In Nanjing: American Art, through Chinese Eyes

I taught American art history for years, and in the coming months I’ll write about how art history, generally, is taught now. I’ll offer a counterintuitive appetizer: How is American art taught in China? How are Chinese scholars learning about American art?

This is a news story and a period piece since the news angle took me down a not-too-winding path to Pearl Buck and then to Thornton Wilder. First, the news. The Edith O’Donnell Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas, the Terra Foundation in Chicago, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, and Nanjing University in China just launched the new Institute for the Study of American Art in China (ISAAC). Nanjing University inaugurated the new program this week. It’s one of China’s great, old schools.

The program’s still nascent. It means, broadly, to introduce American art to Chinese students. Chinese scholars are visiting American museums during the next few years to learn about American art. It’s intense, and they’ll probably see more American art than most American professors do. The travel and museum-visiting program is designed to override the Chinese penchant to focus on reading books in a library. Professors at Nanjing University will teach courses on American art. There’s a priceless translation component to the program since very little American literature has been translated in Chinese.

Two of these visiting Chinese art historians, Weiyi Wu and Ting Zhang, came to my house this summer for lunch. I wanted to hear about their work.

I thought ISAAC might be the garden-variety exchange program or simple, shallow fascination with all things American, which would be a yawn. Then I connected a few dots. It’s a curiously and unusually good initiative. The three institutions I knew — Terra, UT Dallas, and Amon Carter — showed characteristic vision.

I’d start with Chinese students’ fascination with American culture, which is far more than, and different from, yearnings to break free. In Chinese colleges, English is the top major. They’re not freedom fighters, and they’re not spies-in-training. American literature grips Chinese young people, and, strange to me, so does American art. They don’t see only otherness or escapism. It’s not fandom. They see themes in American and Chinese culture that overlap. How?

The ISAAC program operates in Pearl Buck’s old house on the campus of Nanjing University, where Buck lived when the school was a Presbyterian college run by missionaries. Buck (1892–1973) isn’t a name we hear often, though she was, in her day, as famous and revered as a living writer could be. She wrote The Good Earth in 1931, among many other things, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. She and her parents were missionaries, but Buck wasn’t cloistered as a child — she spoke Chinese and went to school with Chinese children. Her parents were hell-bent on Christianizing the Chinese but never considered them inferior. During the Boxer Rebellion and in the turbulent years afterwards, they stayed in China.

Buck is now considered old-fashioned and out-of-date. She was both unique and turbulent, but what great artist is a sweetie-pie? She hated Chinese Communism, but her opinions on everything were hard to predict. She can’t be boxed, and, unfortunately, in English departments these days and among many critics, if a writer can’t fit in a nice, tidy box, they can’t be bothered. And, worse still, if they can’t wrap the box in PC cant with a flouncy “Happy Victim Day” ribbon, the writer tends to disappear. So, in the 1960s, where did she live? Of course, in Vermont, the Land of Cows, Fall Color, and Vinegary Personas. She lived in Danby, not far from me. The old-timers there adored her. They still remember her male companion, 50 years on, as a sulky, irascible scourge.

I reread The Good Earth last week. It’s a fine novel. It’s old-fashioned in its vastness — it’s the first book of a trilogy. Together, the three books are long and rambling, but that’s the nature of the project. In tone, theme, and characters, it reminds me of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Walker must know it well.

Set in rural China, The Good Earth crafts the lives of a farmer, Wang Lung, his wife, O-Lan, and an extended family, concubines included, in the glass hive of village life. Many current issues — sexism, inequality, fundamentalism, poverty, exploitation, disability . . . okay, no one changes gender — are there, but it’s certainly not contemporary. Victimhood, blame, and even individual agency aren’t factors. Interiority isn’t as much of a driver as it is in fiction today. Characters bob on a sea of habits and templates made over generations, mostly driven by family worship and fixed expectations for men and women.

It’s an epic like Gone with the Wind, with a clear storyline and vivid characters, but it’s not historical fiction. It’s set in a time of discord, which means anytime and every time, though the family takes a train once and it’s described as new technology. There’s lots of drama, but it unfolds under an umbrella of fate and acceptance. Luck — not class struggle, hard work, and certainly not Christianity — plays the biggest role in moving the narrative. O-Lan, the female protagonist, might seem a doormat, but this isn’t a Western story. Every character and storyline seem to aim the narrative back to the land, the countryside, the good earth.

The book’s a landscape in words. How American, and how Chinese.

<i>Ranchos Church, New Mexico</i>, 1930–31, by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). Oil on canvas.
Ranchos Church, New Mexico, 1930–31, by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986). Oil on canvas.

The two scholars visiting me spoke about Hudson River landscapes and seascapes, counterparts of which don’t exist in Chinese art. They have landscapes and seascapes, but they’re abstract and calligraphic and can also be didactic, mechanical, or formulaic. They don’t see that in American art. Yes, American painting is often mundane and secular, but that’s a disguise. It’s immersive, illusionistic enough to give the viewer a “you are there” feel, but then the paintings are transcendent. They’re deliciously detailed and sometimes cinematic. They take the viewer to another place, a place outside of the physical space the viewer inhabits. That’s their magic.

Americans might look at a Hudson River landscape, especially the early ones by, say, Durand or Church, or landscapes by Bierstadt, and see themes of expansion. The Chinese focus on their realism and affection for mundane detail. Work by Kensett, Gifford, and the other luminists from the 1860s is simple, often organized with long horizontals, and often explicitly themeless, like a simple beach. This austerity makes them attractive to Chinese students, but what I think appeals the most is the absence of didacticism. The beach and forest pictures are really about nothing. The viewer supplies the meaning.

There are many ways to teach American art. The Chinese scholars emphasize institution-building — the development of museums — more than I ever did. They look at the art market after the 1980s, which makes sense, but I never considered it in my classes. Foreign influence is a Chinese bugaboo, but, for American art, they use good readings to evoke the amalgam of styles that made American art, basically, from nothing. The ISAAC syllabus explores the development of what it calls “elite taste,” which I never taught. It’s too fluid. There’s a strong section on American landscape and scenes of everyday life in the 19th century. It’s presented not as highfalutin art but as art that’s as idiosyncratic as its broad-based American audience. I’d hate to use “bourgeois” or, worse, “Joe Six Pack.” It’s art for a broad cross section of American humanity, and that’s how the course seems to present American art. That’s correct.

It’s a connoisseurship and aesthetics class, too, which is refreshing. The American aesthetic is different from the Chinese, so it makes sense to look at style and technique. There’s no critical race theory and no identity politics, which is good. My standard survey class was heavier on feminism. “Awe” is the word the ISAAC syllabus uses to describe city growth. The syllabus and readings don’t oppose village and farm on the one hand against the city on the other. It’s a big issue for teachers and students, though. I’m not sitting in class, so I don’t know what students or teachers will think or say.

The readings are by art historians who are generalists. They’re mainstream scholars — American art specialists but with an American-studies focus. They draw freely and lustily, sometimes like vandals, from American history and literature.

Buck is a good start in looking at ISAAC. The program lives in her home, after all. I’ve written about how Chinese scholars see American art. Now, the obverse? I read the lecture Buck gave at the Nobel Committee banquet in 1938 when she formally accepted her prize. The lecture concerned her debt to the indigenous Chinese novel, not modern novels written by Chinese authors influenced by foreigners but fiction that was broadly appealing and deeply native.

The indigenous Chinese novel, she said, wasn’t considered art or literature, so Chinese scholars — obsessed with rules, categories, and repetition of ancient forms — ignored it. It was popular culture, written in vernacular language, often read aloud to people who couldn’t read. Scholars in China, she said in her Nobel address, despise the common people. Popular culture bends, flexes, and changes, and they hate change and, for that matter, anything new. The indigenous Chinese novel has humor and warmth, she said, and they hate that, too. Desiccated and ossified, these scholars, a specific class or caste in China, exist to worship and preserve what is dead.

Popular stories resurrected and enlivened old stories of court life and intrigues, mixing them with themes from everyday village life and conveying them in a style, Buck said, “that flowed easily along, clearly and simply, in the short words used every day, with only enough description to give vividness . . . and never enough to delay the story . . . nothing must delay the story.” High and low, love and intrigue, legend and real mixed as one. Time moves differently in the country, passing not in tick-tock increments but in seasons, tides, and cycles of the moon. It’s not precise, but there’s a comforting, easy predictability to it.

So much of 19th-century American art glorifies country life, even as the country urbanized and industrialized. Chinese students naturally find the ideal of village life an emotionally moving one. The mass movement of people from farms to cities is the headline in today’s evolving China. A big move to the city is one of the plots in The Good Earth, though the family finds its fortunes and happily skedaddles back to village life, its conception of the good earth.

Most Chinese art historians focus on 20th-century art, but they understand, and this isn’t hard to see, that American art, unlike European art, isn’t driven by an academy. Most 19th-century American artists were self-taught, and this, as well as an American aesthetic, makes for a direct storyline with minimal fussiness or distractions. Like the Chinese novel, 19th-century American art is powered by vernacular voices and moods. It springs from common people. Its subjects make up everyday lives. It’s not art about embellishment, and it’s not conceited art. Yes, there’s Sargent, who’s flashy, but then there’s Eakins, who’s austere and measured.

Until the 1960s, American art wasn’t cynical or ironic, either. I think Chinese students and art lovers look at American art before the pop-art era and see work that’s honest, innocent, and refreshing. Because of the absence of an academy prescribing subjects, techniques, and styles, American art, to them, seems unbounded and unfixed. It’s not frozen.

ISAAC inaugural day, Nanjing University, November 5, 2019.
ISAAC inaugural day, Nanjing University, November 5, 2019.

In looking at ISAAC’s great potential, I thought about Thornton Wilder (1897–1975). Hansong Dan, another Nanjing University scholar visiting the Edith O’Donnell Institute in Dallas, recently translated Our Town, Wilder’s 1938 play, into Chinese. Wait a minute, Hamilton: Wilder’s play about life and death in Grover’s Corners, N.H., is still the most performed play in the country. Wilder’s father was a diplomat, and the family lived in China during his posting in Hong Kong. I think the Chinese will love the celebration of rural life, and the doings in this tiny New Hampshire town will be a surprisingly effective hook for them.

Others have written about Wilder’s debt to Chinese opera. The stage set is spare, nearly abstract. The stage manager in Our Town is a feature in Chinese drama, on stage but out-of-story, clarifying things, raising questions, and introducing new storylines. Time doesn’t move in a linear way. In Our Town, we move back and forth in time. Centrally, Our Town is about universality. It’s about the millions of personal, mundane stories that together make humanity mysterious and sublime.

This is far from One Worldism and other heaps of U.N. manure. It’s spiritual, not secular. It’s about inscrutability, a concept or explanation Americans don’t like. I wonder how Chinese audiences will respond, and I’m waiting for the Chinese translation of The Skin of Our Teeth, Wilder’s tougher, sharper, and more intricate play from 1942. Talullah Bankhead played Sabina, the maid, on Broadway. I’d love to see who the Chinese Talullah might be.

Scenes of everyday life, mostly country life, dominated American painting, along with landscape and seascape, until the advent of abstract expressionism. Scenes of home and hearth tend to dominate narrative art. There’s very little religious painting in America. The Chinese revere past generations within their families, but it’s a revolutionary society. Young Chinese students don’t think about emperor worship and, of course, Americans don’t care much about history, either. History painting in America, Trumbull notwithstanding, is a sideshow. I don’t think Chinese scholars are aware of how many American artists started in the world of advertising or newspapers. The world of advertising and newspapers isn’t their world, yet.

This led me to ask these two Chinese scholars how they could teach American art without talking about freedom, democracy, and individuality? “You can say whatever you want in class,” one noted. “You just can’t express an opinion on it.”

I suppose individualism, self-expression, and personal freedom are still very alien in China. It’s a collectivist society. I doubt obsessions with sliced and diced identity politics mean much to the Chinese. They take the long view: We’re all mortal. That didn’t give me a new way to see American art. Rather, it invited me to think about the allegorical qualities of American art. American landscapes and seascapes subordinate individuality to something bigger. We’ll all die, but the good earth is always there. Generations of living and dead use land and sea, coming and going but leaving land and sea behind. I’ve always thought about American art as focused on “now” and things that change and happen, but I think Chinese scholars looking at American art have a lot to teach us. I think the ISAAC program will open eyes and minds here and in China.

More from National Review

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting