Response: trapped: a Northern Song painting.

Author:Wang, Cheng-hua
Position:A Solitary Temple below Brightening Peaks
 
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Jonathan Hay's "The Mediating Work of Art" takes a famous but anonymous landscape painting of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), A Solitary Temple below Brightening Peaks (Qingluan xiaosi), as an example to chart a new direction in art historical study. (1) Through a detailed discussion of the painting, including its reconstructed provenance and context, it attempts to see the artwork as multiple layers of mediations between the artist, the viewer, and the world and thus as a node of agency that "create[s] transformative linkages between the viewer and the world in which both viewer and artwork operate." Hay proposes that the artwork not only represents social relations and power structures but also mediates "a larger ecology of existence," which includes "religious faith, philosophical understanding, poetic insight, and historical self-consciousness as well." In this sense, Hay's perspective of "art as mediations" challenges the materialistic view of the artwork and is inspired by the "radical dematerialization of the artwork in contemporary artistic practice since the 1960s." Hay tries to go beyond the perspective of "art as a social practice" or, to be more precise, art as the representation of social practices, which has been the center of the new (social) history of art since the 1970s. Accordingly, Hay suggests that art historians should reconsider the scope of the dominating concept of "representation" and bring in the recent interpretative tendency to view an artwork's objecthood--a combination of material thingness and virtual image--as the point of departure for discussion on the mediating work of art. In this vein, the painting A Solitary Temple functions as an "individuational event" in the way its singular medium (ink, light color, and silk hanging scroll) and stylistic features (brushwork, motif, and composition) performed mediating roles in the early Northern Song bureaucratic world of the scholar-official artist and viewers, as reconstructed by Hay.

While focusing on a Northern Song painting, "The Mediating Work of Art" aims at an audience much wider than scholars of Chinese art history. It is ambitious in intention, broad in scope, and sophisticated in methodology. After analyzing the stylistic features of A Solitary Temple and establishing the basic facts about the painting, such as the identities of its painter, commissioner, and viewers, it incorporates recent theoretical work on modern and contemporary art and culture in the discussion of the mediating agency of the painting, such as "individuation" by Gilles Deleuze and "forcework" by Krzysztof Ziarek. In other words, it places A Solitary Temple in the discourse of Western modern and contemporary artistic and cultural situations. Hay is not unaware of the far-flung and different context in which a Northern Song painting was situated; actually, he is highly reflexive in his position as a "Euro-American scholar" who looks at Chinese painting with his "modern Western eyes." As he concludes, he attempts to give justification to his approach in arguing for a cross-cultural history of art that can demonstrate how "the dematerialization of the artwork exceeds its contemporary context and any narrative that would tie it specifically to the history of Euro-American modernity."

Hay's aspiration to make a Chinese painting theoretically exemplary and a resource for art historical study in general is worth noting. It is also inspiring and encouraging to students of Chinese art that its study can be brought into the mainstream of English-language art historical scholarship, which has long been defined by Western art. However, this approach to Chinese art or art history in general is not without risks. One wonders whether a study of a Northern Song painting that shares its main issues with that of Western modern and contemporary art can contribute to our understanding of the specific historical context in which the painting was made, circulated, and given meaning. It is equally questionable whether a case study that does not give sufficient contextualized interpretations can deepen our understanding of the specificities and commonalities of art environments in different cultures and open up a new horizon for art historical study from a cross-cultural perspective. In other words, it seems that in the process of trying to make A Solitary Temple represent a new paradigm meaningful to all art historians--a welcome project--the painting has become trapped in a web of theories derived from the study of modern and contemporary Western art and culture.

The New Chinese Art History

In the past fifteen years, influenced by interdisciplinary and cross-cultural trends in scholarship in general, the study of Chinese art in the English-speaking academic world has drawn on discourses not only from Western art history but also from other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, addressing such topics as the problematics of consumer society, monumentality, and modernity. (2) These trends have broadened the culture-specific orientation of the study of Chinese art, which was traditionally considered an integral part of Sinology, a comprehensive term for the study of China as a cultural, historical, or political entity distinct from the other cultures in the world. Research on literati painting has long been a key manifestation of the important role that art history played in Sinology, since this category of painting was produced by the elite class in traditional China whose cultural, social, and political characteristics formed one of the main concerns in traditional Sinology. (3) In Sinology, the literati class and its literary and artistic achievements were long regarded as a critical representation of the singularity of Chinese culture; in terms of art, the autonomous status and self-expressiveness of literati painters and their works were such that no other groups of artists and artworks in the world could compare. Thus, they were treated from a culturally specific perspective. This perspective manifested itself in studies of the most important aesthetic value in literati art, the self-expressively lyrical quality in the three talents of poetry, calligraphy, and painting, traditionally extolled as the highest achievement of an artist. (4)

It is perhaps not coincidental that literati painting, once a pillar in the study of Chinese art, has received less attention in the new scholarship influenced by recent interdisciplinary and cross-cultural trends. Moreover, the recent studies of literati painting, which have noticeably decreased in number, do not follow the long-standing presuppositions about the literati class, especially regarding their artistic taste and aesthetic view. Much new scholarship instead attempts to demystify the individualistic style and self-expressive subjectivity of the painters and question the very premise of the autonomous status of the literati class. For example, as members of the elite on the local and national scenes, literati painters were inevitably enmeshed in a social network of multilayered relationships and could hardly assume self-expressiveness and autonomy in all of their artistic productions. (5)

The interdisciplinary and cross-cultural trends in the study of Chinese art have certainly brought the field to the attention of mainstream Western art historical scholarship, which has dominated the generation of theoretical frameworks and defined the scope of the discipline of art history as a whole. In the first place, some publications on the history of Chinese art have received recognition from art historians whose specializations lie outside the field of Chinese art, a welcome phenomenon one hopes will occur with more frequency in the future. (6) It is also encouraging that a scholar in Chinese art is included in the contributors to a recent anthology intended to explore key concepts, discourses, and approaches in art history. (7) While Chinese art specialists were comparatively slow to respond to semiotic theory, it seems they no longer lag behind their colleagues in Western art in integrating new cultural thinking and influential scholarly trends into their work. (8)

Chinese art history now participates in mainstream art historical discourses and addresses issues that interest art historians working in areas other than China. These discourses and issues have made possible a new kind of Chinese art history with a capacity to engage intellectual discussions beyond stylistic lineage, artistic pedigree, and iconographic study. The new Chinese art history has also foregrounded originally hidden frameworks of reference for the study of Chinese art. In fact, since the study of Chinese art was established in American academia in the 1950s, Western art has at all times been an important point of reference for scholars of Chinese art to construct their own understanding of Chinese art history. Witness, for example, the evolutionary model that was applied to demonstrate the linear development of illusionistic effect and three-dimensional structure in Chinese painting from the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) to the early Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). No matter how scholars in Chinese art have rephrased and reshaped this model, it cannot be denied that this evolutionary conception regarding Chinese painting was indebted to E. H. Gombrich's articulation of the linear development of illusionistic effect in Western painting from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century. In the Chinese model...

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