Have a look at these two types of paintings:
‘Bright Autumn Trees’ by the American TV personality Bob Ross (1942-1995), or any other of his landscape paintings (please click on the link, because I cannot reproduce the image);
and, to give just one example, this landscape by Fan Kuan, a painter living under the Song dynasty (flourished 990–1020):
How do you appreciate the two?
On me, in any case, Fan’s painting made a much bigger impression.
Now, I know very little about Chinese painting, but I think that I can safely say that both Bob Ross and Classic Chinese landscape painters worked in a circumscribed tradition, within genre rules that made each work clearly recognisable as a particular kind of landscape. I may offend people were I to call their works cliches, but both painters, I think, wielded stock elements, both specialised in particular painting techniques and both were masters in what they were doing.
Then why do I admire Chinese landscape paintings such as Fan’s so much more than Ross’s? Is it simply the aura of exoticism that for me, as a European spectator, surrounds Chinese art? Or the aura of a venerable age (Fan’s painting is a thousand years older than Ross’s)? Or is perhaps something even more unfair going on?
Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, wrote how people derive status from showing off their cultural knowledge – or, to be more precise, from internalising high-status aesthetic taste. In other words, in order to ‘make it’ you have to find beautiful what others who have already made it also find beautiful. If this analysis is true for my feelings about the two paintings above, that means that in the end, I judge Fan’s work to be ‘art’ and Ross’s work to be ‘kitsch’ just because this is the taste expected from me.
Or is it really something inside the picture that distinguishes Fan from Ross? Is his painting more skilled, more profound, more original? Who can help me?