Unreal Nature

February 25, 2014

Guaranteed Success

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:08 am

… It has all the characteristics of an art whose development had long ago brought it to the point where it was possible to rationalize the means to a standard repertory of effects and to control these effects with a sureness that guaranteed success — but only within limits and only at the price of spontaneity and freshness. What we get in the end from this sureness within limits is the pat and the pretty.

This is from the essay ‘The Art of China: Review of The Principles of Chinese Painting by George Rowley’ (1950) found in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Vol. 3, edited by John O’Brian (1993):

It can be said that the Orientals and the West have tried to subdue to consciousness quite different areas of experience. The West has devoted itself to history, the physical environment, and practical method; the Orientals have concentrated on religion, introspection, and aesthetic experience. Thus the rich terminology developed by the Hindus for introspection makes precise distinctions between sensations and states of mind that our own culture deals with as more or less undifferentiated. The Chinese, for their part, devised an almost equally elaborate terminology for the subjective effects produced by art.

Art, according to the author of this sumptuous and informative book, has been the dominant bent of Chinese civilization, to such an extent that “all … other [Chinese] activities seem to have been colored by their artistic sensitivity.”

Ma_Lin_landscape
Ma Lin, Listening to the Wind, mid-13th century [image from Wikipedia]

… The Chinese painter seems to have been early accorded a much higher cultural as well as social status than his Western counterpart; he was expected to be a kind of scholar first of all, literally conscious of all the references of his art, and then a seer in whose art aesthetic effect was merged with mystical state.

The Chinese connoisseur looked to painting for insights into the nature of reality that were accepted as hardly less valid than those expressed by the verbal expounders of religion and being. A picture was read like a poem, and more than poem. And it was an even more serious error than in the West to regard it principally as a part of décor. It is true that Chinese painting could be very decorative and that it was increasingly subordinated to decoration, but this has been done, it seems to me, judging by the results, at a more serious cost than in the case of almost any other art. For it violated the Chinese picture’s function as an object of contemplative pleasure and perverted some of its most essential plastic elements. I believe this to be true in spite of the fact that the absence of full color and strong modeling in Chinese painting  and its, so to speak, passive naturalism gave the decorative a foothold from the beginning. The emphasis on brushstroke quality and subtlety of dark and light values, and the exploitation of empty space were equally important elements that of necessity resisted the decorative. In view of this, it is my hunch that Chinese painting became as decorative as it now seems only toward the end of its development two or three centuries ago; and it is this that is responsible for the present insipidity of so much of it.

Most of the Chinese art we see in Europe and America strikes me as being late. It has all the characteristics of an art whose development had long ago brought it to the point where it was possible to rationalize the means to a standard repertory of effects and to control these effects with a sureness that guaranteed success — but only within limits and only at the price of spontaneity and freshness. What we get in the end from this sureness within limits is the pat and the pretty. Its lateness, its decorative prettiness, its corruptness, together with its naturalism, would seem to account for the relative quickness with which Chinese art was accepted in the West, once popular taste in the West was ready to accept exotic art; we began to acquire a taste for chinoiserie a hundred years before any of us ever looked at an Egyptian statue as something more than an archaeological curiosity.

… These remarks are, of course, not intended as a criticism of Chinese painting as a whole. Some excellent paintings are reproduced in Mr. Rowley’s book, excellent for their abstract qualities as well as for their apprehensions of mood through nature. Beside them most Western landscapes of mood would appear obvious and even coarse. And when it comes to the use of the brush, that use which conveys exact feeling with every touch and harmonizes each touch, as an individual facet of feeling, with the unifying emotion of the whole picture — then the Chinese masters certainly have no equals.

-Julie

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