Linked Arts

The Art of Pho
Breakfast at Dong Van Market
The integration of painting and calligraphy in the West has limited success. Here the words 'The Art of Pho' are added by brush, so softening the harsher contrast that pen work may introduce

In the West the arts of painting and calligraphy stand at arms length; one belonging to our visual world of colours, patterns, shapes and symbols, the other leading us on an excursion through the qualities of the sounds of words, and from their to their meanings. Attempts to blend image and word with western languages, as has been tried in this picture, are often uneasy. And the difficulty is increased further by the very way we form letters: a brush immediately gives the writing a painterly quality, a quality that the metal precision of a pen negates.

In both Chinese painting and calligraphy, the brush work is almost identical, and the marks produced from either art are similar in their stimulation (in the mind of a native viewer) of ideas, concepts and thoughts. The similarity of process in the two arts allows them commonly to be entwined, and leads to the notion that paintings may be read. This is no analogous sense of reading, but indicates the same activity is happening irrespective of the visual content. For us the sound systems stand between the written word and its meaning. So for us there is a double translation, first from letters to sounds then from sounds to meaning, and only then to the metaphors that may at once be apparent to the Chinese reader. David Hinton's example, Sincerity helps us see these moves more clearly.

Because we are not used to this close association between image and writing, and because we think of art works as being finished and then preserved in that particular state, maybe to be hung on a wall or kept at arms length in a museum, pictures, such as Han Gan's 'Night-Shining White', seem shocking. His work which dates from about 750 is covered, not only with the artist's writing, but with the comments and seals of the owners of the last 1,260 years. Indeed these additions now almost encroach on the main subject and have long ago occupied the, what to us would be, vital spaces that the artist gave to his composition. But to the viewer who sees calligraphy and painting as intertwined arts, and who sees no divorce between the art and its social and cultural embeddedness, these are not intrusions.

This process of accretion on the painting, illustrates a more general distinction that has prevailed between Eastern and Western life. In the West we seem to value the fight of an argument. A position is stated, an opposition proposed, arguments are redrawn, new positions taken. This leads to what is seen as a dialectical process out of which we feel a greater truth may emerge. Traditionally the process in the Far East is different. There an idea becomes valued, others at the time or later, praise the idea, illustrate and enlarge it, and in doing so, inevitably, emphasise a particular aspect; so in time the original idea evolves, and may in the end be far removed from its initial form - rather like a kind of intellectual Chinese whispers.

So with paintings such as that of Han Gan. It is not seen as a static, once stated then finished product, as it would be in the west, but rather as an evolving cultural whole to which we all should try to, and maybe can, contribute. The object is not discreet, it is profoundly interconnected. This is not to deny the fact that in an extremely hierarchical society, such as that of China, those having their say are not necessarily those with anything to say, but often only those with the most power. However, the fact that emperors put their stamp on a work such as this, shows us the degree of prestige that could be gained by joining in the discussion.

Here we see from the outside a general closeness, an interconnectedness: a link between the arts of calligraphy and painting, a link between artists and viewers, and a link between generations which spans the centuries. This is the context for writers such as Thich Nhat Hanh who emphasises the interconnections and interdependence of people in all aspects of their lives; when he does so he is reflecting a very ancient cultural norm. But more than that for these social interconnections point us to basic cognitive functions: to the relation between language and thought. Richard Gregory, the psychologist, whose interest in perception led him to help found the Artificial Intelligence School in Edinburgh, suggests that the link between vision and language may go deeper than we would have suspected.

In his article 'The Grammar of Vision' he writes:
"It now looks as though our use of these visual metaphors is no accident: seeing, thinking and language are inextricably tied up in the brain - so much so that the brain deals with language and vision in much the same ways. If this is so, there may be far-reaching consequences both for linguistics and for the study of processes in the brain ... What, if any, is the connection between the inherited structures of perception that we use to interpret the world, and the deep structure of language? Is there a grammar of vision something like the grammar of a language? Was there slow development over millions of years of something originally serving some other use - which we finally cashed in on for our language? If so, we may suppose that ... deep structures did not originally serve language; but rather something else.. The suggestion is that ... deep structure of language has its roots in the brain's rules for ordering retinal patterns in terms of objects. From the work of Hubel and Wiesel we begin to understand the words of the language of perception, but it is far from clear how they are put together. In other words, the mechanism of the grammar underlying the perceptual sentences is still hidden from us. It may be that language and vision are indeed based on common ground and that the basic problems of both must be solved together".

He is proposing that there is a grammar of vision which is the precursor of our grammars of language. This hypothesis gives vision a place at the centre of cognition and as the base of language and so the central element in our model making consciousness. The ideogram, as it spans concept, meaning, and vision, offers us at least a symbol of such cognitive interconnectedness, and maybe rather more.

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  • Han Gan (active ca. 742-56), 'Night-Shining White', Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • Gregory, Richard (1970) 'The Grammar of Vision' Listener 83. (pp 242-244).

12th October 2014 ~ 9th August 2015