Edited by Sean Geer
5 February 2021
One of the interesting aspects of the universal art theory I propose is that it reveals the true nature of many artistic phenomena. Take, for example, the exciting revolutionary art of the West in the last century or so. Received wisdom suggests that this revolution was global in nature, but through this new lens it is revealed as a merely local one. Its worldwide impact was real enough, but its fundamental nature – a kickback against the shackles of specifically western art trends and conventions – was heavily Europe-centric, and its spread an inevitable by-product of the West's increasing cultural, scientific and political dominance.
By definition, revolutions are directed against some perceived tyranny. And they all come to an end, one way or another; every revolution eventually has a resolution, either by achieving its goal or failing. However interesting perpetual revolution may sound, it is nonetheless an expression which results in a paradox – one of revolution against perpetual revolution. And it's not even clear what 'revolution' means in this context. The term is widely used to describe what happened to art in the West in the last century, but we don't yet have a fully clear, widely accepted understanding of the underlying nature of the tyranny it opposed.
Equally importantly, nor do we have a sense of when it was effectively overthrown. We have, to a large extent, embraced the illusion of the viability of perpetual revolution – and the predictable banality to which this inevitably leads. So entranced were we by so many wildly exciting surface innovations in art that we believed that the revolution was sustainable; and thus we exported it to the rest of the world, along with our illusory belief in the viability of indefinite surface novelty in the arts. We came to see modern western art as being the cutting edge of art globally, assuming that the West's technological dominance must also translate into artistic dominance.
The truth is very different. Any cultural perspective that focuses solely on the intellectual realm and its material benefits is, by its very nature, antithetical to fostering a transition from aesthetic adolescence to maturity. I hasten to add that this no way suggests that recent western art has no value, of course. My theory suggests that while the works that arose out of the recent western revolution are indeed relatively adolescent aesthetically, they can still be recognised as locally transcendent, exciting, and transformative. But I believe that we have grossly overstated their importance in the context of global art history.
One significant and ubiquitous problem is contained in one extremely misleading word: modern. We are still trapped by the illusion that western modernism is the most advanced visual art in the world, despite the fact that Chinese art has in fact been 'modern' by western standards for a thousand years or more. Confusingly, even China itself bought into this global illusion during the twentieth century, and was in danger of abandoning what is arguably the most sophisticated visual art tradition in the world in order to follow the beat of the western drum. The confusion that now permeates the art world for artists and audience alike is to a large extent due to this fundamental misunderstanding. It was not just the art itself that was exported from the West; underlying ideas about art were packaged along with it. That resulted in a good deal of confusion over terminology, creating a series of so-called weasel words – that is, words or statements that are ambiguous or misleading – that resonate in the West but are inapplicable to other, more fully mature artistic traditions.
'Modern' is one of these words. Quite apart from the fact that in a century or so we will be using it to describe something ancient, it forces us into a fundamental error; it shifts the emphasis from what happened to when it happened. 'Modern' is a relative temporal term, however one cares to define it in any particular discipline; modernism is a movement, and modernity is what arose out of that movement. The last bit – what – is the important part, but it is quickly hijacked by the when.
So let's spend a moment thinking about what actually happened. The western revolution was at its heart an emancipation. It freed art from all of its constraints, and gave it quasi-autonomous status. That was a vital step in its evolution, and one which enabled the start of a shift from adolescent to mature aesthetics. The fact that, for the West, it took place largely in the past century is incidental; what matters is that it was a transitional phase. Actually the western modernity is set firmly in the stone of time, the point is when it happened is irrelevant to what happened.
We also need to consider that it is possible for another culture to have arrived at the same point long before the West. Western art is only modern in western terms; far better, I think to replace it with the idea of maturity. Like a good wine, artistic response gets more interesting and profound as it matures. If art really is a profoundly important means of driving our consciousness and civilisation – as I have said, something that I think is more or less inarguable – mature art clearly has a vital role to play in better conveying meaning and wisdom. Freed from any level of servitude to religion (obvious), philosophy (as propaganda for either political or social philosophy) or science (far less obvious but far more pervasive in imposing the need to depict in accordance with the scientific, intellectual view of reality – a haystack had to look like a haystack), full maturity in the arts brings infinitely expanded horizons of perception and expression, ungoverned by the rules of the past. And as we will see later in these essays, it has been doing exactly that in China for centuries.
A second common weasel word that that has had a deep and deeply destructive impact on global art theory is abstraction. I shall have a lot more to say about this subject in a future essay, but it's worth dipping into it now as part of our broader discussion about confusing terminology. The intellectually governed western mind, with its preference for rational and ideally binary choices, insists on asking either/or questions. Is it figurative or abstract? It can't be both, according to western theory. So the term is taken to mean an absence of subject matter at the surface of visual art. A great deal of exciting artistic exploration arose out of this approach, but the innovation of binary abstraction (as opposed to recognisable subject matter) was merely a skirmish in the western revolution, not its underlying aim. Even our most revolutionary artists were brought up with western minds which preferred precise intellectual definitions over nebulous ideas – the explanation took precedence over the experience.
The impact of this is clear to see. The western approach to emancipating visual art was at heart a scientific one; take its various languages of art and set them apart, for investigation one at a time. Subject matter, form, line, colour and texture were all isolated for exploration. Jackson Pollock's exploration of the potential of line and Yves Klein's of colour are examples of where this led. These experiments had considerable merit, even when they ultimately led to dead ends for visual art, as with the blank white canvas, exemplified by Robert Rauschenberg in 1951 – a a cul-de-sac for visual art, but an important doorway to conceptual art nonetheless. Outside of a satirical novel, we could not sensibly envisage a school of blank-white-canvas artists.
Chinese artists took an altogether different view. In a culture where philosophy and religious beliefs tended to foster a more syncretic mind, they were far less inclined to a focus on simple binary truths. As the high arts evolved to include calligraphy and painting – the former during the latter part of the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), the latter as a gradual evolution between about the fourth and twelfth centuries – Chinese artists approached abstraction not by rejecting surface subject matter, but by shifting their focus to the inner languages of pictorial art. They expressed abstraction through form, line, colour and texture without being compelled to reject subject matter; to do otherwise would have seemed as unnecessary as choosing which leg to walk on. This was a deeply intuitive approach, shared across widely differing artists and long periods of time.
If we read 14th-century Chinese paintings for their surface subject matter alone, we are missing a great deal of the profundity of meaning. As an example, Ni Zan (1301-1374 CE), one of the great masters of the Yuan dynasty, seems to have spent most of his life painting ink versions of landscapes often barely distinguishable from each other as subject matter. His focus was on brushwork and the colour and textural potential of ink, manipulating abstract expressive brushwork to create his landscapes. But his landscapes weren't the message, they were the messenger.
The leading modern master, Wang Jiqian (C. C. Wang, 1907-2003), one of my own 'teachers' and the man who first encouraged me to paint, considered Ni's brushwork to be supreme. Wang spent his artistic lifetime pursuing and achieving his goal of creating landscapes by integrating random, purely abstract markings with brushwork to match that of his brush-wielding hero. The method he perfected involved crumpling up thin, absorbent xuan and other papers, dipping them in ink, and printing the initial markings onto paper. He then added brushwork and washes to comfortably integrate the two. After moving to New York in 1949, he set about achieving this entirely individual breakthrough in the 1960s, perfecting it within a decade. Whether or not we view his works (and those of the ink-painting tradition he continued with such powerful, individual innovation) as abstract or figurative makes an enormous difference to what we get out of them in terms of meaning and enhanced consciousness. The answer, of course, is that they are both, and should be recognised as such if we are to plumb their profound depths.
Which brings me to a third weasel word: tradition. As an alternative to the idea of 'modern', it may be entirely sensible for the local western evolution of visual art. In the West, the division between the two took place as a revolution within a reasonably specific timeframe. We can sensibly claim a watershed between the two from the last decades of the 19th into the first half of the 20th century – perhaps sixty or seventy years. But such timeframes are meaningless when compared to the Chinese visual arts. Ideas that the West considers 'modern' existed in Chinese calligraphy two thousand years ago, and in painting at least one thousand years ago.
In China the concept of art as essentially a vehicle for the self-realisation of the educated elite – and, therefore, a vital plank in the educational process – was already established by the late Zhou dynasty by the 6th to 5th century BCE. (It's worth noting here that at that time, the arts included archery, ritual and writing – although not necessarily calligraphy as its highest transcendent expression – but not painting). Ever since, whatever became incorporated into the idea of high art has been considered highly efficient in its fundamental role of self-realisation. Indeed, the activities of this educated elite became a qualifier for the expansion of what was considered art. By the 17th century, one manual of aesthetic response noted the artistic skills of a scholar renowned for how he presented his collection. Had an influential literatus at that time decided to perfect the art of tap-dancing on an upturned bucket, that too would have been included as potentially profound art.
This aesthetic precociousness in the visual arts helped Chinese artists to refine some extremely sophisticated materials and formats. These included thin, absorbent papers; ink and colours that penetrated the surface, often even right through to the other side of the paper, and which were permanent once dry; brushes with an extraordinary range of potential for self-expression; and such presentational formats as the handscroll, hanging scroll, albums, and fans.
The handscroll is one of Chinese art's most sophisticated, remarkable and absorbing artefacts, and one which exemplifies many of the ideas that form the basis of my proposed rethink of global art theory. The format arose from the ancient practice, common by the second millennium BCE, of writing with ink on thin strips of bamboo, which were then threaded together and rolled up for storage. Once the related arts of painting and calligraphy achieved the status of high arts, both naturally adopted this format as a regular option.
A handscroll painting is horizontal, and can be as long or short as the artist chooses. It is stored rolled up, and comes out only when the viewer decides to engage in an intimate and inevitably intense exchange with it. It is usually a highly personal experience, although spectators can participate too, if less immersively and efficiently. Unless unusually short, it was never intended to be viewed as a single image. Instead, it is a journey; into the art, into the mind of the artist, into the culture from which it comes, into the self, and, ultimately, as a highly efficient meditational aid, into the transcendent self beyond ego.
I'll be giving a more detailed account of handscrolls in a forthcoming essay. For now, suffice to say that they quickly and effectively break down the distinction between artist and audience; as noted in the introduction to these essays, a key aspect of elevating art to its highest potential. The viewer controls both the speed and direction of viewing, able to scroll back and forth at will; and thus constantly adjusting the composition by editing the section in view, allowing an enormous range of possible sub-compositions. The format ensures that the audience cannot fail to become engrossed in the process as a full partner, rather than as a passive observer.
As a final aspect of the precocious maturity of Chinese art, it is worth thinking about what happens to an aesthetic culture once it has become fully mature. Is there anywhere left to go? The answer to this question is easier to understand in the light of the full theoretical re-jig, but the crucial part is the acceptance of art as primarily a means of evolving consciousness. That puts the focus squarely on profundity of communication between artist and audience. By de-emphasizing the art object and focusing on the process as an ongoing and vital exchange, surface innovation becomes secondary. The development of new materials and technologies will always allow the potential for surface innovation, but that does not mean that it is the goal of art. In a fully mature aesthetic culture, innovation resides in conveying and enhancing wisdom; and, therefore, in individual creativity and depth of understanding as expressed through the chosen art form.
This inevitably leads to periods of orthodoxy as powerful influences dominate for a while. This has inevitably happened in Chinese art as it has elsewhere. But eventually, individual artists or groups of artists always break out of orthodoxy. It can take a while for their input to be fully appreciated, and to have its full impact on the culture. And it can, of course, then lead to its own cycle of orthodoxy. The artists who encouraged the orthodoxy also, of course, produced powerful, timeless masterpieces themselves, even if many of their followers were doing little more than skilfully repeating their wisdom (usually at a reduced level of meaning). The point is that once art is fully mature and the audience approaches it efficiently, it is ongoing and constantly evolving.
There is a parallel here between evolving consciousness and art. In the first of these, self-realisation leads to collective understanding and enhanced civilisation. And in art, individual increments of evolving meaning lead to collective cultural evolution. The two are irrevocably intertwined; you cannot have art without enhanced consciousness, but you also cannot have enhanced consciousness without art.
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat.