- Toward a More Inclusive Definition of Chinese Painting
The annual A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., are the Holy Grail of art historians. To be invited to present them signifies admission into an extremely select circle of practitioners deemed to be "of exceptional ability, achievement, and reputation."1 Ever since [End Page 27] the philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) inaugurated the series in 1952, most Mellon lecturers have focused, unsurprisingly, on issues in traditional European (and, to a much lesser extent, modern North American) art history, esthetics, and art theory.2 But lately there have been signs of openness toward other fields. In 1998, the China specialist Lothar Ledderose (b. 1942) was the first invitee to lecture on a non-Western topic,3 and that auspicious precedent has since been followed by lecture cycles on the art of ancient Mesopotamia (Irene J. Winter, 2005), the Precolumbian New World (Mary Miller, 2010), and medieval India (Vidya Dehejia, 2016).4
Craig Clunas's 2012 Mellon lectures, attractively published in the volume under review, constitute the second such cycle devoted to China—the first and so far only time a "non-Western" tradition has made an appearance more than once. Arguably, this may be taken as a sign of three encouraging tendencies. (1) The intrinsic importance of extra-European art-producing traditions is being increasingly recognized by the mainstream art-historical discipline. (2) The formerly marginal "non-Western" fields of art history are reaching maturity, generating more and more exciting scholarship. And (3) specialists in those fields have been developing the ability to communicate ideas that are of interest to the wider community of art historians and to the Humanities at large. Elegantly written and lavishly illustrated with high-quality color illustrations, Chinese Paintings and Its Audiences is a resoundingly successful case in point: it exhibits Clunas's masterful command of both his subject matter and current discipline-wide theoretical paradigms.
Resisting the temptation of taking his Mellon Lectures as an opportunity for a popularizing synthesis of what still remains, to the audience of these lectures, an arcane and exotic field, Clunas commendably deemphasizes his subject's foreignness and delivers an analytical argument that is new and highly original. Rather than taking Chinese painting back to its origins, he zeroes in on the last 500 years. Adducing many unfamiliar artworks and leaving out most of the familiar ones, he takes an exhilaratingly fresh look at the diverse panoply of cultural products that have historically been called "Chinese painting." Through a series of unexpected juxtapositions, he arrives at some quite unsettling conclusions, and he ends up questioning the very definition of his subject that is currently taken for granted by most scholars. The resulting book has all the markings of a classic; it is, and will probably remain for a long time, a must-read for specialists and non-specialists alike.
Even though Chinese Painting and Its Audiences is replete with compelling visual observations on the individual artworks discussed therein, Clunas departs from normal art-historical practice in that he deemphasizes their materiality as artifacts. Transferring the late Ernst H. Gombrich's (1909-2001) concept of the "beholder's share" from the perceptual/aesthetic to the sociological realm, he argues, instead, that the very notion of "Chinese [End Page 28] painting" is a creation of its viewers; and that such a notion only became a possibility in early modern times, when viewers—or at least some viewers—were beginning to have a choice of paintings from various places and traditions to relate to. (Indeed, the availability of a smörgåsbord of cultural possibilities of different time-depths and geographical origins constitutes one essential defining ingredient of modernity.) Before that time, in China and adjacent countries under Chinese cultural influence, painting was simply hua 畫, "painting," without any need to specify the "Chinese" characteristics of its media, techniques, iconography...