AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 501

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Session 501: Reconsidering Originality: New Approaches in East Asian Art

Organizer: Chang Tan, Pennsylvania State University, USA

Discussant: Julia F. Andrews, Ohio State University, USA

This panel invites art historians to reconsider the concept of originality in the context of East Asian art. Previous studies either suggest that East Asian art prioritizes tradition over personal expression, or identify individual artists or schools as unique, idiosyncratic and original. The four papers in this panel, however, propose that originality is not necessarily connected with an irreducible and inimitable subjectivity. On the contrary, from the interconnected circle of literati in the 16th century to the global-minded art communities today, the practices of “copying” — the appropriation, reproduction and re-contexualization of existing imagery and prototypes—are vital in constructing a communal historicity in visual art, and, consequently, central in building particular forms of originality. Bentley connects Chen Hongshou’s hybrid aesthetics with the philosophy and poetics of the time, tracing an originality that arises from idiosyncratic synthesis of seemingly incongruent styles. Tan investigates how the paradox between copying and originality in calligraphy is highlighted in contemporary artworks, where writing is experienced as a series of mutually echoing performances. Wong argues that the Chinese mass reproduction of van Gogh paintings challenges the exclusiveness of authorship and, by extension, questions the marginal status craftsmanship occupies in the modernist myth of originality. Park describes a new generation of Korean artists who wittily appropriate from the art world at large, deriving their originality from the absence of expected “group characteristics” based on their identity, ethnicity, and culture. Put together, these papers offer new insights on the dynamic relationship between originality and imitation, individuality and community.

Originality and the Expanded Palette in Works by Late Ming Artist Chen Hongshou (1599-1652)
Tamara H. Bentley, Colorado College, USA

This paper explores the engagement of the artist Chen Hongshou (1599-1652) with contemporaneous literary and philosophical trends stressing originality and authenticity. These connections will be drawn out by way of Chen’s writings and the consciously experimental visual syntheses in his work. Like the philosophies of the Taizhou school thinkers and the theories of the Gong’an school of poets from the generation preceding his own, Chen Hongshou stated the need to move beyond narrow sets of artistic precedents: to embrace both the highbrow and the vernacular; both the established literati modes and the craftsmanship of Song-derived painting styles. The Gong’an poets like Yuan Hongdao and the thinker Li Zhi also stressed the value of personal subjectivity, finding in one’s flaws the crux of individuality. These ideas helped support Chen’s unique style, which featured irony, artistic interplay, and expressive distortion. Although a member of the scholar-official strata, Chen Hongshou rejected the usual literati restrictions, producing when needful large academic-style bird-and-flower paintings. In prints, Chen at times worked in Li Gonglin-style refined baimiao outilining, and at other times in the mode of Song-based academic figures with angular clothing. In his garden portraits, Chen adopted the venerated even outlining of the 4th-century painter Gu Kaizhi while collaborating with portrait specialists inserting faces in European-inflected, veristic styles. Chen tailored his citations to the situation at hand and combined unusual choices to create idiosyncratic, at times pointedly critical, hybrids. This is the type of non-conformist originality, I would argue, championed by Li Zhi and Yuan Hongdao.

Obsessed with Copying: The Experimental Calligraphy of Qiu Zhijie
Chang Tan, Pennsylvania State University, USA

The Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie’s Copying ‘The Orchid Pavilion Preface’ A Thousand Times, for which he kept on copying this most prestigious work in the history of Chinese art on the same piece of paper until it turned pitch black, is widely acclaimed as a postmodern parody of traditional calligraphy and, by extension, art and culture. This paper proposes the contrary. The paradox between repetitive copying and spontaneous expressions, I argue, is central to calligraphy, and Qiu’s idiosyncratic performance returns the art to its essentials—a series of meditative “mini-dances”, through which the mind shares a moment of exhilaration with the old masters. Copying (linmo) in calligraphy has many functions. While mo helps to preserve, distribute, or transfer a work into another context, to lin a model script is to approximate the “materialized energy” exercised in the production of the original. Both methods open up space for individual inventions. Through examining the “modernization” of Chinese calligraphy in the past three decades as well as Qiu’s various experiments with the medium, I argue that his often deliberately futile linmo demonstrates that an original exists in the cumulative imaginations of its admirers and imitators; the individuality behind the initial creation may be more universal than unique: it can be revoked again and again through the recreation of the same contexts, and, consequently, the “echoing” of similar mental and emotional states. Calligraphic copying explores such shared subjectivity to create a complex, continuously growing stylistic structure, from which a communal originality emerges.

Step 18: Sign "Vincent"
Winnie W. Wong, University of California, Berkeley, USA

In China's Dafen village, the world's largest production center for handmade oil paintings, the works of Vincent van Gogh are considered the easiest to produce, and its specialists, the lowest-skilled. Since the late 1980s, Chinese rural migrants who arrived in the city of Shenzhen seeking work as artists have begun their training by working as apprentices in van Gogh-specialty studios, which often produce over one thousand paintings each month. Modernist concerns with repetition, seriality, variation, and reproduction are inherent in this high-volume and labor-intensive art production, but operative within it too are the affects of authenticity, touch, expressiveness, and spontaneity. Focusing on van Gogh painters, wholesalers, and retailers in Dafen village, Long Island City, NY, and Amsterdam, this paper explores the function of craft in this transnational production of modernist originality. It proposes that the Chinese production of van Gogh trade painting lays bare a "craft" of originality, serving a particular consumer demand for authentic handwork, and thereby producing a particular kind of artisanal worker. It further proposes that the trade in van Gogh paintings is grounded in another set of modernist crafts: the conventions, performances, and formal appearances of originality. This dynamic of repetitive labor and unique expression is most intriguingly played out in the last step of creating a Van Gogh painting: the signing of "Vincent." Exploring the painting production of one van Gogh studio, this paper examines how the originality of the avant-garde is a myth that can be repeated through the operations of "craft."

A New Way of Doing Business: Diversity, Identity, and Originality in Contemporary Korea Art
J. P. Park, University of Colorado, Boulder, USA

Since 2000 the Korean art world has witnessed the emergence of a new generation of artists. Arriving after the social and political upheavals of modern Korean society, and having no experience of the Cold War, the demands of Confucian ethics, or serious economic challenges, this generation enjoys ready access to the larger world via the internet, ample opportunities to study/travel/work abroad, and international art fairs and exhibitions. Not surprisingly, unlike Korean artists of previous eras, their highly individual and varied works address ever more diverse issues in art, society, and history. However, in this process, their works, ironically, do not form monolithic patterns, characteristics, and attitudes that represent “Korea” as their common origin. Then, what makes them Korean artists? On what basis do we label art “Korean”? Do we believe the works of Korean artists deliver special insights about their unique cultures and societies, some definitive Korean-ness? This proposed paper argues that the label “Korean” must be understood as a special form of cultural capital that in fact has no basis in any imagined transcendental “cult of origin.” By focusing on Korea’s recent social, economic, and cultural transformations, which gave birth to the artists of the latest decade and their work, this paper will point to the new methods and programs pioneered by these emerging artists and how they both present and deconstruct a new kind of identity—and a true originality—in contemporary Korean art.