Blog Archive

This Week’s Blog will be another series of short ones.

This Week’s Blog will be another series of short ones.

First, Halloween. It’s coming soon; how can I respond? By referring readers who haven’t read last year’s Halloween blog, or want to read it again or look at the picture, to my blog for 10/30/2011: use the newly-installed old-blog-finder just to the left of this, go to that date, admire the photo: a newspaper photo of my daughter Sarah at the age of four standing beside a Jack Pumpkinhead figure--this appeared on the front page of the Washington Post way back, and she saved it. The brief text with it introduces her as the daughter of one James Cahill who made for his two children--the older one is Nicholas--a full-size Jack Pumpkinhead figure (those of you who don’t know who that was, go back and read The Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum) that sat outside their house on Newark Street, beside the front steps, and could wave its hand at passers-by and also talk to them. And the accompanying story in my blog tells how at last I brought it to life. You can’t believe that? Go back and read the story, it’s true; Nick and Sarah can testify to that.

My publications in Chinese. I don’t publish much of anything in English any more--too much fuss about getting publication permissions for illustrations, dealing with editors (other than Naomi Richard, who was my ideal editor but who has retired) and other annoyances that I can’t tolerate in my old age,. But my books continue to appear in Chinese translation, mostly published by Sanlian Press in Beijing, and continue to be best-sellers--Gao Juhan (myself) is much more famous there than James Cahill (whose books are mostly out of print) is here. Most recently, a book about Chinese paintings of gardens that I co-authored with two young Chinese collaborators--I told the story of this before--has been raising a stir, mostly positive; and another of my older books, the Reischauer Lectures delivered at Harvard and published as The Lyric Journey: Poetic Painting in China and Japan, is about to appear in Chinese. My contact at Sanlian has sent me a picture of the book, quite handsome. And these books are produced at surprisingly low costs. Tell your Chinese friends, or read them yourself if that’s one of your languages. I have recommended strongly to Sanlian that they publish an English-language version of the garden paintings book, and they hope to do that, so I may still see one more book by me (and two others) appear in English.

Another important exhibition at the Shanghai Museum is about to open, this time made up of early Chinese paintings from U.S. museums: the Boston M.F.A., the Met in New York, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. (The other great early collection in the U.S., the Freer in D.C., is prohibited from lending by the provisions of Freer’s will.)  For last year’s show I wrote a longish essay for the catalog about Japanese collecting of early Chinese paintings--readable here in English as CLP  197--relating how Chinese paintings came to Japan in three “waves”: early, middle (Edo period), and late (early 20th century.) (A certain person has written that he plans to organize an exhibition featuring these “three waves,” and when I asked whether my writing would be cited, he said he didn’t need to, since this was “common knowledge.” News to me, because when I wrote about the middle period in my 1985 article “Phases and Modes in the Transmission of Ming-Ch’ing Painting Styles to Edo Period Japan,” I found no previous useful published research on this matter and had to do it myself--besides relying on Japanese informants credited in my article. We will see how he handles this matter in his exhibition catalog.) Anyway: for this year’s big Shanghai  Museum show, which opens soon, I’ve written another, even longer article titled “Early Chinese Paintings in U.S. Museums: An Insider’s View”; this will again be published in the catalog, I assume in both English and Chinese, and will also appear here as another CLP--watch for it. The Chinese text will be published first, I learn, in the Book Review section of a big Shanghai newspaper called the Daofang Zaobao on October 28th. I’m sorry that I’m no longer able to travel, and so won’t see the exhibition--although of course I’ve seen all the paintings (I believe) long ago, it would be a pleasure to view them again in this new setting, with some added, I assume, from Chinese collections--that, at least, was what happened last year. I’ve written my editor-translator contact at the Shanghai Museum asking that she try to persuade the compilers of the catalog not to follow the common present-day Chinese practice of reproducing old paintings on silk in what they believe to be an “honest” way, showing them as really look now--a process that too often produces rectangles of dark brown in which no image can be seen. (I recently ordered two new books on Chinese paintings in P.R.C. collections, and found them filled with “reproductions” of that kind. Down with honesty!)

Responses to my dismissals of conceptual artists as clever-idea people: they have predictably been met with wonderment: can anyone really be so backward in his ideas about art? So I am a hold-over, joining such notables as the late Sir Ernst Gombrich but totally out of touch with younger art-lovers. Just to be clear; am I advocating that they be banned? Of course not--I’m not for banning much of anything that doesn’t really harm people, as these mostly don’t. They are just a bore, and huge consumers of money and gallery space that could be better used. If I advocate anything at all, it would be that we collectively adopt the recommendation (previously cited on this website and elsewhere) of the late Princeton musicologist Edward Cone, whom I got to know when he spent a semester on our Berkeley campus as Ernest Bloch Lecturer, delivering the lectures published as The Composer's Voice. He later wrote an article--which I think was published in The American Scholar for Autumn 1977, Vol. 46 No. 4--in which he proposed that the art world could be greatly bettered and relieved of much nonsense if artists and composers were forced to present their works without having them designated as art, or as serious music—so that they would have to make it on their own, to be received, experienced, and judged as other events and objects might be. John Cage's famous However-long-it-is composition, in which the audience gazes at the pianist doing nothing for a long stretch of near-silence (only ambient noise), would be recognized as a total bore, as would many performance pieces and uninteresting objects or installations.

Is there really still another way I can bring Zhang Daqian into my  blogs? You might think that I’ve exhausted every possible way; but no, there is still another. One of my Facebook friends found an old picture, looking mysteriously real but too like a Chinese painting to be quite believable, of a Chinese noble-scholar figure holding a staff and seated under a pine tree, gazing upward, and backed by a landscape equally beyond belief. She and others were (quite properly) marveling at it, wondering how it could possibly have been produced, what wonderland it depicted, how they could find it and go there; I served as the beastly balloon-puncturer, informing them that it was a composite photograph made by a certain Long Chin-San who had a photographic studio in Taipei and specialized in making mysteriously real-looking composite photographs like this one, often featuring Zhang Daqian as the lofty-minded scholar (how old Zhang must have enjoyed the irony of that!) Zhang sometimes adopted the same traditional persona in real photographs, for instance positioning himself against the old Monterey cypress trees at Point Lobos while he lived nearby. (These are the trees that I took my seminar on the Ming master Wen Zhengming down to see, since Wen often painted similar trees--and we stayed overnight in Zhang Daqian’s house, courtesy of his daughter Sing who was in my seminar.) I will reproduce two pictures: the composite work by Long Chin-San and a real photo of Zhang that I recently found somewhere.


And that concludes today’s blog, except that I will append to it a song I have written for the 80th birthday celebration for my old friend David Keightley, which will take place this coming Friday, October 26th. David and I used to make up a pair, performing at Center for Chinese Studies New Year’s parties, retirement parties for colleagues, etc., singing funny songs we composed--new words, that is, to familiar tunes. For my own retirement celebration in May 1994, David composed and sang a new text for the Major General’s Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, beginning: “He is the very model of a Chinese painting specialist.” Now I have, in retaliation so to speak, composed one that Cyril Birch and I will sing at David’s retirement dinner. I worked long and hard on it, coming up with tricky three-syllable rhymes like those Gilbert used. So that song, which by the time this is printed will have been performed at the dinner, can be read below. So, Happy Eightieth David, Happy Halloween everybody else, from James Cahill!

He is the very model of the Chinese antiquarian,

He knows where folks of ancient Shang and Zhou did all their buryin’

He reads archaic script as it’s inscribed on bones and tortoise shells,

Writes articles that carry the explosive power of mortar shells--

Deciphering inscriptions that are written out on scapulae,

He tells his adversaries “You should cancel all that crap you lie,”

He knows what made north China’s slopes so loessian and terracy

(Thinks: terracy, terracy--then looks up:)

And countered K. C. Chang with all his shamanistic heresy!

(Chorus:: And countered K.C. Chang with all his shamanistic… etc.)

His book about Shang China and its Time, Space, and Community

Is not a work that anyone can challenge with impunity

For ancient China’s worshippin’, its writin’ and its buryin’

He is the very model of a Chinese antiquarian!

(Chorus repeat: For ancient China’s … )

He wrote a learned paper on why all the swords have disappeared

There were no explanations of this matter until his appeared

He wrote a weighty book about the sources of Shang history

And Neolithic women who for others were a mystery--

And every New Year’s day he led a group of us on bicycles

Traversing Tilden Park like highly animated icycles,

He’s been official welcomer for visiting celebrities

(pause to think: celebrities, celebrities… Then looks up:)

From places far away as Karakorum  and the Hebrides!

(Repeat: From places far away as …)

He worked to get a seminar for Cahill’s art historians

A building we had longed for since the time of the Victorians

A new East Asian Library to study in and tarry in,

The funds for which were gathered by our Chinese antiquarian

(Repeat: A new East Asian Library to study in .. .etc.)

Final Quatrain:

We’ll sing another song, old friend, though it may be more cursory

When once again we gather for your hundredth anniversary

For all your learned writings, both profound and adversarian,

You are the very model of a Chinese antiquarian!  (repeat)

Yet Another Blog About Art and Artists


Yet Another Blog About Art and Artists

CAHILL GREAT TRUTHS NUMBER TEN.  What, you don’t remember what the other nine were? Go back and find them in my complete written works! What, you can’t because my written works aren’t orderly? But that’s one of the Truths: ORDER AND NEATNESS OFTEN WORK AGAINST QUALITY AND INTEREST. Enough of that; on to Great Truth no. 10:


Good examples of Clever Ideas people: Marcel Duchamps, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Aii Weiwei (Ceramic sunflower seeds? Copies of old bronze animal heads? All produced by studio craftsmen?) With Warhol it reportedly wasn’t even his own Clever Idea: he went to a gallery owner proposing to make enlarged comic-strip panels, but she told him that that was already being done by Roy Lichtenstein; why don’t you, she suggested, make enlarged commercial images? And so the Brillo Box and the Campbell’s Soup Can were born--along with a cult following, crazy “authenticity” problems, and a foundation.)

A  NYTimes Arts Section front-page  article (September 30th, 2012), with large pictures of the artist and his works, is about a certain Wade Guyton who says he “never really enjoyed drawing or life classes” (he should have been told “All right, Mr. Guyton, we’ll  train you as a carpenter or plumber”) and would “rather sit in front of the TV or play video games.” He has programmed his computer and printer so that they print colored stripes on big sheets of paper (presumably while he is watching TV), and he exhibits these as his works of art. And behold! Here he is (with those sheets of colored stripes, decorative at best) on the front page of the NYTimes Arts Section! (A once-rewarding publication that now offers us less and less about what I consider to be art--which is still being produced by real artists, if only one looks for it.)

Later: Wade Guyton was given another NYTimes Arts Section front-page review on October 5th, with a work that looks slightly more interesting--big dots added to the stripes. But it’s still done by his computer, not by his hand. And the Weekend Arts section in today’s Times (Friday, Oct. 12th) gives half its front page, and more inside, to a review of Ai Weiwei’s exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., with big color pictures of ceramic crabs (made, needless to say, by his studio assistants), big, simple ceramic pots simply painted in bright colors, and photos of him dropping and smashing a valuable Han urn--another of his “works of art.” And the reviewer, bless her, acknowledges that the objects in the show “suggest that he doesn’t make great art as much as makes great use . . . of the role of the artist as public intellectual and social conscience.” I would rather say: he’s not so good at making art as he is at self-promotion. Is that another symptom of the age we live in? Skilful presentation wins out over substance? As in last night’s Biden-Ryan debate, or last week’s Obama-Romney one--the speakers-of-truth were judged as losing, the glib tellers-of-lies as winning. It’s clear from the brief biography of Ai Weiwei in this article that he owes much of his prominence to having had a famous father--a big advantage for any youth in China--and enjoyed benefits that turned him into “an ambitious young man who very much intended to be somebody.” As for his art works: the ceramic sunflower seeds were intended to be walked on, but gave off a dust that harmed the walkers’ lungs, so that they had to be swept into a pile that the gallery visitors could gaze at. Forget about great--is it even interesting art? You or I could have thought up a “work” that better repays a viewer’s attention. Admirable as a dissident, small potatoes as an artist, really great at self-promotion.

A promotional catalog for a forthcoming auction in Beijing of Chinese paintings and works of art brings further evidence of what I think of as Cahill’s Great Miscalculations. I was showing one painting in it to my helper and telling her about my engagement with the artist and his move into a new manner of painting, and she laughed and said “That’s a good story.” So here it is, even though it repeats things I’ve written before. It’s about--you guessed it--Zhang Daqian. I had written an essay for the catalog for his big 1963 exhibition in New York, an essay he liked and often reprinted--and he gave me and my then-wife each a painting, of kinds we requested, in lieu of payment. Then came the time, in the later 1960s, when he moved into a new manner of painting that began with large splashes of ink and heavy blue and green pigment onto the paper; to this he would add a minimum of fine drawing to turn the splashes into a kind of picture. (In the work reproduced in the auction volume, done in 1967, it was a big ink-and-colors splash with a few simply-drawn buildings at the top and some drawing below that turned the bottom of the splash into cliffs.) Zhang sent his son to ask me whether I would write another essay for the catalog of an exhibition of these new paintings of his. And I was faced with an ethical dilemma: I knew that this new manner, or style, was largely a response to his heavy loss of vision--he had glaucoma--which made fine drawing difficult for him, so that he turned to a style that required much less of it. And I didn’t feel I could honestly write the essay without mentioning that; and since that would harm his reputation by revealing the real motivation behind this move into the new style, which I didn’t want to do, I declined as politely as I could.  Zhang was disappointed, and I was sorry about that, too; but I kept my integrity. Now I see one of these paintings--not even one of the best--coming up for auction, and the estimated price is:  RMB 18.000.000 to 21,000,000, or two-to-three million dollars. So: I could have had several of them, and if I had kept them, I would be a multi-millionaire. But instead I kept my integrity. A very contemporary choice: so many of our multi-millionaires have got that way by sacrificing their integrity, buying and closing out companies with great losses of jobs, exploiting anomalies in the housing market and leaving people homeless, selling bad investments to naïve small investors, and the like. Would I rather have my integrity than a few million dollars? Not a real choice, today, and I’m glad I’m not faced with it--I might very well go the wrong way.

James Cahill, October 12th, 2012

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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