many Beaux-Art painters are worth one Picasso? But that first question, Cezanne to Cubism, is also substatnially  tautological or self-fulfilling: it presumes that's the only development that matters, so how could all that other painting count? But what if the question is, "if you are writing about early 20th century Europe, what story is more central, Cezanne to Cubism, or, say,  Symbolism to Surrealism?" That's a real historiographic alternative, and it's obviously been realized by the October group. One can prefer one or the other kind of art, but I'm not sure there's much basis for comparing  them. One story is centered in painting and representation; the other in photography and mixed media and some complex of the psychoanalytic, symbolic, and semiotic. They involves different practices, playing a different sort of game, more radically different than Wang Zhenpeng and Wu Zhen, to be sure, but analogous in some way. You could say, "but it (Dada-Surrealism, say) isn't art" and the response might be, quite so, it's anti-art art. There is at least a coherent alternative narrative proposed, and which agenda and narrative gets pursued may have more to do with the changing sociology of academia than some arguable or defensible criteria.

5. Back to Yuan art.  My general view is that we have three components of our understandings of it:

a. the surviving corpus of art -- fragmentary, messy, and unarticulated

b. historical,  Yuan era discourses -- also fragmentary, incomplete, contradictory, and not to be taken entirely at face value,

but certainly to be taken account of, as best available raw material for forming historical narratives or understandings

c. our modern historiographic constructions and narratives -- usually if not necessarily selective, partial, evaluative, and shaped

You mention the "post-historical art" lecture and essay (by the way, I don't remember saying "we don't recognize revolutions anymore" -- somehow doesn't sound like me, but never mind).  I actually like the post-historical notion a lot, in both Belting's and your uses of it, but I don't think it necessarily equates to a revolution in Yuan painting, although indeed it possibly might. To explain: something happened in Tang Song painting history discourse, after Guo Ruoxu, or Xuanhe huapu, or Deng Chun or thereabouts. The notion of a long historical development, with different summits of figure painting and landscape painting fell into disuse, and painting history became more about biography, collecting and cataloguing, painting techniques and secrets etc. It's less clear to me that this maps neatly onto the Song-Yuan divide, or that it maps onto the conquest of illusionistic pictorial representation in yours and Loehr's sense. No doubt that was part of what the Tang and Song historical critics admired in contemporary painting, but  bound up I think with other values, dynamism and animation in figure painting, some qualities of order and the symbolic in landscape perhaps.

So why the transition to the post-historical, if not because the large representational project and its narratives were completed (and I certainly agree that's one plausible account)?  Well, if the change occurred closer to Huizong's time  and the Northern Song breakup,  maybe because the political and institutional underpinnings of painting were no longer seemed coherent and unproblematic. Or perhaps because the counter-discourses of the scholar-officials in Su Shi's circle and after  brought the old criteria into question.

I think  then that what I would have been trying to say about your post-historical paper was that the discursive phenomenon may well be valid and important without necessarily  equating  to a Yuan revolution in painting. In other words, Loehr's narrative isn't the Song/Yuan narrative in some direct or unproblematic way. Also, , there is the work that has been done on Jin and S. Song versions of scholar or literati painting, so that there seem to have been alternatives to   let's call them  academic values all along since the late Northern Song.  If the Yuan literati picked up and amplified those elements,  maybe it's just a quibble to call that something other than a revolution, but it becomes at least less clear-cut seen through that kind of historical lens.

6. Finally, to close for now, if you (Jim) said, "Ok, but c'mon, isn't Wu or Zhao or Ni or Wang after all more interesting and important, as painter/writer/ cultural presence than any of the other types of painter you could name?"  I might well agree with you. But, once again, that's a different thing than saying that's where the field will go, or should go. And just as some part of what Zhao and the others did was designed to stake out a position distinct from the Southern Song court painters or whomever, it's not surprising that intellectual or professional imperatives  should play a part in pushing others in the field toward alternative topics and approaches than yours or mine.

There, I've gone and stayed up way past my bedtime!

Best, Rick

Rick and Jerome: Great! haven't absorbed it all yet, but will tomorrow--up late after watching late movie. Now we have a substantial body of argument, going beyond what we wrote in my lecture and your papers. Sorry not to have sent Jerome's responses on to you, Rick--will you do that, Jerome? Or I will later. I've twice had extensive correspondences with colleagues published--the Cahill/Barnhart/Rogers lectures published by the IEAS, and the correspondence with Dick, Mike & Stephen Little on Du Jin published in Kaikodo Journal. We'll have to think whether to go that route. Meanwhile, I spent some time yesterday and today writing out another Reminiscence, inspired by the death of Salinger, and will attach it for your entertainment. Most of my Reminiscences I'm happy to have only on my website, but this one may turn out to be of broader interest--if either or you thinks so, and knows a big-media person to send it on to, I'll appreciate it.

Yours as always, Jim


Dear Rick,

I’ve read over several times your long email, and really haven’t much to write in response except: very thoughtful, good, and some of it makes me realize I mis-characterized your AO piece, which was indeed a fine article on the various ways one can construct “Yuan painting,” much in the spirit of what I did long ago, but better. No, I don’t recall that you actually said anything after my lecture like “We don’t recognize revolutions any more”—that was/is my own reading of the underlying message, more, in Jerome’s and Bob’s responses in Archives. My memory, though, is that we had a discussion period the day after my lecture at Stanford, and that you and your students all seemed to be saying something in that direction, less directly perhaps. Anyway, your points about the continuity through Jin and the rest are good. Jerome may well—probably will—want to comment on all this, and maybe we can end there, for now, all having spoken our pieces. My own inclination would be to put it all on my website—a kind of publication that stops short of the old printing-and-distributing form. But I wouldn’t do it without the agreement of you two, of course. Jerome?

Best, Jim

dear jim and rick

i'm fine if jim wants to quote us online. so here are a few "final" words, at his invitation . . .

best, and thanks


like rick, i disown "not recognizing revolutions." i believe there are revolutions, though i'm not exactly sure what is or isn't a revolution. still, the difference is significant, or has historically be regarded as significant, and for there to be a revolution there have to be followers as well as leaders. you can't just study the "great" men (art "history" in western practice, like literary and music "history," being the study of exceptional, not typical, people), or the "best" artists, and proclaim that a revolution has passed this way. in the yuan, we haven't studied typical artists well enough to draw any demographic conclusions. (no aspersions here; jim has probably dealt with "lesser" artists and "minor" trends better than anyone else.) while i wrote that every revolution looked at more closely reveals an evolution, i've already voted (rightly or not, in my note to jim a few days ago) for the early 8th century calligraphers as providing a real revolution in aesthetics, first adapted to painting by wu daozi (to the best of our limited knowledge). also like rick, my approach to this topic has employed a descriptive mode rather than anything more prescriptive or "hortatory." yet i will own up to the fact that "going historiographic," while seeming to put things at arm's length, in itself represents a particular choice, and embraces a particular view of history. ("relativistic" is the way peter novick put it, quoted in my AO article.) rick's recent note nicely describes "three components" for understanding yuan painting. except for briefly illustrating (literally illustrating, not discussing) what rick calls the "fragmentary" and "messy" nature of what survives, my AO piece sticks to his second and third items, which can be rolled into one as "reception" (older and newer responses, by which i understand him to mean critical, textual) to which i would add the practice of favored styles as constituting an artistic mode of reception. looking at the history of reception tells us something important, both particular and in general. in doing so, i'm not excoriating anybody, not blaming nobody for having held such-and-such an opinion at such-and-such a time but rather i've mostly tried to describe and understand historical patterns of changing taste and viewpoints. and i've tried hard to keep my own opinions low-key, although i certainly have opinions and disagreements with opinions. for example, i think your handling of qian xuan, jim, especially as set out in hills beyond a river, is exemplary. but when you write (in chinese painting - still a great book!) of qian and zhao mengfu and gao kegong as undertaking "a revolution in style," i still don't see how you can get there without leaving out much what of we already know and most of what one can imagine of the fragmentary record of song literati painting. a "revolutionary" expansion in the popularity of a certain way of painting, i could say ok to that: but that's reception not the creation of a revolutionary new style. and after all, it was max who wrote that we should only be interested in the inception of new styles, not in their perpetuation. if you try to account for "yuan" literati style, you can't just lay it at the feet of invading mongols. i have no idea how to account for what took place in the early 8th century. i have some better idea to account for how to account for su shi's ideas on painting, largely in socio-political terms. i also think we can't account for the rejection of southern song painting styles only in terms of stylistic sequences and phases -- there's a lot of politics there, too, and political scapegoating. and so, if as rick puts it, "the large representational project and its narratives were completed" by the end of southern song, then why do we have some of the very finest of chinese "naturalist" bamboo paintings (li kan), horse paintings (ren renfa), plum paintings (wang mian and others), figures, furniture and boats (wang zhenpeng), etc., being done in the yuan period? the record is the record -- both the visual record and the published textual record -- and it constrains us. or maybe it doesn't, because we can say any darned thing we want, and we certainly do. quentin bell noted that in the encyclopaedia britannica of 1912, in the articles on contemporary french and english painting, the artists touted were robert fleury, bastien lepage, meissonier, rosa bonheur, gerome, bourguereau, fromentin, bonvin, cormon, henner, herkomer, luke fildes, frank dicksee (you've got to be a good art historian to have heard of most of these guys!), while monet, seurat, cezanne, gauguin, van gogh, vuillard, etc. went entirely unmentioned. so like 1912, maybe there was a revolution going on in 1312 that most people couldn't recognize. and yet even so, that would still have been a revolution in reception, an explosion in the popularity of an old style (or old styles), including new developments of course, but not a "revolutionary new" style. we're not very good at foreseeing the future, but we also have to ask, how good are we at foreseeing the past, which is forever changing.

Dear Jerome (and Rick),

Your long unbroken response is a good summing-up and augmenting of your position, and maybe marks a good point to close this correspondence for now. Again, as with Rick’s, I find much to agree with, but would still differ on some matters. It will no doubt always be so. We’ll think about putting all this on my website—which of course I wouldn’t do without getting the OK of both of you. I would (will) write a brief introductory section, explaining the background etc., and send that to the two of you, with a file of the whole correspondence. Just having the issues explored in this depth and detail, with arguments and counter-arguments, will be good for younger people to read. Let me think more about this, draft an introduction, get back to you. OK?

Interesting “Heirarchies” symposium coming up in the Tang Center. Of course I won’t be there, but I’ve written for abstracts of several of the papers, eventually the whole papers? Topics that still concern me.

Best, Jim

dear jim,

whatever you'd like to do with this is just fine with me. i wouldn't want us to all think alike, would you? no way. anyhow, we've all learned so much from you and it's always so rewarding to be engaged in discussion with you.


Dear Jim (and Jerome):

Happy to have the discussion posted on your site. I drafted some further thoughts, but maybe should stick with the earlier exchange for now -- hard to keep the  a 3-way conversation on point as it spirals on.


Dear Rick (and Jerome),

By all means, Rick, let us have your further thoughts. We aren’t, I think, aiming at balance, or symmetry, when it cuts out what will surely be valuable additions. You too, Jerome, if you think of more you want to say. I’m in no hurry to wind this up or post it.

Best, Jim

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