29 January 2007

On Rightness

In rhapsodies of praise for its “inner living quality”, George Rowley wrote of Mu Ch‘i and his Six Persimmons (ink on silk, 13th c.), in his book Principles of Chinese Painting. Here's a scan of the rather poor image in the book:

“Mu Ch‘i can paint six persimmons upon a square foot of silk so that the tensions between them seem to be inexhaustible. Not only is each circle of fruit perfectly adjusted to all the others by the equilibrium of the intervals, but the measure of those intervals is accentuated by the ideographic stems in black ink and strong brush which unmistakably mark the distances and the rising and falling movement within the group. Rightness of interval, furthermore, is bound up with the shapes of the motifs. What nuances arise from the full round curve of one persimmon and the flattened contour of another in relationship to the distance between them!” (pgs. 6 & 59)

Hmm. I actually would like to know what nuances arise, because I’ve missed it.

Rowley’s book was published in 1947, with a second edition in 1959. That goes a long way toward explaining why he used words like “perfect” and “rightness” to describe the composition and placement of the fruit. These words have long since fallen out of favor, at least in the context of formal analysis. Also, note that Rowley failed to describe why these particular persimmons are such a famous example of Chinese painting. Instead of proving the matter, he no more than declares it to be so. We know that he sees inexhaustible nuance in the relational-placement of the fruit and that’s about all.

One of the biggest reasons to be upset by Rowley’s failure to explain the underlying principles of Chinese composition is that most viewers will need to be shown how to recognize ‘perfection’. I doubt many of us intuitively see it or comprehend it. I know I don’t. In my very first art history class I was shown these two quatrefoils, by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. The high-relief sculptures were these artists’ entry in a competition for the honor of designing the east doors of the baptistery of Florence (around 1400):

Our lecturer asked us to guess which quatrefoil won, and went on to explain that composition had a lot to do with who won and who lost. Can you pick the composition with greatest ‘rightness’? That day in class I chose the wrong one, and honestly this is an exercise that I still have trouble with. Although I have long since learned to recognize western art’s conventional appearances, I still vividly recall when I couldn’t see it at all.


Josh said...

i'm always torn between a long comment and a post on my own blog! i have the same problem with "rightness" in music. sometimes i long for the days of simple declarations about art. it seems more honest than our postmodernist posturing and cerebral, dispassionate "proofs". baloney. anyway, that being said, art competitions are just lotteries. it's just the whim of the adjudicators.

you seem to indicate that "rightness" in art has something to do with convention. maybe you're being ironic or facetious. if the art world is anything like the music world, invention is preferential to convention. and if that's the case, then how do you know if an invention is "right" when you see it?

there are technical aspects for adjudicators to evaluate (though i obviously wouldn't know the first thing about what a quatrefoil even is!), but the aesthetic part of the evaluation is a crap shoot.

Josh said...

..ummm.. i mean invention is preferred not preferential

Vatti said...

I liked the one with the smoke coming out of the burning altar better than the other one. But, I have no idea whether what I find more interesting to my eye would be deemed "better". In the end I had to Google the two artists and find out for myself who won.

Mary Ann said...

Hey Josh--thanks for dropping in. I found your comment a bit confusing, so maybe my reply won't make sense.

I'm not at all interested in simple declarations about taste unless it is something like "nothing is universal"--itself a useless statement but a good enough principle where taste is concerned. Maybe there are proofs in postmodern musical analysis (if it even exists--I know you musicans loath the term), but postmodernims in art rejects the idea of both universals and the prooving of them.

There's a difference between 'right at the moment' and always right. Rowley's declaration, simple though it was, put the persimmons' "rightness of interval" forward without any reason, limitation, or context. I, who can not see what it is he admires so much in the fruits' intervals, am left to wonder what on earth he is talking about. Without approaching a proof, and omitting the declaration of rightness, he could simply have explained the aesthetic sensibilities at play here.

Back in the 50s it was a common enough idea that there was a universal ideal that art was moving toward. But since then, I think there is greater recognition that aesthetics aren't correct, right, perfect, true. They aren't in that class of reality. You can see in hind-sight what was accepted or rejected. Or you can recognize that one artist followed conventional patterns or copied another artist's use of space/positioning.

I don't see convention and invention being at odds here. 'Conventional' is merely what is already established. Certainly, innovation is everywhere in contemporary art, but so are long-held conventions. They go hand in hand. We tip our hat to history while keeping one eye on the present and another on the future. I'd guess that music isn't too different.

Mary Ann said...

Oh, and Ghiberti was the winner of the quatrefoil competition--thats the one on the left.

Dad said...

Hmmmm. This is confusing. I think the right answer is the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone.

Cris said...

I actually received a book for Christmas about the "feud" between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. This one: http://www.amazon.com/Feud-That-Sparked-Renaissance-Brunelleschi/dp/0380977877

It was a pretty awful read, and so I didn't finish it. But, hurrah, I actually have a clue about one of your blog topics. :)

I think it's interesting that, while Ghiberti's panel won and is more "correct", I had a more emotional reaction to Brunelleschi's panel --- probably because everything was off-balance and awkward. In Brunelleschi's panel, I can feel the determination of Abraham as he grabs Isaac's neck and forces it to the side. The angel's intercession also feels more powerful than in Ghiberti's depiction. I always thought that one of the more important aspects of art (particularly back then) was story-telling, and Brunelleschi told the better story...according to me. :)

It looks like Ghiberti chose to portray the scene a few moments before rescue, while Brunelleschi's panel depicts the scene right at the moment of rescue. I think that also has something to do with the emotion I feel for that panel.

According to the book, there's some argument regarding whether Ghiberti's piece was unanimously chosen -- it appears that the jury had tried to offer a joint commission to both men, but that Brunelleschi turned the offer down. Also, when Ghiberti depicted the story of Isaac on the second set of doors for the Baptistery, his panel looked more like Brunelleschi's original panel. I think I've seen the second set of doors (called the "Gates of Paradise") at the Baptistery, but I don't remember what the panels looked like, so I'm not sure.

Mary Ann said...

Cris, thanks for sharing those details. I didn't know most of that. The book's title is interesting as well. I had read that this competition has been widely regarded as the beginning of the rennaisance, but I find the verb 'sparked' makes an interesting difference in the role it played.

I've always thought that Ghiberti's angle looked like superman.

I (entirely by accident) spent a day in Florence when I was 19. I wasn't prepared, didn't know what was worth seeing or where to see it, and ended up looking at vegetables in the market in the square beside the baptistry/cathedral without noticing the doors at all, and eating a sack lunch outside the Ufitzi without going in or even realizing that was it.