Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 3, 2006
Craig Clunas Elegant Debts: The Social Art of Wen Zhengming Honolulu: University Of Hawai'i Press, 2004. 232 pp.; 63 color ills.; 35 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0824827724)

This book is a distinguished addition to a distinguished body of work and an important contribution to studies of the Ming period. By looking at Wen Zhengming’s calligraphy and painting as objects embedded in complex networks of obligation, patronage, and reciprocity, Craig Clunas provides richly detailed new perspectives on familiar events and questions of the period. Although good English-language studies of Wen have been done in the past, this one is a significant advance. It incorporates much recent scholarship in Chinese, including letters and other materials assembled by the contemporary scholar Zhou Daozhen that were not included in the official edition of Wen’s works. When recent scholarly theories of gift and exchange are brought to bear on these materials, they allow new ways of thinking about the artist, the work of art, and the social and ideological matrices that produce them.

The starting point of Elegant Debts is the observation that modern sensibilities in the study of Chinese art have filtered out a great deal of what Wen’s contemporaries found significant in his life and work. By focusing on only a small portion of what he produced—his paintings and his official writings—we lose sight of the even greater value his contemporaries placed on his calligraphy. In particular, we fail to see how important the content and social contexts of those calligraphic texts were in the making of Wen’s reputation. A shift in the nature and context of fame itself, Clunas seems to argue, has reduced Wen from a multidimensional epitome of late Ming literati values to a “famous Chinese artist.” Clunas’s aim is to restore some of those lost dimensions.

He starts by suggesting that Wen’s own writings show that he conceived himself and his work within a series of hierarchical relational frameworks. To Wen’s family, he was a son, nephew, and grandson to the male and female relatives for whom he produced funerary inscriptions, and his fame redounded to them as a family—including his illustrious forebear Wen Tianxiang—rather than to him as an individual. With his “friends,” a term that can elide the categories of patron, peer, client, and customer, he negotiated all of those relationships within a rhetoric of amateurism that made the exchange function of paintings all but invisible. For his fellow officials, the connections he confirmed through the exchange of writings and paintings during his abortive official career in Beijing confirmed him as “one of us,” those who claimed the ethical high ground and were forced out of office during the Rites Controversy. For his neighbors in Suzhou, that same brief stint as an official made him a source of Suzhou local pride and cultural capital throughout his long life. For his pupils, helpers, and servants, the power of his name made possible the lucrative circulation of works attributed to Wen Zhengming, some authorized by him, some not.

Clunas’s account of Wen’s particular history leads him to many larger questions. What did it mean in practice when a Ming literatus claimed to have retired from official life to lead a hermit’s existence? Clunas shows that such a claim did not preclude a range of relationships with current and former officials, merchants, and clients in search of a token from the master’s brush. What relation do the conventional retrospective art-historical groupings of painters have with the actual social networks of the artist’s lifetime? Clunas shows that, in Wen’s case at least, Qing classifications reflect their own period concerns and elide a portion of the story told in the Ming documents.

Clunas closely interrogates his sources—calligraphic works and paintings and their inscriptions and colophons, collections of anecdotes (biji), and official and unofficial accounts of Wen’s career written during his lifetime and at various points after his death—to inquire about the shifting nature of fame itself, and to examine how the edifice of fame obscures an understanding of the subjectivity that produced these works. This book is an effective reminder that, as Clunas puts it, in the context of his own times Wen was a famous official who made paintings, rather than a famous painter who was also an official.

We should also be grateful to Clunas for so vividly presenting Wen Zhengming’s work. The book is beautifully printed, with numerous high-quality color plates of works previously available only in black-and-white images and reproductions of reproductions. The selection includes generous examples of Wen’s calligraphy as well as paintings in various formats. Overall, it allows for a much more nuanced appreciation for the range of Wen’s work, the delicacy of his touch, and the elegance of his use of color. Indeed, these are the only topics raised in the book about which I could wish Clunas had said more.

Mary Scott
Professor, Humanities Department, San Francisco State University

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