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CLP 102: 1989 “Adjusting Our Image of the Chinese Painter.” Lecture, U. Chicago

Chicago lecture: Adjusting Our Image of the Chinese Painter


I will begin with a brief consideration of the late seventeenth century master Cheng Min, an artist of the Anhui School.

S,S. Here are two of his works, an album leaf in the Freer Gallery of Art and a hanging scroll in the Ching Yuan Chai collection. Like others of the Anhui masters of this period, Cheng Min painted river landscapes, unpeopled and unembellished by enlivening detail, in a manner that relies heavily on line-drawing, or sketching of contours in dry brushwork, to render the forms. More or less overt references to the Yuan master Ni Tsan are common in his works, as they are in other Anhui-school paintings; his calligraphy style is clearly based on that of Ni Tsan.

These paintings would alone set up expectations about his character and the basis on which he worked in anyone familiar with the signification of styles in Chinese painting; and those expectations would appear to be confirmed in what we read about him. His contemporary T'ang Yen-sheng, who frequently inscribed works by Hung-jen and other artists of the time, writes of Cheng Min:

"The master immerses himself in old books, not caring whether it is cold or hot, living tranquilly, uttering few words, magnanimous in disposition, his mind fixed on distant goals [i.e. unconcerned with day-to-day affairs]. All difficult questions in the classics and histories he can resolve. He is an accomplished seal-carver, using the pre-Ch'in and Han [scripts] as models. His painting style is lofty and antique, completely following the 'engendering movement [through] spirit consonance' (ch'i-yün sheng-tung) mode of expression. Accordingly, he can rival the Yüan masters. In the most refined of his works, whether feelings of sadness and melancholy or complaint and anger: if these were not aroused by his great talents, then they must come from his own experience."

The image of the artist presented here is a familiar one: a person of deep cultural refinement, he lives quietly, caring nothing for worldly matters, practicing scholarly pursuits, doing paintings or calligraphy on an amateur basis, to express his feelings--and, to follow through with the usual implications of scholar-amateur status, presumably giving them to his friends, expecting no recompense other than occasional gifts and favors in return. We have not always accepted this image entirely uncritically--suspicions have been expressed, especially in recent years, that it must often mask some more down-to-earth reality. But we have repeated it and allowed it to underlie our writings and our understanding of the paintings without giving it much thought. Even the most sceptical among us have seldom argued for any really radical mismatch between image and reality.

At a symposium on Anhui-school painting in 1984, Huang Yung-ch'üan presented a paper on the newly-discovered diary of Cheng Min, quoting some passages from it that pertain to his activity as painter and calligrapher. Here are some excerpts:

"[1672] tenth month, fifth day: I did three fan paintings for Fu-wen . . ."
" Seventeenth day: cloudy. Yen-ch'ing and K'uan-chung 'moistened my brush' [gave me money for painting] and I added bamboo and rock for them [to some previously-done painting?]"
"Eleventh month, eighth day: I went into town and wrote a fan for Yen-ch'ing . . . Keng-yü summoned me, and I added to [retouched?] a painting by T'ang Yin for him. . . "
"[1773] sixth month, third day . . . Mu-ch'ien ordered a painting for Hsü Erh-ming, and I used the money for food."
"[1674] second month, sixth day: cloudy. After supper I visited Tzu-yen, and entrusted him with three paintings to sell for me."
"Sixth month, sixth day: I visited Hsüeh-hai, where the owner of the I-kuan [an inn?] . . . summoned me to do a painting for him."
"[1676] first month, sixth day: rainy. Ssu-jo visited me to order a painting, bringing payment [lit. 'moisture,' as above.]"
"Ninth month, eighteenth day: for my 'elder brother' Yin-nan I did a painting on satin. Also did five fans for . . . [names]."
"Twelfth month, fourth day: This line [of poetry] came to me: 'To get through the year, I need the money from selling paintings.'"
"Twenty-ninth day. Snow has been falling for the whole month. Fortunately, I have managed to get through my New Year's obligations with the small income from my paintings. I sit recalling that there are a great many really poor people now, and wish that I had a spacious, myriad-roomed house [to entertain them in]--an empty thought."

Other entries record his carving seals for patrons in return for grain or presents, and borrowing money from one of them to buy food. (Slides off.)

In the cases of most artists, we have no such detailed information about the real conditions of their daily lives, and even if we had it, the disparity between conventional image and what we might call adjusted image would not always be so great as with Cheng Min. But as we uncover more evidence about the circumstances under which Chinese paintings came into being, how they were acquired by others, and how the artist was rewarded, as well as about other practical details of the artist's activity, the degree to which standard accounts of Chinese artists are commonly idealized and untrue to their realities is increasingly apparent. (I am presently giving a seminar titled "The Painter's Practice in China," with graduate students and several Chinese specialists participating, in which we are trying to assemble just this kind of information, mostly from scraps and clues contained in a diversity of materials.) Along with a new, badly-overdue recognition of the implications of this situation for our studies, it is worthwhile, I think, to take a moment to consider how it came about.

The truth, I believe, is that a set of powerful conventions for writing about artists and their works, originating principally in early appreciations of the scholar-amateur painters and in recorded statements by those painters themselves, spread beyond the categories of artists and paintings to which they are properly applicable--the amateur artists and their works--to encompass virtually the whole of Chinese painting. The underlying problem was the mismatch between admiration for outstanding artists who were committed, more-or-less full-time practitioners of the art, and the failure of the traditional Chinese social order to accord honored places for people in that position. Intensifying the problem was the increasing practice of painting on an income-producing basis, from the mid-Ming on, by learned and cultured people, as rising levels of affluence and education created a much larger pool of people qualified for bureaucratic service (the Chinese scholar's traditional occupation) than the bureaucracy could absorb, and many of them were forced to turn to other ways of putting their learning and talents to use in earning their livelihoods. Attitudes and value criteria that pertained properly to the amateur painters, then, came to be applied more broadly to artists of other kinds, until we reach the situation in which a writer scarcely could praise a painter, even an unambiguously professional one, without making some effort to accomodate him, however forcedly and misleadingly, to the amateur ideal. And praise is what writings on artists usually had to be: most of the literature that we depend on for our understanding of them takes the form of encomia of one kind or another: tributes to the painter included in inscriptions to his paintings, tomb biographies, entries in books made up of "biographical information" on artists, and so forth.

The character and limitations of such writings were discussed by Anne Burkus at the beginning of her study of Ch'en Hung-shou--the way they tend to follow the established patterns of what is essentially a literary form, instead of providing, as she puts it, "what has come to be expected of biography in the West, the developmental charting of a life." She was writing mainly about epitaphs and biographies written after the subject's death, but tributes written as inscriptions or otherwise during his lifetime tend to have much the same character. "The interpretation of traditional Chinese biography," she writes, "thus entails a thorough questioning of the text and should disincline the historian from accepting as fact each detail in the biographer's portrait of his subject." And she ends by noting that the artist may, as Ch'en Hung-shou did, accomodate himself to some conventional image, adopting in his poetry and his self-portraits the characterizing qualities of admired figures of the past, ascribing these to himself.

The conventions in writing about artists that Anne was considering are not exactly the same ones I am discussing here, but we are concerned with essentially the same phenomenon, the forced accomodation of artists' lives and circumstances to pre-existing types, and the expunging of whatever actualities fail to fit these types. To give enough examples of this phenomenon to convince everybody would take more time than I have, but anyone working in the field could come up with quite a few from memory. They include cases in which an artist who is in fact a hard-working and prolific professional master is described as one who dabbled in the art, and painted out of purely inner motivations. The eleventh century writer Kuo Jo-hsü considered Li Ch'eng, the great landscapist active a century earlier, to have been productive enough that a collector of Kuo's time could be credited with owning over ninety of his winter landscapes. By the thirteenth century Chao Hsi-ku, a writer imbued with the new literati or scholar-amateur painting doctrines, wrote of Li Ch'eng (along with Fan K'uan, to whom the characterization is even less appropriate) as "scholar officials who, when they were inspired, would leave behind a few brushstrokes." (Let us take a moment to envision the great landscape by Fan K'uan, and ponder how well it accords with the idea of a painter who "leaves behind a few brushstrokes when inspired.")

After scholar-amateur painting came to greater prominence in the Yuan period, it became more difficult to praise artists of other kinds except by distorting their situations. A contemporary of Tai Chin's named Wang Chih describes that fifteenth century master as one who "delights in poetry and calligraphy as ways to seek the Tao,/ Painting spontaneously to cheer his heart." Tung Ch'i-ch'ang describes Wu Pin, an excellent and productive specialist in both figures and landscapes, as a lay Buddhist who "painted in his leisure time." One wonders how the artists, who were meanwhile no doubt hard at work on fulfilling commissions in the practice of their livelihoods, can have responded to this well-intentioned but quite misdirected kind of "praise," which subtly maligned their real situations by implying that these were somehow dishonorable, and so could not be reported truthfully.

Even more numerous are cases, like the one of Cheng Min with which we began, in which the standard accounts are contradicted by other, presumably more reliable evidence. The most often-quoted biography of Pa-ta Shan-jen, for instance, the one by Shao Ch'ang-heng, tells us this about him: "He often used to pass his time at a Buddhist temple outside the town. When the novices there jokingly asked him for a picture and actually tugged at his sleeves or his belt, he did not resist, nor did he refuse when some scholar friend offered him a gift for a picture. But if highly placed people offered him a whole barrel costing many gold pieces, they got nothing. If they brought painting silk with them, he would take it without hesitation but then would say: 'I shall make stockings of it!' For this reason the highly placed people were accustomed to approach the poor scholars, mountain monks, or butchers and inn-keepers when they wanted calligraphies or pictures by Shan-jen, and to buy from them." But, as we know from Jao Tsung-i's study of a Pa-ta album in the Ho Yao-kuang collection, the Nanking collector Huang Yen-lü had no such trouble getting an excellent album from the artist: he sent a sum of money and twelve sheets of paper through one of Pa-ta's patrons, Ch'eng Ching-e, who acted as the artist's agent in getting commissions for him, and in due time he received his album, with which he was very pleased, remarking that Pa-ta would never have given him the kind of rough and hasty sketches he did to repay gifts from the Kiangsi salt merchants. Again, these are two images of the artist that cannot be brought together--that are, in fact, incompatible.

The "amateurization" of artists, or at least most of those who were considered to merit approval at all, in Chinese writings is part of a larger complex of interdependent ideas and attitudes, all aimed at "dematerializing" the art, removing from it all taint of vulgarity, of commercialism, of functionalism, of philistine responses. They include: an all-but-exclusive emphasis on art as personal expression, and a concomitant de-emphasizing of most other factors that motivated the production of art, including, much of the time, those that in fact brought the work into being and constituted the basis for its reception and appreciation in its original context; in connoisseurship, a focus on authenticity, the determination of authorship, and a diversion of attention from the subject of the work and its meanings, its value as representation; and in criticism, a preoccupation with the "hand" of the artist and with style, both the artist's individual style and his uses of older styles, or references to them. These attitudes are, as I say, interdependent: one more or less leads to another. The connoisseur's concentration on authenticity, for instance, allowed the viewer to read the picture as the personal expression of a particular master, and to appreciate the qualities of his mind as manifested in the painting. It allowed him also to ignore, as the prevailing critical theory said he should, the technical prowess of the artist, his representational skill, the decorative values of the work, whatever narrative or symbolic or other human-interest content it might have--the qualities that had originally allowed it, in a great many cases, to function in some social situation of its time. All qualities of the work other than the aesthetic, all motivations other than those of personal expression, tended to be relegated to the lower levels of response, the philistine, the su or banal. Indoctrinated constantly with this ideology, Chinese collectors and painting enthusiasts of the later centuries appreciated paintings, and wrote about them, in ways quite divorced from the original contexts of the works; this "aestheticization" of the Chinese painting tradition makes it difficult, much of the time, for us now to recover the meanings and functions that the paintings originally had.

Some of my colleagues will no doubt feel that I am exaggerating this situation and its consequences for our scholarship; but I do not believe I am. For us to study and try to understand this special slant to Chinese writings about painting is of course worthwhile, even necessary; I have myself been engaged in it over the years, having been, for my sins, one of the earliest foreign exponents of the literati painting ideal as a key to understanding certain kinds of painting. What seems remarkable from today's perspective is the degree to which we have allowed it to pervade our own interpretations of Chinese painting. In our culture, no special stigma is attached to professionalism in art--if a painter has an exhibition and sells all the paintings in it, we see this as cause for congratulation, not disdain-- although it is true that studies that make production for profit central to interpretation of the artist's works, such as Svetlana Alpers' recent book on Rembrandt, can still call forth angry responses from those who feel that the factor of artistic genius has been slighted in the process. With studies of the social and economic contexts of artistic production so prominent in art-historical studies these days, it is all the more remarkable that we in the Chinese painting field seem not only disinclined to recognize the inherited biases that impede our own studies of this aspect of our subject, but even prone to share the traditional Chinese squeamishness about discussing it. We write, too often, as though we were defending or protecting the artists we admire by downplaying their engagement in the somehow shameful business of profiting from their art. The result is a badly unbalanced view of our subject. And it is only balance I am arguing for, not some heavy emphasis on the social and economic factors behind artistic production. Without undervaluing the self-revelatory function of art, we can play it against other, more mundane and socially-conditioned functions, and try to understand how the one impinged on the other; without taking any kind of reductive approach, we can aim at a more clear-eyed recognition of the true situation, often the predicament, of the artist behind the work.

In searching for the roots of the phenomenon I am trying to define we find ourselves confronting, as so often, the figure of Tung Ch'i-ch'ang--certainly not as the originator of this set of attitudes, but as the most powerful exponent of them. The achievements of this great early 17th century painter and theorist that merit scholarly investigation seem almost endless; an international symposium on them was held recently in his hometown, Sungchiang, occasioning a new outpouring of published papers. One area of Tung's activity that may still warrant more looking into, nevertheless, is his advising of collectors, especially some of the newly-rich collectors of Sungchiang, Southern Anhui, Yangchou, and other places where wealth was concentrating in this period. Collecting art, especially the kinds associated with the gentry and literati class, was one of the ways the Hui-chou and other merchant families enhanced their status in society; many of them, relatively new to the game, needed advice on what were the right kinds of things to collect, and once they had made their purchases, on whether they had bought wisely. Books of guidance for collectors appear more than ever before in this period, and people with the expertise to give knowledgeable advice were entertained and doubtless otherwise rewarded by the collectors in return for their opinions. They were, in effect, the art historians of their time (besides usually performing, according to the common Chinese pattern, in a variety of other roles--painters, officials, writers, etc.); and Chinese art historians today are, in important ways, their descendants.

Pre-eminent among them was Tung Ch'i-ch'ang. Their basic act, and what Tung must have done supremely well, was to stand in front of a painting and pronounce authoritatively on its authenticity, along with identifying the stylistic tradition or old master's style that the artist was following. They could also provide information about artists from memory, and talk or write about other works by the same master that they had seen. They could identify, from their visual memories, the individual styles of a great many major and minor masters, and match these against the work at hand, providing an account of its stylistic antecedents and sometimes (in a misattributed work) even of its authorship. We do not always agree with Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's attributions and judgements, as they are recorded in his many inscriptions on extant paintings, but we respect them as remarkable in an age when no photographs or reproductions were available to allow the kind of comparative studies we can make today. This tradition of connoisseurship and scholarship was an honorable one, and we are endlessly in its debt. But perhaps it is time to recognize some of its negative effects, for present-day scholarship, along with the positive.

And the negative effects are, I believe, serious ones: the decontextualizing of a great deal of Chinese painting, the divorcing of much of it from its original meanings and purposes, the distortion of its very character, too often, to make it fit an inapplicable set of ideals. Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's bases for evaluating paintings and painters--judgements of authenticity, the hand of the individual master, rightness of stylistic lineage, the inherent superiority of the amateur tradition--were so widely accepted that artists and paintings that did not conform were regularly, sometimes relentlessly, pressed into doing so, or else rejected. (Let me repeat that I do not mean to make Tung solely responsible for all this, but only to use him as a focus for attitudes that were operative, if less dogmatically set forth, before his time.) Good paintings of undeterminable authorship were assigned to particular famous masters, as if only artists who occupied places in the approved canon could produce first-class paintings. (Traditional connoisseurs of our time are still inclined to follow this way of thinking.) Painters among Tung's contemporaries who began by working in distinct, individual styles ended, sometimes, by being absorbed into his Southern-school orthodoxy. (I have discussed examples of this absorption, in such cases as those of Chao Tso and Shao Mi, in my book on late Ming painting.) And, as we know, artists of the following period who declined to follow Tung's doctrines found themselves consigned, by those who adhered to his ideology, to the discredited realm of the heterodox and "perverse."

We cannot remind ourselves too often that the standard sources on which we depend in studying Chinese painting are inherently biased toward the literati viewpoint, since it was the literati who wrote them; the scholars "controlled the media," in effect, and rewrote history freely, suppressing or altering whatever did not fit their doctrines. When they held official rank, as Tung Ch'i-ch'ang did, their pronouncements were all the more authoritarian. In trying to imagine how the professional masters of their day (who in fact comprise most of the best painters of the time) can have felt about this constant denigration and distortion of their achievements, we find little evidence in writings by any of them (excepting, perhaps, the brief essay by Ch'en Hung-shou) from which to reconstruct their responses. We long to have a Chinese counterpart to the English artist and novelist Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God, that brilliantly bitter attack on upper-class amateurism in the arts and the confusion of critical values it can lead to. But, here as elsewhere in traditional Chinese society, there was no organized voice of opposition, no countervailing force to the dominant faction.

In preparing this talk I meant to include a section on Tung Ch'i-ch'ang as the Deng Xiaoping of painting; my wife exhorted me not to, and I cut it out. I would have presented him as, like Deng, a domineering figure who accomplished a great deal that was positive, taking a major role in some badly-needed reforms (in Tung's case, rescuing painting from the doldrums into which it had sunk by the turn of the seventeenth century); but whose narrowness, ruthlessness toward the opposition, and insistence that his own particular reformist directions were the only ones to be followed, had the bad effect of virtually silencing the opposition for a time, and driving too many of the proponents of alternative directions underground. Then as now, factional struggles in politics ended with the stronger party trying not only to weaken and discredit its opponents but to destroy them; that such struggles have their counterpart in Chinese art is well known to any reader of the writings of Tung Ch'i-ch'ang and his Orthodox-school followers.

If there is any way to bring our perceptions about Chinese painting history into some kind of compatibility with our responses to recent events in China (and even to pose the question immediately exposes one to the risk of sounding absurd--but I want to accept the risk today, in order to say some things that now seem to me important)--if there is any way, it is in this: by recognizing the continual tension between non-conformist impulses of individuals in China and the terrible pressures to conform exerted by their governments and their society, always for the purportedly benign purpose of keeping them from straying into heterodox or revisionist paths. Our admiration for the "harmonizing" or "unitary" mode of traditional Chinese culture should not pull us away from a recognition of its damaging effect on those who were tuned in to different harmonies and resisted being absorbed into the great all-embracing one. I have written, for instance, about the predicament of artists in the later centuries who chose to pursue, against the current, basically representational ways of painting, relatively free of cultured allusions to the past and all the distancing devices that signified a high-minded detachment from the subject, and the difficulties these artists had in being taken seriously by critics and collectors.

My purpose today, however, is not so much to advocate a re-appraisal of the professional painters' tradition in China as to suggest that we do these artists no service when we perpetuate the well-meant Chinese myths in which they are made respectable by being transformed into amateurs. Nor is it useful to adopt the Chinese elegant disdain for the practical and economic realities of the painter's practice. Apart from the desirability of giving as complete and balanced an account of our subject as we can, we will find these realities to be thoroughly absorbing in themselves, if the findings of my present seminar can be taken as an indication. The complex and varied ways in which some seeker after a painting conveyed his wishes to the artist; the equally diverse ways in which the artist was rewarded if he complied (and of course he did not always comply); the dilemma of the artist who accepts too many commissions and must deal with impatient clients while trying to step up his rate of production--these prove to be both interesting and enlightening.

But the ultimate test of the value of this kind of investigation must be, of course, how it will affect our understanding of the paintings. Because the investigation is only beginning, it is difficult to predict what the fruits of it will be, although some good recent studies give us clues. Three of the papers delivered at the Cleveland symposium last May, for instance, the papers by Ann Clapp, Ellen Laing, and Anne Burkus, seemed to me in different ways good examples of the approach I am arguing for.

S,S. Ann Clapp's paper, "The Commemorative Paintings of T'ang Yin," dealt with the circumstances of production of a type of scroll painting commissioned from the artist by affluent Suchou patrons, or by others for presentation to these people, to commemorate their status and achievements. Often it took the form of a depiction of the person's villa, with laudatory colophons attached. Clapp remarks that "This genre of painting was practiced by all the Suchou masters and is especially prominent in the oeuvres of professional painters like T'ang Yin," but that some of the inscriptions on them (S) are "frankly encomia of the painter" and contain "a continual insistence that the spirit of the scholar permeates all T'ang's works--he is a man of the intellect, indifferent to fashion and the marketplace . . ." T'ang was indeed a scholar, but no more indifferent to the marketplace, we can assume, than anyone else dependent on it for his livelihood; this is another obvious case of the artist's real status being bent to fit an ideal. Clapp's study goes sharply against standard interpretations of these scrolls, which treat them as though each scroll was the product of the participants, artist and inscription-writers, coming together socially at a party and deciding spontaneously to produce a collaborative work for the host.

S,S. (Another example, of less certain authenticity). She remarks that "few of the long handscrolls can have been executed spontaneously at literary gatherings or adorned with colophons on the inspiration of the moment, as conventional accounts of literati aesthetics would have us believe," and that such scrolls "required premeditation, and agreement between the patron and the contributors." Clapp's recognition of the true character of these scrolls allows her to read one after another feature of them as directed toward the better achievement of their purpose, not just as one-time aesthetic decisions of the participants. For instance, she points out that the paintings proper are all relatively short in length, and that "one ill-natured critic charged that T'ang's preference for short handscrolls was the result of a disinclination to exert himself," whereas "in fact it was a creative response to the demand for a special genre of painting ... a limit was put to the length of the picture so that the viewer's attention would be fixed squarely on the patron."

S,S. Ellen Laing's paper dealt with paintings done by Ch'iu Ying for the prominent collector Hsiang Yüan-pien, with whom the painter lived as artist-in-residence for several years during the 1540s. Laing proposes readings of the paintings as occasional works done for Hsiang and his family, perhaps on request. A picture of wax-plum and narcissus, for instance, may have been a wedding gift for Hsiang, since the narcissus stands for (among other things) marital happiness. A landscape with figures in the blue-and-green manner is in fact a portrait of Hsiang's oldest brother Hsiang Yüan-ch'i in his garden estate, and was probably done for birthday presentation--a substantial part of Ch'iu Ying's output, as she points out, was done for people's birthdays. Laing concludes by observing that "The painting requests made of Ch'iu [Ying] were entirely directed to the family: copies of paintings in the Hsiang collection, gifts to the Hsiang family, and images of the Hsiang family. In this way, Ch'iu Ying served the Hsiang clan as a painter-archivist."

S,S. Anne Burkus's paper also dealt with birthday pictures, by the late Ming master Ch'en Hung-shou. Her arguments are far too complex and interesting for me to attempt to summarize, especially in the presence of the writer; I will only note her contention that casting Ch'en as either a professional or an amateur "renders invisible the web of social relations in which he acted as a painter," and that Ch'en does not appear in her account as having unambiguously lived by his painting until after the fall of the Ming in 1644. She notes that the monetary value of painting "intrudes upon almost any discussion of art in seventeenth-century texts in a way it never had before," and that "painters . . . were inevitably brought into a commercial relation with those who sought their work." The remainder of her essay is a fascinating account, on new evidence, of the ways in which transactions between artists and clients were raised above commercialism through the use of polite conventions of mutual flattery, stressing of situations in which the artist declines to paint (a stance similar, perhaps, to that of the courtesan who distances herself from the common prostitute by making it clear that her favors are not available to everyone who comes seeking her with money), and a deliberate avoidance of clear stipulation, on the part of the client, of just what he wants. All of this indicates that the "amateurization" of Chinese painting, including the parts of it that were not carried out on an amateur basis at all, affected not only writings about painting but also the conventions by which artist and client conducted their transactions; and that observation is borne out by material my seminar is uncovering. There is, of course, nothing wrong with polite conventions of the kind that smooth everyday relationships between people; it is only wrong when we fail, as scholars, to see beyond them. Anne does exactly the right thing, I think, in investigating and discussing the practice in detail, on the one hand, and recognizing its conventional character on the other.

S,S. My only quarrel with Anne's paper, expressed at the symposium, was that in dealing with high-level, one-of-a-kind birthday paintings with dedicatory inscriptions, she did not allow as well for the possibility that Ch'en Hung-shou, probably working with apprentices or assistants, produced also a quantity of lower-level "ready-mades," perhaps done in multiples (several versions exist of this picture, for instance--one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, another in Taipei, still another in a recent New York auction.) Inscriptions on these sometimes indicate that they were collaborative works. It may well be that clarifying studio practice and the use of assistants will modify our thinking about "the hand of the master," as Svetlana's book did for Rembrandt. (She and I have talked about similarities and differences in our problems, and find interesting resonances across these two very different traditions.) I can imagine, for instance, Anne doing a paper on Ch'en Hung-shou's employment of assistants, and perhaps in the end accepting as studio productions a body of works that she is reluctant to admit into her artist's proper oeuvre.

More attention to the circumstances in which a painting was created, while it obviously won't change the painting itself or affect, in principle, its value as a work of art, will often, I think, lead to revised interpretations of its meaning, its art-historical status, even in some part the way we evaluate it. Let me conclude with an example from a recent paper of my own, an example of how one's reading of a painting, or a group of paintings, will change as one's assumptions about how it came into existence change. (I put it that way because I have in this case no new hard evidence about the historical context of the paintings, but only different assumptions from the usual ones about it.)

S,S. The paintings in question, mounted in two handscrolls, were unearthed in 1982 from the tomb of a man named Wang Chen, who was buried in 1496 at a place called Huai-an in northern Chekiang province. One scroll consists of eight paintings, of generally indifferent quality, two with spurious signatures of Yuan-period masters; these were probably pieces collected by Wang Chen himself, and taken by him into his tomb.

S,S. The second, far more interesting scroll contains sixteen paintings and a piece of calligraphy, which were probably acquired by Wang as a group from an official named Cheng Chün. Twelve of the paintings and the work of calligraphy are dedicated in their inscriptions to Cheng Chün. Most of the paintings are by little-known or unrecorded artists, but in addition to minor works by the bamboo painter Hsia Ch'ang and the blossoming plum specialist Ch'en Lu (seen here), several well-known masters of the so-called Ming Academy and Che School are represented: Ho Ch'eng, Hsieh Huan, Li Tsai, Ma Shih, and Hsia Chih. (Talking about the Ming Academy, in the present setting, allows me to insert a word of tribute to Harrie Vanderstappen for his pioneering and still-basic writing on that subject.)

S,S. And what has struck everyone about the pictures by the Academy masters is that instead of being painted in the academic, technically finished, Sung-derived manner that most other surviving works by them have led us to expect, they are in looser, rough-brush manners, superficially like those associated with the scholar-amateur artists.

So far there is agreement; beyond this is interpretation, and a divergence of readings. A Chinese colleague who first told me about the paintings of the Huai-an tomb find said that Chinese scholars were hailing them as new and surprising evidence for the practice of amateur-like hsieh-i painting, the spontaneous "sketching the idea" manner, among the Ming court artists and Che-school masters. The authors of the basic monographic publication on the find follow this line, writing that "the bird-and-flower pictures all emphasize the hsieh-i manner and . . . stem from the brush-and-ink of the Yuan masters." And the author of the best study of the paintings, Yin Chi-nan, observes that the styles are those associated more with the amateur painting tradition than with professional and academy painting. Foreign specialists who have spoken or written about the paintings tend to agree with these Chinese understandings of them. I would certainly not argue that they are entirely wrong, but only that they tend in a misleading direction, toward a reading of the paintings that is in the end unsatisfactory.

It is a reading that puts them into the context of all that hsieh-i and amateurism imply, in the ways these are commonly understood: spontaneity, individualism, personal expression, the artist as free spirit. It assumes in the artist an autonomy of choice in subjects and styles: he painted that way because he felt that way. It is completely in keeping with the convention described earlier of attributing to professional masters the practices of the amateurs, and writing about them as though they shared the amateurs' greater degree of freedom from economic and social constraints.

So, if this reading of the paintings is misleading, what is the alternative? I introduced my own interpretation of the paintings with a reminiscence: some years ago I was told that an old Chinese gentleman in San Francisco, a former Chinese government official, had a collection of paintings in which most of the leading 20th century masters were represented by works they had given him. I went with some anticipation to see the collection, and found that the report was true, but misleadingly true. Nearly all the major artists were indeed represented, along with many lesser ones; but by fan paintings, leaves in collective albums, minor and conventional works. Because of the man's official position and connections, the artists had all painted something for him; but because his rank was not high or his connections strong, because he lacked the status and importance to elicit better works from them, they had given him their minimal products, pictures of the kind they turned out in numbers for just this kind of use. The Cheng Chün paintings from the Huai-an tomb represent, I think, the equivalent for the fifteenth century: a group of occasional works done for presentation to a minor official. The simple compositions and rough brushwork are less a matter of expressionist fervor than of expediency, a means of producing a minor work at small expenditure of time and no doubt, assuming that the artist was somehow recompensed, at low cost.

The subjects of the Cheng Chün paintings, with a single exception, all have political implications that suit them for presentation to an official: bamboo, old trees, and rocks; blossoming plum, orchids, and chrysanthemums; Chung-k'uei with demons; river landscapes with scholar-gentlemen escaping from their urban and bureaucratic lives to contemplate nature and commune with fishermen; hills-in-clouds pictures in the so-called "Mi-family manner" of Mi Fu and Mi Yu-jen.

S,S. There are three of these last in the scroll; here are two, by Hsieh Huan and Li Tsai. Pictures of this type--and it is a type--carried a thoroughly conventional message in the Ming, praising the official by suggesting that his benevolent care for the common people was like the clouds that bring saving rain to the farmers' fields. What is striking is how like each other they are; along with other surviving examples, which likewise display little of individual variation on the type, they suggest that any competent painter of the time, whether committed specialist or occasional amateur, could turn out one of these on demand without much thought or planning, following an established formula, performing more than creating.

S,S. In this they are like some other kinds of simple occasional pictures, for instance farewell pictures, done as small gifts to a departing official or friend. Here are two of them, of an equally formulaic character, done by Wang E and Wu Wei. Such pictures must have made up a sizeable part, but the least interesting part, of the output of a great many, perhaps most, Chinese artists. That they do not make up a correspondingly large part of what survives is because, I think, they were in a low-priority category when decisions were made about what to preserve--what to keep among the family treasures, remount when necessary, rescue if there was a fire. It is significant that the examples we have mostly have come to us through unusual channels of transmission--through preservation in Japan, or burial in a tomb--not in the orthodox way by being handed down through a succession of collectors.

Out of an enormous output of paintings, or pictorial matter--decorative, illustrative, congratulatory, religious, otherwise functional, or simply expressive--the Chinese collectors and critics chose a small part as "worthy of refined appreciation" and preservation; and pictures of this fast-functional kind--along with other large categories of Chinese painting, including what we now call Ch'an or Zen painting--were not included in the small part they chose to keep. We may regret this, and welcome a find like the scroll from the Huai-an tomb that illuminates an interesting, otherwise lost corner of Ming painting. But I think we debase the ideas of self-expression, and purposeful stylistic innovation and unorthodoxy, when we apply them to pictures of this kind.

S. Those ideas, and the values they represent, are better reserved for paintings like this one--Wu Wei's brilliant "Myriad Miles of the Yangtze River" scroll in the Palace Museum, Beijing--works in which the artist has invested his creative energies deeply, works that delight us with their stylistic inventiveness and fresh, unhackneyed visions of their subjects. A prolific master such as Wu Wei, dependent on painting for his economic and social well-being, was doubtless obliged to turn out quantities of hack work, minor pictures of the kind I call the fast-functional, most of which have not survived--probably to the benefit of his reputation. The stature of such an artist must rest, not on such pictures, but on his truly original, one-of-a-kind creations.

S,S. To conclude, a similar pairing, two works by Wu Wei's predecessor Tai Chin, both in the Shanghai Museum: a relatively formulaic and undistinguished farewell painting, and a sensitive, atmospheric, quite original landscape with a man in a house among misty trees, one of the finest surviving works of the artist.

S. Its superiority to the other is not just because it is free of academicism--Tai Chin also does excellent works in the Sung-derived "academic" style--but because it was done with depth of feeling, loving care, as an unhackneyed, serious creation.

S. Nor was it painted "spontaneously, to cheer his heart," as the false version of the artist's situation would persuade us; the dedication to a certain Yung-yen Lao-shih ("my teacher Yung-yen") suggests that it represents that person in his secluded house among trees, and was probably done, like Anne Clapp's "commemorative paintings" and other works of this genre, in response to a commission or request. But to imagine it as belonging to such a functional category should not in any way diminish our admiration for the artist's achievement, any more than an Italian Renaissance master's fulfillment of a commission demeans his painting.

Readers of Chinese in the audience will have noticed that the picture is inscribed also by Tung Ch'i-ch'ang--it is, so far as I know, the only Tai Chin painting that Tung wrote on--and what he wrote will make an entertaining and instructive conclusion to my talk today. We probably should imagine Tung shown the painting by some collector whose hospitality he was enjoying, expressing admiration for it, and being invited to inscribe it. This was, for Tung, an awkward spot to be put in; what could he find that was positive to say about a work by the founder of the Che School? But Tung was never at a loss, and managed some amusingly back-handed compliments. He writes: "The hua-shih (painters by vocation) in our dynasty all consider Tai Wen-chin to be a great master. [Note that Tung does not advance this as his own view, but attributes it to painters of Tai's class.] This work imitates Yen Wen-kuei [nonsense, Mr. Tung!]. It is reserved and remote, pure and empty, not done in his ordinary, everyday manner. This makes it all the more remarkable (or strange, unusual)."

For this single, inescapably admirable work, Tai Chin is turned into a painter of lofty taste, an imitator of classical styles, somehow escaping from his usual academicism and professionalism. We can do better. We can acknowledge the real status of the artist, so far as we can determine it; see him as a versatile master who can do high-level work in a variety of manners, along with some quantity of hack work; admit freely that he did not paint, or rarely, just to pass his leisure time or embody his lofty feelings (although he did that too, in his better works) but that his paintings are none the worse for that; try to understand sympathetically the real motivations and circumstances underlying his production of paintings, in the conviction that although this will not make them better or worse, it will deepen our interpretations of their meaning; and make our judgements of his success, as we do with any other artist, as free of bias as we can make them.

Thank you.

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