You are an artist. You are open spiritually and have achieved all-round development in fields of painting, music, calligraphy, history, philosophy, literature, and etc. What is the source of your philosophy of an integrated world?
It is rooted in the “spirit of scholar” of traditional Chinese culture. As early as 2,000 years ago, Confucianism (Ru), represented by Confucius, has required scholars to master six practical disciplines including Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy and Mathematics, which are called “Six Arts (liuyi).” The involvement of different disciplines means a qualified scholar must be equipped with all-round abilities and pursue superb thoughts. The requirement for comprehensive abilities and longing for high spiritual state have been a conscious pursuit of the self-cultivation of Chinese literati over thousand years. It is not difficult to observe how those top artists live up to this spirit in their creations via appreciating outstanding art works of different times, which from my point of view still has strong appeal and positive reference to us and our creations of arts in the 21st century.
There is a line between metaphysical and physical in the field of philosophy, and art works are different in terms of their states. How do you view the differences and line between these works?
We can better understand this issue with music as an example. Once my friend asked me how to distinguish the states of a musician and a performer. I responded that there are five different states. The first one is performing, which means to blindly play to the audience. This is the lowest level. The second state is self-expressing that no longer focuses mainly on pandering to others. Rather, the stress is on one’s self. Of course, this is not a high level as well. The third state is expressing the music that is
oblivious of oneself and devoted to presenting the nature of music. Artists at this level can be regarded as masters. Last year, I listened to the Violin Recital by Itzhak Perlman at Shanghai Oriental Art Center. He was already in his 70s, sitting in a wheelchair, poker-faced without any body language and just concentrating completely on expressing music itself, which touched the audience deeply. Tears came out of many people’s eyes when he was playing the sonata by Richard Strauss. While coming to the fourth state, what is expressed is the pure and noble spirit of an artist. It can only be achieved when a person is highly cultured with pure heart to express the heart and soul. This is the level of great master. Indeed, there is a higher state since what the fourth level presents stays at the individual level whereas a higher one expresses a greater self, which is the emotion and heart shared by the entire humanity. This is the fifth state. For instance, it can be said that works of Bach and those of Beethoven in his later period are a display of the highest level of human civilization.
Different states of paintings and calligraphy works are like that of music. The lowest level refers to those that blindly pander to the audience. For example, Prosperous Peonies and portraits that are really true to life fall into this category. Then comes self-expressing works such as some abstract expressionist paintings. The third level means to take pure art form as the object to show. I think many impressionist works belong to this state as they merely manifest the id of colors and paintings. The fourth level is to express the heart and soul of the painter with Van Gogh as the most quintessential. The fifth state expresses the common heart and soul of the humanity including works like La Pietà by Michelangelo, The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, landscape paintings by Dong Yuan, Juran and Fan Kuan during the Song and Yuan Dynasties, and Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains by Huang Gongwang. These outstanding art works have achieved the state of unity of nature and man, so they can strike a responsive chord in all humanity.
It can be felt from your painting and calligraphy works that you pay much attention to meditation. What is the relation between meditation and your art life?
Traditionally, Chinese scholars have been paying much attention to self-meditation, which is mainly reflected in daily life and happens to coincide with the “living Zen” and “Zen life” highlighted by the Chan sect. The ultimate purpose of taking life as a spiritual practice is to wean oneself off poor taste and reach a high level of spiritual state. In this process, art creation serves as an instrument as well as a way of expression. As we talked about previously, no matter it is brush painting, oil painting or calligraphy, multi-pronged creation practice is in itself part of the scholar spirit, which can improve everyday spiritual practice. Moreover, through art practice can this spirit and spiritual practice be better expressed and presented.
It can be seen that you are able to paint traditional Chinese brush paintings, have achieved high attainments in the field of calligraphy, and can also express thoughts through oil painting and ink and color painting in a series of your art creations. How do you shift as you want in different ways of artistic expressions? Is it an active pursuit or a result of instinct?
This is about the question of what high-class art is and what a high-grade artist is. In my view, it can be simply concluded by “extreme delicacy and subtlety, and extreme breadth.” It should be the ultimate goal for all top artists.
So-called “extreme delicacy and subtlety” requires your art to attain certain depth, and “extreme breadth” means to equip oneself as multiple abilities as one can. We mentioned the “Six Arts” proposed by Confucius. It is a requirement of “extreme breadth” for a qualified scholar while high-level of any art must be based on “extreme delicacy and subtlety.” It can put in this way: “extreme delicacy and subtlety” is a self-request, and “extreme breadth” is one of the traditional Chinese culture for scholars. Only by combining these two requirements can a person become a high-class artist.
It is easy to see that many artists have multiple abilities throughout the Chinese and Western art history. Both Zhao Mengfu and Dong Qichang excelled in calligraphy, painting, poetry and songs, and verses. The sculpture, painting, architecture and design, and even poetry and literature works by Michelangelo topped his times. And the oil painting works by Picasso have different looks in different times that can be of delicate classical style or bold abstract style. He has high attainments in pottery and art designs as well. Admittedly, these all-round abilities will make the final breakthrough through one point and then reach another state, which is the “extreme delicacy and subtlety” after “extreme breadth.”
Although I think myself lagging far from ancient masters in terms of talent and spiritual state, I hold that “if you want to achieve the superior, you will only end up being at the medium level.” Artists are supposed to aim for the highest, so I have always been pushing myself to achieve the corresponding height in my creation. And no matter it is daily spiritual practice or attempt in multiple art forms, I always try to make my works in line with my disposition and the reflections on life at the moment. I may not be able to blend all these together until I grow to certain age with a hope to achieve the state of so-called “maturity of both myself and my works.”
What contemporary Western art pursues is the fission of ideas and technique innovation while whatever changes in contemporary Chinese brush painting, solid basic skills are needed. Could you please talk about your view and understanding of contemporary art and artists?
The core of art, be it contemporary or traditional, oriental or western, lies in the evaluation criteria of art works and artists. From my point of view, the criteria, be it for art works or artists, can be divided into three categories, namely basic skills, originality, and spiritual state.
Basic skills involve many aspects. For students in the college of fine arts, sketch is their basic skill; and for those who are learning traditional Chinese brush painting, calligraphy is their basic skill — a basic consensus is that people with poor calligraphy skill can hardly be good at brush painting. In this regard, Chinese art shares something in common with traditional Chinese martial arts in that art works without basic skills are unqualified and artists without basic skills cannot be qualified artists.
Then comes originality. After mastering basic skills, artists should pursue originality. Otherwise, even if they have top skills, they cannot create top-class arts by only imitating others. This is quite common in this contemporary era. Someone once said that in China, there is a figure of Western artist behind most of the famous Chinese contemporary artists. Originality is a reflection of the creation ability, aesthetic ability and taste. The best artists in history are all those who could set up their own styles and influence the future generations.
The third is the spiritual state. The spiritual state of art works embodies the self-cultivation, height of heart, soul and thoughts, and even rich life experience of an artist. People who lack thoughts cannot produce art works of thought depth. Only those artists excelling in basic skills, originality, and profound thoughts can create art works of high spiritual state.
Contemporary art works meeting these three criteria can be regarded as high-class ones, and artists living up to them are really excellent ones.
05/April /2018 BEIJING
Chinese / Lydia Duanmu