Japanese Art History 2001: The State and Stakes of Research

Article excerpt

The allure of the object in a world of language is the dilemma of the art historian. It is true, as David Summers writes, that "[t]he transformation of works into words is of crucial importance and in a certain sense everything follows from the way it is done."1 For it is through words that our understanding of things get even more complicated, inflected, and obscured as the processes of representation and seeing run their course. An art historian today must negotiate a quicksand of interpretation in a world akin to that of the film Rashomon, where a murder and rape are represented inconclusively through six differing testimonies accompanied by the seen-it-all banter of a rascal who believes nothing. The debates that periodically grip the field, typically among formalists, materialists, and "theory heads," keep it an interesting place both generally and on the local level of subspecialty and area, where some of the most heated skirmishing over model and method occurs.

That it is an exciting time to be an art historian seems evident in the attraction the field now holds for historians, literary theorists, and others who increasingly participate in its conformation. Certainly the dismantling of received superstructures of knowledge, driven by the engines of critique and systematic skepticism, suggests that these days almost anything goes. But art history with its Hegelian roots has long been multifaceted and tensive; its dissonance is its strength. To say that the field is coming apart, as some do, is to presume some prior state of unity that would be difficult to establish. When I argue that your connoisseurship or aestheticism are suspect and insist on my own highly materialist readings of things, it does not mean that our field is in disarray. It means rather that there is friction and thus the possibility of asking questions-general and local-that do not merely sponsor some likely answer.

For some time now there has been need for some straight talk about the field of Japanese art history as it has taken shape in North America, especially in the 1990s. This is not so much a need to survey who is doing what and what kinds of publications are setting the pace, important as that may be. Rather, the job at hand is to take stock of a field-a discursive practice-that began a little over a century ago at the interface of Japanese and Euro-American geopolitics and culture. To some degree John M. Rosenfield has already performed this task with admirable clarity in a probing 1998 analysis of the vicissitudes, and triumphs, of a field beset by paradigm shifts and postmodernism.2 My project here is to push the discussion a bit harder in the direction of critique, both internal and external to the field, in the conviction that there is much to learn about art history in general when we interrogate the state, and stakes, of Japanese art history within it. Let me be blunt in saying that mine is anything but a neutral or objective position. I have strong views about the social and political consequences of what we do as art historians when we interpret objects, and I have made that case in a number of publications. As always, my comments here are tendered with humility before those who have paved the way-those ancestral ghosts who yet haunt our disciplinebut without critical indulgence. I know that I will be taken to task for some of what I have to say here. I look forward to the conversations to follow.

Ask an art historian specializing in Japanese art history where the field stands today and you will get any number of different replies. There are many narratives, many positions from which to work, and many agendas. Like the Rashomon interlocutor, you might think you have finally got it right, only to have someone else tell you the story another way. This seems a good indication of what Christine M. E. Guth has characterized as a new "biodiversity" in a discipline that "was once dominated by a small group of like-minded scholars in elite institutions. …