Ming and Qing Paintings

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, October 23, 1989 | Go to article overview

Ming and Qing Paintings


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


Literary theorists not long ago were understandably excited by the theory of intertextuality. This was the view, rudely put,

that literary utterances refer never to the world-"daffodils" never to daffodils, for example-but only to other literary utterances which it may require considerable erudition and ingenuity to track down. So literature, as literature, was about literature. Yeats would certainly have had to exclude himself from those whose lines were merely "rhymed out in love's despair/To flatter beauty's ignorant ear." But it would surely have depressed him, as it must depress us, to learn that "Sailing to Byzantium" is about the footnotes in the definitive annotated version of "Sailing to Byzan- tium," where all the transtextual references are identified. Intertextuality itself was a corollary of a particularly heady claim by Jacques Derrida, II n'y a pas de hors texte - that outside the text there is nothing but more text. Because it is a variant of philosophical idealism, Derrida's thesis is difficult and perhaps impossible to refute, and this invulnerability, together with the exclusive franchise intertextuality gave the literati to interpret texts, must explain the theory's immense appeal to them. For if a line means what it refers to, it must be meaningless to the mere common reader who happens to be intertextually illiterate, and only the literati hold the key to understanding texts heretofore believed to tell us something deep about such things as life, death, nature and the human heart.

As a theory of artistic content, however, intertextuality seems to me to fit Chinese painting to perfection. It takes very little study to discover that the marvelous images one admires, of mountain sides or stands of pine or figures in skiffs

sliding languorously past spare villages, would have been perceived by connoisseurs as conscriptions from other works known to the artist, who painted them with the intention that they be recognized as such by those who understood painting as an art. Dong Qichang's handscroll of 1635, Clearing After Snow on Mountain Passes, might have been occasioned by actual experience, the artist having viewed the mountain passes at a hushed moment when the snow ceased, and sky and hills, fore- and background were a single color, looking like a drawing on whitish paper. But according to its inscription it is based on a work of the same title by the tenth-century master Guan Tong which was then in Dong's collection. (I cite this fact from the indispensable notes by Howard Rogers in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit Masterworks of Ming and Qing Painting From the Forbidden City, on view until October 29 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.) So

there would be little scholarly incentive to seek, on the basis of geological evidence, the site where Dong painted those bleached and angular rocks, the black pines and frozen streams and soft meadows, which a Chinese aesthete might unroll in leisurely contemplation of imaginary snowscapes but real other paintings. Landscape itself has no great interest save as transcribed-"In terms of the refined subtleties of brush and ink," Dong wrote, "the landscape is absolutely inferior to painting" - and the interest of transcription lies in the comparisons it makes available with other transcriptions of the same motif. There really appears in traditional Chinese art very little by way of hors-texte. It is as though, entering the work of art, one entered an alternative world whose substance was paper, silk and ink, created alongside the real world, an aesthetic refuge from uncertainties and terrors, and disasters personal, political or physical. This meant that intertextuality yielded an almost metaphorical reflex into a space of peace and beauty, an escape into pictorial texts as a form of reclusion. Consider now one of the earliest works in the show, again a handscroll, titled Autumn Thoughts on Xiao and Xiang, a serial collaboration between Chen Shuqi and Wang Fu, the latter completing it after Chen's death. …

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