Book Analysis: Chinese Landscape Painting As Western Art History By James Elkins

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Human beings attempt to gain insights into something new and unfamiliar by making comparisons with already known concepts. The book “Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History” offers thoughts about the Chinese art through the lens of Western art. Such an approach damages both the Western and Chinese art. Elkins conducted a qualitative study on a large number of publications authored by leading Western art historians in the 20th Century that focused on Chinese art. His analysis of these publications revealed inefficiencies associated with the application of Western art historical method to understand art from other non-Western cultures. The publications were biased towards the descriptions provided by the Western art that poorly presented the Chinese landscape paintings. Besides, the present study of art history has adopted a Westernized standpoint in its understanding of unfamiliar art. In an effort to examine the book, it is necessary to determine whether the application of western methods of art analysis is productive and appropriate.

Elkins’ ideologies focused on presenting and understanding art beyond the Western traditions. In his introductory segment, the author agrees that the use of Western art to understand the art of non-Western art history undermines them. As an outsider with little proficiency in the Chinese language and a deeper understanding of the Chinese culture, one is deprived of an opportunity to make informed inferences pertinent to the Chinese art. The author notes that many Chinese art specialists will consider him as lacking the desired background knowledge on Chinese art which deprives him of the competency to vividly understand and present Chinese art. The author’s premises of interpreting Chinese art tends to refute earlier interpretations from art historians. He notes that “The history of Western Art is deeply related to the enterprise of art history itself, so much so that the history of Chinese landscape painting tends to appear as an example or as a set of possible examples, and not a co-equal in the production or understanding of art history itself”. This exposes the insignificance accorded to Chinese art. While the presumption is that the interpretations are meant to provide an understanding of the Chinese art, it does so without offering meaningful insights. Art history is based on a set of rules that guide comparisons between a known and unknown art styles and periods. However, these rules are heavily biased towards the Western art. When they are utilized to provide insights into art styles from non-Western culture such as the Chinese art, they fail to accurately present the art. However, the author provides a case for the feasibility and continued utilization of comparisons to present art that are originally non-Western. He notes that “the question is how it is feasible, within a given disciplinary practice, to manage the comparisons that continue to give us our art and our history.

There is a moral to be drawn, I think, about not running from comparisons”. This transcript merely advocates for use of comparisons to gain insights of art that is unfamiliar. He deems it as the only viable and respectful approach towards gaining insights of unfamiliar art. However, it should be conducted in a manner that does not imply that the concerned artist and his or her art are bound by the Western culture and its interpretation of art. Moreover, he notes that “the project of writing art history is Western, and so any history of Chinese landscape painting is partly fundamentally a Western endeavour, even if it is written by a Chinese historian, in Chinese, for Chinese readers”. The supposition articulates that art history is a Western affair that is not based in China. Therefore, it is an act that should be guided by the rules governing the Western art history. However, the art historian is encouraged to undertake this act in a decent manner that respects the history, value and relevance attached to the non-Western art. The author offers insights into the Western art historians, especially interactions with unfamiliar art from China. Consequently, it vividly describes that Western art historians interpret Chinese art based on their overly biased Westernized rules governing art history. However, it fails consider that non-Western cultures such as China have their own approaches to interpret art. Consequently, it becomes difficult to provide an informed interpretation of Chinese art. While the author offered a feasibility premise of utilizing Western art history rules to guide the interpretation of Chinese art, it is a misleading approach. The approach reduces the Chinese art to the periphery by failing to consider its usefulness. While the book has its own misgivings, it is equipped with positive tendencies that make up for a well-written and organized book. Firstly, the author provided well-reasoned and developed arguments that support the underlying messages. For instance, he provides a well-reasoned rationale for the continued use of the rules of Western art history to govern the interpretation of art from non-Western cultures such as China. Secondly, the organization of the book is well undertaken. It is a well-written book that is equipped with numerous well-reasoned parts that reinforce the authors underlying messages. The authors relied on the previous publications on Chinese art from numerous historians to derive his inferences.

In conclusion, the book provides insights into Western art historians, especially their ability to engage Chinese art. As a result, it highlights the problematic approach that Western art historians employ to interpret Chinese art. The book argues for the continued use of comparisons to interpret non-Western art because it is a Western affair that does not affect the Chinese. Moreover, it touches on the boundaries of the Western art history because it exposes the flaws associated with the process. Besides, it seeks to re-evaluate the common comparison approach utilized to interpret non-western cultures such as China.

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