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On the Coordinates of Style in Chinese Painting--and Elsewhere


On the Coordinates of Style in Chinese Painting--and Elsewhere

By the coordinates of style I mean those factors that appear regularly to “go along with,” or correlate with, changes in style. We have all been properly told about (and I have described how the ancient Chinese believed in) “correlation, not causation”--not constructing a cause-and-effect world in the Copernican manner, but a correlative one that works by mysterious harmonies between all the things and forces that make it up. Now, within that model, how do we understand the factors that surround the creation of art, so that certain of them correlate with stylistic choice and stylistic change?

Because they do--that much seems to me beyond question. I am no more able to understand it than anyone else--well, maybe advanced thinkers can in ways beyond my capacity. I have related several times an exchange with C. C. Wang at a Shanghai symposium: he saying (I paraphrase), “You talk and write about how artists have to paint in the ‘right way’ for their time and place. But we artists know that we’re not subject to any such constraints, we paint whatever we please, any time, entirely free in our choices.” And I responding, ”It’s your job as an artist, C.C., to paint as though that were true; it’s my job as an art historian to prove, over and over again as often as necessary, that it isn’t true.” And I was just then preparing a lecture that included a section on the styles being used by overseas Chinese artists at that time, of whom C.C. was one.

Now, given all that, what were the coordinates of style for Chinese painting? I’ve spent much of my career arguing and showing that there were such coordinates, against an opposition that preferred to believe in the free-spirited artist, not subject to any determinants in what and how he painted. But I’ve related all that often enough already, and quoted Baxandall on how that kind of artist doesn’t appear until very recent times. Still, let me go back over some of it.

- In dedicating one of my books to Max Loehr, I wrote “He taught us that style has meaning. Everything else that mattered followed from that.” This tribute was called into question by those who pointed out, quite rightly, how Loehr had denied that historical and economic circumstances surrounding the artist should be taken into account in understanding the forms that his paintings take. But Loehr had been a notable practitioner of identifying other coordinates, notably period (as shown by his triumph in identifying pre-Anyang bronze styles before archaeology proved him right), and local or regional style: I’ve related how once in a seminar he pointed to a little bronze animal in the midst of a collection of nomadic-style bronzes (the so-called Ordos bronzes) and said: “This small animal speaks, and says to us:  ‘I am Chinese.’” And he believed in personal style for artists, and tried endlessly to define it for those he wrote about, beginning with his early article on Li Tang.

- I’ve been engaged in arguments about this large matter throughout my career--I needn’t, I hope, recount or summarize all the arguments I’ve had about this matter. My first truly challenging or combative paper was the one about how the “life patterns” of middle Ming artists --the patterns underlying what was written about them in the biographical sources--coordinate with the kind of paintings they do, in an observable, unshakeable correlative pattern. And I got in another big argument over the appearance of features of style in 17th-century Chinese painting that could only have come from the artists’ exposure to European pictures. And more recently in my lecture and article “Some Thoughts On the History and Post-History of Chinese Painting,” which raised again the controversial matter of period style: is there such a thing? We have gone through an awful period--I hope it’s gone forever--in which only certain associations or coordinates of style in art have been permitted for consideration as significant by mainstream art historians--how well I remember our best students, back in the 1980s-90s during the late part of my teaching career, parroting the formula: “We aren’t interested in anything but race, class, and gender.” Along with that went post-colonial theory, and the awful effects of a good idea--Edward Said’s Orientalism--pushing too many scholars into a passionate belief that it was elitist and trivializing to work with other aspects of style than those three--race, class, and gender--in art and literature. A generation of young people grew up with the belief that Shakespeare’s Tempest was really about the wicked imperialist Prospero’s takeover of the island, brutally suppressing its natives (Caliban and his mother).

I worked with my students on, for instance, the socio-economic coordinates of Anhui-school painting styles: how the merchant culture in the Jiangnan region was persuaded that the dry, linear manner used by certain artists was an emblem of refined taste and lofty status, so that they lavished their patronage on artists who worked in this austere, super-refined style--just as the very rich today, or some of them, pay crazy prices for works by Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst and the others, for reasons far removed from real artistic preference--they are in effect buying prestige and reputation within a particular world of opinion. But all this is well known. What have I to say that is new?

- But continuing for a while to reminisce: Viewed over a long period, which my career has become through the simple factor of my sheer survival: the art-history field has gone through some truly striking ups and downs. Fervent denunciations of old-style art history--I recall an angry scholar who came up from UCLA to give us Berkeley professors a lecture about how what we were doing could no longer be taken seriously--I think it was Donald Presiozi--and my unuttered response: thank you, and now you can fly back down and we’ll go on doing exactly what we were doing before. UCLA professors were usually angry at Berkeley for all kinds of reasons, but Berkeley went on being the best, unperturbed. Anyway, the end of old-style art history proved to be like the end of tonal music, or of figurative painting--we are assured passionately that it will never be done again, and then, if we live long enough, we watch it come back. Prohibitions of this kind, thank god, last only for a while, and then are forgotten--or rather, become part of the history of the field. Marxist art history, at one time a minor anomaly practiced by a few scholars (notably one at UCLA named Otto Karl something), certainly not part of the mainstream--it was given one special session, poorly attended, at each CAA meeting--then took over for a time, in the hands of major scholars such as T.J. (Tim) Clark of our faculty. And this led to the situation I mentioned above, in which good students proclaimed that they were interested in no issues other than race, class, and gender. And there was Theory, especially the francophile form of it--no one matters but Foucault, or Derrida, or Lacan, or Quel-qu’un. (I have called it Big Theory, consciously recalling Big Nurse in Cuckoo’s Nest.) I have been an observer of all this from the sidelines, mostly, although I tried, with my students, to see how one or another of these approaches might be usefully applied to Chinese painting studies.

Now, at last, back to my original subject, the coordinates of style. I used to lay out an elaborate theoretical model for identifying these in Chinese painting, a grand project that would never be carried out but which we could nonetheless envision. I included it, as I remember, in a lecture given at China House in New York on “Regional Schools in Chinese Painting,” in connection with Hongnam Kim’s exhibition of the artists surrounding Zhou Lianggong, the subject of her dissertation--my lecture is listed as CLP 93 on my website, but the text isn’t available there. Anyway, outlined in my lecture was a way we could, if we spent enough time and trouble on it, identify all or most of these coordinates. It goes like this:

We assemble, shall we say, a thousand Chinese paintings--or, better, ten thousand--and for each of them we identify, and enter into our card-files (or, today, our computers) a series of yes-or-no “facts” about it: Is it a landscape? Yes or no. Are there figures in it? Is there color? Are the figures active or conventional? Is the brushwork fine or rough? And so forth, up to a thousand--or, better, ten thousand. (Don’t come back complaining that some of these are subjective--I mean only objectively observable features, which would be agreed on by everybody--or everybody we cared about.) And then, separately, we enter for each of the paintings a set of circumstances surrounding its creation, a great many of them: date, where it was painted, what was around there for the artist to see, what came before it within the artist’s tradition that he/she could have learned from (and yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as artistic tradition--doubters should go back and read George Kubler, The Shape of Time, which lays it out expertly). And so on, through all the various “facts’ about the artist (his or her age when he/she painted it, etc.) and (if known) about the purchaser or recipient, how and how much the artist was paid for it (or what favor or obligation it requited)--all of that. And then, once we have this huge task finished, we push the right buttons and we learn what coordinates with what: which factors or features appear to belong with period, which with locality, which with certain facts and circumstances surrounding the artist--and so forth. And there we would have them: period style, regional or local style, personal style, “old age” styles, economically high-cost styles--all of it.

I hardly need to add that the project is pretty much un-realizable, or at least highly unlikely ever to be realized. I set it forth here only as an ideal model for how I think some of these big questions about the coordinates of style in Chinese painting might be answered--and, just as importantly, shown to be, indeed, operative coordinates. And it would serve also as an affirmation that, given enough time and effort, these big questions could be answered--they have answers, that is. It’s just up to us to find them.

James Cahill, February 20th, 2012

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