Blog Archive

October 16, 2013

Wu Bin
Two book-length publications that I have acquired recently are devoted to an artist whom I used to say that I “invented,” meaning that I had published his work for the first time and called attention to his importance in art history. They are both devoted to the late Ming master Wu Bin, who was the subject of my first publication--as you will see in my Bibliography, which can be pulled down at top left.  I gave a paper on him in the first great gathering of Chinese painting specialists, a symposium held at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan in 1970.  I made use of a paper given by Michael Sullivan (the late Michael Sullivan, alas--see below) that identified illustrated European publications that were in China at that time--I used his work to show how Wu Bin derived parts of his style from these.  And when the paper was presented at the symposium, I arranged for the Palace Museum to give him his first “one man show,” made up mostly of Wu Bin paintings in their collection but including also several that I brought or had taken there-- they included the great landscape in the general manner of Fan Kuan that I had found recently and it was being remounted in Japan--that was brought to the symposium by my friend Cheng Chi. I myself brought an early landscape by him that I had acquired, and I had arranged for them to include in the exhibition a painting that was then called Anonymous Song, which I knew from its style to be a work of Wu Bin.
I wrote about him also in my “Compelling Image” book--he was the main subject of the third lecture/ chapter--and also in my in book on late Ming painting “ The Distant Mountains,” published in the same year, 1982.  These introduced more works by Wu Bin, and elaborated on my thoughts about him.
My early article is mentioned in both the new publications, but only briefly.  One publication is the book “Dimensions of Originality” by Katharine Burnett who teaches Chinese art history at the UC Davis campus near Sacramento. She got this job back at a time when my then-wife Hsingyuan Tsao had just received her doctorate, and she applied for it too--if she had gotten the job, we could have stayed in Berkeley and she would have commuted to teach there.  But they had already had Katharine Burnett teaching there, and she was the one who was hired and has been there ever since.  I have never met her, but have read her writings from time to time.  Her “Big Idea” is about the importance of the concept of ch’I (qi) meaning something like “strange” or “remarkable”, in late Ming art and culture.   She wrote about this in her doctoral dissertation, which was for the University of Michigan--she worked under Dick Edwards-- and has expanded her ideas about it in the present book.
The exhibition in the National Palace Museum I knew about from their posting in the internet, and I wrote to them to ask whether they had given due acknowledgement to my early article, since it was not mentioned in the accompanying announcement which had a long text.  They responded saying that my article would indeed be mentioned in the large publication that they were issuing in connection with the exhibition.  They have included all the works by Wu Bin in their collection, along with others borrowed from other collections.  Curiously, the painting that I recognized as having belonged to myself, the great landscape in the manner of Fan Kuan, reproduced as a plate in my “Distant Mountains” book, appears in this catalog as the property of the National Palace Museum.  I have to assume that whoever acquired it from my first wife Dorothy, who received it in her part of the settlement in our divorce, must have sold it to someone who sold it or gave it to the Palace Museum.  Nothing in the text mentions that it was once mine, so I can only assume from the reproduction that it is the same painting.  During the period when I owned it, I used to hang it sometimes in the Berkeley Art Museum next to a full-size reproduction of the great Fan Kuan landscape, and ask students to write comparative essays after viewing the two together.  It was one of my treasures, and I was sorry to lose it.  But then, I had so many treasures that are now only memories.  
Art and Mortality:  How the First Enhances One’s Life Until the Other Ends It
The Thursday, October 10th editorial page in the New York Times features, under the Letters from Readers section in upper right, responses to an article published the previous Sunday about how literary fiction can teach empathy (feeling others’ emotions sympathetically) to readers. It is headed, “Does Reading Fiction Teach Empathy?” And the readers’ responses all say: yes, it definitely does, and they give examples and affirmation from their own experiences as teachers and otherwise.  And they cite works of literature assigned to students that do indeed call up emotional responses--one of them cites several pieces of writing as good examples of literary works that have this capacity. 
I am, of course, entirely in sympathy with this view of literature, and would like to see it extended to music and other forms of art.   As all readers of my blogs know, I have been a vocal opponent of the notion, common to so much recent production of art and music and literature, that the artist or writer or composer should avoid trying to call on the emotions of his listeners, readers, or viewers.  My belief is in conscious opposition to the notion that is much more common among writers on art today, and the one that underlies much art criticism one reads.  Readers of my blogs will remember that in the 1970s I threatened to hang a big sign that read “Doing Dumb Things and Calling It Art Is Over!” in our University Art Museum, and that pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter.  Alas, dumb things have become the very substance of most artistic projects today, and it is definitely moving away from the idea of provoking emotional responses in its readers, viewers, and listeners.  A recent article in the New York Times told of a forthcoming performance of a “piece” by Yves Klein in which the orchestra and chorus play a single major chord for twenty minutes, and then sit silent for twenty minutes with the audience watching them, bored but gratified by the sense that they are participating in an important work of art.  If we were to drop this latter assumption, it would be revealed for the nonsense that in fact it is. 
As for the big question of how works of art move the human feelings, evoke emotions, and so forth: I again can only refer to old blogs in which I reveal that the explication of this matter that most convinced me in my early years was in the writing of Susanne Langer, her “Philosophy In a New Key” and her “Feeling and Form”.  These are, I’m sure, terribly out of date and out of keeping with what advanced thinkers are advocating today, but I haven’t read anything lately that makes better sense.  But then, I haven’t done a lot of reading in the literature of art theory, since much of it is quite unintelligible to me.
Everybody who loves classical music knows very well what works most move our emotions: movements in the late quartets of Beethoven, movements in the symphonies of Schubert or Brahms, the songs of Debussy and Duparc as sung by the great French singers.
I have sometimes written that if only someone had said, at the right moment, “Good joke, Monsieur Duchamps, a urinal exhibited with the title ‘Spring’--ha ha-- good joke.  Now let’s go back to doing art.” If only they had said that, instead of the collective, “Oh wow” that was in fact the response, art of the twentieth century would have been a lot different, and a lot better.
Another article in the New York Times, this one on page nine of their Sunday October 13th Review section, is titled “Is Music the Key to Success” and is a long explanation of how “high achievers say musical training played a central role in their lives.” Again, all of us who have had experience raising children and watching how music affects their lives know the truth of this, but it is good to have it asserted publicly, at a time when so much art, music, and literature seems to be deliberately avoiding the crime of raising the feelings of the hearers, or affecting them emotionally at all.  Again, the writer cites his own experience at length, and then quotes prominent people about the role music has played in their lives. Prominent among these is Woody Allen, who as many of his admirers know, plays the jazz clarinet and takes part in public performances often. 
The writer goes on to point out that the practice of music, and getting better at the performance of it as one practices, convinces someone that “there’s nothing like music to teach you that eventually if you work hard enough, it does get better--you see the results.”
Two Departed Friends
 Within just the past week, I learned of the sudden and unexpected deaths of two old friends, both of whom played important parts in my life.  The first was Michael Sullivan, who died after a brief illness at Oxford in England.  He had recently been traveling in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and had seemed in the best of health, able to move around freely, much more so than myself.  The other was Roger Covey, the head of the Tang Research Foundation that sponsors my video lectures.  He apparently had a sudden, massive heart attack and died of it.  He was the one who really persuaded me to begin my series of video lectures, and supported it heavily through his Tang Research Foundation. To lose both these two people “out of the midst of life” is another reminder, which I scarcely need, of the mortality of all of us, and again I thank my lucky stars for my own long survival.  How the death of Covey will affect the continuation of our video lecture series is something I cannot predict--Kate Chouta of IEAS and others will have to contact the Foundation and find out their intentions.
Meanwhile, Kate and others have embarked on a project of sending out an appeal for funds to a huge number of people whose email addresses I somehow had, both those who had written me praising the series and a lot of others.  There haven’t been any very hopeful responses so far, but we will see.  If you yourself, reading this, feel inspired to contribute to our project, please write to Kate Chouta, whose email address is:  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
Meanwhile, about my own situation: I continue to be pretty much bedridden, going out only infrequently, since it is a big operation for me and my helpers.  Yesterday, they took me to the heart clinic and to see Dr. Cecci, who gave me the welcome report that I seem to be recovering nicely, and am in pretty good health.  But the trip there and back, and waiting for hours in a wheelchair, were not pleasant, and I’m afraid I will avoid such outings as much as possible in the future, unless my situation changes. 
So I end this blog,
James Cahill
October 16, 2013
Michael Sullivan recently
Michael Sullivan, 1984

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