Thursday, December 2, 2010

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? Please come over to Picture This at Big Think to read more of "A Matter of Interpretation."

[Image: Dong Qichang. Thatched Hall. 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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