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Saturday, March 31st, 2012

“A Pure and Remote View”: James Cahill on Scholarship and the Web

artcritical’s PERSONNEL FILE series takes readers behind the scenes to meet the professionals shaping the art worlds – in fact, the many worlds of the market, museums,  education, and in the case of veteran historian of Chinese and Japanese art James Cahill, of scholarship.  Our contributing editor David Carrier caught up with Professor Cahill recently to discuss the massive and ambitious project of posting his  lectures to the web.

Xia Gui (1195–1224) Pure and Remote View.  Landscape hand roll, partial view.  National Palace Museum, Taipei
Xia Gui (1195–1224) Pure and Remote View. Landscape hand roll, partial view. National Palace Museum, Taipei

Jim, you have had a stellar career in the field of Asian art history.  You served for a number of years as a museum curator, at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, until 1965 when you moved to Berkeley where you retired in 1995.  You’ve pretty much received every prize the College Art Association offers.

Yes, and the Freer Medal last year, equivalent for my field of a Nobel Prize!

Congratulations.  How would you characterize your scholarly interests?

I have been, for some sixty years now, an art historian specializing in Chinese painting—secular painting mainly, since I never mastered the doctrines and iconography of Buddhism beyond the superficial level. I have also written extensively about Japanese painting, especially the school called Nanga (“Southern School painting”) which tried to take the Ming-Qing painting of China as its model.

Tell us a bit about the scope of your publications.

I am the author of a dozen or so published books, including book-length exhibition catalogs, several of them done with graduate student input, and numerous articles in learned journals. My books have been translated into many languages; in China, books published under my Chinese name Gao Juhan are extremely popular, selling in the tens of thousands.

So, I’m intrigued to know how the body of new material posted to your website, builds upon your publications?

It substitutes, in a way, for a book I never wrote. I intended, when I had completed my series on later (Ming-Qing) Chinese painting, to go back and do the early periods, backwards from Southern Song—and that first volume would be titled “A Pure and Remote View,” after the great landscape hand scroll by Xia Gui (a section of which opens and closes all the lectures in this first series.) But I was pulled away from this plan by the series of invitations to do endowed lecture series—Norton Lectures at Harvard, others at Columbia, Harvard again, University of Kansas, University of Southern California – which were published as books on big special themes, instead of the period-art-history books I had planned. I never got back to those.

James Cahill, courtesy UC Berkeley
James Cahill, courtesy UC Berkeley

You’ve published many books, why is this latest material published on the web instead? Does that way of thinking involve any general view of the future of art book publishing?

Quick answer: I wasn’t ready, at my age and weakened condition, to take on another book, with all the fuss of getting permissions, dealing with an editor, etc. Longer answer: I was attracted by the idea of being able to show my viewers all the visual materials (mostly from digitized slides) I wanted to, all  in color, no limits – this after spending decades producing books with highly restricted number of illustrations (plates) and even fewer color plates. We show many thousands of images, including lots of close-in details of paintings. Between my own old slide collection, very extensive, and that of my old department, I probably have access to more of these materials (slides mostly) than anyone else living.

There are over forty hours of the “Pure and Remote View” lectures. The first lecture at my website has already been watched more than three thousand times. They are also accessible on the  website of our sponsoring organization, the Institute of East Asian Studies at U.C.  Berkeley.

A second series, to be titled “Gazing Into the Past,” with lectures devoted to particular Chinese (and some Japanese) artists and paintings of the later (post-Song) period, will begin going up on the web soon. I have already completed a dozen or so of the lectures of this series in draft, and mean to continue making and posting them as long as I am able.

Specialists will of course look at your website as a matter of course. Could you say something, however, about what the many people interested in the art of China who are not experts will find there?

I have always argued against the idea that Chinese painting is an esoteric art that requires some background in Asian philosophies and religions for its appreciation. Anyone who watches the first lecture (or any of the others) comes quickly to realize that I am presenting a pictorial art quite as visually rewarding as any they know in their own familiar tradition. Non-specialists, that is—as I know from numerous responses—will be as visually rewarded, even excited, as they have been previously by the works of their favorite artists: Picasso, Degas, van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, Botticelli, whoever.

Ernst Gombrich believed that European painting of the Renaissance and after was the only time that artists have, in his words, “striven systematically, through a succession of generations, step by step to approximate their images to the visible world and achieve likenesses that might deceive the eye.” But I would counterthat with another, earlier tradition equally fits that pattern: Chinese painting through the Song when artists produced deeply moving and philosophically grounded paintings that rank, in my view, among the greatest works of man.

Is your material accessible also to Chinese audiences since the web there is censored.

One very popular website in China, called Tudou (Potato), has posted my lectures and thus made them accessible (they are also on YouTube but Chinese don’t have ready access to that). We are negotiating with organizations in China about the possibility of their sponsoring our project and posting the lectures.

As a veteran scholar, what hopes have you for the future of art history in China?

Great hopes—as indeed I have for the future of China as a whole.  It is too great a culture to continue forever under such harsh restrictions. I hope to live to see the emancipation. Art history in China is presently plagued by a widespread adherence to the “verbal” faction in what they term the visual-verbal controversy—to an art history, that is, based mainly in reading written materials and producing more of them—theory, criticism, a text-reader’s art history–rather than in looking seriously at the works of art themselves. We hope to better that situation both by offering an attractive model for visual art history and by making the materials (images) accessible to everybody. We plan to issue the lectures also on sets of disks, with some provision for downloading the images on them.

I really want to stress my gratitude to the Tang Research Foundation whose director first encouraged me to undertake this project, and has funded it since then, and also to Rand Chatterjee, who has transformed what I originally envisioned (a simple filming of my old slide-lectures, in effect) into what is really a new medium, ideally suited for presenting images and ideas together in ways that are both visually and intellectually exciting. And, best of all, unlike the commercial lecture-series operations, we can present them for free viewing by anyone at any time. With proper publicity we can expand our viewership, and all these benefits, to huge numbers of people all over the world.

I am now 85 years old, a few months from being 86. I am still more or less OK in the head, but running down badly every place else. When I write about old-age styles of artists I note that their late paintings tend to lose depth, become flattened out. I hope the same will not be true of my lectures.