Blog Archive

Blog About Joseph Alsop


Blog About Joseph Alsop

Today’s blog will be of the name-dropping, I-knew-him-well type. But before turning to its main subject I want to call your attention to two new documents that have been added to this website, or soon will be. One, now the last item under “Other People’s Writings,” is a correspondence I have had recently with Jerome Silbergeld about the Riverbank revelation and why my learned colleagues in Chinese painting studies have been so unresponsive to what I take to be big news for all of us in this racket. The other is a paper I wrote and submittted for publication back in 2006 that finally appeared last year in the massive (two-volume) Festscrift for Wen Fong’s retirement, “Bridges To  Heaven.” With all respect to that ponderous publication and the two people mostly responsible for finally getting it out, Dora Ching and Jerome Silbergeld (same as above), it is heavy and hard to read, besides being very expensive, and has only black-and-white illustrations--at least, my article does. So I have decided to put it online here, with the illustrations in color; it will appear as the last item under “The Writings of James Cahill” and its title is “A Group of Anonymous Northern Figure Paintings from the Qianlong Period.” I really think this one is worthy of your attention--it has things to say, for instance, about Qing-period court painting, its heavy use of joint production with the Italian Jesuit  Castiglione as the lead artist, and its projections into the world of painting production in the surrounding areas in North  China.

Now for the proper subject of this blog, which is, as the title has already informed you, the newspaper columnist and writer on art Joseph Alsop (1910-1989). A new play about him titled “The Columnist” was reviewed recently in the NYTimes (Arts Section for April 22, p. 4). It apparently makes much of his being a closet homosexual--something that I never cared about, one way or the other--I don’t recall meeting his wife, and our association was concerned with matters much more interesting than his love-life. (People will say that it was a bigger matter back then, because gay people had to keep it secret; but my recollection is the opposite--I had quite a few friends, even close friends, who were gay and it never seemed to matter  much.) I knew Alsop because of his more-than-casual interest in art and the collecting of art. He was working on a book that would eventually be published in 1982 as The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared--a highly informed book full of fresh ideas and bold assertions. Working on this, he must have realized that he needed to learn more about Asian art, especially Chinese, its modes of production and transmission and collection; and to learn about those, what could he  do better than summon  for lunch a young curator at a museum only a  taxi-ride away, one who had recently published a best-selling  book on Chinese painting? So there I was, visiting the stylish red-brick Georgetown house of the famous Joseph Alsop.

I saw him quite a lot during my later years in D.C., the late fifties and early sixties, and occasionally after that, at a time when I was an active member of big art-history organizations--the National Committee for the History of Art, the Getty committee that  gave  grants for augmenting the illustration of art-history books, most of  all the College Art Association--I was on their Board of Directors,  then their smaller Executive Board, and I would have moved into the presidency if I hadn’t vigorously turned it down because I was by then absorbed with important personal matters in China. I remember visiting Alsop once, staying there overnight (he liked putting people up and giving them good dinners--he was especially proud of his cook), and having dinner with him and another prominent art historian, Phyllis Bober. She was famous for,  among other things, knowing how to prepare an antique Roman dinner, and doing it.  I never attended one of those, and didn’t especially want to. I knew her already from many College Art and other meetings. I remember standing with her once in the rotunda at the U. of Pennsylvania Museum, where we were meeting for some kind of exhibition or symposium, and arguing with her fervently, drinks in hand (and many more drinks already consumed, contributing greatly to the vigor of our argument) about whether the huge Chinese crystal ball in a  case in the center of the rotunda was  or wasn’t a work of art. She said yes it was, I said no it wasn’t. Why not? Because its perfect spherical shape was a product of craft, reproducible by anybody with enough time & skill & the right materials, with none of the dynamic interaction of parts etc. that permit it to arouse the kind of experience we call an aesthetic experience. (I made a similar argument once at an Arts Club meeting here in Berkeley when the topic was “Is Wine An Art?” I argued no, against some fervent wine-bufts who dominated the discussion, for much the same reasons.) Anyone who wants to know what I believe about how art objects “work” to create that special kind of experience can go back and  read the blog posted here on April 3rd titled “Two Writer-Teachers On Art: Langer and Kaplan.”)

Back to Joseph Alsop. In his late years, after he had stopped writing his newspaper columns, he was working on another book, this one to take on exactly the problem that Phyllis Bober and I were arguing, namely:  What is art? How does it work? Once when Alsop was in the Bay Area for a lecture or meeting or something, I invited him to dinner at my house with  several members of our Art History faculty,  expecting them to be impressed and anticipating a lively conversation. It was a disaster; they obviously had little respect for him, little interest in his thoughts on this big subject. I wince when I recall all of us sitting down after dinner in our huge living  room before an inadequate fireplace (it didn’t  really heat the room) and my trying to keep the conversation going while my departmental colleagues were letting it die.  Alsop’s book was never finished, so far as I know, and he never published anything on this large question. His overly-simple tentative formulation was:  Art is anything made by human hands that is pleasurable to the senses. The inadequacy of that formulation I tried to point out to him; but old people, once they have what seems to them a good idea in their heads, are reluctant to part with it. An observation richly exemplified by the recent writings and blogging of

Yours truly, James Cahill

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...