The Joy of Chinese Painting?

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):

Fan Kuan, 'Sitting Alone by a Stream' (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fan Kuan, ‘Sitting Alone by a Stream’, now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei (via Wikimedia Commons)

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?

5 thoughts on “The Joy of Chinese Painting?

  1. The old Chinese tells a story, something that Bob Ross does not. His work are painted pictures, entertainment, as were his TV ‘shows’. Bob Ross’ ‘story’ is always about amateur painting of one kind of landscape (without story!) and giving people the feeling to be able to and possibly a little bit of know-how how to make them yourself. If you are looking for a story in a work of art which in my opinion should always be the case, you can easily make your choice between the two examples.

  2. Thanks! That is an interesting point. So the not-so-interesting art (or kitsch) may be called static, while the interesting art has a narrative: it moves; it is a performing art almost.
    That makes me wonder whether there are any spectators of Bob Ross’s paintings who DO see a story unfolding in his landscapes.

  3. A comment from Peter, 11 January:

    To me a painting or landscape for that matter should attract your attention each time you look at it. One glance at the painting of Bob Ross is enough to find out that there is not much to discover, whereas Fan’s painting invites the spectator to discover and stimulates the imagination: “how do we get to the house?”, “why was the house built on that spot?” etc..

  4. I think you the moment you are on the right track is where you refer to Bourdieu, but I think you can make it more explicit. Art is not a neutral term: making an art judgment (Fan’s painting is art, Ross’ painting is kitsch) positions you, the judge, in socio-economic terms and possibly also in cultural-geographic ones.
    Bourdieu, after all, wrote about distinction and about class. I would say, following Bourdieu, that in judging art you reveal your own aspirations in terms of class. I also do not believe that you are as passive in this process as you make it out to be.

    • Indeed, the fact that I wrote this bit in the first place shows that I am not a passive pawn in this process, doesn’t it? ;-)
      On the other hand, in true French-intellectual vein, internalisation/socialisation of taste goes very deep, so deep that it’s hard to disentangle yourself from it, if we are to believe Bourdieu.
      On the other hand yet again: I do genuinely believe that another level on which to talk about art also exists: not just the social/taste meta-level, but the level of what the specific work in question has to offer us (on which the other commenters have engaged). And on that level, I do not think distinguishing between art works is wrong in principle. Only, you have to first learn a lot about that particular style/period/artist before judging them: judge them on their terms.

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