Moon Landing: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting at the Freer Gallery of Art
When I was a kid, I found myself glued to the television whenever a moon landing took place. Even when others grew jaded by repeated landings, I never lost sight of the rarity of the event. Just as rare is the opportunity to view rarely exhibited, light-sensitive works on silk and paper by Chinese artists such as those collected by the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting gathers together 27 iconic works of Chinese painting from the Freer’s permanent collection in an educational and aesthetic chance of a lifetime. We may never land on the moon again, but you can see delicate masterpieces such as Bodhisattva Guanyin of the Water Moon (shown), a fragile work of genius on fine silk dating from 968 AD, at least until November 28th.
One of the biggest reasons why American audiences lack a fuller appreciation of Asian art is the inability of display the works on a continual basis. Paper and silk simply cannot stand prolonged exposure to harsh light. Exposing them for our edification must take second place to their preservation. Until its removal in the early 20th century, Bodhisattva Guanyin of the Water Moon, the Freer's earliest painting from the Song dynasty, remained safe in a cave in Dunhuang (present-day Gansu Province), China. Buddhists came to worship Guanyin in the safety and serenity of that cave. The Freer hopes to offer the same kind of safety, as well as serenity, for viewers to take in the deep spirituality and high artistic achievement of that work and many others. Understanding these works can help Westerners comprehend the often mysterious Asian cultures that continue to mystify us. It’s hard for Westerners, inheritors of a culture relayed for the most part in sturdy stone and resilient canvas, to appreciate traditions founded in silk and paper. The little bit of Asian art on permanent display in most museums is a mere fraction of the whole—and usually not even the best or most representative fraction at that. What if Michelangelo had worked exclusively in silk and script? The story of Western civilization, and its global influence, may have played out much differently.
"These paintings are masterpieces. Some represent the earliest dated work or only surviving format by some of the most famous artists in Chinese history," said Joseph Chang, associate curator of Chinese art and curator of the exhibition. Works by well-known Chinese artists from the late 10th to the early 18th century fill the exhibition, which covers the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1279-1368), Ming (1368-1644), and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Those familiar with Chinese art will recognize traditional themes, such as landscapes, animals, flowers, and bamboo, but done at the highest level of artistry, often by artists that influenced many who followed. During the Yuan period, when Mongols ruled China, artists such as Qian Xuan (c. 1235-1307) and Wu Zhen (1280-1354) reflected that foreign influence in their art. In contrast, Dong Qichang (1555-1636) during the Ming dynasty believed that landscape painting should follow the native Chinese traditions passed down by scholar-painters of the Song and Yuan dynasties. Such “old school” ideas, looking back at even older schools, exemplify the timelessness and continuity of Chinese art while still allowing individual artists to stamp their individuality on the parade of images. Masterpieces of Chinese Art allows both tradition and individuality to speak across the ages through the strength of the Freer’s permanent collection.
Even if you do not feel a need to embrace the depth and breadth of the Freer’s presentation of Chinese masterpieces of painting, which, admittedly, may be too much for the average viewer, even a cursory viewing—a glimpse at the moon—will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You don’t need to walk on the surface of the moon to appreciate its beauty. But if you never take the chance to look up on some cloudless night at the full moon and gaze upon its face at length, you’ve denied yourself a long draught of beauty. Masterpieces of Chinese Art is both a walk on the moon and a moonlit night, depending on what you bring to it and what you want to take away.
[Image: Guanyin of the Water Moon. China, Northern Song dynasty, 968 AD. Hanging scroll mounted on panel; ink and color on silk. Purchase. F1930.36. Image Credit: Freer Gallery of Art.]
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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