My friend, the great Gialbo, says that gentleman prefer bronze. He's right. But, does he realize that ladies too prefer bronze? I wonder if he ever heard the story of Lady Li?
Quite famous during the Song dynasty, Lady Li and her scholar-official husband had built up one of the finest collection of ancient bronzes-- not to mention books (unbelievable volumes of books)-- in Chinese history. She and her husband were known during Song times not just for their illustrious scholarship but also for their unforgetable love poems (many to each other).
They were like movie stars.
That is until those damned Jurchens stormed the walls of Kaifeng and everyone had to run for their lives.
Leave behind the collection?
She screamed, Never! And so it went.
Not as heavy as the bronze that Geralissmo Chiang Kaishek lugged around during World War II (司母戊鼎), but still those bronzes were heavy. And uncountable volumes of books. But what to do? Everyone around them was fleeing Kaifeng just ahead of the approaching enemy, but Lady Li and her man refused to budge. Standing their ground, they struggled to save their art collection. Even as the outside world around them teetered, neither faltered in their heart's occupation. Indeed, their inner world of learning and art seemed to hold the greater significance.
Struggling to make their way south, she lost much--including her beloved husband, who died en route.
Here is her last poem
"The wind dies down, the scent of flowers fills the dusty air
The flowers are fading.
When evening comes I am too tired to dress
But I still have my pieces. My beloved is gone, all is finished.
I cannot speak without weeping."
Symbolizing virtue, the allure of bronze-- It is as hold as China itself.
Manyul Im is working on a very interesting project to view Confucian aesthethic-ethical sensibility via Kant's Judgment of Taste. I wanted to recommend to him Stanley O'Connor's essay on the Mataram jars of SEAsia (here).Tackling the way in which Kant's Critique of Judgment has effected our modern Western way of thinking about art, O'Connor writes that our modern way of talking about art is strongly based on
"the assumption that collectors, critiques, and the generality of the interested, urban, literate, art public subscribe implicitly, at least to some of the following: Art is a realm of its own differentiated from other activities of life; artworks are autonomous and self-sufficient; their purpose is simply to be rather than to instruct, to edify, or be of use; the artist creates out of some kind of inspired freedom and in this way the art work differs from that made by the craftsperson, who is subsumed by purpose and constrained by craft subscription; and, finally, the proper response of the viewer is disinterested contemplation of the object of art for its own sake rather than as an instrument of the viewer's purpose or desire."
As Manyul would point out, this has profound implications not only for art appreciation and aesthethics but for ethics as well. Since aesthethic judgement, according to Kant, must be detached and dis-interested, there are no implications or requirements for action. It all boils down to Dis-interested contemplation.
Manyul breaks it down like this:
So on a Kantian, working model of aesthetic judgment as a distinct sort, such judgments have three characteristics:
- Immediacy – the judgment is not derived from higher principles or rules
- Normativity – the judgment carries a normative claim that others’ judgments ought to agree with it
- Disinterestedness – the judgment does not stand in a relationship of psychological or practical necessity to desires of any particular sort
Museums, of course, are one "by-product" of Western aesthetics. In Japan, traditionally, art works were not objectively viewed out of context, but rather were stored very carefully in pauwlania wood boxes and wrapped in layers of protective cloth and only brought out for appreciation during certain events. For example, when they were to be used in some way (for example, used during a tea gathering, or displayed in honor of a special occasion). This was the traditional Japanese manner of art appreciation and connoisseurship.
Another very interesting point to bring up as well is that while knowledge and objective appreciation were the hallmarks of the Western tradition in Japan, the notion of practice or practitioner was as central to art collecting as it was to the practice of art. A better way of saying this is that there was not this sharp differentiation between artist and art collector.
In contrast, in East Asia, there is this long history of the traditional artist-scholar gentleman/gentlewoman, which sees as ideal the "cultured gentleman" who is adept in one or more of the traditional arts, is well read and well-traveled. No matter how hard you look, all the famous art collectors of the East (who collecting under traditional means) were themselves adept at some art: often calligraphy and sometimes music, painting or chanoyu. And, most important for this discussion, the practice of art and the contemplation of art were conflated as ethical aesthic practice.
O'Connor, in his discussion of the jars of Borneo, states that
"Modern art theory deprives art of its context and in this way beauty has been banished to museums as something apart from daily life."
Manyul says the same thing here, in terms of Confucian rites:
Confucius’s disciple Zengzi’s words in Analects 8.4 are to the point here:
…There are three principles of conduct which the man of high rank should consider specially important: that in his deportment and manner he keep from violence and heedlessness; that in regulating his countenance he keep near to sincerity; and that in his words and tones he keep far from lowness and impropriety. As to such matters as attending to the sacrificial vessels, there are the proper officers for them.
There’s an element of self-regulation during performance which incorporates both the aesthetically passive attitude of “taking in” one’s own performance and the aesthetically active attitude of creating the performance, or to put it in Kantian terminology, of putting the beauty into the object of the judgment, the object here being a dynamic event as opposed to an artifact.
For Lady Li, then, the bronzes in her collection were not merely "objects" for detached or pleasurable viewing, but rather were "props" she used in her own ethical practice. She was both collector and practioner, and the art objects in her collection excerted power in sense that in a very specific context the objects affected her behavior. Aesthethic practice was thought to cultivate ethical sensibility. This is something that underlies tea ceremony in Japan down to today. I have repeated the story of my tea teacher who would place priceless teabowls in my hand and encourage me to "use" them. When I would protest, she would say, "handling beautiful objects in a ritualized manner will affect/regulate your behavior and by cultivating your sensibilities and sensitivity to beauty-- and over the long run it will make you a better person."
One can only hope...