Book From the Sky Dialogues 2: The status
of art and writing
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Sophie: In China, the
art of calligraphy (Shu Fa) is on a par with painting,
more noble than printmaking and sculpture. In fact, it
is regarded as the most abstract and sublime form of art.
Bridget: Even Chinese
printed characters have the same fluid effect as calligraphy.
The characters carved into wooden blocks often look as
if they were made with a brush, perhaps to make the printed
page look hand-touched and not mass-produced. This emphasis
on calligraphy is amazing given that China invented printing
1500 years ago, a millennium before William Caxton. The
British Library owns the Chinese scroll, the Diamond Sutra,
the world's earliest surviving printed book. ?> Follow
these links to find out more about the early history of
Q2.1 Do you think in China calligraphy
is kept alive because of this long history of printing?
Or despite it? Why?
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Bridget: Maybe calligraphy
is so important because there is great reverence for the
written word in China, so much that in Shanghai any discarded
paper with words on used to be collected and ritually burnt
at temples. ?> For more read Adeline Yen Mah 'A Thousand
Pieces of Gold'. The words have a kind of powerful spirit,
not so much in their literal meaning but in their very
existence. The reverence seems to come from sheer wonder
at what writing allows us to do, to transmit knowledge
across the centuries and cultures.
Sophie: Although a calligraphic
text has a literal meaning, the content is less important
than the way the characters look. You use special brushes
and strokes to make the characters and these precise techniques
have been developed over centuries. Those who study calligraphy
can instantly recognise a master's 'hand' (or style) and
this is often thought to reveal personality traits. During
the Imperial era, calligraphy was examined as an important
factor for choosing members of the Imperial court. Skill
in calligraphy is a general sign of talent.
Bridget: The high status
of calligraphy is similar to the 'fine art' status given
in the West to abstract and expressive art. The art that
got noticed in the 20th century was more about form than
meaning. The brushstroke was full of the 'genius' of the
artist. Matisse and Van Gogh loved Chinese and Japanese
art. Pablo Picasso said, "Had I been born Chinese, I would
have been a calligrapher, not a painter." Perhaps the Chinese
acceptance of Western formalist modernism (e.g. Kathe Kollwitz's
Expressionism) is due to its own long tradition of gestural
painting and calligraphy. Whereas, Xu Bing's work was just
Q 2.2 Is Chinese calligraphy
in a completely different world, incomparable with Western
art? Or is it similar?
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Ming Wong responds:
Certainly I've found many traditional Chinese paintings to be
very ahead of its time, very 'contemporary' in the views expressed
or how they are presented. It's a complete art, and I think half
the meaning of a work is lost to people who can't read Chinese,
or understand the rules of Chinese painting, or have a deep knowledge
of the culture, which might explain its marginalised position
in contemporary art, and even amongst the younger generations
of Chinese people.
Sophie: This quote is
interesting: "The quality of Chinese prints made during
this period (since the 1980s) has been transformed from
the crude to the refined, from the shallow to the profound.Refined
means the refinement of the effect of the printing as well
as of the technique of cutting. Profound... is meant to
suggest that some works, especially by academic printmakers,
have combined ideas with cultural content and spiritual
quality, and not just depicted life on a superficial level." Qi
Fengge, p.23 Chinese Printmaking Today Catalogue,
British Library Publications
Qi Fengge seems to be claiming that Chinese
printmaking now has finer qualities and therefore a higher
status than it did before. I wonder, does this mean that
printmaking has only become a proper art since it has become
less Chinese (e.g. less like folk art)? Does it mean that
non-traditional art is better?
Bridget: I found this
quote from a dealer in modern Chinese prints, which would
suggest it's not quite like that: 'The cultural revolution
is now history. Modern Chinese printmaking artists have
nothing to do with social realism. Instead, many of the
artists put their focus on the preservation of the Chinese
rural environment and on traditions.' (source)
?> Follow this
link for more about popular folk prints (or New Year prints)
Q 2.3 Which path do you think
artists should take - keep alive their traditional folk
culture or create contemporary international art?
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Ming Wong writes:
In traditional Chinese art, one is said to 'read' a painting
instead of merely 'look at'; one 'writes' an image instead of 'draws'.
Chinese 'painting' was a literary pursuit; it had to have balanced
elements of creative writing expressed with calligraphy and seal
carving in addition to brush painting.
Years ago when I studied Chinese art I had to learn to be a painter, a poet,
a calligrapher, a seal carver; in other words, a traditional Chinese
'scholar'. (I gave up after a few years)
Nowadays everyone writes with a ballpoint pen or types on a keyboard;
handwriting has become undisciplined. (including mine)
However I have learnt to have tremendous respect and admiration for
good calligraphy as it is an uncompromising art, using the most sensitive
of materials, it takes constant practice, almost a meditative exercise
It's a shame that even in China it's suffering a decline.
Bridget: How does it
change the effect if you make a character from a printed
block, rather than freehand with a brush? Carving is more
mechanical and results in a clearer standard form. Calligraphy
has more grace and flow, allowing a faster link between
the mental idea of the character and the hand's gesture.
But, when you have to carve a block in a calligraphic way,
there isn't that much difference. The main difference comes
in the way that printed text can reach a mass audience - it
packs more punch. What it says to masses of people is more
important than how it looks.
?> Find out how Chinese type is printed
today? How did the technology of moveable type develop?
Q 2.4 But does it change what
is said or how you read it? Do printed or hand-written
words (in any language) have different meanings for you?
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