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Reviewed by:
  • Asian Art History in the Twenty-first Century
  • Patricia Karetzky (bio)
Vishakha N. Desai, editor. Asian Art History in the Twenty-first Century Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2007. 272 pp. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 978-0-300-12553-5.

Asian Art History in the Twenty-first Century is a collection of essays that was first presented at the Clark Conference on Asian Art History in the Twenty-First Century, held in 2006 at the Asia Society in New York. The goal of the conference was to examine long-held assumptions about objects, ideas, ideology, theoretical frameworks, and institutions pertaining to Asian art. After a brief but informative introduction by the editor of the collection, Vishakha N. Desai, there are three groups of essays. The first deals with the history of Asian art history, the second examines the character of current museums, and the third views the effects of globalization on artists. These three perspectives provide a broad scope by which to view the developments of the last century and some points of orientation for understanding future developments. The authors have provided a great body of knowledge and a variety of theoretical frameworks by which to view the various aspects of Asian art.

The first section, “Forming the Canons,” examines the historical origins of Asian art traditions and the role they played in forming contemporary perspectives. In an overview, the changing opinions and attitudes in scholarship are revealed. One point in common is the new role of governments in the dissemination of information and in the control of access to research materials. Fredrick M. Asher presents a particularly detailed and faceted examination of the early stages of art history in India, which began as the by-product of British colonial excavation of ancient monuments by amateurs, and the long-lasting impact of their writings on subsequent art historians, museum directors, and university teachers. Asher contrasts these to current postcolonial attitudes and nationalist extremists who often reject the validity of the work of Western scholars and limit their cooperation (pp. 9ff.). Nancy Steinhardt’s essay begins by establishing [End Page 46] the surprisingly limited source for the Chinese canon of architectural aesthetics. First articulated in an early twelfth-century text, this canonical architectural treatise achieved long-lasting dominance in China as well as in Korea and in Japan. Steinhardt questions the restricted nature of Asian architectural studies in contrast to the numerous tomes of Western scholarship and the scarcity of illustrations of architecture in art historical texts. In contrast, Jerome Silbergeld, facing the voluminous art history of Chinese paintings produced over the centuries, limits his inquiry to the changing opinions on the aesthetic value of painting in the Song and Yuan dynasties. Silbergeld establishes the various views regarding the relative superiority of the former’s exacting depictions of nature over the latter’s more personal and calligraphic forms of landscape art and shows how the various interpretations of the merits of the art of both dynasties are related to the sociopolitical history of the periods in which they were composed. Similarly faced with a great body of art historical writings, Yukio Lippit examines the function and artistic style of Japanese Zen patriarchal portraits from the medieval period. Inspired by recent scholarship establishing the ritual function of such portrayals, Lippit shows that these images actually had a multiplicity of functions. Lastly, Kaja M. McGowan considers the development of postcolonial art produced in Bali by analyzing the impact of the availability of new pigments and materials and an increasingly foreign art market for traditional Ceku textiles. McGowan shows how these works, which functioned as religious compositions, continue to employ a symbolic system of colors and to incorporate the rhythms of native musical dance rituals (p. 110) in their production.

The second section, “Institution, Aesthetics, and Politics,” examines the expanded role of museums in the twenty-first century: built with state support, resulting in a political framework and sometimes with a religious orientation, the museums’ objectives include a didactic function presented within a persuasive ideological framework. For example, Rana Mitter’s article investigates the creation of two Chinese museums dedicated to the war with Japan. One in Beijing houses...