Images in their time and place

July 17, 1998

A fundamental reconsideration of art history as an academic discipline is taking place at Sussex University, its researchers claim.

The way forward in art history, says department head Craig Clunas, is "to take a serious and sceptical look at the discipline itself". That is being done by a growing group within Sussex's art history department, working across artistic movements.

Professor Clunas, a specialist in 16th-century Chinese art, set the tone in his book, Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China, with a critique of the way art historians have examined the period from a Western viewpoint.

"The way we've been looking at Chinese art means that we have been imposing notions specific to European history," he says. "If you ask certain questions, you get certain answers. Our work asks not have we got the right answers, but have we got the right questions."

Professor Clunas argues that the work of Wen Zhengming, the most celebrated early modern Chinese artist, may have been misinterpreted because of art historians' conventional notions.

"His work has been examined on the basis of Western philosophy, going back to Plato, and notions of representation," Professor Clunas says. "But the artist would never have heard of Plato, and the Chinese idea of the image was very different."

Professor Clunas says that he and his colleagues are trying to "find a new language" to use in discussing art history.

"There is great intellectual excitement. We have begun to see something really quite big. We need a fundamental rethink of the way we look at images. The toolkit for art historians developed in the 19th and 20th centuries has to be reinvented," he says.

Even in Europe, historians have been looking in the wrong places. "The tools that we have are designed specifically to look at the canons: Raphael, Rembrandt, et al. Although it fits well, it is just as dangerous to look at 15th-century Italy with a 19th-century toolkit as it is to look at early modern China."

The Sussex art department's specialist in 15th century Italian art, Evelyn Welch, has been examining archives. Through inventories from the period, he has established an alternative hierarchy of work.

Professor Clunas says: "The work of the canonised artists, such as Rembrandt, were not worth much at the time. Textiles, for example, were worth much more. We are not just talking about looking at things in a new way here, we are talking about looking at something else altogether.

"There is stuff in the National Gallery and stuff in the Victoria and Albert Museum that art history as a discipline has kept apart. They are meant to be together."

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