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Chinese Gardens II: Towards a Comparative Aesthetics (Chinese landscapes).




Looking at Chinese landscapes (through Western eyes). Where do we start, how do we understand them, how are we to make conscious and positive use of our own heritage (without pretending either that it does not matter or can be easily ignored or overcome) and without distorting that which we see before us? Above all how can we avoid being conceptual, as well as cultural and geographical, tourists when, as part of a process of cultural acclimatisation, we seize upon a regional idea (usually of Buddhist, Daoist or Confucian origin) and pretend to ourselves that this rapid adoption of a new and (to us) exotic notion can somehow make-up for a life-time’s immersion in a major world culture traversing (at least) several millennia?


In one sense there can be no escape from our cultural past. Certainly the belief that we are ‘all the same’ only prepares the way for the assumption that ‘they’ are all the same… as us; mirror image of the opposite assumption (often made in the disappointment the follows when we discover that ‘they’ are not at all ‘all the same’, neither as ‘us’, nor as themselves) that ‘they’ are all totally and ‘inscrutably’ other. (Read ‘Other’).


Perhaps if we begin with our own conceptual tools and see if there is a meeting place, some shared elements with which we may begin to make the transition, can use to make a translation… Perhaps the identification of certain shared and repeated cultural functions (references to ‘outsides’, the differences between comfortable and uncomfortable beauty, the role of these in the ritual construction of identities) may provide the initial clue that shakes both sets of preconceptions, providing the means to approach both cultures and their products, as it were, one step removed from their self-images, their self-validation. A cross-cultural perspective - whilst, or even because, never entirely neutral - may be of aid to all as a self-reflexive tool. The knife that cuts our hand, reshaping the hand that wields it even as it dissects the object before us. Starting point for a comparative aesthetics.


Chinese temples, set in parks, or in a carefully maintained landscape, are not the same as Western ruins, nor Western follies (although in many ways similar to the situation of some Western churches); yet they do seem to occupy similar places within the world of their respective symbolic geographies. These two very disparate ways of marking the landscape will therefore provide a useful point of departure.



‘If in the contemplation of ruins, Western poets (and in the contemplation of ruins we are all poets) find the death of self, of time, of a culture, a civilisation; then in the Chinese park or garden there is to be found a very different form of contemplation. If the classic Western appropriation of ruins features the loss of self, the loss of the ego, it nevertheless (almost in a clandestine way) works in favour of some sort of belief, of some kind of new self.’ In the contemplation of the garden, of the landscape, or their portrayal in art, the Chinese tradition finds a source of meditation, perhaps the moment is comparable to a lyric, in contrast to the West's dirge. A moment of clarity and insight is opposed to the western desire for elegy. An insight free from the clouding emotions sought by the presence of death; an expression and remoulding of the inward that is more open and direct in its refreshment of the self. (This renewal of the self with meditation will also be found to function as a kind of mediation between self and State). Chinese gardens extol the virtues of a self as situated before the spectacle of living beauty (by contrast to the ruin in the gardens of the West).


Yet perhaps certain paintings, those of mountain and flood, resemble our Romantic sensibility in their approach to landscape? Does not Chinese art, if not its parks and gardens, pose the same question: that of the self before the sublime? Such appears to be the case in the opposition between the painted landscape (suggesting sublime-type emotions and effects not too distant from our 'Romantic' concept of the Sublime) and the garden or park (where beauty may be read as offering a more gentle route to reflection upon the sublime realm). In Chinese landscape painting, say from Jing Hao of the tenth century Northern School of landscape, the period of 'grand mountains and waters', through to the dark ranges of Li Keran in the twentieth century, we can see how the raw sublime of an untrammelled Nature is tamed by its re-situating within the frame of the image and by its style of formalisation (in this way the sublime leads to contemplation). This apparent taming is brought about by the very nature of the image as an artificial thing, a representation, one step removed from any putative origin (of which it is anyway a genre-inflected formalisation) as from the immediate and enfolding (if not also artificial) presence of the garden. In all art read as an aspect of the Daoist Way, the central and guiding concept throughout the long history of Chinese aesthetics, a unity with Nature is presupposed. However this unity does not have to take a form dominated by order. It is evident from the history of Chinese painting that the Way does not shrink from inhabiting landscapes the West might well find 'Sublime'.


When faced with the spectacle of gardens, landscapes and ruins, the educated Western mind reaches into its aesthetic toolbox and brings out that unlikely double-act, the Beautiful and the Sublime (capitalised of course). Edmund Burke is perhaps the best known, the most straightforward, and most intuitively acceptable of the theorists of the Sublime ('A Philosophical Enquiry', 1757). The Beautiful is said to be the comforting product of proportion and order; whilst the Sublime is said to include the discomforting experience of disorder, or an order potentially inimical to ourselves. The philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, on the other hand, offers us the difference between the Beautiful and the Sublime as the difference between a vision of Law as visible (the awareness of Beauty as order), and the apprehension of an invisible Law (a Sublime co-ordination). Important here is the idea of a further power. The notion of a deixis (a pointer) with an external, trans-historical, non-contingent, universal, transcendental or eternal reference point. A reference point that is always elsewhere.


Robbed of the clothing of a particular god or spiritual centre together with their habitual entourage of accompanying immortals -but not of its god-function- the notion of the eternal persists as the indispensable, if invisible, anchorage point for ideologies and beliefs of whatever form or origin. This referential-fiction, an crucial ideational function that glories in its lack of a referent, therefore provides our enquiry somewhere from which a shared reference point may be seen to emerge (a reference point cleansed of particularism almost to the point of abstract absence, suggesting that the only true cultural universal lies in the state of absence, in the use of absence…  foundation of systems, as of our attempts to comprehend them. But a foundational absence, doubly absent; less a negative theology, than a rhetoric of the negative -like the working of the Dao).


Such absent, but rhetorically powerful, reference points find their logic, their justification and function, in their unsurpassable ability to cement identity; to fuse individual with community and culture. What happens then when we try to give our (and ‘their’) art historical concepts a more general scope by reformulating them in relation to this identity, as rituals bearing upon the viewer's identity? What follows next will apply equally to the retinal image of two- and three-dimensional origin and so to all landscape whether present before us or reproduced by means of a painterly genre.


As the path to the place of eternity is lined by the trappings of ritual, a rituality that binds, forms and perpetuates our image of ourselves, our community and our place in the world, so the art work as image, the work of the image as art, also lies through the site of ritual. The art work as the site of ritual. The artwork as ritual. That aspect of the image that is the repository of the eternal.


Using the commonality of ritual and its role as the gatekeeper to eternity, external guarantor of all systems of belief, behaviour and description (whether through the assertion of revelation or universalism as source), let us now turn to the work of art as the bearer of the modalities shaping the relation between the eternal and the self.


Beauty is a form of ritual image whereby the continuation of the self is already ensured. The viewer need only take his or her place before the picture. The key topos, or visual form, here is the protecting room, or womb-like space (a space transformed by its associations into place; see also 'Ruins' and 'Genius Loci'). If we then add time to space (the timeless element in, or effect of, beauty), we find the temporal combined with the a-temporal, as vehicle to tenor, first to second meaning. This is a combination that brings forth the figural mark of eternity, the superimposition of the beyond, an outside. The wish-implication dreamt behind all beauty is that all beauty is eternal (from 'is' to 'ought', from indicative experience to the subjunctive hope that founds a metaphysics). The experience of being moved, of being transported (in a reassuring way) by beauty is one that continuously, if discretely, draws upon the rhetoric of the outside. In this way beauty becomes foundation (standing outside time) so supporting our identity (as well as ensuring its own) upon the rock of a place at once extra-historical and non-contingent. A rock floating on clouds.


The Sublime is the form of the ritual image whereby the continuation of the self is (apparently) put into question. The 'overwhelming' effect, replete with reminders of mortality, seems to shake us to the core of our very identity. In reality this transgression upon the unity of the self only disturbs the self in direct proportion with which it would then reinforce it (precisely like a pocket ritual, a ritual transgression, a mock overturning, or 'carnivalesque' parody). The key image here is of the 'end', of an inimical nature, a landscape that dwarfs the human. The effect, as with the metaphysics of ruins, is to reinforce a metaphysical or religious belief-system (of whatever kind or origin). In the terms of our experience, time (our temporality, our temporal being) is opposed to not-time. The outside of time appears as a threat, all the better to remind us of the 'eternal truths' of the given belief system founded upon it, a belief which would claim dominion over us through its the right to speak for the beyond. This system sets us within a context and so guarantees our identity; the final supporting context in all this is, however, an absent context, eternity. Aesthetics are ritual compressed into the image; not-time lies at the centre of their rhetorical force.


The Beautiful and Sublime are both forms of identity-bearing ritual, forms which function as identity creating and maintaining. But with this difference. The Sublime is both threatening and formative (identity is formed under threat) whereas with Beauty identity is nurtured by care and succour. The gender implications of the Beautiful and Sublime, their sexual stereotypes even, should be more apparent when we view them through the magnifying glass of their identity function (or identity exchange; where the sublime is violent and sacrificial and beauty is the gift of charity, pairing up, in this way, all to easily with another older pair of Western concepts, Eros and Agape, or passion and care). Already we can see the images of father and mother looming large, like Victorian paternal and maternal functions. After Freud and Lacan we have been encouraged to view the entry into culture and language is brought about under threat; this is often symbolised as castration or the pulling away from the mother as demanding the help of a father-function. Then, in the realm of cultural stereotype, there is the Byronic Hero, macho, aristocratic, demanding recognition from the other before magnanimously conferring recognition himself. A figure often found opposed to the recognition-offering Lady, a civilising force, supportive and finally giving of herself (as in the so-called courtly love tradition and its all-pervasive influence in the arts). The clichés of many literary genres, as well as many codes of conduct, may be found here...  


Understood in these terms, of identity in its (imaginary) relation to the eternal, the concepts 'the beautiful' and 'the sublime', taken in their difference to one another, as different ends of a spectrum (in lower case, as it were and not as the limited categories of our European inheritance), would appear (mutatis mutandis) to have an application to our understanding of Chinese and ‘other’ cultures - as well as for a comparative aesthetics that would then rebound upon our own cultures (whatever they might be).


The union of beauty and sublimity. Strung out between the ritual poles of succour and provocation, these two identity-affirming modes (so carefully distinguished in Western art of the 'Romantic' period) are perhaps not so clearly demarcated in Chinese art and its criticism. Or if, as identity-affirming aesthetic structures, these two broad types certainly do exist; then the parallels with our 'Beautiful' and 'Sublime', themselves already outmoded by the twentieth century (leading to discussions of 'the modernist sublime' and 'the post-modern sublime') do not anymore quite match (just as tragedy is a specific form of a conflict model in literature and not an a-historical model to be granted axiomatic primacy). As in most, if not all, cultures (and as with any and every binary construct) the presence of these opposites can be found within each other. The principle of harmony (order) the effect of beauty is also locatable in all sublime-type interactions; first, by contrast, and second by final result, which is never a pure persistence of chaos or identity disturbance. Indeed such aesthetic experiences are never actually constituted by pure terror; the framing of such experiences as a sign or symbol already denies this possibility. What we have is more like an impure and troubling beauty; like the aesthetic of the Gothic, the genres of the supernatural and of horror, like all forms of pleasure made out of, or with some slight element of discomfort. This is one of the many manifestations of masochism in art and its use is as the foundation of the many kind of identity rituals that begin with transgression. Likewise, the negation, or better abnegation (amounting almost to an acceptable form of abjection) of the self, which is the pure form of the sublime, is also found to be present in the sense of beauty as order, stability and propriety: as in the case of any binary relation the opposing term functions as the necessary pole of contrast, here playing the role of an alternative and undesirable end – a form of warning. If, in practice, we may find a trace of the sublime in any beauty, a trace of beauty in any relation to the sublime, then this strange dependency is due to another factor. Outside of, yet complementary to the basic forms of identity, the unity of these apparent opposites is due to another element they hold in common, one equally important to identity and also made up of a pair of opposites. Being relative to time; and to the outside of time. Being part of the flow of time, positioned between past and future in the eternal present, and being put into motion (as we would believe) by the outside of time (the ‘unmoved mover’), the rhetoric of eternity (as the fixed and fictitious point beyond all contingent movement). The rhetorical element explains the a-symmetry of two otherwise apparent equals (also the case with the two aesthetic categories under discussion where one points to an unknowable exterior). The ritual reconstructions of identity we call the 'Beautiful' and 'Sublime' are, at the same time, aspects of these two modalities upon Time, its interior and exterior, and two ways of relating one to the other (be it admiration or trembling). The self is as nothing before time (the seasons, the ages of Man) and transfigured by transmutation or annihilation when stood before the outside of time (Heaven, Hell, or Nirvarna). The sublime as terror and sublimity as radical exteriority join ranks in the relation to time. Eternal beauty is what we wish for and expect when we come face to face with the golden countenances of the Beatified, where we take our place among the bearers of the Beatitudes in the ever-distant shining realm of the Beyond.





                                                            Copyright 2005 Peter Nesteruk