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Chinese Art: Between Beautiful and Sublime.




Re-navigating the passage between the Beautiful and the Sublime



After looking at paintings by Li Baolin, Dominique Shidi, Zhang Hui Lan and Huo Chun Yang, at the National Art Museum of China, Autumn, 2006.


Two exhibitions of Abstract painting by Chinese artists and two of traditional Chinese painting took place at the National Art Museum of China in November. Of the Abstracts, one was in black and white, the other in colour; of the traditional paintings, one working in the genre of ‘flowers and birds’ used colour, whilst the other, in the ‘mountains and waters’ genre, used mainly black and white.

‘Mountain Echoes’ by Li Baolin and students, features painting in the tradition of Li Keran, in Western terms the topic of mountains is always going to be Sublime, especially when rendered in black and white - perhaps even more especially when in ‘shui mo’ style. If these paintings appear to follows the tradition of landscape painting (always a little ‘sublime’, suggesting a reaching out for a place elsewhere) to achieve a modern Sublime, then they are in marked contrast with the beauty of Huo Chun Yang’s flower-bird paintings, which are both traditional in form and very Beautiful in effect (in the sense of the word as used in Western Aesthetics).

If certain paintings in ‘Mountain Echoes’ push recognition to the boundary point of realism, to edge of abstraction, then the two exhibitions featuring Abstract painting compliment the two exhibitions featuring the two traditional genres perfectly. Indeed in the work of Dominique Shidi and Zhang Hui Lan, we find the logical end of the ‘Mountain Echoes’ collection. Zhang’s gestural abstraction perfectly complements the black and white of Bao leading to a monumental Sublime; whilst Shidi’s shimmering colours also show the other path that can be taken into an abstraction of the Beautiful, but a Beautiful which is also Sublime in its reference and haunting quality. It is the co-existence of these two opposing terms that brings to the subject of this article.



The ‘merely beautiful’ is alive and well in China. Excoriated as a low brow genre by those (Western) critics who would take their art ‘sublime’ with maximum discomfort (or minimal reference), the category of the Beautiful has, since Kant at least, been the target of such pejoratives as ‘ornamental’, ‘decorative’, etc. Yet ignoring all Western influence, not least that of a flourishing ‘modern’ - read ‘globalised’- art scene, art judged according to its beauty is still the standard in Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese painting is sustained by a tradition that has refused to die and a flourishing (even overpriced) art market.

Yet if the tradition of painting appears, in the realm of ‘high art’ at least, almost to have died out in the West, then the market offers popular art as measured by the index of poster sales (not the coffers of individual collectors, who may skew the gallery system but are powerless before popular demand). In the world of popular art, Monet and friends again triumph, but are matched by the much derided Jack Vettriano (whose paintings can be fairly divided between the dance of sex and the beautiful) the winner of the people’s vote, together with the usual fare of sunlight gardens and patio plants, evergreen symbols of the popularity of the utopian scene in Western art. Sex and gardening thus appear to be the themes closest to the popular imaginary of the West, suggesting a concern with pleasure, the linking of beauty with pleasure. The representations most suitable for this end are judged by the public to be those with an allusive sexual flavour (in China and the Chinese speaking world, the painting of Chen Yifei play a similar role) and those typified by a spatial arrangement judged to be ‘beautiful’ (the Landscape, the Still Life) - today found as ‘the view’ or in other domestic scenes combining garden scenery and private bliss. The spatial element is most strongly represented in reproductions of the sun-lit garden scene.

It is in this focus upon the garden that we find the point of overlap with Chinese art. Or, more precisely, its contents as represented by the hua niao hua genre, the ‘flower-bird’ genre – the Chinese equivalent of the Western Still Life. The other great genre of the Beautiful in traditional Chinese painting is the Landscape, the ‘mountains and rivers’ genre (shan shui hua) – containing a little more of the Sublime perhaps than the hua niao genre, as is the case with its Western cousin where landscape and sublimity are often co-implicated. However the Chinese Still Life, the hua niao genre, also contains something contained in every truly beautiful scene – the desire for eternity. The good life should last forever. This element of idealisation together with its concomitant trace of an exterior deixis (a scene stolen from heaven) is sufficient to allow us to speak of the Sublime in the Beautiful. The garden becomes, or carries the half-remembered echo of, the Garden.


So this beauty, this sense of the Beautiful, of what is Beautiful… is also Sublime. In its intimation of ideal meaning, the Beauty of these works emanates a range of feelings, associations or secondary (second or symbolic) meanings which are usually (in the traditional aesthetics of the West) read as ‘Sublime’. The use of the term ‘Sublime’ is the result of an interpretation whose two key features (often found combined) are (i) the sense of an invisible exterior, usually consisting of a reference to something beyond the painting itself, and (ii) the discomfort or threat posed by the depiction of forces beyond our control (this second element is a little akin to tragedy, with whom it bears more than just a passing ritual resemblance). However in Chinese Art the sense of the Sublime is of a gentler variety than that traditionally associated with the West. In Chinese art the element of discomfort or threat (second element of the Sublime) is often implicit, if present at all, one aspect of the inimical beauty of the snowy mountain landscape, or the reminder of our mortality present in any depiction which suggests an after-life, or immortal realm (first element of the Sublime). In Chinese art there is to be found a balance of the so-called ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Sublime’ types of art.


The ‘Beautiful’ and the ‘Sublime’: this distinction has plagued Western art history since its inception (the separation of these two modes of appreciation from out of their unity in ritual or religious art) and currently orients the division, in many high brow critics at least, between popular and elite forms of art. In ‘serious’ art, for example, the elements of exterior reference (to larger issues) and discomfort (difficulty, questioning) associated with the Sublime have become refined and represent at best, social critique or the religious impulse, at worst, a badge of recognition confirming elite identity. In popular art these elements are omnipresent as the supernatural and the thrill of the chase in film (heir to the Gothic tradition and the adventure/threat theme in all narrative) – reproduced in the popular art form of the poster, supporting a whole tradition of generationally-inflected fashion and music. The Beautiful, on the other hand, accounts for representation: in ‘high’ art as that which can be represented, presented as the ‘best’ (best view or Landscape, best Still Life); similarly in popular art with an emphasis on the ornamental and vaguely (sensually) utopian. The sense of the Beautiful works by confirmation: the apprehension of the Sublime by a threat followed by recognition and reconstruction; complimentary modalities of the self with obvious ritual significance.


The balance of these two ‘ideal types’ or better ‘stereotypes’ of feeling, of pleasure, of moods of representation (of effect and meaning, of feeling, of affect and meaning) is typical of traditional Chinese painting and is omni-present in current art influenced by this tradition.  The result is an art with little or none of the discomfort which one important factor of the Western sense of the Sublime, that is, it is less threatening and less disturbing. What remains in common with the Western sense of the Sublime is the echo of an exterior deixis, a ‘pointing’ present in the ideal as the means of generating sublime effect, a reference therefore to another place, another time, an afterlife, or immortal realm (the sense of our mortality this exteriority may evoke may  in turn be the source of a certain ‘discomfort’, this apprehension of our end does resemble the first, ‘destabilising’ feature of the Western Sublime insofar as the reminder of our mortal limitation may cause unease). In Chinese art it would appear that the two elements we can identify as constituting the Western sense of the Sublime (an exterior deixis, a uncomfortable reminder of our limitations) are present, but in a radically different form; the sense of threat or disturbance is largely absent or severely attenuated. Moreover there is in much Chinese art a sense of balance with respect to the elements that we might identify as ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Sublime’ such that, in contrast to the Western tradition, it is the apprehension of the Beautiful that leads to a more subtle sense of the Sublime.


A balance typical of Chinese art not least in so far as it has been influenced by its three religions, Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. A long history not easily elided – echoes remain. The last two religions particularly have influenced the interpretation and evolution of the landscape genre (the landscape itself had long been subject to myth and religious interpretation). The role of idealisation in ‘mountains and rivers’ and ‘flower-bird’ genres has long been a received fact (and so also the sublime effects that accompany this idealisation). This tradition acts as a guarantor of points of reference and continuity (actual and imaginary). The Beautiful as the name given to positive pleasure in art (the traditional role of the Beautiful) joins the Sublime as the name given to any reference to the beyond (the Sublime in its positive -if absent- aspect, without the element of threat associated with the Sublime in the West). 


In this sense the competition of traditional (including realist) and Post-conceptual Chinese art functions as a binary, essentially Chinese and Western, with Western concepts of modern art and their attendant notions of the Sublime gaining the upper hand in the latter, in Chinese Post- conceptual or ‘modern’ art, despite the sensitive blending, as found in the former, in Chinese painting, of the last 20 years, the last 150 years, or even the last 450 years…


Balance is the key. The element of the Sublime is to be found in idealisation, as also in the formalisation that often suggests it, as well as in the grounds and rhetoric of time, of eternity (to be specific) found operating the upper portions of so many landscapes. If in the ‘mountains and rivers’ genre the sublime effects are closer to those of the Western landscape, then the ‘flower-bird’ genre will also have something to teach us about the Western Still Life. The formalisation, simplicity and an ethereal presence of the Chinese genre, all suggest an intimate form of idealisation, the intimate presence of an ideal scene. This aura is also to be found in the Western Still Life (where because of prior definitions of the Sublime, it would be difficult to use this term, or the elements associated with it, of such ‘quiet’ and meditative works).

In the case of the ‘Garden’, in Chinese art more akin to Still Life than Landscape, in its depictions as in its actuality (most ‘flower-bird’ paintings are a synecdoche, a part of a garden scene, as are more distantly the products on the table of the Western Still Life) the effect is also often otherworldly. This topic and its accompanying effect or meaning is found in many cultures, both East and West. Where technique and form (arrangement) are sources of unreality, of ideality, of perfection, of otherness, then they are also the sources of any utopian, or religious pull the work may exert. The hope of a good life orients our desires as elicited by such scenes. As does the eternalisation of this feeling; the depiction as also of a scene taken from a shared idea of heaven. All these genres have in common a sense of the Beautiful, which ends in an intimation of the Sublime.


All art is defined as such through its character as a special kind of sign; its formalisation, framing, its setting apart, its institutionalisation, all these function as bearers of the promise of greater value, of more aesthetic value, a special value in the world, a world of better values, the promise of value(s). The promise of something beyond the everyday. As such it is already (always already) reaching out beyond the temporal… The handing down of values (always a product of belief systems, pretending to stand outside in order to anchor themselves in eternity) and the glow of higher value emanating from the artwork, already suggest a reference point somewhere beyond. This is Art’s most fundamental and indispensable illusion. It is up the individual artwork, not least up to great art, to deliver on this promise.






Copyright 2007, Peter Nesteruk