• Chinese art;
  • Western art;
  • exotic;
  • Ernst Gombrich;
  • James Cahill;
  • naturalism


When encountering something unfamiliar, it is natural to describe and understand it by reference to what is familiar. Commentary on Chinese landscape painting usually relies heavily upon analogies with Western art. James Elkins, concerned to understand the implications of this procedure, asks whether in seeing and writing about this art we ever can escape our Western perspectives. His problem is not just that he himself does not know Chinese. Even bilingual specialists or native Chinese speakers employ this vocabulary, for the vocabulary of contemporary art history, developed in the West, now is the language of academic art history everywhere. We know that we are distorting our descriptions of this Chinese art, even though we don't know how to “get it right.” In the history of European painting from Cimabue to the present, it would be hard to find any Western paintings that could be confused with any art made in China, so the frequent reliance of scholars upon such comparisons seems problematic. Of course, in the near future this situation might change. Perhaps in fifty years, as China becomes more prosperous, art history will become a hybrid discipline. At that point, the situation, which Elkins analyzes, will be reversed. But such a change is a long way in the future.