CLP 112: 1993 “Passing On the Torch.” Talk for “celebration” of three elder scholars in Japanese art history

“Passing On the Torch.”

Talk for Celebration of the retirement of three senior scholars of the history of Japanese painting: John Rosenfield, Nobuo Tsuji, and myself, organized by Joe Price, held on Sept. 18, 1993, and attended by many of the younger specialists in the field, along with collectors and others.

If I begin with the expected opening, saying that I’m very happy to be here on this great occasion as one of the honored retirees, it will be entirely true and sincere, but it will also need some qualification. Obviously, if given a choice, anybody would rather be at the front end of a career than at the far end. As the years pass one finds oneself more and more, by invitation or uninvited, reminiscing about the previous generation for those who didn’t know them, as you did. Then suddenly you are the previous generation—it’s very unsettling. Still, since it isn’t a matter of choice, the best thing is to accept it and try to enjoy the benefits of being at the far end of one’s career. And there are several benefits: much less anxiety, escaping from headachy administrative jobs of the kind I’ve done my share of and John Rosenfield (bodhisattva that he is) has done three times his share; and, if one is lucky, being feted and celebrated and Festschrifted by the next generation. So I’m grateful to Joe and Etsuko and Julie Wolfgram for conceiving and organizing this event, which will allow the three of us to enjoy more of this last benefit than we otherwise would.

This kind of event isn’t without precedent: some years ago, there was a session at the College Art Association annual meeting in which five elders in the field of Western art history were invited to speak, partly because they didn’t appear much in other kinds of sessions any more; the feeling was that younger art historians should have a chance to see and hear them in the flesh, while this was still possible. Some such motive may have been in Joe Price’s mind when he organized this event. If so, we intend to confound him by going on making frequent public appearances, anti-climactic though they might be after his Celebration. Anyway, all of the oldsters in the CAA session did their expected reminiscing and summing-up talks, except one, George Kubler, who gave us a scholarly paper on some difficult point in the chronology of his Mayan codexes. His decision may have been the right one—I think the talks by John Rosenfield and Tsuji-sensei following mine will be more that kind, and certainly will be more substantial than mine. But I’m going to do the reminiscing and summing-up thing.

When Joe first approached me about this, I said my topic would be “passing on the torch,” and to the question of how this should be done, I would reply “Upside down—let them burn their fingers.” But that was only a joke: the image of the scholar as curmudgeon, putting down his colleagues and growling at the young, belonged to an earlier generation, that of Alan Priest, Osvald Siren, and Umehara Sueji (to name three.) I would really prefer to come through as benevolent and avuncular, so that’s the image I’ll try to project. At the same time, since a major purpose of this kind of gathering is to provoke discussion of large issues in the field, I’ll do my best to be provocative—an enterprise in which I’ve had some practice. I should add that since I’m primarily a Chinese art specialist, I’ll speak from that viewpoint, but will try to bring out the applicability of some of what I say to the situation of Japanese art studies, with which most of you are mainly concerned.

At another CAA session held in Washington D.C. the year before last (1991), organized by Jason Kuo and titled “Four Decades of Research on Chinese Painting in the West,” I spoke about “Five Pioneer Scholars in Chinese Painting Studies,” people from whom I’d learned directly, in some sense: Archibald Wenley, Osvald Siren, Laurence Sickman, Shujiro Shimada, and Max Loehr. Only Shujiro is still with us, and he hasn’t been well lately. I could have added Alexander Soper, recently deceased, except that I never studied with him. Anyway, I won’t repeat what I said then about these people individually, but will speak generally, and briefly, about this generation that preceded that of the three of us speaking today.

Their generation, or some scholars in it, represented the first real resolution of the old “sinology vs. art history” split (raised in those words in a review by John Pope of a book by Ludwig Bachhofer, published in Toung Pao in 1947). Before that, the options were: the Giles/Waley/Pelliot/Laufer kind of sinological engagement with art as part of a larger engagement with Chinese history and culture, vs. the Bachhofer/Salmony’/Rowley/Rowland kind of broad engagement with the history of art within which China was a part. Scholars were on one side or the other of a divide. Not all of the six I have named represent an ideal balance: Wenley mainly continued the sinological tradition; Siren was more the art historian by training, having studied with Berenson and others, but he drew skillfully on the work of sinologues. Loehr, in a big step upward from his teacher Bachhofer, epitomized the desirable fusion; so did Soper, similarly moving past what his teacher Rowley was able to accomplish. Sickman, although without much art-historical training, managed through sensitivity and a great eye to function very effectively as an art historian, while never admitting this. The same is true of Shimada. Scholars of their generation were the first to embody the ideal, at least, while manifesting it in varying ways and degrees.

Now, it was the task of my generation to try to consolidate this great move forward, bring together art-historical methods and perceptions, on one hand, with doing research in texts, drawing on work by recent Chinese and Japanese scholars, etc. on the other. All through the 1950s, when I was working on my dissertation (originally on the Four Great Masters of Yuan landscape, later narrowed to Wu Chen), and, in the later part of this decade, also working on the Skira book Chinese Painting—the two projects overlapped—I was reading and scanning all kinds of old Chinese books in the Freer and other libraries, wallowing in texts. My command of them was far from secure, but that didn’t deter me, or prevent me from making, as I still believe, real breakthroughs. I was working on literati painting theory, and on Chinese art theory more generally; I was searching for ways to understand the paintings more as viewers of the artist’s time did (an ideal ultimately unrealizable, but worth trying for) and to communicate these new ways of understanding in my writing.

A big part of my motivation was a passionate opposition to the tendency, very strong at that time, to impose on Chinese art some attitudes that were in fact adopted from other cultures: Japan and its emphasis on Buddhism, especially Zen, or the special version of Indian art and culture promoted by Coomaraswamy, which he tried to persuade people could be applied to all of Asia. These together had dominated a lot of pioneer writing about Chinese art, especially in the Boston-Cambridge sphere, where the influence of Coomaraswamy and Langdon Warner was very strong. My battle-cry was: Let’s try to understand Chinese art as the Chinese did, not as some Zen monks or tea-masters did, or as Coomaraswamy and his followers would like us to. I was helped by the experience of getting to know Chinese connoisseurs, notably C. C. Wang, also Chang Ta-ch’ien, Li Lin-ts’an, and others, looking at lots of paintings with them, hearing how they talked about paintings, observing what they liked and disliked. Also, Larry Sickman was a powerful ally, or model; his early studies with Langdon Warner didn’t hamper him from absorbing, during his long stays in China, Chinese ways of looking at art, and becoming in effect a Chinese-style connoisseur—perhaps the first foreigner to accomplish this successfully—and setting forth his perceptions in admirably clear and persuasive writings.

Others of my generation, at this heady time, were engaged in the same kind of effort: Dick Edwards for Shen Chou and other Ming and Ch’ing painters, Michael Sullivan for early landscape. Both had spent time in China during the war, and were using their knowledge of Chinese language and culture to good purpose. Moreover, as a great supplement and support to our endeavors, a few young Chinese scholars in the U.S. were coming into the field, bringing their greater command of the language and traditional culture to bear on texts and paintings: Chu-tsing Li for Chao Meng-fu and Yuan painting, Wen Fong and Wai-kam Ho for their broader areas of concern, including theoretical and methodological issues. The advances made in our studies since then wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Now I want to make a double proposition that is central to one of my arguments today. First: in our excitement over being able to read and understand the Chinese writings, learn from very knowledgeable Chinese connoisseurs, and apply these new understandings to the paintings, we were inclined to accept the Chinese formulations that we read or heard as the truth about the paintings, the right way to read and understand them. The typical response of people to my presentations of wen-jen hua (literati painting) theory was: At last you have revealed to us how we should appreciate, for instance, the paintings of Ni Tsan (an artist whom Bachhofer had put down, in his 1946 history of Chinese art, as an “arrogant dilletante.”) And, in the context I’ve been outlining, what we were doing was the right thing to do for that time, another big move forward. But, part two of my proposition: it isn’t at all the right thing to be doing now. Without presuming to argue that we’ve come to any really full and adequate understanding of Chinese theories and attitudes about their art, I would say that we’ve come far enough to justify raising questions about them, and distancing ourselves a bit from them.

We knew all the time, of course, that these theories and attitudes represented the special territory of an elite, the Chinese male literati, and that their self-defensive posture against any intrusions on their commanding position within Chinese culture was a major factor behind the directions their arguments took. And we knew in principle that these arguments, made sometimes centuries after the paintings were done and in very different contexts, couldn’t automatically be taken as corresponding with the original meanings and circumstances of the paintings. But we didn’t—if I can speak for myself, and my limited understanding of the thinking of others—realize until more recently the full implications of this, how much of Chinese painting has been lost through the literati biases or near-taboos accepted by later Chinese collectors, how the dominance of this orthodoxy has impoverished both writing about painting in the later centuries in China, and the survival of paintings into our time, since the kinds that were put down as low-class, popular, “vulgar”—which include much of what I and others now find most interesting—didn’t have a good chance of survival. Moreover, the more I’ve read and dealt with the paintings, the more I’ve realized that many of the most interesting and admirable developments in Chinese painting—the ironic uses of old styles by Ch’en Hung-shou and Wu Pin, the moves toward naturalism by Chang Hung and Sheng Mao-yeh, the ways in which portraitists characterized their subjects through attributes, settings, superimposed role-images rather than through penetrating portrayals of the face—that all these go more or less unreflected in Chinese writings even in their own time. In other words, artists at all times were doing things in their painting that writers of their time and later were frequently unwilling or unable to deal with adequately in their writings.

Every study of any importance I’ve undertaken in recent years has been, among other things, an attempt to push somehow beyond the boundaries that the literati critics and theorists have attempted, with remarkable success, to impose on anybody who tried to talk or write about Chinese painting. Without going into these in detail, I will say only that next spring I’ll be giving my fifth endowed lecture series, the Getty lectures at USC, and all these have had that character. They began with the Norton lectures at Harvard (after the second one John Rosenfield advised me that people were saying that while they were interesting, I was taking a very “round-eyed” approach); the Murphy Lectures at Kansas, on political themes, meanings and functions in Chinese landscape, and quickness and spontaneity (an argument against conventional Chinese readings of hsieh-i as pure self-expression); the Bampton Lectures at Columbia (now in press), about what I called all the “unmentionables” of Chinese painting, how artists made their livings, dealt with clients, used assistants, etc.; the Reischauer Lectures at Harvard last April, in which I tried, among other things, to take the practice of poetic painting (painting that is often based on lines or couplets of poetry, and that aims at effects on its viewers somehow akin to the effects that the best poetry has on it readers)—to take this practice, in its highest manifestations, away from the literati, who have always laid claim to it, and award it instead to certain professional masters, from the Southern Sung academy painters to the late Ming masters of Suchou; and the Getty Lectures I’m working on now, on the subject of portraits and pictures of women in later Chinese painting. This last is one of the many fascinating areas of Chinese painting that simply cannot be dealt with sympathetically and penetratingly within the framework of Chinese literati assumptions, so that one has to abandon them, even repudiate them, in order to work on it effectively.

Now, if someone says, as someone will, or already has: some of us never really believed in the Chinese literati arguments about painting anyway, what’s so big about questioning them now?—I would reply that that’s too much like the Belgian writer Simon Leys (to be distinguished from Pierre Ryckmans, a respectable art history scholar) who wrote very dark and negative things about what was happening in P. R. China when others were trying to be sympathetic and understanding, and then, after the new opening-up of China in the late seventies, with revelations appearing about the enormities of the Cultural Revolution, crowed in public about how he had been right all the time, and attacked John Fairbank and others for having been duped. I believe firmly that it’s better to go first through a kind of provisional acceptance (not of the Cultural Revolution, I hasten to say, but of the motives behind some of the policies and choices made in the early years of the P.R.C., which weren’t all bad), in the attempt to understand, even while stopping short of full acceptance, so that one’s departures will then be from a solid base of sympathetic familiarity with the thinking of the particular cultural situation or tradition one is dealing with. (Maybe that’s not a good parallel, but it feels right to me.)

I’m sure that some of you are finding what I’m saying charmingly old-fashioned, and would point out, if you weren’t too polite, that cultural interpretation today is so totally divorced from readings made within the culture and period of the work, and even from the artist’s presumed or inferred intentions, that the problem doesn’t even arise. But I would find difficulties in that too. Sometimes I get very smart and well-read western-art-history grad students in my courses and seminars—our program obliges them all to take one course in Asian art, and some of them choose one of mine; and most of the time they bring valuable outside perceptions and make admirable contributions, often comparative analyses, so that I always welcome them. But it also happens sometimes, on both the graduate and undergraduate levels, that someone comes charging in waving some well-honed methodological sword proclaiming that she or he is going to cut through all the nonsense written heretofore on the subject and get to the submerged truths about it. And the outcomes of those forays don’t, on the whole, satisfy me much; they persuade me again, on the contrary, that one has to make one’s way patiently through the established modes of understanding the works of art, whatever the limitations of these may finally prove to be.

That isn’t, typically, the way it works these days. Being on the committee that reads applications to our graduate program last year, I found myself struck by the number of young art historians who announce as their chosen mission the exposing of hidden ideological assumptions beneath the works of art, and who don’t profess much interest in dealing with other aspects of them, or learning much factual information about them and their makers. As I remarked to a colleague on the committee, Tim Clark, it’s ironic that what we once took to be the quintessentially sophomoric delusion, that by some methodological springboard one could vault high above all the others and gaze down and see through their wrongheaded assumptions, has now become the very basis of a prevailing mode of cultural criticism. I once quoted, in this connection, a late Ming Confucianist (cited by Ted de Bary in one of his articles) writing about the so-called wild-fox Ch’an or Zen doctrines so popular in his time: they offer a short-cut, he observed, and who doesn’t love a short-cut? Especially when it seems to permit you, as I say, to springboard over the others and occupy the forefront, without the trouble of painstaking study. But the readings of works of art produced in this way are usually so partial, so ideologically motivated, so ultimately inadequate to the works themselves, that I’m confident they will eventually be regarded as valuable supplements and correctives to the more established and sympathetic readings, but not by any means as replacements for them. Even when we are convinced, that is, we can still say: Yes, you’ve shown us some hitherto concealed ideological assumption within these works; very interesting: now we can go back to reading them more or less as we did before, with this additional layer of meaning in mind along with the others. A kind of implicit claim that the new readings generated by new methodologies or cultural-analysis strategies are somehow exhaustive, invalidating or driving out all others, seems to me the fundamental fallacy in the whole enterprise.

I hope that these last remarks temper somewhat any feeling that my earlier observations might have aroused, that I’ve turned somehow anti-Chinese in my approaches, or that I and others who think this way have slipped into some kind of “Orientalist” put-down of the native tradition. What we’re trying to do parallels what colleagues who study Chinese history and literature and thought are attempting: what we trying to break through are the screens erected by a literati elite which conceal big areas of the native tradition, including much of the most interesting, behind them; we’re trying to identify and bring out the concerns and voices of members of the culture who weren’t given much voice in their society, so that recovering them is difficult: professional and academy painters, women, the consumers of Chinese painting in the broadest sense, all the people who didn’t accept or fit into the orthodoxies of their time. And some Chinese scholars today, especially the younger ones, are making the same kind of attempt, and I think their work will be prominent in Chinese painting studies in the future. In fact, it’s on the assumption that the future of our field depends heavily on the interaction between good young scholars here and in China that my wife Hsingyuan and I are working with Chinese colleagues on a symposium to be held in China toward the end of next year that will have exactly that as its primary purpose. And I myself, again along with Hsingyuan, have been spending a lot of time in China, working with art history programs there, helping to bring specialists to the U.S., generally trying to expand the options open to art historians in China.

The particular combination that I’m advocating of respect for traditional Chinese formulations and eventual dissatisfaction with them can be illustrated with two anecdotes. The leading authority in China on nien-hua or New Year’s pictures, mostly popular prints, is Prof. Bo Songnian of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Hsing and I were instrumental in getting him invited to Berkeley for a year by the Chinese Popular Culture project organized by my History Department colleague David Johnson; and Bo Songnian was a huge success, with his unmatched, detailed knowledge of the iconography of the prints, regional variations, the intricacies of their making and use. But when, at a seminar organized by David Johnson in which people outside his program participated, two others of our History Department faculty, Professors Fred Wakeman and Yeh Wen-hsin, raised questions about how the prints also could be seen as responding to social and economic factors in Chinese society, Bo Songnian rejected this approach outright: no, he said, the factors treated in his own account of them were the only ones that affected the forms the prints took. One could account for everything in them, that is, on his terms—period, regional variants, elements of popular religion, etc. His proprietory feelings about his subject were perfectly understandable on the basis of his own assumptions as an authority on a part of his own cultural tradition; his readings of the prints were full and adequate, and proof against outside intrusions. From the standpoint of an outsider, the approach suggested by Wakeman and Yeh could have enriched and deepened his account. But his account, his unmatched fund of information on the prints and his particular understanding of them, would have had to be a necessary foundation for anything they might have done.

Similarly, at a symposium on Chinese painting at the Shanghai Museum in 1988, one session was on the Chinese artist in society, and C. C. Wang and another old Chinese painter, Shao Loyang, got the floor to ask rhetorically: what is all this about the artist responding to social and economic factors in his paintings? We pay no attention to any such matters, but just paint what we please. My response (delivered through a very capable interpreter, Kao Mayching, who was chairing this session) was: It’s the proper role and function of you two as artists to paint and talk as though that were true; and it’s the proper role and function of us as art historians to prove, as often as necessary, that it isn’t true. Just at that time, I said, I was showing students in my Modern Chinese Painting class how C. C. Wang’s stylistic innovations, which he took to be entirely personal and independent, fit into a large, definable pattern of the styles developed by overseas Chinese artists in the 1960s and 70s, a pattern that correlated with their circumstances just as the patterns in the painting of artists who stayed behind in China correlated with theirs. How these dual truths of artistic freedom and socio-economic constraints can be reconciled certainly isn’t a matter I want to try to resolve here; but we have to recognize and come to terms with them, and find value in both of them. And the fact that all art history programs in China now are located within art academies and dominated by artists makes for difficulties, which we also must recognize, in their adopting any approach other than the one favored by artists, which assumes complete independence, at least as the ideal condition surrounding the creation of good art. Any account constructed on that assumption will be as lopsided as one constructed according to some socio-economic determinism.

Now, how does all this apply to Japan and the study of Japanese art? Any observations I might make about this question can only be those of an outsider who has scarcely even tried to keep up with recent developments in the Japanese art-history field, and so can speak only from a state of semi-ignorance. But let me make my observations anyway—in the traditional spirit of aging scholars admitting they haven’t kept up and then talking as though that didn’t matter--even though some of what I will say may deserve shooting-down by the better informed.

Something I realized very early on, in working in both fields, was the deep difference between the condition of scholarship on the arts in the two cultures. On the one hand, The Chinese tradition of studying art is much longer and richer, not only than the Japanese but also than the European—if you read Chang Yen-yuan’s ninth century Li-tai ming-hua chi and then realize how many centuries were to pass before anything comparable is produced in Europe, this truth is inescapable; and the later critical and theoretical literature of art in China, in its scope and sophistication, only confirms it. And nothing really comparable to that body of Chinese literature is produced in Japan (with due respect to the few interesting writings.) But all the economic and political and other upsets that China has undergone in the past few centuries, up to and including the Cultural Revolution, have inhibited the development of a coherent, continuous program of art-historical scholarship that aims at more, and achieves more, than simply continuing the old tradition. Scholarship of art in Japan, by contrast, developed in modern times into a large-scale enterprise with meticulous standards (again, within its own assumptions), a great many well-trained practitioners, an economic base for research and publication, and other strengths that the Chinese couldn’t match. So strong was this native body of scholarship that in the 1950s and 60s it was a commonplace observation that dealing with it was the main problem facing any foreigner who attempted to move into the Japanese art history field.

Of course this is no longer true, and the kind of fruitful interaction of native and foreign scholarship that I still hold as an ideal for Chinese art studies of the future has in considerable part been realized already in Japanese art history circles. This was well demonstrated in the state-of-the-field conference held in San Francisco and Berkeley in February 1989, organized principally by Maribeth Graybill, and by the closeness that Japanese art specialists of her generation have developed with Japanese colleagues. In part it’s also due to the greater openness of older Japanese specialists to outside methodologies—I think, for instance, of Professor Tsuji’s recent writings on topographical painting in Japan, shinkei-zu. Moreover, while some part of recent Japanese art history is aimed at overturning old evaluations and assumptions—for instance Chino Kaori’s extraordinary talk at the session in San Francisco, a feminist re-assessment of the relative weighting of the yamato-e and suiboku-ga components of Muromachi painting—I have the sense that the Japanese tradition is not perceived by those working now as exerting quite the oppressive weight that the Chinese tradition still exerts on contemporary scholarship. So any exhortations I might make in the course of passing on my torch will be directed at different problems.

To begin with, while my own work has certainly been heavily affected by association with western-art colleagues and reading their writings—no one in a department that includes Svetlana Alpers, T. J. Clark, and Michael Baxandall among others could escape that, even if he wanted to (as I certainly don’t)—I hope I can continue to say that nothing I have written that was worthwhile was the product of any deliberate application of an external methodology, or system of dealing with art, to the works at hand. Everything that mattered most arose out of direct engagement with the works themselves, and my method has adapted always to the conditions and issues that they raised or represented. This has made for a diversity of approaches, which is as it should be. I once quoted Michael Baxandall on his dislike of being admonished: “On the other hand,” he wrote, “what I do like is there being a manifold plurality of different art histories, and when some art historians start telling other art historians what to do, and particularly what they should be interested in, my instinct is to scuttle away and existentially measure a plinth or reattribute a statuette.” Measuring and reattributing are things one does to objects; and other things we do, such as analysis, interpretation, or cultural embedding, are best done, I think, with immediate and direct application to particular objects of art. And if these projects fail to illuminate the objects, opening up richer understandings of them, sensitizing us to qualities in them and aspects of their contexts of creation that we had missed before, they are of limited value. I know that my esteemed colleague John Rosenfield, in conversations and letters if not in print, has been critical of some recent art-historical work that is divorced from direct engagement with the works of art, and I’m in complete agreement with him on that point.

But the methodological baggage and assumptions one brings to one’s projects will, of course, in some part determine the way one reads the work and the questions one asks about it: no one works in a conceptual vacuum (although there is, to be sure, a lot of writing around that makes one suspect that of its authors.) And the kinds of projects one chooses to undertake are also determined in part, obviously, by the kinds of results one wants to achieve. In speaking of the importance of continually attending to the objects, I certainly don’t mean that one should write about a body of paintings simply because it’s there, and close at hand. That seems to have happened, too much, at a certain stage of Japanese art studies in this country, when collectors and museums were buying in quantities the relatively routine productions of overly-prolific late masters such as Chikuto or Kinkoku, responding to conditions of the market such as price and availability more than to aesthetic taste, and young scholars were paying more scholarly attention to these than I think they merited. Unless the artist himself was seriously engaged, that is, with interesting artistic and cultural issues, anyone writing about his work will probably be beset by the same limitations, and will do the standard biography-plus-stylistic-development things and then sit back satisfied. Melinda Takeuchi kindly gives me credit in her preface for helping to rescue her from doing that with Ikeno Taiga (a much greater master), and I do indeed plead guilty to bugging her mercilessly in the directions that produced, eventually, her admirable book on Taiga’s “True Views.” So I’m certainly not saying that attending to the works of art is any kind of end in itself.

For the same reasons, I believe that in both the Chinese and the Japanese painting fields, too much of our writing energies have been devoted to exhibition catalog texts, and that we have too often written these as though they were comprehensive, adequate treatments of their subjects. A catalog essay concentrates on, even when it is not exclusively limited to, the particular group of objects that happen to be available as loans, or (even more limiting) happen to be in a particular museum or private collection, instead of choosing the pieces of highest quality and importance wherever they may be, those that best represent the subject at hand. Two examples out of many possible: Marilyn and Fu Shen faced with the difficult problem of writing their major book Studies in Connoisseurship around a group of paintings (the Sackler collecion) which in a few cases mightily resisted, shall we say, being proved authentic; and the catalog of the 1974 exhibition of Buson and His Followers by the late Cal French and his students: any reader and viewer might be left with the impression that the followers are more interesting than the master, but this was only because of the inaccessibility of really first-class, representative Buson paintings in any number in U.S. collections at that time. In a proper book on the same topic, with illustrations drawn from the best examples in Japan and elsewhere, Buson would simply have blown the others off the scene, as indeed he does. Cal French’s book on Shiba Kokan, which wasn’t written within the limitations of an exhibition catalog, seems to me a stronger and finer work. My admonition: let’s write more books, and thoughtful books.

The mention of Buson leads me to another observation. I said that the Japanese tradition of scholarship on their art is less weighty and oppressive than that of the Chinese, and I believe that to be true. But going up against the established and unchallenged assumptions within the Japanese scholarly tradition can also have its perils. I myself did that for quite a few years in Japan, appearing at symposia and chattering away in my fluent if incorrect Japanese, characterizing Sesshu as more a kind of provincial Ming Che-school master than as (in his self-constructed image) a continuer of Sung traditions who learned nothing from his Ming contemporaries, arguing that the early Nanga masters adopted more than anybody had recognized from certain kinds of Chinese painting that the Chinese themselves considered low-class; and so forth. This was fun, and I was cheered on by some Japanese colleagues, notably my old friend Akiyama Terukazu, who worked in areas other than the ones to which my revisionist efforts were directed. (Tsuji Nobuo, I say with gratitude, organized special meetings of the Bijutsu-shi Gakkai in Sendai and in Tokyo at which I was permitted, even encouraged, to present my revisionist views on early Nanga and Buson.)

But all this was not without cost. After the great exhibition of the paintings of Yosa Buson that Maribeth Graybill and I and others were organizing—an exhibition that would have fundamentally changed our understanding of this transcendentally great master—was brutally grounded by the Bunkacho in 1987—the official reason given was that they couldn’t do two Edo-painting exhibitions in a single year, and they were already supporting another (which was of Jakuchu—Yosa Buson routed by those chickens? Something deeply wrong here) some of my more honest and sympathetic Japanese colleagues were saying that in some part I was paying at last for those heady years of non-conformity, for playing fast and free with cherished Japanese doctrines about their painting. So, while I still hold as mainly responsible for the whole disaster a younger colleague then in the Bunkacho’s art section, whose tea I would cheerfully poison if the opportunity arose, I would also say to anyone in the Japanese art-history field: don’t be buffaloed into conformity, but be fully aware of the consequences that not being buffaloed and non-conformity may entail.

My admonitions and advices have up to now been mostly negative: what pitfalls to avoid, what not to do. I want to conclude with some more positive advice, gratuitous but well-intended, on writing and lecturing interestingly and illuminatingly about art. I’m asked sometimes abut my working methods, and haven’t had any clear answer, since different projects obviously encourage different methods. But I’ve sometimes begun a seminar by offering the students a schematic model of how one begins and carries out a substantial, serious study, such as a thesis or dissertation, on some art-historical problem. It could be an artist, or a school, or a subject category, or some art-historical issue along with the works of art it affects, or a single important work or group of works, together with all related materials. (I myself tend to urge students now more toward problem topics than toward artist or school topics.) Now, I do this in my seminar with a blackboard, laying out what I call a game-board; but here you will simply have to envision the gameboard as I describe it, like a bunch of tantric Buddhists collectively making a mandala appear in the air above them.

Supposing we are going to carry out a study of an artist, let’s say Ni Tsan. You have a big circle in the center with “NT” written in it (or NZ if you prefer pinyin.) Then, nearby, perhaps below, a lot of numbered smaller circles with P written in them, for Ni Tsan paintings; some of them are DPs, dated paintings. (You eventually include only those which, after a lot of work, you judge to be genuine works.) Elsewhere, perhaps at one side, you have a cluster of little circles, likewise numbered, with F in them, for facts or bits of biographical and other information, some of them DF or datable facts. Elsewhere are circles with Os or Opinions about Ni Tsan, what others write about him: elsewhere a cluster of T circles for Theories, his ideas on art. Outside the Fs or biographical facts you might have a cluster of social and historical circumstances, not immediately about Ni Tsan but relatable to his life; outside the Ps or paintings, other painting of his time and earlier as context; outside the Ts or theories a similar cluster of contemporary and earlier theorizing that would form the context for his writings on art—and so forth. Expanding circles, in effect. (These are actually the kinds of categories and abbreviations I used in research for my own dissertation long ago, with these code letters and numbers written in upper corners of many hundreds of file cards. All this was, needless to say, in a pre-computer age. But the model is still valid, I think.)

Now, the research one does in the early stages of one’s project lays out this gameboard, with lots of searching and reading and translating and so forth. And we try to make it firm, judging the authenticity of the paintings and the reliability and relevance of the texts. Of course the kind of game one means to play affects the way the gameboard is constituted, but one does one’s best to make it fairly comprehensive at this early stage, taking in everything that seems pertinent. When it’s finished (or, more realistically, when one decides it’s finished), if the central big circle represents an artist, we can erase it, since the gameboard is in effect, for us, the artist—it is Ni Tsan—nothing more than paintings and documentation and so forth is available. If it’s a painting, of course it can stay there.

So then we choose our game and play it. We can take a needle and thread and pass it through all the DFs or dated facts in order, then pull it out straight, and that’s the artist’s biography, with some contextual material hanging on here and there. Passing the needle and thread through all the DPs or dated paintings and then pulling it out, with some plain Ps hanging here and there on the basis of stylistic or other affinities, produces, in a relatively straightforward way, an account of his stylistic development. These two, placed end to end, with one or two others, theories and opinions perhaps, once made up an acceptable doctoral dissertation. But these are linear games, and in the end useful but relatively low-level, not much fun for either author or reader.

Having said this, I go on to suggest other kinds of games that can be played, interpretive games that involve arching movements, rising above the gameboard, connecting areas or systems that aren’t immediately contiguous and obviously relatable, especially those that connect the paintings with other systems, until something like a great gothic cathedral is created. The introduction of a third dimension depends on another of my favorite metaphors for admonishing students. Facts are like stones, I say; you can gather a lot of them and lay them out in neat rows or patterns on the ground, but these remain one- or two-dimensional. Ideas are like cement: use them to hold your stones together and you can build great, orderly, spacious structures.

From these observations I go on to lay out the rules of the game, both those that are constants in all well-played games, by which I mean scholarly standards, and those that are particular to one or another game, special methodological assumptions. And I advise some decent regard for the neighborhood, which means expressions of respect for other scholarly work done in the same general area. Putting down all previous treatments of the subject is another sophomoric practice that turns the readers off more than it impresses them.

Finally (and finally also for this lecture) I explain to them a marking I’ve devised and used often in the margins of papers or theses I’m reading.
Again, you will have to visualize it: a V turned sideways, pointing to the right, and inside it the capital letters SW. This is my SO WHAT? mark, meaning: what you write is OK in itself, but what further significance can you draw from it? And that should push the student (rightward, the direction of expansion of one’s writing) to explore more the implications of whatever observation he or she has just made, how it can be used to illuminate some larger issue, perhaps, or how it can be related to some larger concern. Which might, when accomplished, bring on still another SW in a V, pushing them toward further levels of finding significance. I do believe that if we all had stamps made with my SO WHAT mark on them and used them liberally on the writings of our students and sometimes on our own, the literature of our field would instantly become more interesting and more entertaining.

And if you object that being interesting and entertaining isn’t what you’re aiming at, that you have loftier scholarly purposes in mind, I would reply, as always: what’s the use of writing something if people don’t read it—or not enough people read it, or don’t finish reading it, or don’t read it with enough attention that it sinks in? It’s like giving a party to which nobody comes, or everybody leaves early. My use of the gameboard image has another implication, based again on my own experience: that scholarship, however seriously and meticulously carried out, should have a strong element of play in it. By play I mean what fish do in water, in Chuang-tzu’s anecdote, moving smoothly through a three-dimensional world in which they feel entirely at home, so that simply exercising their mastery of it gives pleasure—to those who watch them and presumably to themselves. (I say presumably because to ask whether the fish are really happy would get us back into Chuang-tzu’s dilemma.)

Or, to take another image: one of the most beautiful films I ever saw was a short, made in the London zoo as I recall, that was no more than the filming of a gibbon in a large cage that was fitted out with bare trees so that the branches of them structured the space; and the gibbon had such total control of this three-dimensional environment that simply moving easily through it obviously gave it pleasure—flying through the air, reaching out effortlessly at just the right moment to grab a branch and swing into a new trajectory, occupying through its movements the entire space of the cage, exhibiting a perfect mastery of its bounded—but satisfying because structured—world. This image comes to my mind sometimes when, in the course of working on some subject in Chinese or Japanese painting, some pattern of interrelationships begins to emerge, the pieces come together into some structure of meaning, and the pattern or structure seems not only to illuminate that particular passage of art history or body of materials but also to exhibit a beauty of its own. I have never believed that art-historical writing, when done as it should be done, as the creation of structures of meaning, is in any essential way different from the creation of works of art; and these are the moments when that conviction is most strongly felt.

I submit, then, that if, after we have established our gameboards with scholarly patience and scrupulousness, we play interesting and original three-dimensional games on them in this spirit, our readers will respond in some part as I did to the film of the gibbon, with the pleasure of not only absorbing the content of our writing but also recognizing the pleasure taken in mastery and ease of movement. And, with all respect to other motivations for scholar writing—the accumulation and transmission of knowledge, the righting of the wrong ideas of one’s contemporaries, the attainment of a tenure promotion—this seems to me in the end the highest aim, whether from the writer’s or the reader’s standpoint.

Thank you.

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