An Artist's Perspective: How Art Works

Western pre-modern painting tended to be confined to a series of manageable, usually rectangular formats, because intellectual reality and, from the Renaissance onwards, scientific perspective, dictated them. To decide on a particular point from which to view a landscape, and then make the image mimic it so that when you stand in one spot to gaze at it, you see in two dimensions what the artist saw in three is a clever trick, but at the same time artistically limiting. To paraphrase Chinese 12th century aesthetic theory, ‘to paint something the way it seems on the surface is a childish pursuit’. With Chinese painting the audience provides the perspective as a vital part of the process. The handscroll is specifically designed so that the viewer dictates the point from which the painting is viewed, again breaking down the distinction between the artist and audience. Another telling point about the different aesthetic approach of the Eastern and Western traditions is found in the accretion of seals and added comments on ancient paintings. To the Chinese aesthete, the physical work of art was not the end product of the process, it was merely a part of an ongoing process that included the audience, so what more natural than to allow the audience to actually participate if they felt aesthetically confident in doing so? The process was sanctified, and taken very seriously, but the physical art object was de-emphasized and seen as open for continued creative response actually changing its nature. As a rule, these accretions were added by other artists and scholars, some of them emperors. They kept the process vital. They were, and continue to be, indefinite joint works potentially involving any future aesthete with access. One can make many other observations about the precociousness of Chinese art, but the implication is that Chinese art was already ‘modern’ – by the standards of the modern Western revolution in the arts – many centuries ago. The theory I have developed and found useful in approaching any art form from any culture at any time both allows and explains this. The theory also suggests that art serves many functions at many levels. Sagacity is relative; art is, and should be, multi- layered, capable of creating intrigue and appealing at every level of response. The theory is based upon the belief that art should enlighten. It should inspire those involved at all levels, 188 both on the artist’s and the audience’s side of the physical art object, to evolve his or her consciousness, to move ever onwards down that path from the obvious to the esoteric, from the banal to the lofty. It also shifts the focus of the art from the art object to the entire process, changing the questions we ask about art, and the answers we find. From all this, it becomes clear that to expect agreement about various aspects of art, as preferred by the intellect, is to miss the point. We can agree on the overall nature of art, but to seek a ‘correct’ answer on its various aspects is not fruitful. If we were looking for a means of communication with greater precision, where we can expect agreement, and where ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are appropriate terms, we have the more precise languages of communication at our disposal: the written word, or better still, mathematics, the ultimately precise language of science. A primary role of art is precisely that it plays an important communicational role beyond the specific (even if it simultaneously communicates specifically) so there is no need for agreement on any particular work of art, or even on the various aspects of the overall process. It is the very complexity of this process that makes it so efficient – once we approach it with a clear understanding of what it is, its role, and how it works, which we can now do. The dendritic multiplication of the process, once we delve into it at any point, becomes impossible to follow analytically. The intellect is led into a realm where it can no longer cope; it reaches the limits of its capacity and becomes befuddled. That is ultimately the role of art, to befuddle the intellect having put it through its paces and honed it to the limit. Art eventually convinces the intellect of its own limitations, encouraging it to seek a higher perspective, and efficiently fulfil its proper role in the evolution of consciousness. To me the handscroll seems to exemplify this role, which is why when I first began collecting modern paintings I made it my goal to encourage living artists to return to this largely abandoned format by commissioning them whenever possible. It is also why I paint them so frequently. Hugh Moss, The Master of the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat. December 2012.

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