The Art Historical Art of Song China

A workshop at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

April 6–8, 2017

About the Project

In recent years the study of artistic repetition—copying, imitation, emulation—has inspired theorization in a range of fields from Renaissance painting to the art of the Inca’s. Among the various forms of repetition known, citation is unusual in that Classical art no longer serves as a model. Instead, the later artist treats earlier styles as tokens of times past, a metonym for values once cherished but now lost.

In China, literary theories of citation first flourish in Song times. One of the earliest collections featuring such theories drew heavily on the writings of Northern Song literati such as Su Shi and his circle. These same men famously rejected naturalism in favor of more willful styles, yet Song literati painting has never been linked to citation theory. Arguably both developments were rooted in a new, historically conscious understanding of time. The historian Thomas Lee observed a heightened sense of “anachronism” among Song period historians, while Peter Bol noted that Song statesmen no longer viewed the past as a repository of models to be imitated but rather “as a period and set of texts from which to derive general principles . . .”

Literati artists, informed by a historicist view of time, saw themselves as conducting “imaginary conversations” (shenhui) with an estranged past. For long these practices were mistaken for imitations of older styles, and some artists did emulate classical works, but paintings in this tradition do not imitate any single model. Instead they juxtapose recent styles with outdated ways of seeing that mark the painting’s “time” as imaginary and personally constructed. By exploring the ways in which literati artists visualized an obsolete past, this workshop will initiate the study of China’s first art historical art.

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