CLP 178: 2007 Talk given at end of "Returning to the Shore" symposium

Berkeley talk for "Returning to the Shore" symposium, April 28, 2007


James Cahill
I want to begin by giving thanks to the main organizers of this symposium—Judy Andews, Julia White, Scarlett Jang. This has taken months of work, skillful arranging, correspondence with all the participants—and all accomplished without the well-staffed and well-endowed administrative structure behind them that organizers of such large events usually enjoy. The Berkeley Art Museum, of course, has taken a big part in it, and the Center for Chinese Studies has helped; but mainly it's the fruit of a lot of work and dedication and ingenuity by the individual organizers, working together.

What has resulted is this grand occasion, on which I feel immensely proud and honored—proud to have had a role in nurturing and training so many excellent people engaged in studying, teaching, curating, dealing in Chinese and Japanese art, who bring such a wide range of knowledge and expertise to this great endeavor. I'm not here as a discussant, so I won't comment individually on the papers delivered today; I'll only say that they illustrate excellently a healthy spreading out, a diversification of subject areas in Chinese painting studies that I'll speak about later.

Although someone in reasonably good health—and in spite of two heart attacks last fall, I think I'm that--can never totally dismiss the possibility of a 90th birthday or even a hundredth, these aren't realistically in the cards, and I feel I had best deliver my Wisdom of Aged Teacher remarks now, not leave them for another decadal occasion. (Michael Sullivan has turned ninety and still travels actively all over the world. On the other hand, two other old friends died recently who were in their later 80s: Bill Watson and Harrie Vanderstappen. I was recently given a disk with videos, which I had forgotten were made, of my retirement party in the Museum in 1994. It was very nostalgic and uplifting to see and recall the talks given then, or David Keightley's funny song after the G&S "Modern Major General"; but it was also heartbreaking--brought tears to my eyes--to see Fred Wakeman looking so young and on top of things, and realizing the tragedies that would hit him in the years after.) So, using this as a kind of farewell occasion, even if it turns out to be in the tradition of those actors and singers who stage long series of absolutely final farewell performances, I want to look back briefly over the nearly sixty years since I came into the field, and speak of where I think we stand now, and what I want to impress on you as my thoughts about what we accomplished that should not be lost, or discontinued.

I had the good fortune to come into Chinese painting studies around 1950, just when they were about to begin a huge expansion. Factors behind it were the entry of young scholars like myself with Chinese and Japanese language training from the war years, the coming to the U.S. of young specialists from China and Taiwan (I'm not naming names, to save time, but you all know who they were), a greater access to the Japanese tradition of Chinese painting studies and its specialists, the move to the U.S. of European scholars trained in the German practice of art history, and the pouring of Ford Foundation money into starting up Chinese studies programs in colleges and universities all over the country. U.S. museums were meanwhile building major collections, with a new emphasis on post-Song painting. The bubbling interaction between all these factors, and between them and the growing collections of paintings, was manifested in numerous exhibitions and their symposia, international gatherings, collective projects, along with an unprecedented publication of scholarly work. Some of you are the second- and third-generation products of this explosion of the field. I feel very fortunate to have been positioned to be a major player in it. Another important expansion of it came in the 1970s with the re-opening to us in the U.S. of mainland China, bringing us into contact with great new collections of paintings, new access to research materials, and new colleagues.

In recent years the action, one might say, has shifted elsewhere: collectors of Chinese paintings in the U.S. and Japan are so few that the major auctions have moved to Hong Kong and China; fields of
Chinese art that were relatively neglected before such as the art and archaeology of early periods and Buddhist art are getting the attention they deserve, in some part supplanting the earlier concentration on Chinese painting; radical changes in the directions of art historical practice have made much of the achievement of my generation seem old-fashioned. This is as it should be—I have nothing but admiration for some recent ground-breaking writings on Chinese and Japanese painting and other art that go beyond, in important respects, what we could accomplish.

I retired from teaching in 1994; but by then my life had entered a new phase. On my 60th birthday in 1986, a group of my students gave me an evening party in the garden of one of them, Sheila Keppel, and made speeches about how the 60th, for the Chinese, was the beginning of a new cycle, and how this would mark such a new beginning for me. Little did they suspect how right they were, how dramatically my life was about to change. The next day I flew off to Beijing, and there met Hsingyuan Tsao. She was a graduate student in art history at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, having come back to take a higher degree after spending several years teaching in Changchun, and had already been chosen as the successor at the Central Academy to her teacher Sun Meilan in teaching art theory. Even after our intent to marry was revealed, she fought hard, but unsuccessfully, to hold her teaching position there as an art historian—our plan was to divide our time between China and the U.S. Our marriage thus meant that she sacrificed that career, brilliant as it would have been, to come to the U.S. and be my wife. If her decision to return to China in 1988 to continue her career there had not been interrupted in 1989 by the students' movement in Tiananmen Square, forcing her to come back to the U.S. to finish her doctorate at Stanford, our life would have been very different. In 1994 we collaborated on a symposium bringing painting specialists from China and the U.S. together in Beijing, an important event that demonstrated her skills as organizer and her standing there as a prominent young art historian. She began her academic career in the U.S. about a year after I was leaving mine by retiring at U. C. Berkeley, and in the years since then I have become the academic spouse. Being married to me has meant that she has incurred some prejudice, of a kind not openly visible but nonetheless hurtful. She has, nonetheless, enriched these later years of my life, not only with her companionship and great help in many ways, but also by becoming the mother of our twin boys Julian and Benedict. These have been happy years, and now they have culminated with her highly successful teaching at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Benedict and Julian are now eleven, and go to St. George's School there.

I spoke of the field of Chinese art history expanding, diversifying, losing its narrower concentration on Chinese painting studies. I remember when a typical doctoral dissertation project in Chinese art consisted of taking on a painter, doing his life, his stylistic development, analyses or appreciations of his finest achievements, making it all into what was potentially a publishable book. That's still being done, and should be; but it's no longer a standard type of dissertation project, and young people coming into our field are mostly taking other directions, as are older scholars in their choices of projects for research and writing. Here are a few examples of how this can be seen in recent symposia and professional meetings that have come to my attention: not all totally new, but mostly new emphases, a very healthy situation, I think.

- a workshop on "Lifestyle and Entertainment in Yangzhou", held in that city in October 2005 and featuring talks on Yangzhou printing, theater, story-telling, gardens, and teahouse life, as well as one by Ginger Hsu on a Yangzhou painting.
- A symposium titled "Collecting 'China': Objects, Materiality, and Multicultural Collectors." Univ. of Delaware, Sept.29-Oct. 1 2006. Berkeley people were well represented: Yeh Wen-hsin, Pat Berger, Stan Abe.
- Generally, a new and stronger attention to the history of early collecting and appreciation of Chinese art, especially outside China. The work of Hong Zaixin is a good example of that; Tom Lawton has also done excellent work, using archival materials at the Freer and elsewhere.
- The National Palace Museum conference in February on Northern Song art and culture, with emphasis on landscape painting but also papers on diversity of other topics.
- A symposium on antiquarianism—where? U. Chicago, if I recall right.
- A two-day symposium at UBC, last month titled "The Authenticity of the Copy" organized by Hsingyuan Tsao and Tim Brook, with papers considering diverse aspects of this important practice, by scholars from all over, both geographically and in their fields of expertise.
- Much more attention to interactions in art between China and other cultures over the centuries, including a new and welcome openness to recognizing what China received along with what it gave.
- Lots more symposia, writing, and publication on contemporary Chinese art, including painting but much broader. This development in our profession is linked to, and supports, a greater appreciation generally for contemporary Chinese art, and a dramatic rise in the prices that works by the best-known artists will fetch.
- Last month's AAS meetings in Boston—I couldn't be there, but from the program, rich offering of sessions and papers relating to East Asian art:
"Transculturalism vs. Nationalism: Revitalizing Literati Ptg in China and Japan, ca. 1880s—1930s"
"Exercises in Historiography: Approaches to the Study and Collecting of Chinese Art"
"Intersections of Buddhist Practice, Art, and Culture in Tang China"
"Seeing Through Asia in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Europe and Her Colonies"
"A New Way to Imagine the Order of the World: Chinese Pictorials of the 1920s and 30s," chaired by Rick Vinograd.
And quite a few other individual papers and sessions relevant to Chinese and Japanese art.

But one could judge this important broadening of areas of research just on the basis of the papers given here today. Nothing could be more pleasing to a right-thinking teacher than to find his students doing, some decades after they studied with him, work that certainly doesn't depend on or even reflect, except in a distant way, whatever they may have learned from him. This also is as it should be.

Most to the point for what I'm talking about today was the CAA session in New York last month, March 14-17: a panel titled "The Middle Path: Style and Cultural History in Chinese Painting Scholarship" organized by Kathleen Ryor and Jennifer Purtle, Ann Burkus was discussant. It was designed to deal with the big question of how to hang on to the visual studies element in dealing with our subjects, while pursuing all the other directions we've been taking. Papers included, among others, one by Heping Liu (who did his masters degree here, before going to Yale for the Ph.D.) on Northern Song paintings related to flood control, and one by Julia Murray on "Yan Liben and the 'Authoritative Documentary' style in Chinese Painting History," both of which tackled directly the problem of, in Julia Murray's words, "combining stylistic analysis with contextual-historical approaches." I was reminded of the great, ground-breaking CAA meeting in Los Angeles in 1985, organized by Harvey Stahl with a new format in an effort to revitalize CAA meetings, which had become rather stodgy. Martin Powers and I had a session, organized mainly by Martie, titled "New Directions in Chinese Art Studies." Martie generously allowed me to make opening remarks; what I especially remember is that one of my students, whom I won't name, was standing among the crowd at the back (the room was much too small) and fainted from the heat and lack of air circulation, causing something of a disruptive stir; and that one of my colleagues, who will also go unnamed, got up after I had spoken to denounce my suggestion that we should respectfully begin to leave behind certain traditional Chinese formulations in pursuing some of our own. "We start out to write about bird-and-flower painting in China," I said, "and we begin by talking about Huang Ch'üan vs. Hsü Hsi, and defining the central issue as hsieh-sheng vs. hsieh-i, and from there it's like running the 100-yard dash in a diver's suit." And I went on: " We should respect these formulations but consider them as artifacts with their own sets of circumstances of creation and transmission--consider them, that is, as ideas that in some ways cast light on the objects and in other ways distort them, ideas that represented certain values for the people of their time and later, and that must always be understood in a problematic relationship to the works of art."

But I also noted that Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall had a session (one of the large ones, called "symposis" in Harvey Stahl's new pattern for the meetings) titled "Art or Society: Must We Choose?" I said in my opening remarks: "Studies of the interrelationship of art and surrounding circumstance in the Western art history field have advanced to the point where we have a symposium at this year's meeting, chaired by Svetlana Alpers, titled "Art or Society: Must We Choose?" How, they are asking, can we get back to a fuller consideration of the formal properties of the work? Have we wandered too far from the work of art? We in Chinese art studies are still a long way from being faced by that danger; we are still struggling with the problem of how to draw the relationships with outside circumstance, for our material, convincingly and responsibly."

Now, 22 years later, we are about where Svetlana and Michael felt they were in 1985. and the topic of Katie's and Jenny's session reflects this unease. I myself was accused by colleagues, in reviews of my later writings, of losing sight of the objects in attending too much to factors that surrounded and affected their making; I myself, of course, always felt that I was striking a "middle path," trying to set models for how to do these new things (new for us). I've quite deliberately, in later years, pushed in the direction of making close readings of paintings serve as crucial data in the arguments I make, even when textual backing for those arguments is scarce or lacking; my "Paintings for Women?" article, published last year, was certainly of that kind.

I believe firmly in the necessity of doing that; we can scarcely move into new, unexplored areas of our subject without doing it. But at the same time, I need to warn you that this is not yet a universally accepted practice, and is still subject to attack from those (and they are still legion) who believe that only written texts constitute truly solid evidence, readings of pictures being too subjective and unverifiable. My unpublished book Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Urban Studio Artists in High Qing China was finally rejected some months ago by Yale University Press, after they had kept it for some years, largely on the basis, I think, of a review by a colleague who turned out unexpectedly to be of that persuasion—besides criticizing my book on those grounds, he extended his criticism to express a low opinion of the whole Chinese women's studies literature, on the grounds that it suffers, like my book, from what he called "inadequate evidence to support conclusions." Meaning: traditional or orthodox Chinese scholars didn't write about this, therefore there isn't much "solid" written evidence for it, therefore we shouldn't write about it either. My book is now with U. C. Press here in Berkeley, and I hope they will choose more open-minded reviewers, ready to recognize and accept the principles on which it is organized, and the basis of its arguments.

Anne Burkus, who was discussant at the New York session on “Middle Paths,” ends her stimulating talk with the hopeful statement that "style and context need not represent opposed methodologies." She goes on to conclude, "Both, it seems to me, are necessary to extend and enrich our understanding of visual images. Disciplinary cross-fertilization allows a field to prosper. But let that prospering not be at the cost of the visual image."

My own criteria for judging art-historical writings are simple, almost suspiciously simple. When the writing or discourse tells me things about the work of art that enhance my experience of it, they are "my kind of art history," even when they are very different from what I myself do, or ever could do. When they don't, they aren't. Simple as that. Art theory is of course something else, but that's always been decidedly a secondary interest with me.

In the Spring 2006 issue of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences journal Daedalus, an issue devoted to "Comment on the Humanities," Thomas Crow, who until recently headed the Getty's art history institute and now fills a newly-created professorship at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, published an article on "The Practice of Art History in America." Tracing a development from medievalists like Arthur Kingsley Porter and Charles Rufus Morey through Europeans such as Panofsky and Wittkower, on to Irving Lavin, Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, Meyer Schapiro, Linda Nochlin and Robert Herbert, he comes to what he sees as the high point of social art history with lengthy discussions of the work of T. J. Clark and Michael Baxandall. (He says nothing of his own work here, but does include it in his longer arguments along the same line in his book The Intelligence of Art.) He writes of how the social history of art grew to become "something of a new default function for the fieid." but sees it as having lost energy in recent decades, and even suffering what he calls an "unravelling." One factor in that is the increasing domination of "theory," about which he writes:

"Short of reflections on the neo-Marxian theories that originally framed the social-historical project, the new mainstream has not discovered any source of conceptual renewal. Later, competing claims to the semiotic and poststructuralist element of 'theory' have been lodged on behalf of distinctly different interests. To put it unkindly, these lie in making a metaconversation about the possibility or impossibility of a history of art into a self-sufficient enterprise, one easily leveraged into an aura of interdisciplinary glamour and a comparatively effortless proliferation of talks, papers, and books."

Crow goes on to observe that this degree of absorption in "theory" has tended to pull art-historians away from archival research, concluding: "Indeed, 'the Archive,' in the wake of Michel Foucault, has been isolated as a disciplinary social construction toward which the theorist can freely condescend."

But most relevant to what I am arguing today is what he writes about how "this metahistorical pursuit has had little time for the recalcitrant physical immediacy and uniqueness of an individual object of art. This distrust of close-range sensory evidence has passed into the broad, ill-defined tendency called 'visual culture.' From Schapiro to Herbert, Clark, and Baxandall, the conduct of the most sophisticated art historians has entailed a deep curiosity about the varieties of vernacular expression that inevitably enter into the synthetic imagination of the artist. While never denying the independent fascination of that material, all nonetheless retained the perspective that Baxandall framed in intentionally provocative terms: 'Only very good works of art, the performances of exceptionally organized men [he is writing about the Limewood Sculptors, no women; in other contexts he would include them] are complex and coordinated enough to register in their forms the kinds of cultural circumstance sought here; second-rate art will be of little use.'

I apologize for the long quotations; I like very much what Crow wrote and quoted; it fits very well into the main point, and conclusion, of my Old Teacher's Parting Message. To be clear: I have a lot of respect for some of the people who do postmodern theory, especially those whose writings I can more or less understand. They include former students of mine, and a family member. And with those of them who continue to take sufficient account of the visual properties of their subjects, along with their theoretical and methodological concerns, I have no quarrel. But I think what Crow writes is largely correct, and agrees with my own observation: that too many committed practitioners of "theory" have practiced, and encouraged in their students, an insufficient and inadequate visual engagement with the objects of art.

I trust you have noticed that the two he chose to exemplify the best practice of social art history at the apex of its development are Tim Clark and Michael Baxandall, both U. C. Berkeley art history professors in their later years. He might have added Svetlana Alpers. (I won't list others in the Department, although I could go on, to include for instance the leading teacher of South and Southeast Asian art history in our time, but that would take too long.) Many of you here, including most of our paper-givers, were able to work with these people and learn from them, as I was—it was part of my great good fortune, as it was of yours, to be in what was at that time the best place for art historians to be. And we were privileged to take the forefront in attempting, certainly not on the same methodological level but as the best we could do, to adopt some of their approach into the study of Chinese painting, with our seminars on political themes and how artists made their livings, or the essays for the Anhui exhibition catalog. This is all the more reason why I enjoin you, whatever other, newer directions you may take, not to leave behind the central assumptions embodied in that heritage. Remember Svetlana talking about a Vermeer painting, Michael about a Piero della Francesca or a Chardin or a Picasso, Tim Clark about a Manet, and work hard to preserve the strengths, including that deep visual engagement with the paintings, that imbued their work and their teaching.

A side issue is that according to the limited understanding I have from colleagues about the developing programs of art history in China, the opposition to visual approaches there is taking the form of a claim that following the Chinese tradition of working from texts, and mistrusting foreign visual approaches, is the correct road to be taken by Chinese art historians. What is deeply wrong with that argument, and my response to it, are expressed in a paper titled "Visual, Verbal, and Global: Some Observations on Chinese Painting Studies" that I delivered at a symposium last November. In a moment, by way of conclusion, I will tell how those interested can get copies of it. But here is another, last quotation, this one from a review by Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly of a new book on "Orientalism":

"Most of all, though, one must be ready to oppose any analysis that even slightly licenses the idea that 'outsiders' are not welcome to study other cultures. So far from defending those cultures from depredation, such a stance actually permits them to fall under the domination of stultified and conservative forces to whom everything depends on an affirmation of blind faith."

How depressingly true that is of the situation in China, as I understand it. Fortunately, there are also more progressive and open forces working there against that stultifying doctrine, working to change it, and I think we need to give them all possible support, without intruding on their independence.

Now, my final announcement, that even after you return to your far-flung bases, you won't be rid of me altogether, even for another decade. The paper I mentioned I would be happy to send as an email attachment to anyone who requests it by email; my address being simply: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . You may be interested to learn that a kind of anthology of my writings in Chinese translation, a project initiated by Hsingyuan some years ago, will be published soon by the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. I want to announce also that I am establishing a website, not yet finished enough to announce formally, in which I am placing a lot of my unpublished writings, some of which I planned earlier to turn into publications but which I now realize will never reach print. They include the texts of my 1994 Getty lectures on Ming-Qing paintings of women, two chapters from my unfinished book on early Qing painting, and a list of some 175 CLP, Cahill Lectures and Papers, unpublished texts of lectures and articles, or some that are published in hard-to find places; many of them digital and downloadable. Eventually I will try to add illustrations to some of these; for now these are only written materials. Also available on the website will be the very long file I call CYCTIE, or "Ching Yuan Chai Treasury of Imperishable Ephemera," offering reams of non-academic writing: songs and skits written for Berkeley Faculty Club Christmas parties and other occasions, along with verse composed over many years, from my Berkeley High School days in the early 1940s through my army years and later, up to recent times. So, if you want to be notified when this is ready, or to ask for my paper, or both, please send me your email address; mine, as I said before, is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

As for future plans, although my physical condition will presumably improve, I mean to lead a quiet life in Vancouver, traveling less, continuing to write, keeping in touch with many of you by email and other means. Finally (really finally this time), let me express again my deep satisfaction with the way my life has gone, thanks in large part to the kindness and support of many people, and my thanks in particular to all those who have organized this celebration of it, and to all you who came to take part in it. My warmest wishes to you all.

Thomas Crow, "The Practice of Art History in America." In: Daedalus: Journal of the Ameican Academy of Arts and Sciences, Spring 2006, 70-90.

Thomas Crow, The Intelligence of Art. Chapel Hill and London, The University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Christopher Hitchens, "East is East" (Review of Robert Irwin, Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents), in The Atlantic, March 2007, p. 111.

James Cahill, "Paintings for Women in Ming-Qing China?" In Nan Nü: Men, Women, and Gender in China, vol. 8 (2006), 1-54. (Note: the original Nan Nü publication, through an error, lacked the color illustrations, which were later sent separately in a packet to subscribers.) Chinese translation published in Yishushi Yanjiu (The Study of Art History), vol. 7, 1-37.

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