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Blog About Jobs I Could Have Had


Blog About Jobs I Could Have Had

Among the blessings I can count, besides the simple one of reaching old age with only minor physical infirmities and enjoying a progeny--four children, six grandchildren--who are all healthy and well launched on their particular life-projects--is the blessing of having successfully avoided a whole series of “loftier” positions I could have had. This blog--motivated not by pride but by (I hope) self-awareness, as I’ll try to explain below--is about: What I Might Have Been. (What comes to mind when I write that? Marlon Brando in the backseat with his brother in “On the Waterfront”--“I coulda been a contenduh!” And Whittier’s famous couplet: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’")  But I mean just the opposite: thinking back over all the wrong decisions I might have made, all the wrong (for me) positions I might have moved into, makes me feel more blessed that I resisted them all, stuck to my first resolve, became a U. C. Berkeley professor, and have now returned to Berkeley to live out my remaining years in the company of family, former students, and friends old and new.

Let me--and not in any spirit of self-importance, quite the reverse, as I’ll try to spell out later--let me list the lofty positions I could have occupied, and chose not to:

- When, in 1964 or so,  I was about to leave the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. to come to Berkeley and become a U.C. professor, the then-director of the Freer John Pope took me to lunch at the Cosmos Club, where people of political and other power came together (but where Harold Philip Stern, who became the Freer’s next director, could not go because he was Jewish)--Pope was trying to persuade me to stay on and assume the directorship of the Freer. I had the good sense to say no. (For more on this, see R&R no. 13 on this website, “Leaving Freer, Move to Berkeley.”)

- While at the Freer, I was invited to Chicago to give a lecture at the U. of Chicago where my teacher’s-teacher Ludwig Bachhofer was teaching, and Bachhofer drew me aside and asked whether I might want to succeed him in that job. I said no, I was happy at the Freer, had no intention of moving--which at that time was true.

-  I was also summoned to Chicago by the collector Avery Brundage, spent a weekend at his hotel, and was offered the job of curator of his collection--a job I quickly turned down, for a number of good reasons.

- Two directors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York tried to persuade me to take on the job of curator, or Head, of the Department of Asian Art: Francis Henry Taylor, toward the end of my fellowship year there (1952-3) and later Thomas Hoving, who not only spent a half-day or so with me at the Met showing me around and making his case, but also, later, stopped in San Francisco on his way back from Asia. for a dinner in Chinatown. He was powerfully persuasive, but I was not to be moved.

- Before I took the job at U.C. Berkeley, I spent a day at Stanford, looking at the job that Michael Sullivan took. I ended up not wanting to apply for it--whether they would have chosen me instead of him, of course I can’t say.

- John Rosenfield, my old and good friend, flew out to Berkeley from Harvard: to convey the big news: that they were ready to offer me a University Professorship if I would agree to succeed my teacher Max Loehr there. And the offer was renewed while I was there for a year, 1978-79, as Norton Lecturer--the top bigwig there (Provost? I don’t have a good memory for titles) spent a half-day with me explaining why this position represented the pinnacle of the academic world. And no doubt it does; but again, I turned it down, preferring to stay at U.C. Berkeley.

- I could have--should have, properly--become President of College Art Association; I had served on their Board of Trustees, then their Executive Board, and I was in line for the presidency. But I refused the appointment--partly because I was just then engaged in China in the complex and perilous process that led to Ts’ao Hsingyuan and me marrying, and her coming to the U.S. Twice-a-year (or more often) trips to New York as CAA president would have interfered with this. And for other reasons, I didn’t want the job. I had for years represented China, or Asia, or the Non-West, on quite a few big committees and organizations that drew me to New York and L.A. (the Getty) and elsewhere for meetings, and I had had about enough of that life.

- In Berkeley, I served for a year (1973-4) as Acting Director of the University Art Museum (now Berkeley Art Museum), appointed to the job by Chancellor Michael Heyman and Provost Roderick Park when they “removed” Peter Selz from the directorship. This year-long experience helped to convince me that I had no gift, or liking, for administration. And I managed to get through over thirty years of teaching at U.C. Berkeley without ever becoming any kind of dean or other administrator--a brief tenure as History of Art Dept. chair, a late and mostly ineffectual posting as Director of the Asian Studies Program, mostly run by a super-efficient Administrative Assistant. All the time observing and admiring my colleagues who were good at administration and seemed to enjoy doing it.

Am I putting down those who took or got the jobs I didn’t take? Not at all--mostly, the reverse: most of them did notably better in the job than I would have. Harrie Vanderstappen, himself a Bachhofer pupil, succeeded Bachhofer in Chicago and was an excellent teacher, from all reports. Wen Fong took on the Met’s Asian Art chairmanship and did far more with it than I would have--my tribute to him at his retirement celebration was genuine. Even Yvon d’Argence, about whom I usually have little good to say, was able to tolerate working for, and being with, Avery Brundage, as I couldn’t have. And, leaving aside Harold Philip Stern, later Freer Gallery directors (Tom Lawton, Milo Beach, the present Julian Raby) not only have been better administrators than I would have been, but have collectively managed to deal with Arthur M. Sackler Jr., as I couldn’t have. (I have just broken a pledge by writing that name, as I have resolved not to do. As recounted in R&R no. 59 on this website, “Two Collector-Donors Whom I Didn’t Like,” he had no real taste for art, but “re-bought” collections already in museums to get his name attached to them--C. D. Carter’s Chinese bronzes at the Princeton Art Museum, where they had borne the name of their collector, the Winthrop jades at the Harvard/Fogg. And there is the great gallery of Chinese sculpture at the Met, collected over many years by Alan Priest and others, now the “Sackler Gallery.” And of course the Freer collection--at least Arthur M. didn’t insist on the elimination of Freer’s name. (The people at the Freer Gallery of Art, during the days when I was there receiving the Freer Medal, respected my feelings by avoiding the mention of that other name for the whole time.)

It’s true enough that moving to Harvard proved a blessing for some--the Shakespeare specialist Stephen Greenblatt, for instance, whom I had come to know before his move. But Max Loehr, after he moved there from the University of Michigan, was never as happy; and some who made the move returned to U.C. Berkeley after a time. I once proposed that we form an organization like “Alcoholics Anonymous” for people who had been tempted by Harvard and resisted.

As for being a museum director or high-level department head: another reason I would not have enjoyed it is that I would have had to deal with rich potential donors, and I’ve never liked doing that. Let me say immediately that I have had the pleasure and honor of knowing several really generous and likeable rich people during my decades of moving about in the world of art; three who come immediately to mind are Mary Burke in New York, the late J.S. Lee in Hong Kong. and the still-active (thank the lord) Danny Goldstine here in Berkeley.

Why have I avoided all these positions, turned down all these prestigious posts? In the end, the right answer is: out of self-knowledge: I have always known myself to be a good indian, not a good chief (to use the old terms, now discredited); I could not have wielded that kind of power without changing in bad ways. (Yes, it’s true, at least for me: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”: Lord Acton, writing in 1862.) I would have lost a lot of whatever objectivity I’ve managd to preserve as a scholar. I would have been more frequently “in the public eye” (a phrase that I cannot write without recalling the old slogan of a popular drink made from grapefruit juice: “Squirt: In the Public Eye!”) I would have had to wear a tuxedo more often than I have--and I dislike dressing up.

And what were the attractions of U.C. Berkeley that somehow trumped all these? They aren’t easy to identify. Was I offered a chair? No--and I spent my academic career as virtually the only upper-level Chinese art specialist in the U.S. without one. (When I retired, two potential successors--who didn’t come--were reportedly promised chairs if they did.) No money for travel, except what I raised myself; no student fellowships to attract grad students--I likened myself to the Daoist fisherman who fished with no bait on his hook, so that he would attract only the fish that really wanted to be caught. (And I ended up having as my students at least my share of the present leaders of the field.) I was promised, when I came, a graduate seminar facility of the kind my colleagues and their students mostly have, where the books, in all languages, could be assembled and where we could meet for study and lectures. It was Walter Horn, then chair of the department, who promised that--what he meant, he explained afterwards, was that he would apply for foundation money for this. The promised seminar space was finally opened, in the new East Asian Library Building, some time after I retired. Before that we made do with an office-sized room adjacent to my office, the now-famous (and now otherwise occupied) 419A. I was promised also a Japanese art position to relieve me of teaching that along with Chinese, but it was some years before we got it. My appeals to the Graduate Dean, my attempts to try for a chair through Development Office and elsewhere, never even roused any serious responses--it was only when Svetlana Alpers, alarmed by Harvard’s offer to me, began to bring pressure on the higher-ups that moves were made to give me my graduate seminar room--which, during my last years of teaching, was nothing more than a basement room, first in Durant Hall where the Oriental/East Asian Languages Dept. was located, then across Campanile Way in the basement of that building where the Graduate Division had been.

And what compensated for these failings? Living in Berkeley, which is (as I now realize) my spiritual home; teaching at U.C.B., a campus that interacts with the surrounding community in lively and healthy ways, as Harvard and Stanford don’t; access to the great seashores and beaches in Marin County (Point Reyes) and elsewhere--trips to these, long walks and sometimes overnights there, were virtually a part of our graduate program in Chinese and Japanese art. And great colleagues to work with--I won’t name them all again--in Chinese studies (for myself and my students) and also in art history--I was part of a faculty not to be matched elsewhere--Alpers, Baxandall, T.J. Clark, Joanna Williams, others--all leaders in their fields. I have spent enough time in other centers over the years--Harvard, Chicago, Princeton--to be able to make informed comparisons. And I end up happy to be a U.C. B. emeritus professor living in Berkeley and counting his blessings, chief among them being: living here instead of somewhere else. And if all this betrays a reprehensible self-satisfaction, so be it: I plead guilty.

James Cahlll, September 23rd, 2 012

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