Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History/The Great Image Has No Form, or on the Nonobject through Painting
Harrist, Robert, The Art Bulletin
JAMES ELKINS Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press/National University of Singapore Press, 2010. 180 pp.: 28 b/vv ills. $45.00
FRANÇOIS JULLIEN The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject through Painting Translated from the French by JaneMarie Todd Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2009. 263 pp.: 7 b/w ills. $48.00
These books, by James Elkins and François Jullien. address profound issues in the study of Chinese painting. Neither author is a specialist in this field, but their books challenge those who are to examine closely fundamental premises that have shaped all attempts, in China and in the West, to write the history of Chinese art.
In Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, Elkins argues that all an history, whatever its subject and wherever its origin, is Western. The characteristic concerns of the discipline and its institutional structure in academe originated in the West, and any piece of writing that does not address diese concerns nor lit within this structure would not be recognizable as art history. He tests these assertions through an investigation of texts on Chinese landscape painting, reiving heavily on the work of James Cahill for the broad outline of the history of this genre. Elkins concludes tha no matter how selfreflexive or sophisticated, and no matter how deeply informed by theoretical perspectives, all art historical accounts of Chineselandscape painting are inescapably Western.
Any effort to assess Elkin's book must negotiate a booby trap set for those who would question his arguments. He alerts the reader that "it should not be forgotten that the machinery of doubt that might so easily dismantle the argument I am about to begin might also be set in motion by a desire to maintain the kinds of writing we produce under the name "art history.'. . . But what motives . . . would underwrite such a critique?" (p. 56). There lurks about this rhetorical question the hint that anyone who disagrees with Elkins might do so out of suspect ideological motives, if not simply out of a species of fogeyism committed to art historical business as usual. There is no doubt that Elkins's book displays brilliance, erudition, and industry. Its value, however, for anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese landscape painting, or how its history has been formulated, is limited, not because the author is noi a specialist and cannot read sources in Chinese - facts he mentions repeatedly - but because his arguments are frusiratingly circular, "like a snake biting its tail," as Elkins acknowledges near the end of the book (p. 137).
A vast body of artist's biographies, critical commentaries, collectors' notes, and many other forms of writing about painting were produced in China before the early twentieth century. These differ, as Elkins correctly points out, from modern efforts to chronicle hisiory of art in China that have been shaped by the emergence in Europe. in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of the discipline of art history. In the case of art historical analysis of Chinese landscape' painting, which for Elkins means almost exclusively painting by nonprofessional scholar-amateurs known as literati, the Western origins of art history create a disturbing interpretative barrier that falls between the art historian and the objects of his study, in China or elsewhere. This barrier is detectable in comparisons the art historian makes, consciously or unconsciously, between works of art originating in China and works of Western art around which the edifice of art history has been built. But. whereas an art historian such as Erwin Panofsky could take comfort in being part of an unbroken cultural tradition thai linked him to the art of Europe he studied, no such comfort, Elkins believes, is available to anyone tackling the history of Chinese art (p. 65). This is not, as Elkins sees it, primarily a question of lhe place of birth, ethnicity, or cultural-linguistic identity of the art historian but an insurmountable problem posed by the Westernness of the enterprise of art history. …