“Surprise on Those Petty ‘Museum-Souls”: Amateurs and the Boundaries of Chinese Art Knowledge in the Age of Professionalism, 1919–41

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM
Centennial Ballroom G (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Kin-Yee Ian Shin, Bates College
Current scholarship regards the first two decades of the twentieth century as the “golden age of East Asian art collecting in America,” followed by a period when formally trained curators, dealers, and art historians elaborated the intellectual apparatus to advance the collecting and study of Chinese art in the United States. However, this narrative of professionalization elides continuing efforts by amateurs to popularize Chinese art for American audiences outside of museums and universities during the 1920s and 1930s. As these institutions grew increasingly specialized and, to a great degree, male-dominated, interpreters working outside of them—many of whom were women—also played an active part in conveying information about Chinese art to the public. Agnes Meyer’s Chinese Painting as Reflected in the Thought and Art of Li Lung-mien (1923) and Dagny Murphy Carter’s China Magnificent: Five Thousand Years of Chinese Art (1935) represent only two examples of this vibrant lay discourse.

This paper examines the role that amateur speakers and writers played in fostering interest in and understanding of Chinese art in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, contributions that have largely been overlooked in the existing literature. It focuses on three women—Florence Ayscough, Agnes Meyer, and Dagny Murphy Carter—and analyzes the different factors that led to their relative successes and failures in publishing popular books and on the lecture circuit. The paper contextualizes their work within the social and intellectual evolution of Chinese art as a profession in the U.S., and uses it to assess the widening gap between professionals and non-professionals in the field. Thus, its contributions go beyond recovering a set of forgotten writings, to analyzing the significance of credentials, social networks, wealth, and gender in constituting the boundaries between information, knowledge, and power.

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