Theses Doctoral

Making “Chinese Art”: Knowledge and Authority in the Transpacific Progressive Era

Shin, Kin-Yee Ian

This dissertation presents a cultural history of U.S.-China relations between 1876 and 1930 that analyzes the politics attending the formation of the category we call “Chinese art” in the United States today. Interest in the material and visual culture of China has influenced the development of American national identity and shaped perceptions of America’s place in the world since the colonial era. Turn-of-the-century anxieties about U.S.-China relations and geopolitics in the Pacific Ocean sparked new approaches to the collecting and study of Chinese art in the U.S. Proponents including Charles Freer, Langdon Warner, Frederick McCormick, and others championed the production of knowledge about Chinese art in the U.S. as a deterrent for a looming “civilizational clash.” Central to this flurry of activity were questions of epistemology and authority: among these approaches, whose conceptions and interpretations would prevail, and on what grounds?
American collectors, dealers, and curators grappled with these questions by engaging not only with each other—oftentimes contentiously—but also with their counterparts in Europe, China, and Japan. Together they developed and debated transnational forms of expertise within museums, world’s fairs, commercial galleries, print publications, and educational institutes. The collaboration and competition between them based on evolving definitions of rigor and objectivity produced two significant results. First, the creation of knowledge about Chinese art advanced informal imperialism over China through a more disciplined apprehension of its culture. Second, it facilitated the U.S. overtaking Europe as the new center for the collecting and study of Chinese art in the West. This project thus explains not only the evolution of a field of knowledge, but also the transformation of the United States into an international power at the intersection of geopolitics and culture in the first decades of the early twentieth century.
Five chapters focus on the period during 1900 and 1920 when interest in and institution building around Chinese art flourished in the United States. Chapter one offers a prelude to changes to come in the early 1900s by documenting the participation of late nineteenth-century American collectors, whose tastes concentrated on Chinese ceramics, in transatlantic circuits of collecting and scholarship that were then dominated by Europeans. Chapter two recounts the creation of the American Asiatic Institute and the life of its founder, Frederick McCormick, to highlight the geopolitical context that motivated Chinese art collecting in the U.S. during the 1910s. Chapter three examines the intersection between commerce and knowledge by showing how art dealers conveyed not only art objects, but also skills and information across the Pacific. Looking past the marquee names of famed dealers like Duveen Brothers and C.T. Loo reveals the exchanges and mutual dependency between Western and Chinese suppliers, clerks, and translators who were key to the formation of Chinese art collections and scholarship in the U.S. Chapter four traces the tension between cosmopolitanism and nationalism that, over the course of a decade, catapulted private and public collections in the U.S. over those in Europe in a kind of Chinese art “arms race.” As chapter five shows, however, American authority over Chinese art was far from secure. In particular, conflicts over the selection and display of Chinese paintings at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco underscore the contingent limitations of this authority. The epilogue presents the 1920s and 1930s as a turning point in the professionalization of Chinese art that foreclosed earlier ideas and practices as insufficiently rigorous—and, in the process, surrendered an older vision for art to reform international relations.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ngai, Mae
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 11, 2016