Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 15, 1999
Ding Ning Mianyan zhi wei: zouxiang yishushi zhexue (Dimensions of Duration: Toward a Philosophy of Art History) Beijing: Shenghuo Dushu Xinzhi Sanlian Shudian, 1997. 368 pp.; 23 b/w ills. $19.80

Mianyan zhi wei: zouxiang yishushi zhexue (Dimensions of Duration: Toward a Philosophy of Art History) is the first comprehensive introduction of the methodology of Western art history to a Chinese audience. Ding Ning, professor of art history at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, has focused on the revisionary writings on the theory and practice of art history that were published for the most part between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s in the Anglo-American world. The revisionist key is reflected in the author’s borrowing of the 20th-century French philosopher Henri Bergson’s time concept durée (mianyan) in the title of the book to dispel a simplistic notion of time and history derived from Darwinian evolutionism. (Henri Bergson, Duree et simultaneite: A propos de la theorie d’Einstein. Paris: Presses universitaires, 1992). The philosophical thrust is prevalent in the overall structuring of the materials and in the treatment of issues and problems of art-historical studies discussed in individual chapters.

The introduction is devoted to an argument for a philosophy of art history, pondering over the relations and tensions that exist between theory and practice and between the historical and critical dimensions of art-historical analysis. After situating the discussion on a theoretical plane, the author uses the debate over the crisis in the discipline that emerged in the 1980s as a point of entry into an examination of what he calls “contemporary Western philosophy of art history.” The first interpretive trend that received extended treatment is the psychoanalytical method. It is classified as a type of internal approach to art history focusing on the artist as the agent of artistic creation as compared to the external approach, namely, social history of art, which relates external factors—sociopolitical conditions, religious experiences, economic life, and other elements—to an explanation of the artworks and their modes of production. The author’s sustained interest in the psychology of the visual arts—Ding’s earlier book was on the subject—makes this section the best part of the chapter. The second school of thought introduced is the application of semiotics to the study of visual images as demonstrated by a group of French scholars; the writings in the Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France edited by Norman Bryson are presented as exempla of the semiotic approach.

The third chapter centers on an analysis of the feminist critique of the writing of history in general and that of art history in particular. The author’s exposition of the feminist perspective is the most systematic and thorough-going, elucidating the stages of development from the raising of the problematic “Why have there been no great women artists?” (1971) by Linda Nochlin, to the efforts to resurrect women artists and their works from the oblivion of history, to the feminist interrogation of the social institutions and political ideologies behind the “oblivion” by Griselda Pollock and others. The fourth chapter emphasizes the interdisciplinary nature of art-historical inquiry, explicating its overlapping connections with neighboring disciplines, notably psychology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, and social and political studies. However, the author points out the importance of maintaining the centrality of art as the main subject in interdisciplinary research. The dialectical character of Ding’s analysis can be grasped in the ways he organizes his arguments into such binary terms as autonomy and hybridity, multiplicity and singularity, and openness and selectivity.

The last three chapters can be viewed as a second part of the book, in which the author treats respectively the concept of the artwork, the modes of interpretation of visual images, and the problem of periodization. The arrangement of these materials after the presentation of what can be broadly designated as the New Art History is consistent with the author’s use of revisionist concept as a controlling design of the whole book. Furthermore, it is integral to the author’s aim at establishing “a philosophy of art history.” In chapter five on the concept of the artwork, an equilibrium is achieved between the view of art as an object of historical explanation and the attention to its aesthetic value. The clarification about the concept is particularly relevant to the Chinese situation. In China the study of Western art history is relatively new and not yet widely established as an academic discipline. With the exception of a few art academies in the country, major universities do not offer a curriculum in art and art history. In general, the notion of art is derived from aesthetics, which is taught in conjunction with Western philosophy in the Department of Philosophy. The concept of the artwork as the subject of art-historical inquiry must be new to the majority of the Chinese readers. In this sense, Ding’s effort is all the more meaningful. Interestingly, the author’s own tendency toward aestheticism is one factor that leads him to a rather conservative position on art preservation (pp. 68 and 202).

Throughout the whole work the influences of such writers as Norman Bryson, David Carrier, Mark Roskill, Rudolf Arnheim, and Michael Podro can be traced extensively. A more direct way of influence came in the author’s study under Podro and his earlier project of translating Bryson’s Tradition and Desire: From David to Delacroix (1996) into Chinese. Translation is never a secondary literary activity that recasts the original text for the vernacular audience, but rather a kind of intellectual and cultural crossing that carries a performative power of transformation. Ding, in Mianyan zhi wei, does more than introduce Western methodology of art history to the Chinese audience; the greater purpose in writing the book is to stimulate and transform the state of scholarship in China.

The comparative consciousness can be seen in the appendix “Issues in Comparative Art History.” Although comparative literature has advanced significantly in recent years in the area of translation and cultural studies, comparative art history is yet undeveloped and lacks a theoretical foundation. The author’s adventure into the unknown terrain is meant as a beginning to provoke further thinking along such lines as whether comparative study of specific problems in Chinese and Western art can shed light on either case, where the theoretical validity lies for such comparative inquiries and how studies of Western methodology can benefit the scholarship on Chinese art history.

The major complaint I have about the book is the little attention given to the social-economic approach to art history, which was only mentioned briefly (p. 129); works such as T. J. Clark’s writings and Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (1972) were not presented in any depth. The lesser complaints concern the quality of the illustrations, occasional typographical errors, and the lack of an index in the back. A Chinese-English glossary of the names of authors and artists, the titles of the works of art, and the names of art museums and galleries not commonly encountered would be helpful to the serious reader-researcher. The book does contain an English version of the table of contents and a bibliography of Western sources. Despite the imperfections, the vast range of materials covered by the author and the depth of presentation make Mianyan zhi wei a first introduction to contemporary theories and practices of Western art history for the scholars and students as well as the general readers among the Chinese readership.