CLP 180: 1977? Letter to Svetlana Alpers, in response to her sending me her 1977-published article "Is Art History?"

CLP 180 (1976?) Memo to Svetlana Alpers, written in response to her sending me a copy of her article "Is Art History?", published in 1977. Some explanatory interpolations added.




Thanks for letting me read this. Excellently written, stimulating, educational—I haven't kept up at all with the people you quote or refer to. (Of course I don't mean Gombrich & Panofsky & Kubler, but Baxandall & [T. J.] Clark & Fried & Steinberg.) Your paper clarified a lot of things I've caught echoes of in conversation and reading.


Having said that, let me say also that I find myself, for some of the basic issues you treat, on the other side, with the Old Guard. (I say "other" because, although you aren't openly arguing for the rightness of these positions, a considerable emotional & intellectual commitment comes through.) I realize that the paper I gave you, written for the Levenson memorial volume ("Style as Idea in Ming-Ch'ing Painting"--see my Biblio for 1976] argues in just the opposite direction on some of these issues.


A bit of emotional reaction of my own, first of all: UCLA"s [Otto Karl] Werkmeister came up and gave a paper last year, which I heard, on the Autun tympanum, and I've heard or read quite a few other things of this kind. All right, Werkmeister is not a good example, you will say, being rather hard to take as a person and perhaps as a scholar. Anyway, your praise of the new "critical" art history as making its underlying assumptions more open is the positive side of something I would state negatively: these people tell me things about the work of art that aren't the things I most want to know (I mean that the economics behind the creation of the art work isn't high on the list of things I want to know about it) and at the same time try to give me a guilty feeing that these are the things I should want to know. Although I think that art historians, like scholars of any other kind, should on occasion lay out their theoretical assumptions and methodologies in lectures and writing, I don't see anything wrong with allowing them to remain implicit in most of their studies, or anything admirable in taking a doctrinaire stance in whatever one writes. Apart from other reasons, the latter reminds me too much of the unhappy situation of scholars in the P.R.C., who are forced to do it all the time and to write absurdities that are painful for the outsider to read, along with their otherwise quite good studies of Chinese art.


Miscellaneous notes on your paper:


p. 1. There are other valid senses in which one can consider a work of art "a piece of history"; I argued for a very different, in fact opposed, sense in my Levenson piece, where the work of art is similarly seen as an event, but one that takes on historical meaning through its relationship to other events, to its context. I am indeed concerned with it as an "individual phenomenon located at a particular time and place," but would not see it apart from "a history or sequence of works which is seen as a piece of history."


3 bottom: I don't follow the reasoning here. Do you mean ("it is arguable that") great art results when its maker is conscious of matching his creation to "a particular task, to a particular set of describable historical conditions"? (You seem to use Clark's treatment of Courbet's Funeral, later, as an example.) But this is a huge, very risky thesis—can you get away with saying "it is arguable that" without arguing it?—and the jump from this to the statement that great art is essentially political in nature is also huge.


5 bottom to 6 top: the extension of serious study to the "decorative" ...traditions of non-western art. Yes indeed. But why not western art? I am forever being asked why I don't include more discussion of Chinese ceramics in my classes (I do, for the early periods) and people take the Brundage Collection, with all its carved jades & cloissonne & lacquer etc. as typical of Chinese art. But do you really urge your students to take Herwin Schaeffer's classes [in decorative art], or include much of European ceramics in a survey of European art? Curious discrimination.


Actually, I am perfectly in agreement that some of the "decorative" arts rise to a very high level—I give a lot of time to them in teaching later Japanese art for instance—and that the term shouldn't be pejorative. But on the other hand, the question at the bottom of p. 6, which "never seemed further from anyone's mine"—what is art?—is always very much in mine. It is just when some kind of "decorative art" rises to the level where it deserves a place in the course on art, or deserves serious study, that I am ready to give it that recognition; but I am not going to give it to a pair of Gothic shoes, however stylish, nor (I think) are you. If you argue, as you do, for the admission of prints into the realm of art on a less grudging basis, and a relaxation of the hierarchy within which they are always somewhere below paintings, I'm with you: I have always told my students, for instance, that Ukiyo-e prints are on the whole much better works of art than paintings by the same artists. But extending that in some doctrinaire way so that the distinction between artifact and art work blurs, or is seen as somehow analogous to class discrimination & equally pernicious, will leave me behind.


Much of what you write about the differences you see between Italian Renaissance painting and that of the North is extremely interesting, and I look forwad to finding it expanded in your piece on landscape, as I suppose it will be. It sounds as though it will be very relevant to the Chinese situation. And I realize better now what you were after in questioning me about Chinese landscape, and how unsatisfactory my answers were. To the point also is your passage (p. 10) on excessive searching for underlying meanings in Dutch art—I have fought that in Chinese art for 20 years. Where it doesn't belong, I mean.


P. 11 middle: you seem to imply, in your series of questions about what happens when an art not based on humanistic principles is studied by an art historian who is, negative answers: it would be seen as non-art, and couldn't be studied by art historians. I don't see that that follows at all. But that's another big subject. [Later note, 2007: this is exactly the problem that Jim Elkins and his cohorts deal with in their "global art history" project.]


Bottom of 12, top of 13: I feel you have somewhat misused Chinese painting here. The Chinese feel, and I join them, that it is just because attribution is a "chancy and demanding procedure at best" that it is worth doing, or even necessary. Anyway, what seem fine & subtle distinctions at one time will seem gross & obvious ones at another; and in either case, they have to be made, if we are to arrive at the best & truest understandings of the works that we can. And if you don't believe this last is what we should do, we are going in different directions. Would Paul [her husband, specialist in English poetry] argue that it doesn't matter whether the poems are by Ossian or Rev. MacPherson, Thos. Rowley or Thos. Chatterton? Or (closer to home) wouldn't it bother you if someone argued that a van Meegeen had been given an admiring treatment in your lecture on Vermeer? Once again, also, isn't there a kind of discrimination against non-western traditions here? Are you going to take the view that Rubens-Rembrandt attributions aren't especially "appropriate," especially if they are chancy and demanding? Us Orientalists are always happy when our art is alluded to by you Occidentalists, but a bit put out when you say things about it that you won't quite say about your own stuff.


For Chinese critics, the work of art is firmly attached to its maker, at least on the level of the "fine arts"; and when the identity of the maker doesn't much matter, this is a large factor in relegating that particular art to a lower level. To be specific: the identity of the writer of a piece of calligraphy, or painter of a painting, or composer of a poem, or of a piece of music, is a vitally important part of their understanding & appreciation of it. Nobody knows (usually) who made the pot, or the piece of Buddhist sculpture, or cares much. On the issues your paper deals with, the Chinese critics would mostly be on the side of the old-fashioned humanists. Other problems arise from that—how should we react to their quite elitist approach? etc. But this has gone on too long already. Thanks again for your paper. We'll talk some time.



(Please understand that this doesn't affect my feeling about T. J. Clark, whose essay I found brilliant.)

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