Chinese Snuff Bottles, Toward a Better Understanding

CHINESE SNUFF BOTTLES Toward a Better Understanding Hugh M. Moss • Tbis article was presented as a lecture at tbe Los Angeles Con– vention, November 7, 1984. My talk this morning is aimed at a better understanding of Chinese snuff bottles. To arrive at this, I would first iike to expiore certain theoretical aspects of art in generai and then see how these reiate to our snuff bottles and to our inter– action with them as coiiectors. The principle is that by introducing a broader perspective on an in gen– eral we wiii better understand the more specific arts of the snuff bot– tle. Snuff botties are frequently referred to as 'works of art,' but this is a fairly general term, open to a wide variety of interpretations, so r propose to begin by briefi)' exam– ining what art is, why it exists, and how it functions in our lives. We have often heard art defined as 'communicarion,' and although this is not a definition which ap– pears in standard dictionaries, it is one that is agreed upon by the broad majority of those who apply themselves to the philosophy of art. But what is the purpose of that communication, and how does it take place? Ever since we, mankind, developed the capacity for wonder, we have been consumed by the need to explain the mysteries that surround us. Underlying our indi– vidual and coiiective endeavors has been a constant quest for under– standing, a need to endlessly raise our levels of consciousness. To do this, it is necessary to share experi– ence: to gather the stored experi– ence of the past, share it in the present, and pass it on, enriched, to posterity. We do this by using a variety of languages of communica– tion. We may use the language of words or the languages of other symbols, such as that of maUl– ematics, which provide, once learned, the capacity for a more or less common w1derstanding of a more or less precise meaning. However, there are experiences which are not capable of being shared with any degree of precision of common understanding, but which are of vital importance to our quest for those higher levels of consciousness which are the ul– timate goal of communication. There are emotions, sensations, even concepts and ideas, which are incapable of being formulated ade– quately in the language of words, for instance. If you doubt this, try reducing a Brahms piano concerto to words or explaining to someone who has never tried one exactly what a strawberry tastes like. Only a fraction of all human experience can adequately be conveyed in conventional languages, and yet it must be conveyed if we are to share it with others in our quest for understanding. This is where art comes in. All an forms are a part of the process of communicating, or sharing experi– ence. When we sit entranced by a piece of music, transported by a work of an into a timeless zone from which mundane concerns are absent, we have, however briefly, felt the full power of that commu– nication through art which is its ultimate function and justification. If we will but forego our dependence upon verbal languages, even in our thought patterns, and approach art at such an unhindered level, the power of art to communicate and enrich our lives is unlimited. It is, to use a modern analogy, like plug– ging a tiny home computer into one of infinite size wherein is stored the sum total of man's expe- 4 rience. Communication flows freely, released from the need for ex– planation and from perceptual con– finement by our preconceived word and thought patterns. This places enormous emphasis on art, invests it with immense power, but it is an emphasis which has been endorsed by every civi– lization known to man. All have rendered great homage to the arts, even if they have not fully under– slood why. Indeed, it is through their arts that we know most about our ancient civilizations, our long– dead cultures; and the power of communication in art is demon– strated by the fact that we can still share the experience of these people and their cultures. Now, let us look at a diagram of how the process of art works (fig. 1). In dealing with theory we will discuss the art of painting, but the process is the same, with only minor changes of detail, for any other art form. Art may be divided initially into two basic categories, and-despite the rather dated sound of it-for the sake of sim– plicitv we will refer to these as the medium and the message. How– ever, please bear in mind that by message I mean a message not merely in the sense of 'please call home' but rather in Ule sense of the experience that is communi– cated and thereby shared. The medium is the simpler cat– egory to grasp. In the case of a painting, it consists of a given set of materials (paint, canvas, ete.) trans– formed by a certain skill in the use of various tools (brushes and the like) into a certain image. Once completed, it is fixed. It can be reproduced but never repeated, and-as medium only-it stands in isolation from all other works of