Zen and the art of artistry

Recent attempts to establishing a contemporary art scene in China appear to be struggling with catching on. As far as commercialities go, enough dealers have an interest to sell, but it seems buyers are not equally eager. Although the market for luxury goods and fashion continue to grow with the obvious ups and downs, it appears craftsmanship is what Chinese buyers are more concerned about and not so much the contemporary characteristics that make contemporary art contemporary.
Growing a better understanding and appreciation of the animistic nature of Chinese culture may provide some deeper insight beyond the surface motions of politics, the economy and societal change. As the reemergence of Traditional Chinese Medicine since the 1950s shows many of Chinese customs are pervaded with a sense of cultivated shamanism. And even Confucianism, once thought to have replaced old belief systems, had simply embraced the preceding, aiming to address the finer nuances of sociopolitical ethics. Although one can ruin ones professional career by discussing such topics too freely, to the Western mind this should not be all too uncommon as even Christianity is an animistic mystery religion, in an anthropological sense. In fact nearly every belief system or ideology is animistic in one way or another, and modern “materialism” has only recently become de-spiritualized with a mix of Sartre’s bleak and blasé existential nihilism, the popularization of psychoanalysis in spite of Freud’s strong distrust of unconscious inner drives and the advent of modern economical sciences with Marx’s “historical materialism”.
Amidst of these meta-trends contemporary art has been shaped by anti-art movements preceding the Second World War. In Germany these anti-art movements were part of the Nazi regime’s organized attempts to rewrite culture and to enforce conformity by trying to ridicule individual expression. Architecture and sculptures were restricted to classical Greek, with heroic military themes for men and motherhood for women. Jazz and music from non-German composers were forbidden and graphic design and paintings had to fit the same propaganda. “Degenerate art” was the term used, both for their policy as well as a historical exhibition held in 1937 where the Nazi party’s efforts amassed. At the exhibition paintings were deliberately exposed in a disordered manner, jam-packed, sometimes unframed pictures, tilted and lopsided to add to the sense of chaos. The exposition was seen as a final blow in an attempt to reprogram public opinion, after which many works of art were carefully hidden in military bunkers and top officials’ private collections or sold abroad. Lesser valuable works were burned to keep the anti-art sentiment going.
These were dark days for social dynamics showing how people’s behavior can be molded with enforced self-policing, where one will try to uphold the other with rules that have been imposed as ‘the norm’. After leaving this period behind much attention was given to the societal function of art, and many artists developed an idea of sociopolitical shamanism, to provide shock treatment for the masses, to move ‘the public’ out of the conformity of consensus reality. Contemporary art in a way has been trying to establish an anti-anti-art movement but due to its reactionary nature has a localized, timely and possibly outdated significance. However, what people say concerning art and what they actually experience is something completely different, and while wrongly calibrated Mayan calendars allegedly close in on the next cycle of our collective evolution with our imminent destruction it may be time to return the muses to their respective arts and aim for a further synthesis of the figurative, visual and tangible.
After some sixty years of trying to educate, elevate and exalt ‘the public’, contemporary art still seems confined to a reasonably small group of artists, art historians and art critics who also make up most of the gallery holders, journalists and government subsidized artists. At the top of the food chain is small self-appointed self-glorifying art clique which actively agitates against it all, a counter-counter culture with anti-anti-anti-art movement tendencies, almost convinced their playful use of ‘the big lie’ somehow makes Plato’s ‘noble lie’ look like crazy wisdom. So far however, contrary to designer-dense ‘fast arts’, like fashion, jewelry, interior decorating, industrial design or creative marketing, the contemporary ‘fine arts’ fail to attract the ‘flight to quality’ which a crisis usually allows for as suppliers are trying to differentiate their offering. Obviously there is some distinction between amateur crafts and professional artistry, but as far as ‘real art’ goes, possibly the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is only half the story.
As a reaction against the manipulation of public opinion during the anti-art era, it was though that art does not have to be beautiful. Confusing public opinion with personal taste, beauty was understood from an anthropological perspective, more or less defined by a distinctive socio-cultural context and while doing so mistakes uniformity for universality. Just because the definition of beauty is malleable doesn’t imply that our actual experience of it is. Studies in the areas of sensory perception, synesthesia and neuroaesthetics are gradually uncovering the biological foundations of our sense of beauty. A large many facets have been uncovered in which our experience is actually the same, why we all pick out the bluest blue or why we associate a “bouba” sound with a rounded shape and “kiki” with a pointy one. These are not social conventions based on some form of consensus. These preferences have a biological basis originating in the workings of our sensory apparatus and the way we form such a sound. In other words, eventhough slight individual variations occur the correspondences among our intersubjective experiences are highly coherent.
If that is so, then obviously there is a biological basis for an artist’s style. And so, besides the cross-cultural influence of African art on a Picasso he also suffered ocular migraines which cause sight to mix with underlying archetypical abstractions. Monet’s case of cataract is well-known, Degas’ fading eyesight due to retinal degeneration a little less. Then we have Van Gogh hallucinatory chromatopsia or even a mild colorblindness, Rembrandt’s aging vision, Cezanne’s nearsighted and Vermeer’s astigmatism, although the latter may have been due to the use of a Camera Obscura. Maybe this demystifies the idea of the sole genius, but it also demonstrates to the artist’s experience is in fact very close to our own, it is associatively affine.
Contrary to most contemporary art these early artists are indeed popular in China and other Asian countries. And also a select few modern artists are indeed welcomed with open arms, while these have been largely neglected in the contemporary scene. The reason seems simple, as the sociopolitical role of Chinese art, even though clearly used for reasons of propaganda, was already established. Art and crafts have been embedded within the Chinese spiritual world since the dawn of time, while practices have been cultivated in formal systems like Feng Shui. While Western society continues to struggle with materialism and a possible behind-the-scenes puppet master who uses some illusionary tricks to make us believe we have free will, Chinese society does not deal with such issues. Although, obviously, passing through the doors of perception is a shared hurdle. Whereas contemporary art tries to glorify individuality in a disconnected world, other arts sought for the universal truth of beauty in a world of interwoven intersubjectivity. Art is grace, dé, 德.
At the root of the Taiji, Li and Qi unite and endlessly morph in conjoined pairs of pattern and energy, order and chaos, space and time. These early artists were able to capture life’s vibrancy, work with it in ways and such intensity that it makes people experience something more. Art is a physiological experience and has only little to do with how one art movement positions itself amongst others, or what some accompanying piece of paper tells you why you should think something is artful. Art is medicine. Art has been a shamanic endeavor all along, and we’re nearing an era where we are rediscovering what makes this world a magical place. Art rages on at the fringes of reality. So, if you really think that much of contemporary art is ugly, that is ok, because it is. And if it makes you feel sick in some way, you may consider a career in Chinese Medicine, because you have a talent. For what it’s worth, you could even become an artist.