On picking one, or, why aesthetics should be taught in school

You know about the silk brocade wrapper, I suppose. Except... this one is yellow. And you know what that means, of course.

The quality of the painting is very impressive: note that this bird is about 5 cm long in the original!

But then you turn it over to see the seal and... no, it does not say "Made in the Qianlong reign of the Great Qing"! It says... Gugong -- which is to say, of course, The National Palace Museum.

These copies -- this one is of a very famous Qianlong piece dated to 1742 (see here) -- are mass produced now, somewhere on the Mainland -- I am told in Guangdong. But they are produced by traditional techniques and the level of technical attainment is really very high.

Picking the vase I wanted from among the seven that were available was an interesting exercise:

1. One was not stable -- something went wrong with the foot in the initial firing.

2. Another one I rejected because of its shape -- the gall-bladder shape is famously difficult to reproduce. This is important -- the potter must achieve seemless, shoulderless curvature as the body profile inflects from concave to convex around the neck and shoulder (which ought to be indistinguishable). This is very hard to do. The rejected piece looked decidedly shouldered, even square-shouldered, like a football player in armor, and therefore -- graceless. Even in this case, the shape is not perfect, but at best satisfactory. My vase is therefore not a true collector's item; it will neither appreciate in value nor even store it. But I could not have the best shaped vase -- which was as close to perfect as I have ever seen: its painting was awful; and I wanted to have one of these -- on my desk, now, and it had to be at least passable.

3. I rejected another vase because it had a firing flaw: a serious flaw, in fact: too large to be on display in the museum. The piece ought to have been destroyed at the workshop, not shipped out to ruin the potter's name.

4. I rejected another yet because it had a barely perceptible stain on the glaze -- someone handled it with dirty hands before second firing and fixed his fingerprint in eternity for us to admire.

5. And among the remaining three there were noticeable differences in the quality of painting. This painter pleased me especially with his fine, small-brush detail of bird feathers, even though his flowers were paler than on the other vases; nor was his tree bark as gratifyingly gnarly. But I figured: this genre of decoration -- huaniao -- flowers and birds -- requires well painted birds, right?

Back in the days of Qianlong, one vase -- or perhaps two -- would have been selected from among not seven but perhaps -- a thousand; and the rest of the production -- would have been destroyed. The resulting unsurpassed quality of the imperial pieces affects their price (in tens of millions of dollars these days, if you can ever find one) as much as the fact that they once belonged to The Main Man Himself.


A footnote is in order. "Mass produced" -- a word I used above -- is a funny word: it still takes many men and many man-hours to produce each bottle by hand... And the quality of the best pieces is hardly "mass" in any way. I should really be careful about what I say...

After all, the production run cannot be very large: all the porcelain people here confirm this: the production of these copies has moved to China, true, but that was not much of a loss because... -- and this is the point -- the market for them has disappeared. Modern Taiwanese middle class is no longer educated to appreciate the traditional arts. In fact, Taiwanese middle class, like the middle class everywhere else in the world, is no longer educated at all in terms of aesthetics. It is taught to be good doctors and engineers and brokers and mathematicians -- those things which advance the state's cause of ever-rising GDP; but in the matter of enjoyment of life's pleasures, the middle class is left to its own devices, abandoned by the education system, left languishing in the joyless darkness of ignorance. Absent most rudimentary guidelines, it is preyed upon by the purveyors of childish glitter and empty notoriety -- the sort of BS in art it would not accept from quack doctors or fake religious prophets.

Now, if, like me, you think that sex education is a good thing not only because it allows for family planning and disease control but also because it helps people experience more joy in their lives -- makes them happier, and therefore, presumably more productive and more law abiding -- then you must admit that there are good arguments for instating aesthetic education in school.


chris miller said...


As if any school (other than a very, very private one) could enhance either sexual or aesthetic joy.

I can see what you mean by the imperfect neck

Sir G said...

dear sir c

even a limited amount of sexual experience in countries with sex education and countries without clearly shows the impact of even cursory sex education on general level of skill and performance

and i believe aesthetic education is possible; merely forcing people to see lots of things can help open their eyes

and the neck... oh well

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