Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 8, 2019
Craig Clunas Chinese Painting and Its Audiences Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. 320 pp.; 200 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Hardcover $60.00 (9780691171937)

Craig Clunas opens the introduction to Chinese Painting and Its Audiences with a monumental understatement: it is a book that some might feel has “a narrow focus, but it has somewhat wider aims” (1). The published form of the 2012 A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences is neatly structured into six chapters. It starts with an introductory “Beginning and Ending” that confronts the reader with the prospect that Chinese painting, as an ontological entity, is a fabrication, a subjective construction determined by an outsider’s perspective, and follows with chapters centered on five internal perspectives, or audiences: “The Gentleman,” “The Emperor,” “The Merchant,” “The Nation,” and “The People.” Clunas states that his book “is not a survey but an argument” (1). Nonetheless, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences is chronological, and as such his argument builds into what might be described as an alternative history—not a history of painting, per se, but a history of subjective responses to painting. Given the book’s problematizing the definition of Chinese painting from the beginning and its historical span of more than a millennium, it does not take the reader long to recognize that this indeed is a book with wide aims.

Actually, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences is audaciously ambitious, and the fact that it reads as well as it does speaks to the immense talents of its author. Clunas navigates his narrative artfully, drawing from what seems to be an endlessly capacious chest of materials, research (his and others), and observations to draw ideas along largely unpredictable routes. The topical neatness of his chapter headings notwithstanding, the book grows increasingly freeform as it moves closer to our own centuries. “The Gentleman” begins the narrative in the fifteenth century with what comes across as the least interesting and sympathetic of audiences, the educated elite, commonly known by the appellation “literati.” By focusing on paintings of people looking at paintings (“meta-paintings”), which here, in part, belong to the “four elegant pastimes” genre, Clunas presents the literati as an audience whose interest is less in the paintings than in the pretension of being interested. It is, after all, their “elegance” that is being portrayed. This handy but decidedly selective presentation of the literati plays well with one of the book’s overarching themes—that the determination of what constituted “Chinese painting” owed much to the oversized influence the literati wielded over all things cultural. As for revealing how the literati functioned as an audience of painting, however, it tells us little.

Citing W. J. T. Mitchell, Clunas sets as his goal the investigation of the relationality of image and beholder. Shifting focus from the artist to the object, and with the admitted intention of making pictures “less scrutable, less transparent” (2), Mitchell asks, what does the picture want from its audience? Nothing, one responds, since objects do not want. But their makers do, and to the degree that an investigation of the audience opens insights into the making of objects, exploration of spectatorship is worth pursuing. Otherwise, what we are left with belongs more to the domain of the sociologist. Despite the fact that the literati, as both practitioners of and commentators on painting, provided the closest of maker-audience relationships, Clunas willfully keeps this connection at arm’s length in his treatment of the Gentleman, as he is determined to expand painting’s purview to include the excluded—works potentially of “limited quality” that nonetheless may tell us important things about audiences and viewing practices. This becomes clear in retrospect, as the other audiences of emperor, merchant, nation, and people are explored by Clunas in concert with an exceptionally wide range of pictorial imagery. The heart of the book lies with these chapters, and it is no coincidence that they coordinate with a period, from the eighteenth century to the near present, of increasing globalization.

The centerpiece of “The Emperor” is Qianlong (r. 1735–96), who employed painting in “a political and cultural program of unparalleled thoroughness and completeness” (90). As an audience of one, Qianlong was, to say the least, engaged. He viewed and inscribed on a massive scale old paintings and calligraphies that his court zealously collected. In this, his spectatorship resembles that of the literati, but the imperial viewer acted according to different rules from the literati and on a very different stage. Qianlong was not only an active audience, he was the center, the focal point of every engagement. Clunas provides sharp insights regarding the many and various images of Qianlong produced at his court. Most intriguing are the well-known copper plate etchings of European-style palaces in the Yuanming yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) in which the emperor is not physically shown but his viewing presence is implied by an exaggerated application of one-point perspective. We view as he viewed, and in visceral fashion we sense the agential power of the imperial audience, to whom all things are made to come. With Qianlong, the triadic relationship of maker, object, and spectator is multi-tangled. Clunas excels with these materials, and he relishes working through complexities derived from the emperor’s ambitious and sometimes mind-twisting visual regime. As imperial figures go, however, Qianlong was a special case. The chapter is not about imperial audiences; it is about one specific emperor as interpreted by one strong and occasionally speculative voice.

In the later chapters, the driving nature of Clunas’s narrative becomes increasingly apparent as his audiences become increasingly abstract. Discussion of the Merchant could use more focus—the real subject here is commerce, which lends itself well to the book’s dutiful chronological structure and catholic approach to all things pictorial but not to a specific position of spectatorship. And how does one write productively about the Nation as an audience? Or the People? These two chapters bring Chinese Painting and Its Audiences into the first and second halves of the twentieth century, respectively, and proximity brings with it the messy noise of unwinnowed history. Yet, here we find the author at his best. Availing himself of a vast range of images, including many archival photographs, Clunas creates elegant discourses with sharp focus and enjoyable detail. Under the interlocked pressures of imperialism and modernity in the late Qing and early Republican periods, the Nation emerges less an audience than a collective motivation. Fixated on how an essentialized definition of Chinese painting emerged under these conditions, Clunas sketches a “nationalistic visuality,” citing Karl Gerth’s term to describe a culturally constructed vision to distinguish the foreign from the domestic (178). The People, similarly, is an abstraction, though one that operates in almost antithetical fashion, structured by Communist ideology and imposed by the autocratic state. The notion of audience gets muddled in this final substantive chapter, but perhaps that is fitting for art produced during the first decades of the People’s Republic, when who painted what for whom was strictly regulated, and “people” was a euphemism for the State. The chapter ends with a painting by Zheng Ziyan done in 1975, shortly after Clunas first arrived in China as a student. Zheng was a member of what later became known as the No Name Group, a label that suits well the author’s mission to call into question the validity of labels, especially those that define what is or is not Chinese painting. A short Conclusion written with the personal, self-reflective tone found at the end of the previous chapter brings Chinese Painting and Its Audiences to a close.

The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts were established to bring the best in contemporary scholarship to the public, a charge that no doubt weighs heavily on the honorees. With Chinese Painting and Its Audiences, Clunas rises to the challenge. The book is immensely informative, stunning in its range, and dense in argument. It is also clear in its logic and aims and elegantly written. As all good lecturing art historians know, one’s ideas must be well illustrated, and in this regard, Chinese Painting and Its Audiences is especially successful: text and image work in seamless synergy. The accompanying illustrations are not only generous in number and beautifully reproduced, they are often of novel objects and unexpected images. That, of course, makes sense for one who is keen to break barriers and contest categories. Like all good arguments that seek to persuade, there are deliberate emphases and omissions that beg closer scrutiny, but these are the prerogative of the author, especially given the special circumstances of the Mellon lectures. Clunas takes on an awful lot with this book. Under optimal conditions, investigating the relationality of image and beholder is already challenging—a journey with no clear roadmap. Attempting this on the scale set out in Chinese Painting and Its Audiences is, frankly speaking, hard to envision let alone complete. If only for the effort, immense credit is due, but the book is much more: it challenges, entertains, provokes, and educates, and it does so with a voice that is remarkably distinctive. Chinese Painting and Its Audiences is a book we will be learning from, arguing with, and, above all, enjoying for many years. 

Peter C. Sturman
Professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara

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