CLP 54: 2002 Discussant paper for session on Methodology in "Conference on the History of Painting in East Asia," Taipei

Taipei, October 2002, Cahill discussant paper.

Let me begin by quoting, not for the first time, something that my colleague Michael Baxandall wrote in 1978. The debate over methodology that was then going on among art historians seemed, he said, “oddly hortatory and peremptory: I dislike being admonished. On the other hand, what I do like is there being a manifold plurality of differing art histories, and when some art historians start telling other art historians what to do, and particularly what they are to be interested in, my instinct is to scuttle away and existentially measure a plinth or reattribute a statuette.”

I am in profound agreement with his desire to leave methodological room open for a “plurality of differing art histories,” and would only add to his dislike of being admonished about what to do, an even stronger dislike of being admonished about what we are not to do, what has now been identified as somehow illegitimate or outmoded art history. No one can fault those colleagues who follow through in their writings their personal convictions, such as that the only issues worth addressing today are race (or ethnicity), class, and gender (a formulation I learned from our graduate students in Berkeley), or that too close an engagement with individual works of art can leave one sullied, since it unavoidably enhances their commercial value and so implicates one, however unwillingly, in the marketing of art. We can respect those positions without quite crediting their claim to occupy a moral high-ground. Nor is there any problem with adopting new theoretical and methodological positions of other kinds, assuming again that it is real conviction, not a desire to join the self-designated “cutting edge” of the discipline, that motivates the adoption.

Problems arise only when taking up new positions implies a claim that they discredit and supplant older ones, and, most seriously, when it has the effect of inhibiting healthy, even necessary pursuits within our field. I argued in a recent lecture, for instance, that the great project of constructing a coherent style-history for early Chinese painting comparable to what has been done (over a much longer period, to be sure) for European and American painting, a project begun by the generation before mine which should have been carried much further than it has been by mine, is now even less likely to go forward, since younger specialists are mostly uninterested in so-called diachronic or developmental approaches, or in style generally. The project has in effect been discredited before it has been accomplished. It's as though, I said, we had abandoned the practice of architecture before we had built our city. I don't, of course, mean that style-history should again become a central concern of Chinese painting studies, only that someone should continue doing it, along with other things, and that the project should not be branded as hopelessly backward. The predictable question “Why do we need to have a style history anyway?” is disingenuous and easily answered: because insecurities and boobytraps of a kind long left behind in Western art studies, or at least rendered infrequent, will continue to plague our field until we do. We should, for instance, be able to resolve and agree on, more easily than we have, questions such as whether a certain painting dates from the tenth century or the twentieth. The application of new methodologies in Western art studies is carried out on a relatively firm foundation of more or less securely placed works of art, about which there is far more agreement among specialists than with us. I hold myself as responsible as others for this situation, having made the move from heavily stylistic studies following on Max Loehr into later writings that take a more contextual approach, for which the principal model was Michael Baxandall’s variety of social art history and his inferential criticism, although I certainly don’t claim to have produced anything that would satisfy his rigorous criteria.

Having opened my commentary in this oldster’s cautionary, view-with-alarm way, I can go on to congratulate the paper presenters in this session and in the symposium as a whole for representing collectively a healthy diversity of art-historical methodologies.

Masaaki Itakura’s paper on the “Second Ode on the Red Cliff” scroll by Ch’iao Chung-ch’ang is a strong example of the contextualizing mode of art history. His situating of both the ode itself and the painted scroll illustrating it in the specific historical and political circumstances surrounding Su Shih and his circle of admirers is enlightening, expertly done, and entirely convincing. It is helped by Itakura’s discovery, in a Tanyû shukuzu copy, of the now-missing opening section of the scroll in which Su’s residence, the Lin-kao Pavilion, was depicted. (That discovery was announced already in a related article that Itakura published in Kokka last year.) His concept of “a layering of images,” with pictorial styles, poetic resonances, and literary and political associations overlaid onto visual experience of the natural landscape, is a valuable formulation, and tempers our disappointment on learning, by way of the poet Lu Yu’s first-hand account of a visit to the place, that the real Red Cliff of Su Shih’s ode “was nothing more than a reed-covered knoll.” Itakura’s contextualization of the scroll is correspondingly multi-layered; his treatment of the style of the painting is also contextual, relating it to works associated with Li Kung-lin, as well as Su Shih himself and his son Su Kuo.

The problem with this approach, even when it is carried out so well as here, is that it can draw attention away from important aspects of the work itself, its individual style and its narrative method. Itakura writes only the briefest summary of how the imagery of the painting responds to that of the ode, thus slighting some of Ch’iao Chung-ch’ang’s notable expressive achievements, such as the passage where, after Su Shih has climbed the cliff, he disappears from our sight and we are made to internalize his experience of looking down, through an extraordinary wrenching of space, into the seething water below. That, for me, is the true climax of the composition, as it is of the ode. One must in fairness add that an ideally balanced treatment of a work of art is an elusive goal, and that the elucidation of a truly rich and complex work is probably best accomplished as a collective project made up of successive studies by writers with differing assumptions and kinds of expertise. The Ch’iao Chung-ch’ang scroll has fortunately called forth such a series, beginning with an inadequate entry by myself in the 1962 Crawford catalog and including valuable contributions by Hironobu Kohara, Jerome Silbergeld, and others. Itakura’s study is an important addition to that series,

Sano Midori’s paper is, by contrast, a highly sophisticated exposition of the narrative method of the Tokugawa and Gotô Museums’ Tale of Genji paintings. She argues convincingly that these are not narrative pictures of the simpler types that seem to turn literary images into pictorial ones (it is never, of course, that simple), or present elements of a scene belonging to some moment or episode in a story so as to allow viewers to accept it as a pictorial representation of that episode. The hypothetical but persuasive readings of the Genji pictures that Sano proposes begin with a “zero focalization” view taking in the whole at once, and proceed through stages in which the viewpoints of participants in the scene are adopted, along with those of external and internal narrators. The construction of a narrative situation in the picture can be accomplished only by a reader-viewer with full knowledge of the text. Those of us in Chinese painting studies are familiar with narrative pictures that imply a viewer who already knows the story; I once wrote about Ch’en Hung-shou’s well-known “Scenes from the Life of T’ao Yuan-ming” scroll as an example of this, pointing out how, working for an elite patronage, he could leave out materials that in more popular pictures were needed to spell out the story more fully. The Genji paintings, however, as Sano shows us, are not merely allusive on this model of portraying less and recalling more. In her account they work in a far more complex way: the reader constitutes the narrative by absorbing and synthesizing the various viewpoints within the picture, including those of “the narrators living in the world of the narrative” and the understood omniscient narrator outside it. Images that in the text are apart in time and space can be brought together in the pictures; people within the paintings, such as waiting women spying on the principals, can be imagined as the “ancient ladies in waiting” who are the supposed narrators of the whole story. Seeing the viewing process in this elaborate way allows Sano to make at one point the somewhat startling statement that “in a certain sense, the readers themselves have become the 'author' of the illustrated story.” The complexity of her analysis matches that of the pictures, and in this respect goes well beyond others I have read. I recall an old article by Alexander Soper on the Genji scrolls that showed how heightened dramatic tensions in the narrative were conveyed in steeper diagonals in the compositions; convincing at the time, it seems simplistic now. Sano Midori’s paper is anything but that, bordering rather on the esoteric.

Tim Screech’s paper, like his other writings, is wide-ranging, stimulating, and unexpected. He has immersed himself so deeply in Japanese culture of the Edo period, and especially the city culture reflected in Ukiyo-e and popular fiction, that he can write authoritative and entertaining book-length studies on aspects of it such as its uses of Western optical devices and its production of sexual imagery. All this is far removed from the limited themes treated in older Ukiyo-e print studies, and vastly richer. If Screech’s paper is to be criticized, it is for presenting as though it were general to Japan in the 18th century the special attitude toward China and Chinese painting that belongs to this world of urbane and stylish city-dwellers, to whom Rimpa and Ukiyo-e, different as they are, both appealed. These people’s attitude toward China and Chinese painting, like their attitude toward much of classical Japanese culture, favored playful put-downs in anecdote and parody, mitate and share. They were inclined to leave serious engagement with such weighty concerns to others, and liked their writers and artists to treat them as matters that scarcely merited serious engagement anyway. Their artists’ version of Chinese painting, then, which reduces it to ink orchids and bamboo and what Screech rightly calls “a rather anonymous landscape,” represents only one kind of Japanese response to what he identifies as “the anxiety that Japan, perched at the Far East of a vast continental mass, was intermittently bound to feel.”

It was very different elsewhere. Kano-school painters earnestly depicting didactic and moralizing Confucian themes on walls and screens for powerful patrons, sometimes depending on Chinese paintings and prints as sources, had to exhibit a proper reverence for them. Nanga masters typically worked for patrons who were sincerely sinophile, many of them writing Chinese-style poetry and owning and admiring Chinese paintings. The artists needed to pursue diligently a real understanding of Chinese painting styles through all the channels open to them: woodblock-printed pictures (of limited use), real Chinese paintings long preserved in Japan or coming in as commercial goods through Nagasaki, the works of Chinese amateur artists in Japan, whether Obaku priests or merchants such as I Hai (known to the Japanese as I Fukyû), who was only marginally better qualified to transmit the glories of Chinese painting than the hapless fishermen who so disappointed Shimura Tôzô in Screech’s paper. The problem of how Edo-period painters learned about Chinese painting and what they knew about it is a large one, a comprehensive investigation of which is still needed, as underpinning for Nanga and other Edo painting studies. I myself, with help from Japanese scholars such as Oba Osamu, attempted an outline presentation of it in a 1979 paper titled “Phases and Modes in the Transmission of Ming-Ch’ing Painting Styles to Edo Period Japan,” which was published, however, in a symposium volume so obscure that no one has noticed it in the years since then.

Sato Doshin’s ambitious and admirable paper on “The Requirements for Historicization,” with special attention to the distinguishing of the ‘recent” and “contemporary” eras in Japanese art history, begins with his “very innocent question”: he discovers, as he is surveying modern Japanese art in U.S. collections, that the American and European images of Japanese art “focused on ukiyo-e prints and decorative arts,” a view very different from his own as a specialist in modern Japanese art history. Except for a few private collectors, “works by modern artists that have been exalted in Japan were almost entirely absent from American collections.” He grants that “there is some difference in taste,” but writes that “that in itself is not a problem.” Having thus dismissed quickly these differences in taste, he goes on to look for causes of “this gap in the historical views of the two regions” in broad historical and political factors, such as the Japanese government’s efforts to “increase foreign reserves by exporting decorative arts that reflected western tastes,” their exploiting of Japonisme, and their imperialist cultural policy, concluding that these factors “ ... caused the huge gap between the West’s and Japan’s . . . ‘history of modern Japanese art.’” The implication is that if it were not for these large forces acting from above, appreciation would have been more or less uniform in Japan and abroad.

The circumstances he adduces are indeed to the point in underlying some part of the disparity he notes. But if we do consider matters of taste and accessibility to foreign audiences, along with economic factors, simpler reasons emerge that cannot be so easily dismissed. What he refers to as “works by modern artists that have been exalted in Japan” must of course be primarily Nihonga, traditional painting of the Meiji and Taishô eras that was indeed until recently a blank spot in American collecting and appreciating of Japanese art, including my own. The Japanese “exaltation” of the Nihonga masters, an evaluation of them elevated beyond the understanding of most foreigners, has meant extremely high prices in relation to other Japanese art. I remember trying to acquire in Japan one of the mysterious and loveable landscape paintings by Murakami Kagaku, only to learn that even a minor one would cost far more than a good Ming painting. Tomioka Tessai appeals more to foreign audiences than most of his contemporaries, especially in his late works, but again sky-high prices have discouraged buyers outside Japan. Other kinds of Nihonga paintings, besides fetching big prices, require for their appreciation sensibilities finely attuned to specifically Japanese nuances of style and feeling, a requirement that has excluded most foreigners until recently, when exhibitions in St. Louis (1995) and Seattle (1999) have reflected some belated breakthroughs in understanding. A foreign art-lover of modest means and simpler tastes could, by contrast, collect the very appealing Ukiyo-e prints, and more ambitious collectors and museums could search out and acquire screen paintings that were compositionally bold and visually brilliant, or Rimpa paintings with those same qualities, or the works of the masters now sometimes called “eccentrics” such as Rosetsu, Jakuchû, and Shôhaku. With these to be had for comparable or even lower prices, it was the rare foreigner who would pursue Yokoyama Taikan or Maeda Seison.

A parallel might be made with foreign reception of Japanese films. For a long period it was jidai-mono, costume dramas, beginning with Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashômon, that were most enthusiastically received abroad. These were by no means, however, the genre most highly regarded by Japanese audiences and critics. Contemporary family dramas of the kind beloved of Japanese audiences became accessible to us only later, and still have a much smaller and more specialized following, for easily apparent reasons. Alongside Kurosawa’s stirring dramas, the films of Ozu Yasujiro are deliberately static, with famously protracted views of nothing in particular, and long passages in which people sit quietly and talk. For foreign audiences they can be boring, for those in tune, sublime. The broad and blustery acting of Mifune Toshirô brought him great international fame; Ryû Chishû, the archetypal Japanese father who in Ozu’s films is forever worrying about how to marry off his daughter Hara Setsuko, appears not to act at all, and could never enjoy that kind of reputation abroad. All cultural expressions are not equally accessible to those outside the culture; some, and some of the best, do not travel comfortably.

My point is a simple one. When we descend from the abstract theoretical realm into the rich, messy world of real artists and pictures and their audiences, more immediate explanations for large cultural phenomena are likely to present themselves; and when those phenomena can be adequately accounted for by factors concrete and close at hand, the need to search for causes for them in the broader modes of theorizing and cultural criticism may be lessened. To say this is not to question the value of Sato Doshin’s periodization or his insights into how Japan’s governmental policies and its relations with foreign countries, along with the West’s biased and constricted views of Japanese art, affected the construction of a Japanese art history. It is only to say that some questions can be adequately resolved on simpler levels. His discussion of the creation of the concept of Tôyô, or Asia, is enlightening. I would only add to his three dictionary definitions of Tôyô--the area east of Turkey, the eastern and southern sections of Asia, and Japan from China’s perspective--a fourth, which one encounters frequently in Japan: Tôyô as the rest of Asia, from a Japanese perspective, excluding Japan. If one buys a set of books titled Tôyô Bijutsu, one expects they will contain Asian art but not Japanese; if one goes to the Tôyôkan at the Tokyo National Museum, one sees Asian art other than Japanese, which is displayed in the Honkan or Main Building. But Sato accomodates that view later when he writes perceptively about how China makes the history of its own art the history of Asian art, while Japan and Korea construct the history of Asian art in relationship to the history of their own arts.

This symposium demonstrates, among other things, that the practice of making deep and detailed studies of individual paintings continues to thrive, at least among those scholars who get invited to great international symposia. But of course titling the first session “Studies of Canonical Paintings” more or less guaranteed that that would be so. Of the four papers in that first session, Ch’en Pao-chen’s and Bob Harrist’s easily live up to the high expectations we have come to have of those two excellent scholars. Yasuhiro Satô’s, on the other hand, as the writing of a young, to me unfamiliar scholar on a very familiar painting, was a special pleasure to read. Although it does not belong in my session, let me say anyway that it has the important virtue of making clear why this painting, Buson’s great “Snowy Night Over Kyoto” scroll, is a great painting. One aspect of the art historian’s job, or even an obligation, is to deal effectively with issues of quality. As teachers we owe it to our students, and as writers to our readers, to do this as evenly and sensitively as we can, using our own readings of the works as basis but trying to open up, through informed combining of analysis and imagination, what other readings, recorded or possible, by other people in other times can have been. Sano Midori’s paper also, although not expressly aimed at bringing out the quality or greatness of her paintings, the Tokugawa and Gotô Genji scrolls, implicitly does that in its method of analysis, since no lesser paintings could sustain such a rigorous exposition of what formal features underly their multilayered expressive and narrative method. And Professor Tsuji’s keynote address left no doubt that he feels entirely comfortable with the concepts of masterpieces and of quality, while recognizing that both are always provisional, not eternally fixed. Again, the ideological objections to distinguishing in this way between greater and lesser works of art are well known to those of us who choose to continue doing so; we can coexist comfortably with those who denounce the practice as judgmental and elitist. Let us have the Busons; they can have the Goshuns.

I have not yet read, but look forward very much to reading and hearing, the three papers concerned somehow with Wen Cheng-ming, an artist who has mostly been presented in the past as arising somewhat aloof above the popular and commercial aspects of Suchou culture. The titles of the papers suggest that they will show him to have been thoroughly embedded in the commercial--even, from a traditional literati viewpoint, enmired in it. I am inclined today to welcome studies that question or even undermine the literati ideal, believing that a blindly uncritical espousal of it--for which I bear some share of responsibility--has perpetuated old taboos and biases inappropriate to our time and supposed impartiality, and has been a seriously inhibiting factor in Chinese painting studies.

One announced purpose of this symposium is to celebrate the achievements of Shujiro Shimada and his role in training younger scholars. I can testify, from his guidance of my studies as a Fulbright student during my year in Kyoto in the mid-1950s and from many years of association after that, to his profound and beneficial impact on my work and on the field as a whole, especially his role at Princeton, along with John Rosenfield’s at Harvard, in rescuing Japanese art studies in America from the depressed, almost dead-end predicament they had fallen into. (Here, if I had a more detailed knowledge instead of only a hearsay account, I would include also a tribute to Wen Fong for making, at a crucial moment, the hard decision to use a position that would have benefited him personally, relieving him of much undergraduate teaching, to keep Shimada, who could work effectively only on the graduate level, But that is a story for someone else to tell, and I can only allude to it, admiringly.)

I would like to broaden the tribute, however, to include others of Shimada’s generation, the teachers of mine: Bachhofer, Loehr, Sickman, Soper, Osvald Siren, C. C. Wang, Sherman Lee (the last the only survivor.) They came from very different backgrounds, brought very different strengths to the field, and made very different contributions. Of course I have my own opinions about the relative virtues of these people’s work, as will any of you, or as they themselves expressed in their famous feuds: Loehr vs. Karlgren, or sinologues such as Pope and Maenchen vs. art historians such as Bachhofer, or Siren vs. everybody else. But trying to grade or rank them is outside my present point. I recall coming to the realization, while still quite new to the field, that the arguments they made about the requisites for productive engagement with East Asian art correlated closely with their own backgrounds and strengths. Now I would only add: how could it be otherwise? And yet our field of study, without any one of them, would be significantly poorer.

The moral should be obvious. Of course we should try always to understand and explore other approaches, expand and enrich our methodological toolbox. In my early years I boastfully described my training as like that of the boy Sudhana making his tour of the great bodhisattvas, since I had had the good fortune to work with quite a few of the leaders of the generation before me. But any implied claim to have absorbed and combined their approaches was largely a delusion, as it must always be, along with claims to “combine the best from East and West” or otherwise reach a Great Synthesis of competing methodologies. Recognizing that should make us aspire not so much to synthesis as to peaceful coexistence and mutual respect, as well as cooperation where it seems fruitful. To move from some older methodological position into a new one, however intellectually dazzling the new one may appear, should not be thought of as any kind of progress, except insofar as it entails also a move into somehow better scholarship--better informed, wider ranging, deeper probing, more precise, more enlightening. When I praise some of the papers in the present symposium, it is for advances of that latter kind over previous work, not for their employment of more advanced methodologies.

All of us who have done university-level teaching in recent years are familiar with students whose pride in their deployment of new methodologies leads them to shy away from older modes of scholarship and scant the simple acquisition of knowledge, including visual knowledge of the materials they are to work on. And, given the current criteria for ranking and hiring in too many art history departments, some of them will occupy teaching positions themselves and pass on the same attitudes to their students. It is that, methodological presumptuousness more than methodological backwardness, that makes me uneasy about the future of our field. Our salvation is in the firm expectation that people of this persuasion will be balanced, or better yet overbalanced, by the continuing appearance of well-trained young specialists capable of solid, high-level scholarly work. On that score, the evidence of the present symposium is cause for optimism.

Michael Baxandall, “The Language of Art History,” in New Literary History 10 (1978-79), p. 454.

James Cahill, Haley Lecture delivered at Princeton, Nov. 16, 1999: "Some Thoughts on the History and Post-History of Chinese Painting."

James Cahill, “Phases and Modes in the Transmission of Ming-Ch’ing Painting Styles to Edo Period Japan. In: Papers of the International Symposium on Sino-Japanese Cultural Interchange, Hong Kong: Institute of Chinese Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong, 1985; the symposium was held in 1979.

Ellen P. Conant, Nihonga: Transcending the Past. Japanese-style Painting, 1868-1968. (St. Louis, MO: St. Louis Art Museum, 1995)

Michio Morioka, Modern Masters of Kyoto: The Transformation of Japanese Painting Traditions. Nihonga from the Griffith and Patricia Way Collection. (Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum, 1999)

Laurence Sickman et al., Chinese Calligraphy and Painting in the Collection of John M. Crawford, Jr. (New York: the Pierpont Morgan Library, 1962.)

Kohara Hironobu, “Kyô Chojo hitsu Ko akaheki fu zukan” (Second Ode on the Red Cliff by Qiao Zhongchang), Shoron no. 20, 1982, 285-306.

Jerome Silbergeld, “Back to the Red Cliff: Reflections on the Narrative Mode in Early Literati Landscape Painting,” Ars Orientalis 25, 1995, 19-38.

Alexander Soper, "The Illustrative Method of the Tokugawa 'Genji' Pictures." Art Bulletin vol. XXXVII no. 1, 1955, pp. 1-16.

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