Sunday, 30 December 2012

Conflict and synthesis are embedded in the European psyche

Craig Waddell, The Painter (after Titian), 2012.
Last night I went to bed early but woke up near midnight and came back online for a peek. It was then that I came across a post in which an online friend expressed dismay at a kind of reverse discrimination, complaining that Westerners are blamed for everything that is bad in the world. To counter that unpleasant feeling I suggested that it might help if Westerners could be more aware of what their civilisation had achieved over the centuries, and pointed to my own habit of singling out prominent individuals who lived in the past, for acknowledgement.

Art and literature are two platforms that enable us to acknowledge gains achieved in the past, that have gone on to inspire others to achieve other things and even establish powerful new orthodoxies. So I have decided to single out for notice here a living Australian artist, Craig Waddell, whose works I have purchased in the past because there is something really interesting, I feel, in the way he handles his subjects. The painting inserted with this post illustrates this, showing how Waddell has used the approaches initiated by Modernist masters of the 20th century such as de Kooning and Soutine to render subjects purloined from great painters of the distant past, in this case the Venetian Titian. The layered meanings that inhere in a painting like this one establish a sort of mental harmonics that involves conflict and synthesis, and produces aesthetic pleasure.

Conflict and synthesis turned out to be elements of the discussion online that emerged after I made my comment, when another person suggested that the reason why, for example, the appearance of printing resulted in such innovation in the West while it had not done so in China, where it had appeared earlier, has to do with geographical imperatives. Here's what he said:
The most striking feature of Europe is its segments - Iberia, the British Isles, Italy, Scandanavia - these all form visible chunks (the important exception is the north European plain, which gave rise to the French-German-Polish-Russian struggles). This makes Europe focus on clusters, and when unity has been achieved (Rome/Carolingians) the impact was not politically permanent.
China, on the other hand, is one large landmass. This facilitates an easier unification (as under the Chin).
So conflict and synthesis of different viewpoints is a characteristic embedded in the fabric of Europe, whereas single-law rule and cultural orthodoxy held sway in China. I like this explanation because it avoids the less pleasant forms of European exceptionalism, which can deteriorate and turn into a kind of snobbery. I think that rather than celebrating cultures or civilisations, furthermore, it is more appropriate to celebrate the achievements of individuals, who often worked in antagonistic environments while doing the things that have since made them notable. These approaches can help Westerners, who can be rightly proud of what European civilisation has achieved, to avoid sounding superior, a stance that is sure to result in mockery and dismissal from people who come from other parts of the world.

So then what about China? For their part, the Chinese can be rightly proud of the sheer beauty manifested in their culture, and the strength that this beauty demonstrates. Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other cultures responded at different times to the overwhelming beauty that Chinese artists, scholars, writers, statesmen and artisans produced, and adopted many of its elements in their own ways of doing things. There is certainly something grand and striking about Chinese civilisation, something that indeed embodies the idea of "civilisation" itself. It's just that it's different from ours. And that's probably a good thing. It's in the meeting of different ways and means that we can further develop our cultures and societies so that they more perfectly accommodate the diversity of individuals who inhabit them.

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