17.On Artistic Quality

17. On Artistic Quality. Response to a student who wrote me, on the advice of Fred Wakeman, about why Ming decorative arts are considered superior to Qing.

Dear Dr. Cahill,

I was referred to you by Dr. Frederic Wakeman.

I am a graduate student in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons in New York. Currently, I am participating in a very interesting seminar on 17th and 18th century Chinese Decorative Arts with Dr. Jonathan Hay at NYU Fine Arts Institute.

Perhaps you might be willing to share some of your expertise with me. I am currently working on a paper exploring the distinctions between Ming and Qing era decorative arts, especially those involving scholars' objects. The basic thesis is that with the Manchu takeover, there was a certain imitative and overly-technical, and therefore "deadened" quality to many of the traditional decorative arts. Basically, I am trying to get to the heart of why Ming objects are so revered as opposed to their often technically superior Qing-era counterparts.

Dr. Wakeman suggested that you had some interesting ideas. Might you be able to share your thoughts about the phenomenon I am exploring?

I would greatly appreciate your insight.

Thank you and regards,
Courtney Bowers

Dear Courtney Bowers, (April 5, 2006)

Fred Wakeman was right, it's a problem on which I can make a few comments and offer a few suggestions. But it's essentially an unanswerable question, since it raises the (old, perhaps unfashionable) question, which nobody can answer to everybody else's satisfaction: what is art? what, that is, constitutes artistic quality, as opposed to fine technique? Enrolled as you are in a decorative arts & design program, you must have given thought to those questions and probably have ideas about them. I hope you aren't among those who dismiss them as meaningless or reduce the answers to matters of social class, fashion etc. There's a lot of truth in that approach (your framing the question as "why Ming objects are so revered as opposed to their often technically superior Qing-era counterparts" suggests you may lean that way, following Bourdieu etc.) and I've written myself in that vein. But while those factors certainly affect one's experience of works of art in important ways, they don't by any means exhaust it or explain it away, and we are left with dealing with the aesthetic experience on other levels. (Basic problem with all such approaches, which try to persuade you that their particular take on the problem negates all others and makes them irrelevant--they don't. Don't let them fool you.)

In thirty-odd years of teaching, I tried many ways of defining the distinction. In my Early Chinese Art class I would show a well-made neolithic pot from China, and then one (from Banpo) with a design that holds one's interest, upsets the simple reading by playing with near-repeats from one side to the other of what at first looks like a symmetrical design, etc., and say: this is a work of art, and try to show why. And I remember standing with a colleague (the late Phyllis Bober of Oberlin College) in front of a huge, perfect Chinese crystal ball in the rotunda of the U. Pennsylvania Museum and arguing over whether or not it was a work of art (she: yes, me: no.) The direction of my argument: the object has to excite one's (aesthetic) interest by somehow upsetting one's expectations, having some formal interplay or tension between its parts, some dynamic (however quiet) elements in its artistic structure--something that indicated an artistic intelligence at work. Craft objects (such as the Banpo pot) can have this quality, whether or not the maker was trying for any such effect. I used to include ceramics, jade, certainly bronzes, in my teaching of Chinese art, but only for the periods and types that qualified by those criteria: Shang-Zhou bronzes most of all, perhaps; ceramics from Song discussed with enthusiasm, less so for Ming, not at all for the Qing. A Song pot can have an interesting shape, subtleties in the glaze color etc., designs that are part kiln accidents, part intentional (trying to figure out which is part of the experience)--and so forth. (I became really eloquent on Japanese tea wares.) So now look at typical Qing ceramics: none of that, or very little. One's experience of it is static: beautiful, perfect of its kind, so what? Dead.

An exhibition titled "China: The Three Emperors" was in London recently, and the International Herald Tribune art reviewer Souren Melikian wrote a quite negative review of it which I'll attach to this--I happen to have it in digital form--his response to the Qing court objects (and paintings) in the show is, as I wrote him, a refreshing break with the completely uncritical treatment these things usually receive.

Enough, I hope, to send you in what I think is a healthy direction for dealing with questions of this kind. On how works of art function, move us, etc., I recommend (my favorite during a formative period) Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953) or her earlier Philosophy in a New Key--I found these particularly convincing, and still do. (I haven't really read a lot of recent writing on aesthetic theory, so I'm not arguing comparatively, just personally.) I'll send a copy of this to Fred Wakeman, since he instigated this. (Fred: approaching my 80th I'm slipping into would-be sagehood, holding forth on matters such as this, saving it all for some later collection of "The Wisdom of --")

I would be interested in what you write--would you send me a copy? Whether or not, that is, you follow the above admonitions and directions--you will be getting very different ones from other quarters. Best wishes,

James Cahill

Dear Dr. Cahill,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. It is refreshing that there are still a few scholars out there who earnestly care about sharing their knowledge purely for the sake of intellectual dialogue rather than just the acknowledgement of other scholars.

Your message really gets me thinking about the subject in a different light. Perhaps I can frame my argument of Ming vs. Qing decorative arts in an art vs. craft context. I do believe that there is a difference, although I could never quite define it. Your thoughts on this are intriguing.

The article you sent me is also invaluable. I cannot thank you enough and I will definitely send you a copy of my paper when it is finished - or perhaps when it is only roughly finished so I can get your opinion.

Kind regards,
Courtney Bowers

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