Friday, November 2, 2007


Up to now, my blogs have been occasioned by additions or changes to my website. Some of those are indeed underway, and will be announced soon. But today I want to write, for a change, a commentary on a large issue in our field.

In Berkeley last week I attended a book party given by Danny Goldstine, an old friend, for Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, to celebrate the publication of his new book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, a history of 20th century music. We were all given copies of the book, and I have read the first three chapters-and, in spite of a few quibbles, like it very much. It is unabashedly narrative, and praised as that in the jacket blurbs, which see it as "cultural history the way cultural history should be written: a single strong narrative operating on many levels at once," and as a book that "reads like a sprawling, intense novel . . ." It is reportedly climbing on the non-fiction bestseller lists.

Back in 1999 I gave a lecture at Princeton in which I lamented our Chinese painting field's having abandoned the writing of chronological, developmental art history before a really good history of the early periods, especially, had been written-in my much-quoted analogy," It's as though we had abandoned the practice of architecture before we had built our city." When the lecture was published in Archives of Asian Art (LV, 2005) two younger colleagues, Jerome Silbergeld and Bob Harrist, wrote very good responses, behind both of which, however, was an unstated objection: "But we're not doing narrative art history any more-we don't recognize artistic revolutions." Betraying myself as still mired in older-generational practice, I had followed the well-established pattern of seeing certain developments in Yuan-dynasty landscape painting as constituting an artistic revolution, and had proposed a new way of thinking about it. Around the same time, at a one-day conference on "Chinese Painting Studies in Postwar America" organized by Jason Kuo at the University of Maryland on Nov. 13, 2005, Rick Vinograd presented a thoughtful and perceptive paper titled "Narrative and Meta-narrative in Chinese Painting Studies" in which he saw the narrative mode of writing as attractive but definitely outmoded. (I hope his paper will be published in a volume based on the conference that Jason is planning.)

The appearance and success of Alex Ross's book revives in me some hope: perhaps narrative art history has been written off too soon? Anyone who has lived as long as I has read and heard pronouncements that such-and-such a practice was dead, finished, and then watched the supposed deceased rise again, healthy and forward-looking. We were once told, for instance, that traditional tonic music was gone forever-from here on it was going to be atonal, twelve-tone. No question, no going back. Tell that now to John Adams.

Ross identifies the musical compositions and performances that changed the history of music, such as Richard Strauss's Salome; and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and builds his narrative around them. He is perfectly aware that they made up only a tiny fraction of the music being composed and performed at that time; he recognizes them as the historically significant works that affected how music was written afterwards. I don't remember whether he uses the word "revolution," but it doesn't matter, that's what he's writing about. And the acceptance and success of his book (he must have been told, in his early education in Berkeley, that "narrative music history is dead") gives me hope that eventually some historian of Chinese painting, perhaps at a late stage in her career, will decide to write, at last, a really good history of early landscape, or of Song painting. And for every severe theoretician who objects: But we aren't doing narrative art history any more! there will be ten readers who think: Great! Thank god that's over!

For now, an example of one of the alternatives to narrative art history can be read in Jonathan Hay's "Intervention" in the latest Art Bulletin (Sept. '07). Having failed totally to keep up with new theoretical developments in cultural studies, I found most of it unintelligible-this in spite of my general admiration for Jonathan and his writings, especially his very fine Shitao book. But among the writers of the responses that follow his piece, the three who are top-class Chinese art specialists don't seem much more able to penetrate his theoretical arguments-for the most part they write, sensibly, about matters they understand, responding to his drawing of the political and cultural context of the painting under consideration (the Kansas City "Li Cheng"), or objecting (as I would) to his too-early (late 10th century) dating of it, or to his attributing it to an artist from whom no work survives (a practice for which he could claim precedents in writings by his teacher Richard Barnhart and his teacher Wen Fong.) Jim Elkins, who does follow (and contribute to) cutting-edge art theory, is able to respond to the theoretical issues in Jonathan's paper in a properly critical way. All of which inspires a curious thought: maybe--if we think of the theoretical/methodological apparatuses in people's minds as like word-processing programs--we should, ideally, identify and choose respondents in whom are installed the same programs as underlie the writing they are responding to. An unrealizable ideal, I suppose. And, as I think more about it, wrong-headed: newer thinking in response to old, or older responding to newer, is itself enlightening, exposing gulfs between our basic assumptions besides arguing the issues.