The Modernity of Traditional Chinese Art

Art is a vital resource. Along with religion, philosophy, and science, it is one of our most efficient means of self-cultivation, which is, collectively, the fuel of evolving consciousness. Indeed, if we expand our definition of art to include any form of creative response to experience, it is the only one of the four capable of subsuming the other three which are all are essentially creative responses to experience.

This expansion of the definition of art is part of a radical rethink of current art theory that I have been developing steadily over the last three decades. The downside of this more inclusive definition of art is minimal: merely requiring a secondary exercise in judging the level of meaning in any creative exploration. But effectively we do that in any case even when we approach the subject with an initial prejudice of what is and isn’t art, so nothing is lost. The upside, on the other hand, is extensive. Within the confines of the Art World it is key to overcoming confusion when faced with upturned urinals, unmade beds, sharks in formaldehyde, a pile of bricks on the floor of the Tate Gallery, blank white canvases, silent music or conceptual art. We will find it far more efficient if we approach them not with the question of whether or not they are art but whether individual involvement in considering them improves our understanding of art, ourselves, life, the universe and everything, in some incremental, or possibly even fundamental way. Nor is there a correct answer, with that shift in the question, there is nothing left to argue about, although plenty to discuss. This is more civilizing, and to civilize is the ultimate aim of all self-cultivation and, therefore, all creative response to experience.

In any culture, art, by whichever definition we care to embrace, can multitask, dealing with everything from the banal to the ineffably mysterious and esoteric. In fact, it is essential that it does so, since as one of our most sophisticated means of self-cultivation, it offers us a conduit between the two. That is why it is civilizing, in fact ultimately it is civilization. If you doubt this, try to imagine existence without the arts - without music, literature, the visual and performing arts, without architecture. We don’t just express with our arts, we think with them and, crucially, we store information from one generation to the next in them facilitating the accumulation of our collective comprehension. Without them, civilization is inconceivable.

The range of creative response to experience resulting in a physical work of art, or performance, is simply a distillation of our broader creative response. It is one of our most efficient and profound means of communication. That is why it is of such enormous importance to us and why we are, and always have been, so powerfully drawn to it.

The driving force behind my decades-long search for an all-encompassing theory of art is the lack of what I believe is a sufficiently all-encompassing theory of art that can be applied equally to any art form, from any culture, at any time - past, present or future. Current art theory, while illuminating of parts of the whole, remains focused locally and is inadequate to deal with a rapidly globalizing aesthetic world. Specifically, it fails to illuminate the precocious ‘modernity’ of ‘traditional’ Chinese art and the reason for that is its locality.

I believe that what took place in the West in the twentieth century was a purely local revolution against a local tyranny. But the near hegemony of the West by the twentieth century expanded that locality around the world, disproportionately exerting influence.

By definition a revolution is against some perceived tyranny, and any revolution has a resolution either in achieving its goal or failing. Perpetual revolution is an oxymoron which can lead only to the paradox of revolution against perpetual revolution. But while we use the term to describe what happened to art in the West in the last century, we don’t yet have a clear, widely accepted understanding of the underlying nature of the tyranny, or of when it was effectively overthrown. We have, to a large extent, embraced the illusion of the viability of perpetual revolution. I believe that we became so entranced by the wildly exciting surface innovations that we both believed that the revolution was sustainable, and exported it on the wings of global clout to the rest of the world.

What happened in the West came to be seen as the cutting edge of art. Dominating the world with western technological might, the world became convinced that recent western artistic efforts must be similarly advanced.

While I recognize the creativity, and impact of what took place, I believe that we have grossly overstated its importance in the context of global art history. Confusingly, even China significantly bought into the illusion and, during the twentieth century, was in danger of abandoning the most sophisticated visual art tradition in the world in order to follow the West. The confusion that now permeates the art world for artists and audience alike is to a large extent due to this fundamental misunderstanding.

I published the broader theory underlying my convictions in a 2015 book entitled The Art of Understanding Art, available on Amazon in various formats. The same ideas are touched upon in an interview with Sean Geer in the recently published retrospective catalogue of my own paintings by Rasti Chinese Art, published by OM Publishing, Hong Kong, 2020.

My focus here is Chinese art - specifically the allied arts of painting and calligraphy - but by extrapolation the ideas can be equally applied to any art form.

My suggested radical re-think of current global art theory led me to the conviction that once we get over the misleading illusion that western modernism is the most advanced visual art in the world, Chinese art has in fact been ‘modern’ by the underlying standards of western modernity, for a thousand years or more.

One of the reasons for the confusion arises out of the widely accepted use of certain weasel-word in dealing with the western revolution, words that have, again, purely local significance and even then beg confusion.

The first is the widespread use of the word ‘Modern.’ Apart from the fact that in a century or more we will be using the term to discuss something ancient, we made the mistake of shifting the emphasis from what happened to when it happened. Modern is a temporal term, however one cares to define it in any particular discipline; modernism a movement, and modernity what arose out of that movement. The last is the important part, but becomes confusing as it derives from a purely temporal term. We need to do one of two things to correct the resulting, terminological confusion. Either accept that what arose out of modernism is not necessarily confined to any particular period and that it is possible for another culture to have arrived at the same point long before what we see as the modern age in western art. Or, preferable, find another term entirely. My preference is to replace the concept of modernism with that of artistic maturity. If art is a profoundly important means of communication in evolving consciousness, the underlying essence is its profundity, the level of consciousness with which it deals; in other words, its maturity. This removes any confusion from suggesting that a culture other than the West reached greater aesthetic maturity long ago. By allowing that possibility, it allows us to overcome inbuilt prejudice.

Given the ultimate purpose of art, the path to full aesthetic maturity lies in recognizing its role as a highly efficient means of self-cultivation and, by extrapolation, collective enhancement of consciousness. This attainment is accompanied by the emancipation of art from any level of servitude to religion, philosophy and science. In the West the first glimmering of that possibility arose with the spark of humanism that began to glow visibly during the Renaissance, along with the gathering, associated elevation of the concept of individualism. It did not profoundly impact the separately recognized visual and performance arts, however, until the latter part of the nineteenth century, culminating in the rapid explosion of artistic revolution that enlivened the first half of the twentieth century. Accompanying full maturity in the arts are infinitely expanded horizons of perception and expression and a seismic shift in the rules of art which no longer constrain it, but only arise out of it.

The other weasel word that impacted globally based on a purely western interpretation lies in the meaning of abstraction. To the intellectually governed western mind, with its preference for the binary imposed by the rationality that gave rise to science, the focus is on either/or as the question. So the term abstract was taken to mean an absence of subject matter at the surface (of visual art). A painting was either abstract or it wasn’t. A great deal of exciting artistic exploration arose out of this approach, but the innovation of absolute abstraction as opposed to recognizable subject matter, was a skirmish in the revolution, not the underlying aim and it was prompted by the western mind-set.

In China, where philosophical ideas gave rise to non-god religions governed not by a higher being but a higher state of being, the syncretism ruled. 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 century into the tenth century – Chinese artists simply shifted to abstraction not by rejecting surface subject matter, but by shifting focus to the inner languages of pictorial art in order to satisfy expression through form, line, colour and texture without rejecting subject matter. To them to do otherwise would have seemed as unnecessary as choosing which leg to walk on. If we read fourteenth century Chinese paintings for their surface subject matter, 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 very similar landscapes, 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 the 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,’ considered Ni’s brushwork to be supreme. Wang spent his artistic lifetime achieving his goal of integrating random, purely abstract markings with brushwork to match that of his brush-wielding hero. The method he perfect involved crumpling up thin, absorbent ­xuan and other papers, dipping them in ink, and printing the initial markings onto paper, then adding brushwork and washes to comfortably integrated 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 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.

Which brings me to the third weasel word: tradition. As an alternative to the idea of modern, that of tradition 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 time-frame. We can sensibly claim a watershed between the two as existing from the last decades of the nineteenth into the first half of the twentieth century. But that becomes meaningless in the Chinese visual arts where what the West accepts as modernism existed in Chinese calligraphy two thousand, and in painting at least one thousand years ago.

In China the concept of art being an autonomous vehicle for self-education was already established by the late Zhou dynasty by the sixth to fifth century BCE, even if at that time the arts included writing (although not necessarily calligraphy as its transcendent expression), archery and ritual, but not painting. Ever since, whatever became incorporated into the idea of high art, became highly efficient in its fundamental role of self-education for the elite movers and shakers of culture; indeed it was the criterion that allowed the inclusion of additional art form over time. Because of this, by the seventeenth century one manual of aesthetic response noted the artistic skills of one scholar who was 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.

Because of this aesthetic precociousness in the visual arts, China refined some of the most sophisticated materials and formats, including thin, absorbent papers; ink and colours that penetrated the surface, often even right through to the other side of the paper, that, once dried, were permanent; brushes with an extraordinary range of potential for self-expression, and formats.

One of these, 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.
The handscroll painting is horizontal and can be as long or short as the artist chooses. It is kept rolled up and comes out only when the viewer decides to engage in an intimate, usually personal, and inevitably intense exchange with it, although other viewers can participate even if not so efficiently in all of its potential aspects as spectators. Unless unusually short, it was never intended to be viewed as a single image. 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.

For our journey into the handscroll here, we can use The Four Seasons, by Liu Kuo-sung (1932).1 As agent for living Chinese artists for many years, I was keen to encourage ancient and highly efficient formats such as handscrolls, hanging scroll and albums. In the second half of the twentieth century many Chinese artists outside of mainland China had begun to favour rectangular formats suitable for framing, and for a modern, western-influenced, audience and clientele. So I commissioned many handscrolls from my artist friends, asking Liu Kuo-sung to create The Four Seasons, in 1982 – it was completed in 1983. Exhibited widely and frequently around the world, it has become recognized as one of the finest handscrolls of the modern period, and one of the artist’s masterpieces.

To allow you to join in the process, click here, Then, beneath the image you can enlarge it until the height fills the screen then use your mouse to scroll through it. Like its ancient origins, it starts at the right and unrolled towards the left for an initial introduction.
The handscroll effectively breaks down the distinction between artist and audience, a necessary goal once art efficiently begins to perform its highest role in a culture. The viewer controls speed of progress and direction through the scroll, going back and forth at will, integrating the audience into the compositional process; the viewer’s experience is being constantly edited by changing the amount seen between the two rolled ends. This provides an enormous range of possible sub-compositions constantly edited and recomposed by the viewer.

The handscroll experience is intense and ideally solitary, reflecting the long-standing Chinese understanding of the vital meditative role of art. A pair of scroll weights can be used to hold back the two rolled ends should a particularly interesting section prompt a lengthy pause, for whatever reason. The format is designed to ensure that the audience cannot fail to become engrossed in the process as a full partner, rather than as a passive observer. This allows the audience to become a full participant in the process rather than just a beneficiary - in approaching Chinese art, this shift to full participation is another of the crucial planks in the theory I propose.

A fully mature aesthetic culture shifts from a product-based, to a process-based approach. In product-based aesthetics we used to see the process as the artist translating visionary capacity through acquired technique into a physical work of art, the physical work of art or performance of some kind. This was then seen as the end-product of the artistic process. The audience was then considered as separate from the process. Its task was to try to reach back through the encoded languages of the product of the art form in order to grasp as much as possible of the vision represented. This is a workable hypothesis up to a point, but inefficient at the best of times and both inadequate and immensely confusing in a fully mature aesthetic culture. For that reason, and because the old ways linger still much to our confusion, it is worth hammering home this vital aesthetic shift.

Process-based aesthetic theory agrees with its earlier equivalent up to the point of the art object, but instead of stopping there, the audience is included, the process is ongoing. In a mirror image of the artist’s side of the art object, the audience refines its own, audience techniques in approaching and understanding the art-form as an integral part of the artistic process rather than as separate, less important observer.

There is no doubt that the audience has always been important to the process, but the illusion of the art object as a wall between artist and audience is misleading. It is doorway, not a wall. It is also one that upon close examination begins to shimmer and shift a little, since the artist in realizing vision and creating the work of art acts to some extent as his or her own audience. Every aspect of creativity enlightens, not only the audience but the artist as well. As mentioned earlier, we don’t just express with our arts, we think with them.

The audience is crucial to the overall process from the outset, since the artist tends to create with an audience in mind and without it, the incentive to do so would be greatly diminished. The audience, conversely, is also part artist in approaching the art object as a doorway. A creative aesthete, or connoisseur of art is every bit as important to the process as a creative artist and as necessary to the overall process of art in evolving consciousness. With the shift to processed based aesthetics, the process becomes:

Artistic vision → artistic techniques → art object → audience techniques → audience enlightenment.

The entire process is the art, the end product is enlightenment whether lower case or capitalized – i.e. however you decide to define that concept.

One hardly needs a chart in order to understand this, but fig. 1 is offered not because we really need it, but because, once drawn, it looks encouragingly like the cross-section of something that would actually float.

Fig. 1

The horizontal line represents the difference between the visionary realm and its prosaic, everyday equivalent of the world in which the intellect holds sway – what I have described as the ‘glass ceiling’ of consciousness.

A (above the line) represents the trans-intellectual realm, a source of visionary capacity.
B (below it) represents the realm of the intellect, the rational, reasoning faculties of mind.
C is the visionary capacity of the artist.
D is acquired artistic techniques.
E is the art object.
F represents audience techniques.
G is audience vision, taking the whole process back above our glass ceiling to unite with the transcendent realm.

By effectively breaking down the distinction between the artist and the audience, the handscroll allows the audience to throw open the door to perception and expression rather than dealing with a wall.

The first impulse in approaching a handscroll, particularly for the neophyte, is to deal with the subject matter, treating it as a journey and unrolling it to see where it leads, what happens along the way, sometimes at an unseemly gallop. But as the potential of the format reveals itself, those accustomed to it will begin to slow down and delight in the experience more. When reaching the ‘end’ the experienced viewer recognizes it as just the end of the beginning, since instead of just rapidly re-rolling it for store, one can return slowly in the opposite direction, but focused on a different language of art. This focus on the inner languages, one by one, can, of course, be achieved by starting again at the beginning. Focusing on form rather than subject, a completely different and abstract experience awaits – the separation between figuration and abstraction no longer a surface definition as the syncretic mind takes over. This separation may sound like a return to a western, binary approach and indeed it is as an exercise, but its goal is the full integration of all the languages of art, exactly mirroring the creative integration the artist achieved. As in meditating, one must first aspire to do so, then learn how, then follow the instructions, and try to still the chattering intellect: all are aspects of the intellectual approach to the process. The goal, however, remains clear: the attainment of a unified way of knowing that transcends both intellect and its sibling twin ego. The syncretic mind does not reject the intellect, it recognizes its limitations and its role as a useful kit of tools in evolving consciousness. In the West it was allowed to reach for autonomy and become tyrannical, and the tyrannical intellect is as dangerous as its political equivalent.

Lengthy handscroll formats give full rein to formal qualities – balance between near and far views, vertical and horizontal shapes, solid elements and void, and so on. But the same shift of focus is also encouraged for the other inner languages of pictorial art. Line, for example, is a highly developed language in its own right and through calligraphy, an important one in Chinese art. Focusing specifically on line enables yet another experience, as the viewer looks past the depictive elements to become involved in the expressiveness of the gestural, calligraphic brushwork. As we follow the dancing lines of brushwork in its many possible modes, the underlying subject matter begins to shimmer and dissipate; we begin to further understand the subtle level at which traditional Chinese artists dealt with abstraction. We shift from the intellectual mode of understanding to the trans-intellectual, from the definable to the indefinable, from the actual to the spiritual. And in the process we befuddle the intellect – the aim of meditation of all sorts being to still what Wordsworth called the ‘meddling intellect.’

Chinese art is not unlike an iceberg: nine tenths of its meaning is far from obvious to the casual observer.

The Liu Kuo-sung handscroll also illustrates another important aspect of the fully mature, process-based aesthetic approach to art. When it was first loaned back to the artist to be shown in an exhibition of his works in various Chinese cities, the title panel was blank. In the traditional manner, when having it mounted, a sheet of blank paper was included to await a suitable calligrapher to write the title. When the painting came back from China many months later I found, to my delight, that Kuo-sung had asked the famous artists Li Keran, then living in Beijing, to inscribe the title panel, which he did in his distinctive and much appreciated hand, along with a suitable encomium. As process rather than product, the process is considered sacred to a greater extent than the product, so the art is, in effect, ongoing. This explains why so many masterpieces of Chinese art attract elegant graffiti, those later additional inscriptions added to the physical work of art, usually in blank areas, but not always. It also explains the common practice of adding a series of collectors’ seals that can, over the centuries, become a cinnabar blizzard, often impressed over elements of the surface subject matter. The logic, in process-based aesthetics, is obvious: the art is not considered sacrosanct, the surface is not what it is all about but the civilizing overall process.

Once the handscroll format is fully understood, the same applies, of course, to the other formats, the closely related album of related images on a number of different pages, or even the hanging scroll which is designed so it can be enjoyed and, once enjoyed, rolled up again and stored, so it remains always vital. It also prompts a deeper involvement in any other visual art form, its high efficiency leading to greater depth of aesthetic response.

As a final aspect of the precocious maturity of Chinese art, it is worth looking at how a fully mature aesthetic culture evolves once it has become fully mature. This 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, in both directions between artist and audience. It de-emphasizes the art object, and focuses on the process as an ongoing, vital exchange. So surface innovation becomes secondary, not irrelevant since without rules that govern art anything is potentially possible. The development of new materials, and in the past several decades of every more powerful computers, innovation is still possible, but it remains focussed on what is being communicated, not on the surface innovation of how it is being communicated. In a fully mature aesthetic culture innovation resides in conveying wisdom and, therefore, on 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, and this has happened in Chinese art, but always individual artists, or groups of artists, break out of orthodoxy, even if it can take a while for their input to be fully appreciated and 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, even if the process is cyclical, it is ongoing, and individual creative genius in conveying meaning as process does not become distracted by surface banality.

Hugh Moss
At the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, December 2020.