An Artist's Perspective: How Art Works

186 An Artist's Perspective: How Art Works T hough brought up in a culture of Western art, I was trained from an early age to appreciate Chinese art. I have been involved in all aspects of the art-world – as dealer, collector, agent for living Chinese artists, and eventually as a practising artist, and have been struggling to refine a viable, all-encompassing theoretical approach to art for five decades. This theory will be presented online in its entirety at a later date, and its application to making more sense of many aspects of Chinese art is explored here through the medium of the handscroll. Central to this premise is the notion of us possessing not one but two modes of consciousness, with art performing the function, among many lower-level functions, of being an efficient channel of communication between the two. The first is the intellectual mode, which is common enough that we all understand it. It is, by definition, a mode of differentiation. The perceived phenomena of self and environment are separated, identified and named, giving rise to the more specific languages of communication such as speech, the written word, mathematics, and so on. In that mode we respond to experience by reducing it to manageable fragments. That is its great strength: it functions successfully because of its limitations. The second, alternative mode can only be grasped whole as a unified experience and is trans-intellectual . It has the unique capacity to make complete sense of the intellectual mode it contains, whereas the intellectual mode can never make complete sense of either itself or of the higher, trans-intellectual mode because it is only part of the full picture of consciousness. It is this transcendent mode that is at the heart of Daoism and Buddhism and has had such an impact on Chinese culture and, therefore, art. If we are to accept the notion of alternative modes of consciousness, we must also expect alternative biases as to which is perceived as governing. This crucial choice has informed cultures throughout recorded history – and since there are two modes of consciousness, it comes as no surprise to find two major cultural biases in the world. We can trace the seeds of the intellectual bias back to the Babylonians and see it flourish in the Greco-Roman culture. It has, ever since, tended to inform Western civilization, granting the rational, reasoning faculties of mind ever greater prominence and authority. On the other hand, in eastern traditions, the unified, transcendent mode tended to be granted greater respect and considered the highest way of knowing – and for the purposes of this essay and to avoid unnecessary complication we may look upon the pre-modern Chinese culture as representing this bias (while acknowledging that it is not its only exponent). In the Chinese tradition, the intellect was greatly admired and valued for what it was but the influential minority reserved the highest respect for the transcendent mode. This division of governing perspective between Western and Eastern civilizations no longer holds true in today’s global world, of course, but was broadly viable until around 1900. Today there is a greater balance internationally between the rewards of the intellectual bias, where science has created significant advances in technology, and the rewards of sagacity that permeate the trans-intellectual bias and which favour precociousness and high efficiency in art by avoiding the tyranny of the intellect. I believe that the one bias encourages a focus on science and technology, while the other focuses on attaining the transcendent mode of consciousness, which in turn encourages profundity in the arts. The result is early maturity of the arts in China, and extraordinary sophistication and efficiency in using art media in order to transcend the intellect. The Chinese invented paper two millennia ago, and developed it to ideally suit the artist. They also invented a form of ink that was extraordinarily flexible: soluble in water, it offered an infinite range of ‘colours’ or ink-tones from jet black to transparent almost invisible grey, which when used very wet, or when mixed with water in combination with its sophisticated papers, would spread, and run into each other, but when applied with a drier brush could leave very precise, sharp markings. Once they had dried, they were permanent. On absorbent papers where each layer sank into the surface, this allowed for multiple, translucent layers of expressive markings. The brushes were developed to provide similarly sophisticated exchanges with the medium. In the West, the intellectual bias encouraged art forms in which the artist imposed a pre-planned painting on a relatively impermeable surface. The Western dance was mostly one-sided: the artist danced, the medium was the dance floor. In China, however, every aspect of the medium danced back: it was a full partner in the process, as the audience was expected to be a full partner in the ongoing exchange. Chinese pictorial formats were specifically designed Seeking but not Finding the Recluse By Hugh Moss (b. 1943), 2010 Handscroll, ink and colour on paper Width 23 cm, length 544.2 cm