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Two Short of Rice Years: Some Birthday Thoughts


Two Short of Rice Years: Some Birthday Thoughts

What follows are thoughts that I jotted down while lying flat on a bed in the old Inverness house that my daughter Sarah and son-in-law John rent every summer. I tripped and fell on the wooden deck outside the house and sprained my foot--nothing serious, fortunately, just uncomfortable--I still can’t walk without limping--and spent several days lying down, reading, looking at things on the new IPad that Sarah gave me for my birthday, and scribbling these notes for a blog.

Back in Berkeley and at my computer, I find lots of Happy Birthday messages to respond to.  Also, more of the appreciative notes that come from readers of this website and watchers/listeners of my video-lectures. I appreciate these deeply, and try always to respond to them. They come from all over, including Japan, Taiwan, and China, snd from all kinds of people. EXCEPT (and now we arrive at the main subject of this blog): EXCEPT (a wide-open hole): except the Chinese art-history scholarly community, especially all those leading figures in it, but also their students. From them, near-total silence. I produce and post video-lectures intended (among other things) to supplement academic courses by providing visual resources far beyond what most scholars and programs have access to. Are they used that way? If so, nobody has told me about it. (I make an exception here of a few of my own former students, from whom I get gratifying messages, but who definitely make up a minority in our field.)

So, why have I become the object of this kind of virtual ostracizing, in my old age? Simply because I’ve lived for so long? That’s part of it. But mostly it’s for the same reason, I think, that I suffered it (although less) during my earlier years as a productive scholar and teacher: (Dick Barnhart once more or less admitted this in correspondence with me.) It’s been because of my persistent and annoying habit of presenting my colleagues with arguments, backed up with strong evidence of the kind that would seem to virtually push them  into agreement, for events and developments in Chinese painting history that they haven’t wanted to accept. How does someone who is put into that position escape from it? He doesn’t; he just looks the other way and pretends that the challenger isn’t there. Let me offer a few examples of papers and lectures of mine that have had this effect, giving references, where relevant, to where these papers appear on this website.

- CLP 64, “Life Patterns and Stylistic Directions: T’ang Yin and Wen Cheng-ming as Types,” a paper given at a Wen Zhengming symposium in Ann Arbor in 1976. Against the then-prevalent belief that Chinese artists of whatever time and situation were free to paint whatever they pleased, as individuals, I argued that certain types, as defined by their positions in society (and identifiable by the ways their biographies were written), seemed more or less constrained--by audience expectations, presumably--to paint within certain boundaries of style and subject. Tang Yin and Wen Zhengming could not have changed places and painted each other’s pictures. (Nor, as I point out in Ch. 1 of my recent Pictures For Use and Pleasure book, could Gu Jianlong and Wang Shimin.) I challenged my audience to find exceptions to the clear correlation I pointed out; none of them could, nor has anyone since then.

- The two landscapes in the Kôtôin in Kyoto, one with a scratched-out “signature” of Li Tang (discovered by Shimada, who published this finding with great excitement.) I argued from the beginning that they were stylistically wrong for Li Tang or his period, and had to be late Song works, post-Xia Gui. But I was almost alone: a whole large book could be compiled of all the attempts (Dick Edwards, Dick Barnhart, Japanese scholars, etc.) to justify the Li Tang authorship  by stretching out Li Tang’s period of activity, or assuming that he had (like Liang Kai) a “fine” and a “free” style--and so forth. Dick Barnhart finally retracted his long-held opinion and admitted that they had to be later, in a little-noticed footnote to an article he wrote. Some major scholars are still publishing the paintings as works by Li Tang.

- Recognizing how much late Ming and early Qing Chinese artists adopted (or appropriated, or whatever) from European pictures they saw, and how important these “borrowings” were for painting of their time and later. The first two chapters of my Compelling Image book presented the visual evidence for this argument; those who believe only in textual evidence (of which, in this case, there can’t be any) still remain skeptical. (Dick Barnhart, honest person that he is, wrote an article, for which I can’t  quickly cite a bibliographical reference, about Dong Qichang’s borrowings, crediting me with pointing this out earlier.) Chinese scholars tend to want their culture to have been insular--except, of course, for the coming of Buddhism from India. What they “borrowed” from Japan in the 19th and early 20th century makes up another unpleasant truth with which they are now confronted, recent studies having opened up this area of research in a big way.

- “Pictorial integrity” as a basis for distinguishing originals from copies. This argument is presented and illustrated in Addendum 2A to the PRV series. There I cite Sherman Lee’s use of it in a court case, and elaborate on how I myself have used it in for a number of controversial judgments. The basic idea is: The original artist will represent the thing, whatever it may be, in the “right” way, while a copyist is likely to get it wrong in some way. Go to my lecture for examples. This argument is not, to put it mildly, widely accepted in our field,  since it brands as copies quite a few paintings that some of  my colleagues want to accept as originals.

-  How our acceptance of literati painting dogma as a “central truth” about our subject has impoverished our studies. This argument is laid out as powerfully as I can make it in the opening pages of my recent Pictures for Use and Pleasure book, where wenrenhua theory is seen, not as a doctrine we should accept and propagate without question, but as “the self-serving rhetoric of a male elite minority” which has blocked our recognition of those huge areas of Chinese painting that lay outside their zone of approval,--paintings acquired and used and enjoyed by people on lower economic levels and non-literati, including women. This argument can scarcely be popular among those who have, as I point out, built whole teaching programs around imparting this “central truth.” My attempt at re-direction on this issue was already implicit in my Lyric Journey book of 1996, in which the practice of “poetic painting” was taken away from the literati,  who had always claimed it, and awarded to some of the Southern Song Academy masters who better deserve it.

- And, of course, my piling up of proofs that the would-be “early” painting called “Riverbank” is really a forgery by Zhang Daqian. Perhaps this has become my most heinous crime, for those True Believers who ignore the ever-growing, even overwhelming evidence. But readers of these blogs need no further introduction to that large and fascinating issue. We can only wait and hope that the World At Large wakes up some time and takes notice of these proofs: the resulting explosion should be at least as sensational as the van Meegeren-Vermeer affair of some decades back. How long will we have to wait?

- And behind all these, or most of them, lies the basic Visual/Verbal controversy: Anyone making good use of a visual approach (informedly, judiciously) should usually be able to come to right conclusions about the materials in front of them, and arrive at well-founded decisions on these issues. But few of us really do that. As early as my essay for the 1976 Levenson memorial volume  ("Style as Idea in Ming-Ch'ing Painting”) I was pointing out the inadequacies of, for instance, studies of the practice of fang or creative imitation by Dong Qichang and others that depended only on texts, Any effective demonstration of how fang really worked, why it is not at all incompatible with originality, needs to be illustrated with actual examples that the reader can see. (And if anyone besides myself has done that in all the years since then, I would be interested to learn about it.)

- Articles of mine that I think should have had some impact on our field, and were hailed as ground-breaking by their audiences when they were first presented as symposium papers but seem to have attracted little notice since then, include:

"Continuations of Ch'an Painting into Ming-Ch'ing and the Prevalence of Type-images." In: Archives of Asian Art L/1997-98, 17-41.  And:

“Some Thoughts on the History and Post-History of Chinese Painting.” In: Archives of Asian Art LV, 2005, 17-33.

This is partly my own fault: I should have made them accessible in illustrated texts on this website, and failed to do that. I’ll try to rectify that omission.

- As for my video-lectures: they have deliberately adopted an old-fashioned, virtually obsolete “narrative” mode of art history, as it  was defined by Gombrich and Kubler and others, and throughout have continued to use the above arguments--and others, such as my belief (which underlies Lecture 5) that some artists of the Five Dynasties created intricate spatial schemes that went beyond anything earlier and were not really followed up later, or (Lectures 12b-d) that there really is (as some have denied) an identifiable and important body of Chinese Chan/Zen Buddhist painting. An old movie (“The Loved One,” very funny, about Forest Lawn Cemetery in L.A.) was advertised as offering “something to offend everybody”; my lectures could be advertised the same way.

Why is all this so important to me, so that I risk alienating so many of my colleagues by taking these unpopular positions and arguing fervently for them? Partly (as others have recognized) because of my Irish pugnaciousness; but also, and more importantly, because I believe they are true, and believe that it’s better for our field to proceed on a basis of truths than on one of old myths and biases. I’ve sometimes quoted an inscription by Dong Qichang on one of his paintings--I believe it’s a leaf in the album in the Princeton Art Museum--in which he likens himself to the Buddha who wanted to lead all beings onto the True Path before entering nirvana. Dong was lamenting his failure to have done that for painting. I feel the same way, and continue to work toward rectifying this part-failure.

Perhaps art history is more open now than it has been in some past decades. Big Theory (which I write with a capital Thuh) seems to have subsided, and also the neo-Marxist approach advocated prominently by my colleague T. J. Clark, which had so many of our best students pronouncing that no issues interested them except those of  “race, class, and gender.” I admired Tim and liked him, while learning and accepting more from another departmental colleague, Michael Baxandall, taking as a model his judicious use of all kinds of evidence for the arguments he makes, with the visual strong among them. Recent reviews of exhibitions of European art, such as one on some great Dürer figure paintings, suggest an expanding tolerance of openly and unqualifiedly representational painting, after a long period in which we were assured that admiring these betrayed a low critical taste. Perhaps my video-lectures on the great Southern Song Academy masters will help to push our field further in that direction, and open it up again to a fair appreciation of truly great pictorial representation.

And that brings me, at last, to my conclusion. The Japanese (but not, to my knowledge, the Chinese) refer to one’s eighty-eighth birthday as the “rice longevity” year, beijû in Japanese. This is because the three characters for 88 (hachi-jû-hachi) can be compressed (with the first turned upside down) into something resembling the character for “rice.” Tomioka Tessai, when he reached this age, painted a great album that is treasured as his “Beijû Album.” I believe I can, with two more years of good enough health, finish and post enough more of my video-lectures to offer strong models and incentives for the visual approach, and otherwise try to open our field to more of the unpopular but true positions described above. If you agree with me that this would be a highly desirable outcome, wish me a two-year extension, a beijû or “rice longevity.” At least two years, that is--anything beyond that will be a real gift of the gods.

James Cahill, August 15th, 2012


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