The following essay will be printed in the catalog of the show “ZAOXING” an exhibition of artwork from the faculty of the CAFA School of Fine Arts. The exhibition is currently up at the CAFA Art Museum, and will be up until October 7th. Pan’s discussion of the inherited notion of the three-dimensional arts at CAFA gives a worthwhile and historical perspective on the subject from the perspective of inside the academy. Pan Gongkai is the president of the Central Academy, and vice-president of the Chinese Artists Association. He is an artist, historian and theoretician. Translation my own.
The Significance of “Zaoxing”
The use of the term “zaoxing yishu” (the three-dimensional, modeling, or plastic arts) was at its height in artistic circles of the 1950s and 1960s, a result of the Soviet art academy’s influence. It encompasses primarily the mediums of oil painting, printmaking, sculpture and mural painting in the Western tradition, and has definition similar to “easel art.” However, over different eras and across different forums the concept eventually came to incorporate architecture; Chinese traditional mediums were later brought within its parameters. In the beginning of this new century, the Central Academy of Fine Arts is in the midst of another round of reframing the disciplines taught at the academy. We still use the phrase zaoxing to identify the oil painting, print-making, sculpture and mural painting departments, but making a distinction from Chinese painting, have established separate School of Fine Arts and the School of Traditional Chinese Painting, and adding an experimental art department to the traditional zaoxing arts concept. Thus, our concept of “fine arts” in the new millennium is closer to the Western notion of “pure arts.”
These Western mediums enjoy long histories and the achievements made in each respective tradition are rich and generous, they are mankind’s great cultural heritage. But in the Twentieth Century, under the assault of modernism’s great revolution, the tradition of easel arts progressively disintegrated. Since the 1960s, the structure of these disciplines in Europe and North America underwent enormous changes, the fundamental regimen of realist techniques such as sketching slowly slackened and faded out, and were replaced with the analysis of artistic concepts and training and experimentation in creating new ways of thinking.
The significant motivation for the conceptual change in Western art education was this: the success of the various schools of modernism art in the Twentieth Century, which demonstrated that traditional art forms were already outdated. Revolt and innovation became invincible and resounding slogans of, and the intention of all new arts, while the easel arts, which take sketching, color and technical training in realism as their foundation, not only lost their significance, they became the shackles, a hindrance to new modes of thinking in a new era. Therefore, it naturally follows that they ought to be replaced with unrestrained, unfettered teaching methods––the theoretical origins of this concept takes the fast supplanting of different and various art schools in the Twentieth Century as the essential nature of art historical progression, and views it as a rather blind search for novelty, innovation, and understands the total function of art education as the eradication of outmoded ideas through enlightenment with creative thought.
Decades later, we look back and find those conceptual transitions were trends of the times; they aren’t without their principals, and they allowed for arts reform and the emergence of an unprecedented vigor and entirely new directions in the visual arts. However, because of their overindulgent implementation, partial concepts were overwhelmingly accepted as the whole, and now years later, at this late hour, we are able to observe these issues with a more discriminating gaze.
There are two significant issues within worthy of contemplation:
1) The relationship between limitations or restrictive conditions and the freedom to create. Artistic production, especially art production in the modern era, requires ample spiritual liberties, but this doesn’t suggest the utter elimination of all restraining factors. Easel assignments are one nature of restriction, the technicalities of painterly materials are another; rigorous drills in sketching are also a kind of restriction. Can removing all these restrictions be beneficial to creative potential? It might seem so at a first glance, but with more thought, this is not necessarily true. When we examine these from the perspectives of psychology and art history, a far more complex dialectical relationship is revealed between limitations and creation, one that is worthy of serious contemplation and study.
2) The relationship between artistry and transcendence. In the moment that art comes into being, its artistry becomes a fundamental characteristic. Artistic training, traditions and their advancement, is a foundation of human civilization and a motivating force for evolution. Music helped cultivate our aural sensitive, and artistic works cultivated our appreciation of the beauty of forms while it simultaneously trained the most ingenious hands and insightful minds. The easel arts are similar to music in that over extended periods of time they became inadvertently responsible for the training that elevated humankind’s latent ability to strive for accuracy and to perceive. As history evolves, innovation no doubt played a huge role in driving advancement; but upon examining from the most basic layer, innovation is still just one method, it is a strategy. The elevation of human perceptual capabilities, the overall human development and conceiving of humanities’ intrinsic qualities is still the ultimate goal. Despite the fact that “technique” is on the same level as “talent” in Chinese culture, the maturity and exquisite alliance between eyes, hands and hearts, could possibly elevate mere “technique” to the level of concepts like “Dao”––transcending the level of human consciousness.
Understanding these two relationships above will influence our thinking and judgment on the future of the three-dimensional arts. In a foreseeable future, art will undoubtedly have see various new reforms and developments, new styles and forms, and new schools will continue to emerge. But no matter the nature of reform, the foundational characteristics of the three-dimensional arts are ever worthy of being treasured, inherited and protected: this is their culture nature, their artistry, and transcendence. Let me elaborate on the following:
The traditional disciplines of oil painting, printmaking, sculpture, etc., have already accumulated an abundance of skill, techniques and experience in each respective medium. Numerous methods in various schools, different printing techniques, types of and materials used in sculpture are multiplying, the traditional ways of experiencing murals and new experiments, etc. are all included within the parameters of artistry. This nature of artistry requires the artist’s personal touch, requires the alliance of hands, eyes, and heart, and a long training period before one can attain a high degree of technical proficiency. Each of these mediums has a generally acknowledged level of difficulty and independent criteria for appraisal. All artistry, within certain parameters, must have standards and rules of the game before they can be compared, evaluated, or judged. Art is no different from athletic competitions, if there were no rules or regulations, it would be impossible to evaluate performance, and the competition defunct. But rules and standards are developing and changing, even if they are eternally-changing, it not necessarily requiring the utter negation of the self as premise. It is worthy of note that Western experimental art did not originally stress artistry, we could even say it rejected artistry in order to be guided fully by concepts. At CAFA, we place experimental arts within the School of Fine Arts, the initial consideration behind this was, aside from “institutionalizing, academicizing, and rationalizing” experimental art, we hope that this discipline can be enhanced by artistry, adding to it the degree of technical difficulty, thereby establishing its own certain standards and system of evaluation. In this respect, we have already begun to see results.
2) A cultured, or cultivated character
In an treatise published in 1995, I generalized the most fundamental characteristic of North American and European art objects throughout various eras as “misconstructions” (cuogou) of everyday life. This idea of “misconstruction” summarized from a ideological perspective the necessary conditions that establish an art object as thus, and thus “misconstruction” is merely a framework, something must be built inside this framework, and this thing is culture. Culture is an extremely broad concept. The mythology of ancient Greek sculpture, religious content of painting in the Middle Ages, the humanist spirit art reflected in art after the Renaissance, or the aesthetic modernity manifested by the various modernist schools… all of these are cultural content that fill a framework; culture is the essence of content. Undoubtedly, cultural content is endlessly changing, often turning out new modes; artistic languages of form are likewise changing, renewing themselves. The constant reform and innovation of artistic content and forms in different historical eras is precisely what ensures these “misconstructions” can unceasingly preserve their most efficacious “independent” (gu li) function. Passing on traditions and changes in artistic form and content are components of cultural inheritance and transformation, the significant point and the difficult point are within suitably grasping the dialectical relationship between “legacy” and “upheaval.” This difficult problem of the artistic realm, similar to the contradictions and problems brought about by high-speed economic development and environmental protection, increasingly tests our ability for macroscopic thinking and our capacity to adjust.
Ultimately, art is inedible, it cannot be worn like clothes or put to practical use, and it is unrelated to the efficacies and interests of everyday life. Aside from having served religious and political purposes over history, the primary function of art is to please and delight aesthetically––this is what Lao Zi called “the use of uselessness.” It is precisely this “use of uselessness” that makes art an irreplaceable component in human activities. Art objects manifest as materiality, and its functional importance is actually spiritual. In regard to the three-dimensional arts, they still possess a sense of craftsmanship. The three-dimensional arts have constructed a human world of handmade items, a fictitious world of “misconstructions,” a world belonging to Karl Popper’s “World 3.” The existence of World 3 is testimony to humankind’s insatiability with mere food, warmth and material objects, their stubborn pursuit of a transcendent spiritual life. In ordinary circumstances, craftsmanship is still situated on the level of “talent,” and when it stands aloof from material gain, the author is also able to devote themselves single-heartedly, the process of handicraft’s artistic creation potentially endows the artist with deep gratification and joy, even capable of moving him or her. At the same time, it can bring the viewers surprise, delight, imagination or inspiration, allowing us to cast off the troubles of the secular world. This psychological transcendental quality of art, in the foreseeable future, still has yet to provide a appropriate art form that could entirely supersede it, this is also the still extant, latent vitality of art, it can still the motivation for our future existence.
We talk about the significance of the three-dimensional arts here in order to explain why, amidst a great restructuring of CAFA’s departments and our institution’s vast developments into the new century, we have not amalgamated our departments, why we have retained the existent traditional “School of Fine Arts” and its strict foundation in realist training, instead of opting for watered down training in the three-dimensional arts and the foundational training favored by mainstream Western art academies. Amidst all this, there is no doubt that “socialist realism” in literature and the arts is politically advocated, and is under the influence and guidance of elders at the Central Academy of Arts who teach “focus on the social, serve society.” But at CAFA, retaining the strategic implementation of the above-mentioned goes even deeper, we are even more conscious of broader modes of thinking and understanding.
The three-dimensional arts at CAFA are far from mere inheritance, but point to possibilities for developmental directions in the new century. The stringency of realistic techniques, the strict requirements for the comprehensive modeling abilities, the attempts to explore a language of forms, the high positioning for aesthetic tastes, have all been embodied in the high importance placed on innovative ideas and the openness and tolerance of concepts. This exhibition is a reflection, a summary, and it is also a new beginning. One can visualize, CAFA’s School of Fine Arts will continue to forge ahead in positive directions. New transformations, new explorations, new creativity, and new concepts will be in no short supply. The School of Fine Arts is entering a new period of transformation, it is advancing gradually, and strategically, steadily driving forward with high academic thought and research as its foundation. The principals of artistry, culture, and transcendence that fall within the three-dimensional, modeling arts, as well as CAFA’s realist tradition of “focus on the society, serve society” then hold fast, and carry on. The tradition of the modeling arts at CAFA, which have become a historical mainstay, will combine with the new disciplines of design, architecture, and the humanities to take shape as the most outstanding complimentary structure in our field, and will push the Central Academy of Fine Arts into the ranks of first-rate international institutions in the field.
(Translation by Lee Ambrozy)