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Blog: On Art and Artists


Blog: On Art and Artists

In an email correspondence with my daughter Sarah some months ago--we discuss and argue (in friendly ways) about lots of things by email--she sent me an excerpt from the play Travesties by Tom Stoppard in which Tristan Tsara is one of the characters, and he has a conversation with someone named Carr in which  Carr ends up saying, “Don't you see my dear Tristan you are simply asking me to accept that the word Art means whatever you wish it to mean;  but I do not accept it.”

She was right, that resonated strongly with me--in fact, it seemed to echo in my mind something I myself have been arguing for decades. (Maybe Tom Stoppard and I think alike--after all, we both wrote plays--mine a playlet, recently posted here--featuring Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.) In reply to Sarah, I wrote this:

Your friend’s quotation from a Stoppard play reminds me of something along the same lines that I once said in an Arts Club argument—the kind of thing you say and think is profound and no one notices, so you remember it forever. It was something like this:

It all started going wrong when we accepted, as artists wanted us to, the proposition that art is whatever artists make or do, and whatever they decide is art. Before that we knew what art was, and could say to artists: No, that isn’t what we want, and you won’t get any recognition or money from us until you give us what we want. Now we can’t say that any more, and art has gone terribly wrong as a consequence.

Continuing with things I’ve written in other contexts over the years: That same belief underlies my feelings about Duchamps and John Cage and the like: their admirers say of them, in what they take to be praise, that they “opened up art,” or “called the whole concept of art into question.” That’s a formulation I’ve come to mistrust, and lose some respect for those who parrot it. We heard it so often in talks by modernist candidates (in our U.C. Berkeley History of Art search for a modernist replacement for our faculty) that I proposed in a department meeting that anyone who said it, in any form, be eliminated from consideration. (Some of my colleagues, needless to say, didn’t agree.) And when I myself was appointed acting director of the University Art Museum for a year (1973-4 I think it was) after Peter Selz was retired, I said half-jokingly at a staff meeting, thinking back over some of the exhibitions Peter had shown there, that we were going to hang a big sign from the highest balcony reading: DOING DUMB THINGS AND CALLING IT ART IS OVER.

That didn’t happen, of course. But the belief behind it—and it’s a real belief--has also affected my scholarly writing. At some time along the way I came to the realization that the great switch in Chinese painting, in the 17th-18th centuries and later, from valuing traditional (careful, technically high-level) styles to valuing xieyi (“drawing the idea,” quick and spontaneous styles) was in some part engineered by artists, since it made their lives a lot easier. And I found documentation for that argument—complaints by prominent Chinese of that time, collectors and artists among them, who weren’t happy about the change and wrote protests against it, which I quoted along with writings by artists promoting the idea. All this I made into a lecture-article titled “Xieyi As a Cause of Decline in Later Chinese Painting.” (An abbreviated form of it appears in the last section of my Three Alternative Histories of Chinese Painting book.) Among the places I presented it was in a lecture given at the Chinese Artists Association in Shanghai, and there (as I relate in Reminiscence no. 9 on my website) it called forth the most angry response I’ve ever received to a lecture.

It’s also true that the central argument of my recently-published book Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China is an extension of the same belief, since the traditional and careful styles are carried on mostly by the artists who make what I call vernacular paintings, a kind that wasn’t valued or collected in China, while the really prestigious artists, the ones whose works are praised and collected, mostly do the kinds of paintings in which distinctive brushwork and personal style, taken to be expressive of the artist’s feelings, are most valued. And at the end of my Pure and Remote View series of video-recorded lectures, when I’m talking about how the great landscape tradition from the Song dynasty wasn’t really continued in China, because of the “takeover” of painting by the scholar-amateurs in the early Yuan, I make an even stronger and broader assertion: that the great curse of China, over the centuries, has been its reluctance or inability to challenge central orthodoxies (such as the doctrine of literati painting—but I also give other examples) and allow sufficiently for divergence and dissension.

Just so I won’t be misunderstood: it isn’t that I have turned against the great tradition of scholar-amateur painting as such—many or most of the great masters of later Chinese painting belong to it (although their “amateur” status, as my Painter’s Practice book makes clear, was often problematic.) What I am against is the continuing acceptance of scholar-amateur painting and all its doctrines, including its rejection of other kinds of painting, as central truths in our field, to be taught to acolytes as the Buddha taught the Six Noble Truths. This is out of keeping with all our other (presumed) beliefs, such as our deep mistrust of self-serving arguments made by dominant minorities; and it is, I now think, quite wrong. It has harmed our field of study by drastically narrowing its scope of inquiry.

It will be difficult or impossible, however, to persuade my colleagues and the broader public to give up their deep belief in the truth and centrality of the literati painting ideal, because it’s one of those doctrines that have a kind of immediate appeal to beginning and unserious students of art that logical argument or art-historical truths can’t easily counter. As I point out at several points in my recorded lectures, and in some of my writings: certain propositions or beliefs have a kind of built-in rhetorical advantage over others—they sound better, that is, without really being better. New students coming into my courses on Chinese painting would mostly say that they find the bold, simple, and splashy kind of painting attractive and exciting, and are bored by the careful, “academic” kind. New students coming to China to study Chinese art in the 1970s-80s, as I remember, mostly wanted to learn more about the eccentric ink-splasher Xu Wei, and about xieyi. Southern School or “Sudden Enlightenment” Zen has this rhetorical advantage over Northern School, or “Gradual Enlightenment.” And so forth—the artists who persuaded their public that xieyi is better than xiesheng (drawing [from] life) knew this and exploited it. There is no use in telling the students and others that the ultimate pleasures of art, for those of us who have spent lifetimes deeply engaged with it, are more likely to be found elsewhere—it’s like telling the young to give up listening to rock music and join me in listening instead to the late quartets of Beethoven.

As another example of the greater attractiveness of certain words over others: The number of hits, or times watched, on my video-recorded lectures varies widely, with some receiving twice as many hits as others. And the really popular ones aren’t the ones I myself believe to be most visually and otherwise rewarding--not at all. They are lectures that have certain attractive words in their titles. Between nos. 5 and 6 on Five Dynasties painting, the one I (unwisely) subtitled “Reliable Works,” lecture 5, gets less than half as many hits as no. 6, on “the Great “Landscape Masters,” even though (as those who have watched them both know) 5 is much more original and interesting than 6. No. 8B on “Literati Painting” gets lots of hits, as does 9B, on “Political and Poetic Painting” in the Southern Song Academy. It’s the words that catch people’s attention: Literati! Poetic! Oh wow! But the lecture that is for me a high point, both in the greatness of the paintings and in the (I would hope) interest of the arguments made, lecture 7A on Early Northern Song Landscape, gets less than one-fourth the number of hits as the previous one on “the Great Landscape Masters” of Five Dynasties, which is made up mostly of imitations and school works, as I explain while showing them. And, as those who watch 8B all the way through learn, I see the “Literati Painters of Northern Song” as having produced works that represent, on the whole, a move sharply downward in quality and interest from the great masters that those scholar-artists scorned and largely supplanted. I should have devised titles for the lectures that would steer potential viewers to the best of them, as I’ve obviously failed to do; I must learn to choose words better in writing titles.

I will continue with more musings on Art and Artists in later blogs--this is all for tonight.

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