Friday, June 15, 2007

Art History With an Attitude

The announcement that China specialist Craig Clunas would become the new Chair of Art History at Oxford University in Oxford, England inspired me to finally read his 1997 book Art in China, which is part of the Oxford History of Art series. I’d been looking for an opportunity to read his survey (which is excellent, of course), but the real revelation was in finding an art historian with an attitude—specifically, a refreshingly open and unapologetically opinionated attitude about the real mission of art history. (Door God, an image full of attitude from the Qing Dynasty, appears above)

“This book is very deliberately called Art in China, and not Chinese Art,” Clunas writes in his introduction, “because it is written out of a distrust of the existence of any unifying principles or essences linking such a wide range of made things, things of very different types, having very different dates, very different materials, and very different makers, audiences, and contexts of use.” Clunas clearly states where he stands on the use of narratives when looking at art, calling the concept of “Chinese Art” “quite a recent invention” born “in nineteenth-century Europe and North America.” Such narratives can serve a useful purpose in teaching the broad strokes of art history, but Clunas makes the excellent point of showing how those narratives can also blur the fine detail and diversity of art, resulting in the study of a fictionally constructed concept of “art” rather than the examination of the thing itself.

Brave words, I thought to myself, but will he “walk the walk” when it comes time to survey the vast history of art in China. Right away, Clunas put me in my place in his discussion of the role of art in Chinese tomb culture. “At this point a facile connection could be made with ‘the Chinese love of antiquity,’ depicting a people somehow uniquely obsessed with interpreting their own long, illustrious past, a past conceived of as unbroken to a degree paralleled by no other civilization.” Casting aside the easily exceptionalism of this “facile connection,” Clunas instead strives “to interpret how the object was originally conceived” and accept that “we cannot know what it ‘really means.’” He finds it “preferable to accept the limits of interpretation,” believing that “this multi-centered ancient China speaks to current needs more eloquently than the cohesive monolith of older accounts.”

Clunas places his faith in the value of the art itself, free of agendas and attempts at unifying grand theories, knowing that the comfort of easy answers pales in comparison to the value of challenging ourselves to seeing the art with fresh eyes and to ask for “just the facts, ma’am.”

David Patterson of Art History Today expressed his and others’ concerns that Clunas’ appointment marked a departure from the traditional focus on the Renaissance at Oxford University towards a more Eastern-focused approach. I believe that Clunas’ specialty bears less weight in his new leadership role than his methodology, which can and should be applied to all fields of art history, opening up the windows and letting the winds of change inspire new appreciations. Of course, I was reading Clunas circa 1997, so he may have mellowed a bit in the last ten years, but I sincerely doubt it.

No comments: