Craig Clunas (David Gowers/National Gallery of Art)

The National Gallery of Art’s annual Mellon Lectures series, as much a staple of Spring as the Cherry Blossoms, began Sunday afternoon with a lecture by Craig Clunas, professor of art history at Oxford.

Clunas, a specialist in Chinese art, will speak on Sunday afternoons through April 22, giving audiences an overview of how painting in China was constituted by the various audiences which took an interest in it, including “The Merchant,” “The Gentleman,” “The Emperor” and “The People.”

Clunas’s first talk, like so many first installments in the Mellon series, was more about laying out the parameters of his subject, insulating the speaker from the bad habits of previous scholars, and problematizing the issue sufficiently to avoid accusations of oversimplification and generalization. Clunas deplored “the rubbishy generalizations” about Chinese art which “still get a polite hearing today.”

Citing the work of scholars and critics such as Bernard Berenson, Clement Greenberg and Ernst Gombrich (who gave the Mellon lectures in 1956), Clunas argued that definitions of “Chinese painting,” have generally come from outside of China, often based on remarkably little knowledge of the extent and complexity of the subject.

Why is it, he asked, that the National Gallery of Art is devoted to the history of painting, while “Chinese painting” is sectioned off as a specialty in the Freer and Sackler Galleries? Is that the natural order of things, or the result of conscious decisions to create a Western-only canon and a side channel (containing thousands of years of work, by diverse artists in diverse historical and geographical places) that is somehow reducible to the idea of its being “Chinese”?

To make his point, and inject some levity into the subject, Clunas displayed a slide of a work by Huang Yong Ping, a contemporary French artist of Chinese origin, who took two basic texts about art, one titled “The History of Chinese Painting,” the other “The History of Modern Western Art,” and placed them in a washing machine for two minutes, producing a sodden clump of mixed up and useless art history. It was a comment, perhaps, on the death of painting, but also on the oddness (from a Chinese perspective) of thinking about the history of art and the history of Chinese art as two parallel and incompatible subjects.

Clunas did not get deep into the weeds Sunday. That should come next week, and thereafter, as he tries to thread a difficult needle: Give an overview of Chinese art without lapsing into precisely the same generalizations and reductions that he deplores in other accounts.

By looking at how painting is created by its different audiences, he hopes to create a richer account of painting in China while putting “into question all and every definition.” Tough work, but fascinating to watch.