The Indeterminate — Part 1

I have found the art, regardless of its form, attracts me the most when the meaning of it is bordering between vaguely suggestive and elusively evolving, in space, time and above all in human minds.
When I was in the elementary school, Tchaikovsky’s endless melodies ran like spring water flowing through my toes. They are picturesque, animated and characteristic. It is as easy to identify a red bookbag in a gray rainy day as to recognize a tune by Tchaikovsky. But I have grown out of the mode when music has to be associated with certain images, objects or moods. The freshness of such music dies quickly as one listens to it more and more. Today I still listen to Tchaikovksy: his symphonies drives my emotions swirling and his violin concerto was still my favorite: a candid confession of sentimentality. But I have successfully avoided his suite of Nutcracker, especially in Christmas holidays in the US.

On the other hand, the late Beethoven, the contrapuntal works of Bach, the piano sound of Debussy and the symphonies of Mahler come to the top of my favorite list. They are terse, abstract, less-melodic, or at least not cantabile. If there is one feature to categorize them, that would be they refuse to be simplified into some categories. Beethoven digressed his late works with variations that filled the gap between heavenly serenity to stormy madness with infinite intermediate moods. Bach marked no tempo for his keyboard works. Debussy brought the most important part of his piano work – pedal technique up in the air (to the pianist’s own discretion) while Gustav Mahler squeezed a life into one symphony that is seemingly long but actually too short for elaborated description.s He himself would later refuse to program his symphonies. All these gives great freedom yet even greater challenges to the performers, the best of whom should be both authoritative and personal. Some musicians also integrated ambiguity into their own style. Furtwangler would let the orchestra players pick the beat by quivering his batonless hand to indicate the start. Thus the beginning section of his Beethoven Sym No. 9 has a primitive openness, that is ready to expand and evolve like the initial chaos of the universal. Out of such mysterious extensiveness one immediately senses something extraordinary is going to roll out and sweep the minds.

For laymen like me, the ambiguity serves as the motivation and joy of listening behavior, either in concert halls or at home in front of stereo systems; because every listening experience may bring out something new, something unexpected. Their music, thereafter, has become the spring water bubbling out with eternal freshness in my adult life.

I have found the same pattern in the visual art. The greatest art may stun, shock or even blind the viewers, but elude the possibility of being “viewed” thoroughly. In other words, the wholeness of the great artwork may never be fully obtained, but can be enriched when one commutes directly with the artwork, converses with friends, or simply experiences the life. In his book “Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and his World”, Jed Perl said Watteau fought to feel fully alive by exposing unedited human feelings with uncertain settings. These “actors, musicians, or aristocrats or even wealthy commoners who are playing at being aristocrats”, falls into the prey of disclosing the nuance in their emotions while acting out of their unreal theatrical surroundings. It is this strange juxtaposition, with an almost ridiculous lightness of being, of acting against the outer world while confessing sincerely inward, that makes his paintings bear the power that none other French artists of 18th century could have in persuading and touching modern minds. Arent’ we always acting against the environ by guarding ourself constantly from being emotionally? And if so, aren’t those fleeting melancholy moments of exposing the innermost feelings the absolute truth of beings?

Read part 2 at here.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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