Saturday, 10 July 2010

They Didn't Speak for Years

A millennium apart, and yet they speak to each other, easily:

… the mastery of the poems lies more in their form that in any particular statement they make, for they are quintessential Sung: rather than portray insight, they enact it. (David Hinton)

The beauty of Claude’s work is not be sought primarily in his drawing; it is not a beauty of expressive parts but the beauty of a whole… It is the unity and not the content that affects us. (Roger Fry)

Throughout his book Fry divides painters into those that support his aesthetic vision, and those that don’t – between those artists who seek to create the art object, with its unity and internal coherence; and those that seek to imitate the real world. Thus Dürer is downgraded, though his virtuosity is recognised, while El Greco and Giotto are for Fry the examples of artistic genius. Claude has many faults , and is probably not as great as Dürer, but he has in compensation the gift of structural unity.


Lu Yu was beyond the need to distil or intensify experience into a privileged moment of insight. Instead, Lu’s poems have a texture of idle contentment deriving from his understanding that ordinary experience is always already enlightened, and wilderness resides as much in the everyday movement of perception and reflection as in high peaks and valleys.

This contrasts sharply with Fry, who sets up a divide between what he calls the practical vision of instinctive life and the aesthetic vision (there is also, he believes, a vision that finds pleasure in looking at objects, close to that of a child’s, and the creative vision of the artist). He describes the aesthetic vision thus:

Those who indulge in this vision are entirely absorbed in apprehending the relation of forms and colours to another, as they cohere in the object…. and it is more intense and more detached from the instinctive life…

…these artists do not seek to give what can, after all, be but a pale reflex of actual appearance, but to arouse the conviction of a new and definite reality. They do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find an equivalent for life.

Both seek an art that enacts life; though for the Chinese poet it means allowing reality itself to be expressed in the poem. Is there an answer to this disagreement? After all, they could almost be friends they are so close, although they seem to hold profoundly different views of art’s relationship to life.

The answer lies in Hinton’s use of the word wilderness (his book is subtitled The wilderness poetry of ancient China). This term refers to a form of mysticism (or pantheism), where the essence of reality – that world beyond appearances – is captured. For most of the poets in this collection the way to this understanding was through exile and contemplation – they became hermits and monks. The poetry thus arose out of that lived experience; an experience that it self was mystical and aesthetic. Lu Yu wrote 6,500 poems, one for nearly every day of his creative life. These poems were, of course, merely an extension of his religious practice.

To seal the argument: 'Biologically, art is a blasphemy'. Many pages later Fry elaborates:

All art depends upon cutting off the practical responses to sensations of ordinary life, thereby setting free a pure and as it were disembodied functioning of the spirit…

The essential power of pictorial as of all other arts lies in its use of a fundamental and universal symbolism, and whoever has the instinct for this can convey his ideas, though possessed of only the most rudimentary knowledge of the actual forms of nature… this language of symbolic form in which the spirit communicates its most secret and indefinable impulses…

For Fry, art is a Cistercian monk. Lu Yu was a monk.

Many volumes have been written about the sacralisation of art; how in the 19th century it became a substitute for Christianity. There is much truth to this view; but perhaps more for the worshippers than the artists themselves. However, we can concentrate too much on this idea, and miss something deeper – that art and religion are two attempts to grasp the ineffable, that world beyond appearances. Fry calls this world our 'most secret and indefinable impulses' (Schopenhauer’s Will?), Christians call it God. And Lu Yu? Tao.

To achieve this grasp, this insight, the phenomenal world has to be transcended. In life this involves religious retreat, to allow time for contemplation. In art it’s the artist’s attention to form, and design; to allow the viewer to contemplate its deep structure. Both, the life of the monk and the work of art, are forms of abstraction – a selection and intensification of the lived experience, to enable us to get underneath it.

The symbols are different, but the ineffable remains the same – that is why they speak together so easily. But… what exactly is the ineffable?


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