Interventions: The Mediating Work of Art/Response: Shifting Biographies, Shifting Temporalities/Response: "Picture Idea" and Its Cultural Dynamics in Northern Song China/Response: The Mottled Discourse of Chinese Studies/Response: Trapped: A Northern Song Painting/Response: How Is the Past in the Present?/Interventions: The Author Replies
Hay, Jonathan, Berger, Patricia, Wang, Eugene Y., Elkins, James, Wang, Cheng-hua, Summers, David, The Art Bulletin
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To readers of this essay who are not specialists in Chinese art-the vast majority, I hope-the painting A Solitary Temple below Brightening Peaks (Qingluan xiaosi) may be at least vaguely familiar (Fig. 1). This painting in ink and light colors on silk dating from the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) is one of a handful of major early Chinese landscape paintings in American public collections. Much reproduced-indeed, a central exhibit in the modern canon of Song painting-it has long been associated with the name Li Cheng (919-967), a painter of mythical importance active in the mid-tenth century. Today, A Solitary Temple, which incorporates an awareness of Li Cheng's art, is generally thought to postdate Li's lifetime. Although its precise authorship is not crucial to the argument I want to make here, in a forthcoming article I argue for its reattribution to Wang Shiyuan (active ca. 9601006 or later), the most versatile and one of the most prominent among the many painters active at the Song capital of Kaifeng in north-central China shortly before and after the year 1000.1
I approach A Solitary Temple not as an object in a specific medium (ink painting) but as an event that comprises mediations with which the painting also engages reflexively. In my attention to the artwork's mediations and reflexivity, I follow the line of art historical interpretation that emerged in the 1970s, with its tendency to approach the artwork as a site of material and semiotic operations implicating the viewer, both contemporary and later, as active participant.2 Most work of this kind, however, including my own prior writing, has explored this dimension of the artwork within the framework of the interpretation of art as a social practice, which over the last thirty years has centrally focused on the issue of representation. Here, on the other hand, I place the focus on mediation itself, denoting the broader capacity of artworks to create transformative linkages between the viewer and the world in which both viewer and artwork operate.3 In one direction, the mediating work that art accomplishes changes the viewer's sense of her place in the world, while in the other direction, the viewer's awareness of the aspects of the world engaged by particular linkages alters what the world is in her eyes. Open in its affective implications, mediation offers no guarantee of pleasure or reassurance.
This dematerializing, event-oriented course implies that A Solitary Temple is just as active as its viewer. It also builds on the tendency in recent interpretation to view the objecthood that an artwork possesses-its combination of material thingness and virtual image-as a powerful effect produced by the structure of its mediations. This structure operates on two levels, since the painting, as well as mediating directly between viewer and world, has the capacity to draw in the participatory viewer in such a way as to problematize, and thus mediate, its own mediations. The resulting reflexivity raises dramatically the stakes of the agency that is distributed among artist, viewer, and artwork.4
The process by which A Solitary Temple both mediates and questions its own work of mediation specifies its singularity in a way that exceeds the parameters of the interpretation of art as a social practice. The problematic associated with this horizon of interpretation can be defined approximately by the intersection of two axiomatic principles. The first is the broad acceptance by its practitioners of interpretation's need to acknowledge and confront as central the artwork's resistance to interpretative closure-its overdetermined and contingent character; the second is the decision to proceed from the symptom and the aporia. A more fully mediational view of the artwork opens up a related but ultimately different interpretative horizon under which A Solitary Temple can be characterized as individuation out of a field of linkage it both establishes and questions. …