Monday, July 05, 2010

Exhausting Art

Snatched from Shalizi's excellent statistical takedown of Martindale's Clockwork Muse, in which it is shown that smoothed white noise can be fitted with a parabolic curve better than Martindale's data.

I quote this because he points to the very same mechanism — demand for novelty plus restrictions of a style leading to certain kinds of elaboration and content — decades before Martindale (Hodgson died, with this part of his book complete, in 1968), and with no pretense that he was making an original argument, as opposed to rehearsing a familiar one.

But there are obvious problems with turning this mechanism into the Universal Scientific Law of Artistic Change, as Martindale wants to do. Or rather problems which should be obvious, many of which were well put by Joseph (Abu Thomas) Levenson in Confucian China and Its Modern Fate:

Historians of the arts have sometimes led their subjects out of the world of men into a world of their own, where the principles of change seem interior to the art rather than governed by decisions of the artist. Thus, we have been assured that seventeenth-century Dutch landscape bears no resemblance to Breughel because by the seventeenth century Breughel's tradition of mannerist landscape had been exhausted. Or we are treated to tautologies, according to wich art is "doomed to become moribund" when it "reaches the limit of its idiom", and in "yielding its final flowers" shows that "nothing more can be done with it" — hece the passing of the grand manner of the eighteenth entury in Europe and the romantic movement of the nineteenth.

How do aesthetic valuies really come to be superseded? This sort of thing, purporting to be a revelation of cause, an answer to a question, leaves the question still to be asked. For Chinese painting, well before the middle of the Ch'ing period, with its enshrinement of eclectic virtuosi and connoisseurs, had, by any "internal" criteria, reached the limit of its idiom and yielded its final flowers. And yet the values of the past persisted for generations, and the fear of imitation, the feeling that creativity demanded freshness in the artist's purposes, remained unfamiliar to Chinese minds. Wang Hui was happy to write on a landscape he painted in 1692 that it was a copy of a copy of a Sung original; while his colleague, Yün Shou-p'ing, the flower-painter, was described approvingly by a Chi'ing compiler as having gone back to the "boneless" painting of Hsü Ch'ung-ssu, of the eleventh century, and made his work one with it. (Yün had often, in fact, inscribed "Hsü Ch'ung-ssu boneless flower picture" on his own productions.) And Tsou I-kuei, another flower-painter, committed to finding a traditional sanction for his art, began a treatise with the following apologia:

When the ancients discussed painting they treated landscape in detail but slighted flowering plants. This does not imply a comparison of their merits. Flower painting flourished in the northern Sung, but Hsü [Hsi] and Huang [Ch'üan] could not express themselves theoretically, and therefore their methods were not transmitted.

The lesson taught by this Chinese experience is that an art-form is "exhausted"when its practitioners think it is. And a circular explanation will not hold — they think so not when some hypothetically objective exhaustion occurs in the art itself, but when outer circumstances, beyond the realm of purely aesthetic content, has changed their subjective criteria; otherwise, how account for the varying lengths of time it takes for different publics to leave behind their worked-out forms? [pp. 40–41]

Martindale seems to be completely innocent of such considerations. What he brings to this long-running discussion is, supposedly, quantitative evidence, and skill in its analysis. But this is precisely what he lacks. I have only gone over one of his analyses here, but I claim that the level of incompetence displayed here is actually entirely typical of the rest of the book.

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