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Cahill here presents four lectures on the economic and social aspects of Chinese painting from the Song to the Qing dynasties. The first chapter introduces the problem confronting modern criticism of Chinese painting, which is to find a framework of interpretation that does not reproduce the classical, Confucian aesthetics which developed in the late Song and became predominant for the remainder of the Imperial period. This aesthetic, which Cahill hints was part of a larger political ideology, was defined by several characteristics, which are detailed in the subsequent three lectures. Chief among these is an understanding of ideal painting as the product of an unstudied but cultivated amateur of high status, whose techniques are less concerned with the representation of reality than with the display of wisdom and mastery of the painterly tradition. Although the emergent phenomenon of literati-painters at the beginning of this period was real enough, the new type did not represent the whole of painterly activity, much of which continued to be carried out by professionals selling their art on the market. The emphasis on painting as a reflection of eternal principles and inner states, conveyed with disinterest and in an effort to rise above material concerns, has led to a neglect of the daily activities of Chinese painters. The ideology of the Confucian literati-amateur would have it that the masters never worked for hire, nor had to, and that styles other than those associated with it (the dry brush technique, the use of stock forms and spare landscapes) were lesser commercial products designed to please rather than edify. Cahill argues that in fact the majority of painters were inescapably engaged in market relationships, that painters were constantly navigating intricate client-patron relationships, and that they relied on painting for their livelihoods.Not only does the Confucian aesthetic of the literati-amateur conceal the historical reality of painterly activity, but it began to act upon painterly production itself, as certain themes and styles were valued and others derided, the long-term consequences of which being that certain paintings were collected and preserved while others have simply disappeared. Some of Cahills most tantalizing findings are along these lines, which suggest the ways in which a cultural preference for a certain aesthetic can act to level a more heterogeneous artistic output. For example, evidence of high-volume, low-value, souvenir sketches sold to travelers are preserved only thanks to archeological findings or to Japanese monks who returned with them from China and hung them in their temples. Likewise with an entire genre of early Song dynasty paintings of a naturalistic and observational style, also preserved by Japanese collectors. It is in Japanese painting, too, that we see continued interest in a range of subjects that disappeared from Chinese painting from the 12th and 13th centuries on - acts of violence, nature studies, and the close observation of social organization and economic activity. Underlying this change, Cahill writes suggestively, is the well-studied decline in Chinas engagement with technological innovation in this same period, and one can write, as I have, of a corresponding loss in the Chinese painters involvement in the project of describing or exploring the physical world. Realism in painting, a Chinese invention of the first millennium, was displaced for centuries, reemerging only in the 17th century under the influence of Western examples.The book, being a series of lectures, does not synthesize its material in a satisfying way, although it is strewn with rich empirical observations and interpretive suggestions like the ones above. The final lecture deals a blow to the myth of the isolated Confucian master painter - while underlining the long-standing practices of forgery that pervaded the art market. At the root of the issue was the tension between the ideal of painting as a vehicle for individual expression, and the reality of the burgeoning art market from the mid-Ming dynasty forward, and the inability of the literati-amateur complex to satisfy the demand for paintings. Studios cranked out works in the style of the master, while forgers were quick to capitalize on stylistic innovations that would allow them to pass their work off as that of a famous painter. Master professionals themselves had works ghostpainted for clients; guidebooks on the collection of antiquities allowed a rising merchant class to acquire status through the practice of connoisseurship.Cahill clearly views the hardening of the literati-amateur aesthetic as a long-term detriment to both Chinese painting and to art criticism. It betrayed what had been a diversity of expression by valuing only one style, and over the long run acted to smother styles that did not conform to it. It was the strength of the Chinese market itself, in the Ming and Qing periods, that forced the ideology into greater and greater contradictions with painterly practice.

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