A Matter of Interpretation: Is All Art History Western Art History?

It’s human nature to try to understand something new by comparing it to something we already know. We always interpret the present based on past experience. But when we make that interpretation via comparison, are we being fair to the new experience, or the old one, for that matter? “Comparisons are like mercury,” writes art theorist James Elkins in his controversial new book, Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, “the big blobs can be cut and divided into little droplets, but they can never be entirely dissolved away. Even the tiniest atomized droplets, which seem so isolated, can be virulent.” That virulence stems from each comparison containing “a microcosm of assumptions,” in this case about how we view Chinese art through the lens of Western art. In Elkins view, the use of Western examples to understand non-Western art, including Chinese art, does a disservice to both fields. Perhaps even worse, the very study of art history itself is incurably Western thanks to the infection of past practice. How then do we ever understand art beyond the Western tradition?


Elkins admits his book is a messy affair in a long introduction detailing his 20-year odyssey of steering the manuscript into publication. Calling all art history Western art history undermines all non-Western art history. Elkins, an admitted outsider to Chinese art study who speaks and reads little Chinese, realizes that Chinese art specialists will push back hard against him as an ill-informed outsider. University of Toronto Chinese art specialist Jennifer Purtle represents those disgruntled specialists in a foreword to Elkins’ book that is almost comically condemning and praising at once. “This book is brilliant,” Purtle exclaims, “except for the places where it is dead wrong.” Although Elkins’ erroneousness stems from his lack of a Chinese art background, Purtle is intellectually honest enough to see the diamonds in the rough philosophical territory Elkins ventures across. This book won’t tell you much about Chinese art history, per se, but it will get you thinking about it nonetheless and, by extension, all art history practice. Purtle calls Elkins an “interlocutor” in this book rather than an instructor. “His text is illuminating,” she concludes, “especially when it is right, but even when it is wrong.” That “damn the torpedoes” approach by Elkins makes for often frustrating but never boring scholarship.

Elkins begins by reviewing the past practice of comparing Western art figures to Chinese artists. Michelangelo’s Study for the Libyan Sibyl stands next to Wu Tao-tzu’s Flying Devil. Kandinsky’s idea of “inner resonance” in art finds a kin in the concept of qi. But, ultimately, Elkins asserts, “you cannot compare Shen Zhou and Van Gogh, or Caspar David Friedrich and Ma Yuan, as several writers have done, without fairly seriously misrepresenting the artists on both sides of the equations.” The convenience of labels such as “Baroque” or “Romantic” fail to capture the essence of the artists they were originally conceived for; so, applied to artists literally foreign to the tradition, they fail even more tragically and, perhaps, destructively.

If there’s a supervillain lurking behind the scenes of this problem for Elkins, it’s Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel’s integrating philosophy of opposites coming into some coherent whole haunts most practices of history, including art history. “Hegelian ideas about the meliorist progress of historical periods and the linking of phenomena within a single period drive art historical narratives in all specialties,” Elkins writes. “[T]he shadow of Hegel on contemporary scholarship is so large it is largely invisible.” It’s that invisible Hegel on our shoulder that whispers the Romantic hopes of bringing disparate facts together into a coherent whole—whispers so soft and comforting that we barely realize we’re still listening.

Perhaps the most destructive aspect of this lingering listening to Hegelian hopes comes when we just can’t make attract opposites into a whole. Elkins sees many narratives of Chinese art ending with the 17th century artist Dong Qichang—a Picasso-esque figure who gobbled up influences from the Chinese tradition and issued forth his own vision (one example above). Somehow, everything after Dong Qichang fails to resound with art historians. “In the twentieth century all the elan is lost, and in every domain of art one finds only topor and decline,” Elkins quotes from a history of Chinese art that covers the 19th century in a page and the 20th century in that lone, woeful sentence. “It is impossible, I think,” Elkins mourns, “to overestimate the oddity of this elision. Its precise parallel in the West would be a four-hundred-page volume on European art with two pages on painting since Jacques-Louis David, culminating in a single, intensely derogatory sentence on the art of the last hundred years.” But why is modern (and not so modern) Chinese art dismissed so powerfully? Elkins believes that comparisons drawing parallels between older, traditional Chinese art and modern Western art have left Chinese art with nowhere to go. Somehow they’ve reached “postmodernism” too soon, with nothing of interest left, or so the story goes. In effect, art history silences modern Chinese art for ruining the neat narrative set up over the years.

So, where does that leave art history itself to go? Elkins offers no solutions. To step outside the Westernized, Hegelian realm of art history as we know it is to stop practicing art history entirely. Such writing becomes pure poetry or literature along the lines of Vasari’s Lives—more agenda driven mythology than dispassionate analysis. Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History raises more questions than it answers, making for often frustrating reading, but it’s that discomfort that forces us to reevaluate the comfortable assumptions we commonly make about art of our own and other cultures. Elkins’ writes an uncommon book of discomforting ideas that might just be crazy enough to work as a primer for a new self-conscious kind of art history.

[Image: Dong Qichang. Thatched Hall (detail). 1597.]

[Many thanks to the University of Washington Press for providing me with a review copy of Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History by James Elkins, with a foreword by Jennifer Purtle.]

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