Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Today's Quote: Taoist Art and Creative Spontaneity

According to the twentieth century writer and artist Mai-Mai Sze, painting in China 'is not a profession but an extension of the art of living, for the practice of the tao of painting is part of the traditional tao of conduct and thought, of living in harmony with the laws of Tao.' Moreover, this is an art which manifests most expressively the element of creative spontaneity which is central to Daoist thinking, even the aim of life, and which bids us not to attempt to impose our wills on nature, or to struggle with the obduracy of our own limitations, but to achieve an inner freedom which transcends the narrow demands of ego.

This psycho-spiritual feature of Chinese art is one which has increasingly attracted the attention of Western commentators in recent years, particularly in so far as it contrasts with mainstream traditional European approaches. Whereas in the West the emphasis has been largely on the art object, and, until the twentieth century at least, on its representational element, in China the main focus of interest, particularly in the Daoist context, has been more on the process of artistic creation itself, and indeed on its fundamentally religious nature. Painting was seen not just as a way of producing an aesthetic object, or even as merely an object of spiritual contemplation, but as an expressive act, more precisely as a way of achieving and manifesting and circulating qi. As such it is a form of yoga which directly parallels other forms of yoga; including that of the bedchamber. Painters, suitably prepared through quiet sitting and through the lifelong absorption of nature into their very being, achieve a state of emptiness out of which the painting emerges spontaneously yet with utmost artistry, thus imitating and indeed participating in the way in which the world of nature itself emerges spontaneously yet with the utmost harmony out of the primal emptiness of the dao...

At one level the creative activity of the artist is therefore nothing less than the Daoist quest for recovery of the dao, for that emptiness which is the root of the 'thousand things', and from the Tang period onwards landscape painting became intimately related to the meditation practices of both Daoist and Chan monks. It manifested itself even more widely amongst the literati as a form of aestheticism, as the cultivation of a certain kind of refined sensibility which merges imperceptibly with what we would standardly describe as 'spiritual' or 'mystical' practices. Jordan Paper has pointed out that the meditation practices of Daoists and Buddhists that emerged during and after the period following the Han dynasty were not necessarily oriented towards mystical experiences in the full sense, but were manifested through aesthetic activities such as painting, poetry and music. Such practices displayed ecstatic elements, sometimes assisted by wine, and though in a sense ritualised (for example, in the grinding of the ink and the manipulation of the brush), they were not part of any formal religious ceremony or practice. In this way, Paper argues, there emerged at that period a unique relationship between aesthetic and religious activity in China where artistic activities became 'an alternative mode of religious behavior for the traditional elite', particularly amongst those who had retired from office or were in exile. Moreover, for such people aesthetic activity was an effective means to express and assert individuality and the values of self-expression, and hence could be pursued as a reaction against 'the rigidly conformist and non-self-assertive nature of most of their lives and occupations'.

From The Tao of the West: Western Transformations of Taoist Thought by J.J. Clarke.

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