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FEATURE REVIEWS© 1995 by University ofHawaïi Press Martin J. Powers. Art and Political Expression in Early China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991. xiv, 438 pp. Reviewing a book that has already received the Levenson Prize in History, has been critically acclaimed {Asian Studies Newsletter 38, no. 2 [1993]: 3), and has been described as the synthetic study of Han art that we have been waiting for, a study that builds a bridge between archaeological materials and studies of art history (Jonathan Hay, Art Bulletin, March 1993, p. 169), is a task not to be undertaken lightly. Abjuring the usual chronological organization of material, Powers presents a series of essays centered on his theme, the use of figurai imagery as a form of political expression. Han pictorial art is interpreted as a vehicle for criticizing the government of the late Han period. To do this, Powers concentrates on a particular group of Eastern Han (a.d. 25-220) pictorial stones carved in Shandong Province . These works constitute, in Powers' words, the "classical tradition," which he sets in contrast to the earlier "ornamental tradition" and the late Han "descriptive tradition." His discussion moves back and forth, between pictorial gleanings, Han texts, and recent archaeological studies. Powers states his argument as follows: the "art of the Han dynasty records a struggle for political and aesthetic expression by local intellectuals. The people who commissioned such monuments were very much attached to their own social and economic mobility and to fundamental issues ofjustice in human society. They were among the very first in history to utilize visual art as a vehicle of social criticism" (p. 30). These local intellectuals fostered the style that Powers calls "classical," a figurai style employing the motifs offilial piety, frugality, and sacrifice , which he contrasts with the ornamental style, "based on visual expressions of quantity" (p. 92), in the form of elaborately decorated lacquerware, metalwork, and textiles rather than figurai art. Although the title includes the words "Early China," a period that stretches from 2000 b.c. to a.d. 220, Powers states his actual chronological limit on page 2; this book "is not a survey of Han dynasty art. Instead , it seeks to show, by a limited number of examples, how issues ofpolitical expression can be traced in Han pictorial art." Powers' theme, as it develops in the following chapters, appears to be well grounded, logical, and even illuminating. On the basis of the limited number of examples Powers provides, which he uses as a historian would to illustrate textual 2 China Review International: Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1995 materials, Powers' arguments do appear to be plausible. Writing as a historian, Powers has succeeded. He does make good use of historical material and makes some very interesting and informative comments on the market for tomb and shrine art, and his discussions of the late Han court, the harem, and the eunuchs are lively and entertaining. But Powers tells us this book is about art, so one wonders if it does offer a plausible explanation of the meaning of late Han figurai art. How does Powers treat his visual material? Does the pictorial evidence he presents support his interpretation of it? The problems an art historian encounters in this book arise from the way pictorial evidence is employed. The stringent limits Powers has placed on the selection of illustrations have had the unfortunate effect of eroding away the very foundations of proof he seeks to establish. Art historically speaking, these limits seriously flaw his analytical approach and lead to various difficulties in his discussion. In addition, there are a number of errors that mar his presentation. Difficulties: The Problématique ofPowers' Formulation Art historians have developed a methodological system based on certain fundamental premises. First, in order to establish the meaning of a motif or an iconographie program using various motifs, the entire work must be analyzed within the historical and cultural context of its time. Second, function and use determine the meaning of representational art. Taking a motif, a scene, or a subject out of its context to make it fit into a theoretical structure conceived by the art historian is not acceptable. Third, other comparable...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 1-18
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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