Before I begin my brief remarks on connoisseurship in Chinese art, especially in painting, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere gratitude to the Shanghai Museum and its supportive group, the American Friends of the Shanghai Museum -- not only because they saw fit to bestow upon me this great honor of the Award, but also because they have given me a chance that I have been long waiting for to pay my humble respects publicly to three of my great teachers: Professor Benjamin Rowland at the Fogg Museum, who initiated my journey of apprenticeship across the vast virgin land of Asian art, from India through Central Asia, to China and Japan; Professor Kenneth Chen at the Harvard-Yenching, who guided me through my research and shaped my thinking on Chinese, Japanese and European traditions of Buddhist studies; and my mentor, the great historian of modern China, Ch'en Yin-k'o, who secretly arranged to send me to the United States to attend Harvard in order to undertake a career called "art historian" -- something I had never heard of before I reached the shores of America at the end of 1950.
Secondly, I would like to draw attention to a few mistakes and omissions in the publications list which will be later revised.
And now, connoisseurship.
In the past twenty years or so, connoisseurship has been at the center of a cultural and intellectual dilemma which has divided the field of art history into bitterly opposing groups: those who are for connoisseurship, and those who are against it. Those who are opposed to traditional connoisseurship denounce it as one of the true signs of cultural elitism -- which, in my opinion, is a misplaced criticism, an arbitrary separation of "object" and "theory," and the kind of moral distortion remarked upon by the poet Su Shih almost a thousand years ago when he said: "Every time a unified field of study is forced to split, the opportunists become more and more clever in disguising their falsehoods."
I am glad that in fact we have no need to be involved in this endless debate between the traditional connoisseurs and the art theorists -- between "what to see" and "how to see." Nor do we need to adopt wholesale my former esteemed colleague Sherman Lee's position on the question of whether the eye can be trained to see a work of art as art. He famously came to the negative conclusion that one cannot educate the eye if one is not born with it. This statement is true, but only 75% true. Sherman himself used to call Tung Ch'i-ch'ang a bad painter, not seeing at first the unique qualities in Tung's paintings. But a few years later, he was willing to pay the highest price ever paid for a Ming painting -- for Tung Ch'i-ch'ang's masterpiece "Ch'ing-pien Mountain." This act of courage shows that even connoisseurship at its most sophisticated level can be cultivated.
But connoisseurship is only one out of three components that make up the credentials of an art historian. What I remember from the first lecture given by Professor Paul Sachs at Harvard in his legendary graduate course Fine Arts 15a, created in 1922 and entitled "Museum Work and Museum Problems," still holds true. He defined an art historian as having three roles: art critic first, connoisseur second, and historian of art third. The art critic looks for quality. If, in the first glance at an object, he is not attracted by any sign of quality, he needn't bother with a second look. The first glance is all-important, because it saves the critic from time and effort wasted on writing long articles on poor copies or dubious works.
Once the object has passed this crucial preliminary test for quality, then the connoisseur may enter in to play his role of scholarly detective, censor and judge. The connoisseur can proceed to ask questions about authenticity, dating, authorship, provenance, and other external elements such as the artist's seals and signatures, the collectors' inscriptions, etc.
Finally we get to the third role, that of the historian of art. The job of the art historian is to put all these findings together in the proper historical perspective so that any possible meaning or individual message of the work can be rescued from the dust of time and evaluated in the larger picture of art history.
In China, connoisseurship is still considered a part of traditional Sinology, in particular, a part of chin-shih hsueh, or the study of inscriptions on bronze vessels and stone steles.
An example of this type of study is my recent article on the celebrated Trubner Stele in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which depends heavily on an exhaustive survey of the local gazetteers from the counties along two rivers between Honan and Shantung provinces as a means of determining the most likely site of the original temple. When I finally identified the name of the temple, Fung-ch'ung tzu, I was then able to reconstruct the history of its major patrons during the late sixth century in the Eastern Wei and Northern Ch'i periods, and compare this history against the inscription on the stele. This comparison not only confirmed my strong doubts about the authenticity of the stele, but also led to a much broadened investigation tracing the footprints of the conspiracy between officials of the local government and forgers and art dealers during the First World War, around 1915.
A specialist in chin-shih hsueh is mainly interested in engraved inscriptions for their documentary value in historical studies, or for their aesthetic value in the study of calligraphy. Too often, however, such a literary approach to connoisseurship tends to be unduly influenced by political or social biases, or religious prejudices. For example, it is not an exaggeration to say that 95% of traditional Chinese connoisseurs do not appreciate or understand figure painting, simply because their Confucianist contempt for religious art prevents them from keeping an open mind. Their ignorance of Buddhist and Taoist painting traditions has left practically a total blank in their understanding of Chinese figural art, including Buddhist and Taoist sculpture. That is why a true scholar-connoisseur in sculpture has become such a rarity in curatorial circles in recent years, and also why questionable pieces of so-called Yun-kang and Lung-men sculpture have become main attractions in auction houses, or even museum galleries.
This is not to say, however, that there is no interest now in religious art. Buddhist iconography is a popular subject of study in university classrooms, but the mechanical application of text-book iconography just creates dead ends for scholarship in the developmental history of Buddhist art. So, for instance, in order to fully understand figural art of the T'ang and Sung periods, a knowledge of dance steps and dance design introduced through Central Asian drama -- dramas such as "Sariputra's Encounter" and "Maitreya's Meeting," the texts of which were discovered in Chinese Turkestan some years ago -- could prove much more vital to the appreciation of Liu Tsung-yan's or Liang K'ai's peculiar movements of the brush than a boring recital of the Tibetan Buddhist code of proportion, or Tun-huang measurement formulas. The great Northern Sung critic Mi Fu had long been aware of such significances though he was later ridiculed for it by the Southern Sung philosopher Chu Hsi.
In short, true connoisseurship lies in the less-than-obvious -- so that, small details in a painting such as the relative positions of eyes and eyebrows, the nose ridge and jen-chung, or even the internal structure of the "ear leaf" -- these are the seemingly small details in a portrait that could be the most decisive factors in distinguishing an 8th-century T'ang face from its 9th-century variations.
Traditional connoisseurship in the mode of chin-shih hsueh has served me well in my curatorial career, both in its fascination with artists' and collectors' seals, and in its insistence on determining the reliability of literary sources. The former helped me to discover some long-forgotten masters such as Lo Tzu-chuan of the Yuan dynasty, who used to be mislabeled as Kuo Hsi -- a hanging scroll formerly in the Wang Chi-ch'ien collection and attributed to Kuo Hsi is now relabeled in the Metropolitan Museum.
But the connoisseur's quest is not always successful. Now I find that I have only a few more minutes left to complain about my frustrations as a failed investigator. One of the most perplexing and puzzling cases involving collector's seals is one involving the seal which reads "Tsa-ch'en hua-shih chih yin" to be found in Japanese collections of Sung painting. Most Japanese collectors believe that the seal belonged to the Ashikaga family during the Muromachi period. I have been skeptical about this theory for many years, as I firmly believed that the only possible literary source for this seal is a famous letter written by Ch'iu Ch'i to a renegade general in the late fifth century, which contains the four characters on the seal, and which, in the letter, have an implied meaning which is utterly incompatible with the history of an Ashikaga ruler. But what does this knowledge possibly show us about the owner of the seal? I chose this example to illustrate the frustration of a connoisseur whose insights may not always be useful.
On the other hand, some seemingly more complicated cases may prove to be much more ready for an easy solution. For example, the handscroll depicting the theme of the Kuan-yin bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra is known to be a fine Muromachi copy of a Chinese original. Because the colophon on the painting has been misread and misinterpreted, the name of the original artist was never known, even after the painting was acquired several years ago by the Metropolitan Museum. As a matter of fact, the history of the Fan-lung school of Southern Sung Buddhist painting, written by the poet Lu Yu in 1207, and available in his complete literary works, makes reference to the artist of the Metropolitan painting, Chih-yeh, who belonged to the Fan-lung school.
I have tried to limit my discussion to a very small and relatively unimportant area of connoisseurship, with the hope that it may give some idea both of its endless scope and of the varying degrees of its effectiveness. In order to continue tonight's discussion, it seems not a bad idea to conduct a seminar at the Shanghai Museum some time this fall during my visit -- at which some of you, I hope, will be able to participate. I look forward to it. Shanghai is a wonderful city for a reunion.
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