Why Does Abstract Art Get No Respect? The Clue Is In The Process

In modern Western art, there is often a struggle between word and image—that Cartesian duality—how one influences the other. Many artists I know have asked: since Chinese words are really images, do they have an answer? Here it is, answering a question with questions:

“What is a poem with no words, a dance with no steps, a painting with no picture, or music with no sound”?

Chinese calligraphy is abstract art that embodies concepts expressed in the process of writing. The meaning is always there—the words being the written form of the Chinese language itself—but it can vary in shading as a result of the mood of the moment in the process of writing. The modern brush which came into popular use during the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) allows the calligrapher to control the ink and the touch to create an infinite variety in line and form, even 3-dimensional effects. Its pinnacle was achieved by AD 350 with the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi, who still reigns today. Ink painting’s height followed almost a thousand years later, during the Song dynasty; but it has always been the poor cousin, illustrating nature, not expressing deeper thought.

But, as abstract art, can people who do not read Chinese appreciate it? Yes, according to Yale professor Richard Barnhart, in his introduction to a Chinese calligraphy exhibition (1972) at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Barnhart explained, “Its stylistic and aesthetic qualities can be enjoyed by Western visitors who do not understand Chinese”. His essay is filled with pictograms of many styles, some looking like paintings. You can judge for yourself. (Search Barnhart to get PDF file from Met Museum. It’s best to print the essay so you could juggle the pages to match explanations to images).  Mostly, I think, one can feel that swerve and force of a stroke, not unlike that in Cy Twombly’s scrolling painting (2005).

Let’s just say Barnhart is right. Some Chinese calligraphy does look like Gutai paintings (a kind of abstract art) and can certainly be enjoyed that way. But there is a major difference which shows why Chinese calligraphy has sustained and nurtured a 5000-year-old culture while abstract art is just one of many art styles and movements, still struggling to gain legitimacy and wide acceptance in the West. The difference is in the process.

This MoMA video shows how the Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline paints his canvas. It is not done in a single stroke, as the finished painting suggests. He starts out sketching and outlining on the canvas then applies black paint with a brush. He then paints over some of the black with white paint to achieve the final image he desires—the painting only looks spontaneous to the viewer; and many of his original actions on the canvas are subsequently obscured.

With Chinese calligraphy, in contrast, that “completed all in one breath” idea, is very important. There’s no going back if you make a mistake—you start again with fresh paper. One practices for years to achieve completing a stroke, a character, a line or a page of text all in that breath. In that breath is embodied all of one’s being, his character, his learning, thinking, emotions and moods, like that of a dancer (See my post here); and at its best, the forces of nature. Now, how does one write a whole page in one breath? Okay, that really means one is not aware of the passing of time, or one’s own breathing. I see that means entering into the unconscious of muscle, or embodied memories. Calligraphy is therefore the crystallization of one’s totality, body and mind.

Gutai, the Japanese answer to American Abstract Expressionist movement in the 1950s and 1960s literally means ‘body as tool’ and encompasses all forms of innovation including performance, fluxus, installation and conceptual art, all still widely practiced today around the world. Its founder, “[Jiro] Yoshihara’s involvement with the revitalization of Japanese traditional arts, specifically Japanese calligraphy, * also informed his idea of art making as an unmediated experiential encounter between artist, gesture, and material”, according to this Guggenheim site. I will show later in this post that to call Gutai abstract art is curious, if not somewhat erroneous.

It thus came as a surprise, especially to the Chinese artists themselves, when they proposed an exhibition in Beijing of avant-garde Chinese calligraphy in 1985, not long after Deng Xiaoping’s open-China policy—the government actually approved it!  And now there was no looking back for these Chinese cultural rebels.

Contemporary Chinese artists, many of whom are accomplished calligraphers, have taken the art of writing to even higher levels of abstraction, divorcing it from representing any known Chinese character; even subverting it to question Chinese culture and tradition. See my previous post for pictures of work by artists Gu Gan and Xu Bing. Gu Gan’s The Mountains are Breaking Up (1985) makes explicit reference to China’s old order and tradition. Xu Bing, who is now president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, whose Books from Heaven (1988) comprising non-existent Chinese characters written on scrolls cascading from ceiling to floor, implies the same breaking down of rigid order and unchanging habits. It references an old Chinese saying: One book from heaven read to death.

Now, as I look further into what exactly Gutai means, I am discovering its lineage to an ancient Chinese origin. The two characters, Gu and Tai sound the same in Japanese as in Chinese, and mean the same: concrete, tangible, specific, nuts-and-bolts—the opposite of abstract. It gives expression to the letter of the law (vs. spirit). More interestingly, Gutai is also the name of the third rank (comparable to today’s 7th Dan, an advanced level) in the ancient Chinese board game of Go . It means the player has achieved a highly strategic game, “waterproof in both offence and defense; without personal bias, employing the universal advantage”. The first rank is achieved by few, for it “enters divine territory”—and the player succeeds without self-awareness.

Thus Gutai is a waystation to abstraction—inside the human body-brain!

So why is it that abstract art in the West is still struggling with acceptance by the general public, which consider it elitist and a playground for the rich? (My kid could do it). The answer may be in the viewer’s emphasis on the picture, especially the color and shape, and not the context. Here I quote another old Chinese saying:

“Calligraphy is for fame and acclaim; painting is for profit and income”

NB    For a good read on the unique combination of word and image in Chinese calligraphy, see this essay by Dawn Delbanco of Columbia University in New York.

*  In 1972, as a gesture of goodwill to Japan, and to re-establish calligraphy as an art form in China, the magazine People’s China published the works of both Japanese and Chinese contemporary calligraphers, with the blessing of then premier Chou En Lai—known around the world as the man who welcomed President Nixon to China earlier that same year. Calligraphy had been a target of Mao’s cultural revolution, labeled ‘elitist’ even as Mao himself is today considered one of the best calligraphers of modern China.


4/27/2014     I just saw this very good piece on the Chinese (Dao) idea of wu-wei in Brain Pickings. This idea of  ‘non-striving’  is fundamental to creative activity and relates well to the art of calligraphy, if not all art.  

5/03/2014   The Metropolitan Museum in New York just opened an exhibition that “introduces key concepts of format, script type, and style in Chinese calligraphy”. I would love to go see it. 

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