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CLP 20 : 1995 Talk for Center for Chinese Studies, UCB

Center for Chinese Studies UCB, talk, Tues Sept. 27. 1995


I'm here to talk abt methodological issues, as I see them, raised by directions taken in Chinese painting studies of recent times. I've written out a kind of text, very quickly, as fast as I could type; no less rambling for being written down.

Let me begin by talking abt where I see myself going in my own research and writing. Some of you heard series of three lectures at UAM--representations of women in late Ch. ptg. I've recently prepared another, which I'll give on Oct. 14 in other CCS series (Friday lectures.) Both deal with bodies or groups of Ch ptgs that don't fit into standard accounts of the subject, accounts that are based heavily on Chinese textual sources. Almost everything I've been doing for some years is implicitly or openly a critique of those accounts of Ch ptg, including my own from earlier years, that accept more or less uncritically the versions of it presented in standard Chinese writings. What this means I can't go into here without pictures; but central to it is issue of pictorial representations that are more or less naturalistic, realistic, illusionistic--whatever. These words don't by any means mean the same thing; but can be lumped together for my present purpose as a kind of composite designation of what I'm talking about: Ptg that represents, somehow persuading us that it's "true to outer reality," showing us what the thing or scene really looks like. Chinese turn against this powerfully in their theoretical writings--refer to it as hsing-ssu or "form-likeness": which comes to be a pejorative term from at least the 14th century on. Looked on as low-class, philistine criterion for judging art. In recent western discussions of art we can find a curiously similar phenomenon: what was once an acceptable concept, "truth to nature" or "truth to outer reality", now not only questioned but denied as a workable idea--nothing is more unacceptable in recent discourses on art than that; kind of taboo topic. But I want nonetheless to make it central to my talk today.

In context of Ch. ptg, means (among other things) representations that don't emphasize hand or handwriting of indiv. master ("brushwork") , or include allusions to past styles in the ptg (giving it an art-historical character), or otherwise adopt one or another of the devices that serve to infuse high-culture values into work. I find myself more and more drawn to ptgs that implicitly (not explicitly--artists who do this kind of ptg are typically voiceless) implicitly reject the whole aesthetic system of literati or scholar-amateur ptg, pictures that are meant to be read & appreciated & used as pictures, as satisfying representations of their subjects, and that consequently are condemned & ignored & virtually expunged from "official" versions of Ch ptg--works by So. Sung acad. masters, certain Ming artists including those of late Ming Suchou, certain works of 17-18 c. that incorporate elements of western illusionism. (My preoccupation with the anti-representational bias of the literati, and with the excluded areas of Ch. ptg., began in my Norton Lectures fifteen years ago; I've been struggling with it ever since, and taking some flak from colleagues for it, especially Chinese.)

Now we get to crux. When we speak of "representation," term used these days (for instance in campus journal of that name) for literary, pictorial, even musical representations. (Trendy people hyphenate etc.) Although these dif. kinds of representation are sometimes treated as though they raise similar problems, really profoundly different. Possibility of illusionism--picture that persuades it's "like real thing," "like image in mirror" etc. more present in visual arts than in literary, where whole notion of "representing" thing or event in words raises big problems. In old-fashioned, somewhat discredited version, picture could be more or less truthful to nature, could approach status of photograph, i.e. as a seemingly "objective" rendering of what's out there before your eyes. Argument made that invention of photography coopted this function of ptg, made it pointless--photograph could do it better. Svetlane Alpers deals with 17th cent. manifestations--use of camera obscura in Dutch ptg or Canaletto etc. Music somewhere in between: if composer chooses to "represent" bird-calls, say (as 18c French composer did), we could presumably determine by computer or otherwise whether he had "got it right," or how right. Or Honegger, "Pacific 231"--or (moving away from "representation") Chopin in "Raindrop Prelude" or Richard Strauss or Berlioz, program music--etc. Electronic recording of course equiv. of photograph: "true" representation. 18th cent. composer made series of little tunes you could play on your recorder to teach to your finch. Now would play record. Nothing quite like this in literary "representation"--something in poetry or prose may seem "true" or "right" to us, but this dif. matter. Also, of course, question of objective truth in writing history (which I gather is becoming a discussable issue again.) At conference on sacred mts in China, one scholar (etc.)

In spite of these differences between basic nature of representation in different media, writers on pictorial art today (who would like us to call it "visual culture") try to persuade us that problems in pictorial art not essentially different from those in literature; all essentially matter of convention, like linguistic conventions, arbitrary and culturally-conditioned system of signs, one of which corresponds as well as any other with "outer reality". (I know perfectly well the objections to the terms I'm using; but don't want, for now, to be prevented or intimidated by that from using them.) Powerful argument made by dominant theorists that whole idea of "truthful" representation misdirected; illusionism purely another cultural convention, etc. I have on other occasions made arguments for why I think this doesn't work. Don't mean to do that today; will only say that the whole notion seems to me loony, leave it at that.

But: bigger implications. In highly moralizing & politicizing climate of scholarship now, argument being made that idea of illusionism, "truthful" and convincing representation, is stragegem of dominant culture to put down subordinate cultures. And (to get closer to point of my talk) China and Europe are only cultures that have produced pictorial arts that seriously undertake this project, and, in their different ways, produce immensely persuasive pictorial solutions to it. Leaving aside what position one takes on idea of illusionism, these are only two systems of pictorial art about which this claim can be seriously made. Which puts us Ch. ptg specialists in crucial position.

Story of Hist. of Art 30: my lecture; dev. of space system, for purpose of narrative etc.; afterwards confronted (in friendly way) by Joanna Williams & Maribeth Graybill, who pointed out gently that this left them in awkward position, since none of this happened in artistic traditions they were presenting, Indian and Japanese.

Another case (outside our subject a bit): argument abt Muromachi ptg: (continue. Shimada/Matsushita/Tanaka: all dominant males. All "privileging" ink-ptg based on Chinese models, which uses Chinese tech. of atmospheric perspective etc., over native Yamato-e trad. which derives from Heian ptg. Masculine vs. feminine. Chino Kaori. Norman Bryson. Bryson has taken up this cause as part of his anti- Gombrich project. (Gombrich, who was at recent symposium on Ch. ptg, best writer on theory of representation, takes it seriously.) Young art historians today learn Gombrich-bashing from undergrad. years, delight in it, feel it locates them on cutting edge. But if we ask a "wrong" question, who offers more useful understandings of how processes across time in art work, Gombrich is more or less unavoidable choice--I quote him frequently in my lectures--and Bryson essentially useless.

All this makes up one example of how following current trends in western scholarship can, I think, hobble you. Another: recent session at CAA mtg in NYC, in which group of papers intended to exemplify new approaches to Ch. art. In one of these, speaker was showing series of works by Chinese woman artist, very good artist, and talking about her dependence on her Chinese roots; but as I watched it became blindingly obvious (as it had been to me before--I've known her for some decades) that although she had indeed started from orthodox Chinese base, great transformation in her style occurred after she'd come to west, worked with her husband in museum that had important collection of Asian art, and been exposed to Japanese works. We can then observe her doing calligraphic configurations over torn-paper collages of different-colored papers, after Heian models; doing paintings on a ground of applied squares of gold foil, after Momoyama models; etc. We can observe it but we can't talk about it: if I had risen and pointed this out, I would have evoked a lot of resentment. Others must have been as aware as I was of this dependence on Japanese sources; others were, like myself, uncomfortable about pointing it out. We're obliged to pussyfoot, at some loss to scholarly integrity. That questions of derivation from other cultures have to be handled with sensitivity I would certainly agree, and try to do it myself; that they can in effect be taboo, at least when they go in certain directions, I'm reluctant to put up with. But that's where we are. My pursuit of evidences of the effect of European pictorial art on Chinese artists of the 17th cent. has got me charges of "orientalism." This will come out in my talk in October.

Another paper in same session questioned whether we could properly make distinction bet. early Ch. writing & early Ch. quasi-pictorial representations (of animals, chiefly) on bronzes: speaker used article by Chan Hansen, god help us, as support. When I read that article, I thought to myself: Oh no, somebody is going to use this to take us back to "writing & ptg have a single origin" myth--giant step backwards. And sure enough. Speaker also suggested that distinguishing writing from pictures and "privileging" writing was product of western Aristotelian thought, inapplicable to China. I rose after session and offered the view that arguments in too many of the papers were based on what seemed to me a grand non-sequitur: that if we can tie an opposition argument to one or another of the currently odious faults, western rationalism or logocentrism or Orientalism or elitism or whatever, this not only discredits your opponent's argument but also strengthens yours--they stopped short of saying "proves yours to be right," but that was implicit.. But of course it doesn't do anything of the kind; your argument is no better or worse in itself for being associated with this or that ideological position.

In a commencement address I gave several months ago (one I'm not proud of--Fred was there) I outlined some positions I'd arrived at in this late stage of my career, and said that anyone in my field--or in the fields of most of you--finds himself/herself pressed upon from two sides by great bodies of scholarship, Chinese and western, each advising us earnestly that if we don't adopt it wholeheartedly as the basis for our work, that work will be without value, or at least seriously weakened. And yet the two are in effect incompatible with each other. I suggested that to fail to draw productively on either one is fatal, but that to swallow either one whole, to accept its demands on us completely, is also fatal. How we maneuver between these, what we choose to adopt from each, goes a long way toward defining our scholarly stances or positions. Why I believe that swallowing whole the western cutting-edge approaches is fatal will be apparent from the foregoing: they impress and endear you to certain of your colleagues while alienating you from much of your audience, they close off too many moves that might be productive, and they don't in the end cast nearly as much real illumination on the materials you are dealing with as the approaches they repudiate. Why I believe that we can't accept uncritically the Chinese ways of dealing with Chinese cultural products scarcely needs outlining, in such a company--most of you have faced it, in one way or another--but let me try anyway, in my remaining minutes.

Back in the early 80s Martin Powers (then of UCLA) and I organized a panel at College Art Assn. meeting in L.A. on "New Directions in Chinese Art Studies." In position paper presented then, I took as my text a remark made by Cyril Birch in the doctoral exam of one of my students. Talking about the Confucian moralizing prefaces written for Chinese plays, he said to her: You should take them very seriously, but don't believe them. I broadened the application of that to Chinese writings on painting: take them very seriously, but don't believe them. Such a statement doesn't sound very radical; but question of how far we continue to follow long-established Chinese ways of thinking about their art and culture still a big issue in my field. At huge symposium on Tung Ch'i-ch'ang two years ago in Kansas City, it surfaced more openly than it had before: papers seemed more than previously divided between those that fitted comfortably within Chinese orthodoxy that Tung himself played big part in establishing, vs. those that questioned or attacked this orthodoxy, and tried to "deconstruct Tung" as somebody put it. Some speakers, including one Chinese (Lu Fusheng of Shanghai), trying to apply western critical theory, semiotic theory etc., to Tung's output; others (including organizer of symposium, Wai-kam Ho, who was very uncomfortable with direction it was taking) were arguing that because Chinese cultural expressions are created on fundamentally different premises from those that underlie the European and American, western critical theory can't or shouldn't be applied to them. Wen Fong and Tu Wei-ming both joined into this argument. I knew it already from Tu's arguments (made for instance at a symposium on Zen Buddhism that we both attended) that in dealing with Chinese thought and culture one has to do it from within, accepting on some level the assumptions that the thinkers or artists did; it's an argument that has a lot of merit. But it nevertheless makes me uncomfortable. In field of Ch. literature, some who argue that there is no true metaphor in Chinese poetry and literature, since the correspondences that seem to us metaphorical were for the Chinese real--in their correlative universe, that is, these weren't tropes invented by the poet or writer, but real correspondences that they were recognizing. After encountering this argument in writings of Stephen Owen, Pauline Yu, and others, I talked with several of you to find out how you deal with it--it makes me uncomfortable. This,. again, seems to me basic issue in our field, which I'm sure you've all come up against in some connection, and which you can probably formulate better than I have. Anyway, I'll stop here and let others talk.

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