Art, Music, & Film: April 2005 Archives

I continue to distill some of the joys of my Dallas trip. I see everything quickly, but it often takes a long time for me to process everything I have seen. I've written a short bit about some of the appalling nonsense one can indulge in at the Dallas Museum of Art, let me now indulge in some high praise for some of the truly wonderful things. Let me start with the special exhibit that I encourage everyone to get down and see.

The exhibition is called "Splendors of China's Forbidden City: The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong." It runs in Dallas through 28 May, so you have a little over a month to get there and see it.

In my wayward youth I acquired a degree in English Literature with a double minor. Part of that double minor was in East Asian History. My particular emphasis was on Japan, but I also favored Song and Tang dynasty China (I also learned before the present Pinyin system of transliteration, which makes no sense to me whatsoever, I always have to run to my conversion chart to see if what I knew as Sung is Song or something else). I never thought much of the Qing dynasty--a bunch of post-Ming upstarts--not even Chinese ruling the glorious empire. It is in this dynasty--the Manchu dynasty that the stereotypical queue worn by the Chinese was developed as a sign of bondage and subservience to the foreign invaders.

However, this exhibition showed how the Manchus attempt to assimilate what was great in Chinese culture and improve upon it. I have seen a great many galleries of Asian art, but I have seen few things as truly splendid as some of those on display in Dallas.

The paintings are rich in color--far richer than the mostly wan and pale (but still lovely works) of Earlier Chinese eras. I thought at first that the paleness might have been an artifact of age, but indeed, it seems that the early Chinese aesthetic was based on these very subtle differences in shade. The Qing paintings, on the other hand, remind me more of Japanese paintings--particularly those of the Ukiyo-e school--vibrant colors and a great deal of action. Examples include a painting of the Emperor on a tiger hunt and some scenes of court life that are more reminiscent of the Japanese High Court paintings than those of China.

Also gorgeous are items such as the intricately carved and decorated Double Dragon throne.

While the Manchus were foreign invaders, they rapidly adapted Chinese customs. The Emperor Qianlong had a great number of wives and there was a ranking system among the wives that hearkens back to the Confucian rules for court Etiquette and societal ordering--The Book of Li or Rites, which intricately prescribes the number, style, and type of jade beads a person of a given rank might wear and the degree of subservience that must be shown depending on the difference in ranks of the people meeting. In an exhibit made up to show a dining room, we see three sets of vessels and utensils--one for the Emperor, one for a wife of the fourth rank and one for a wife of the fifth rank.

Speaking of jade beads, there are a number of really spectacular Jade sculptures that reveal a great deal about Chinese are and jade-work and about the limitations of the medium. The emperor Qianlong ordered a sculpture that is the second largest sculpture ever made from a single piece of jade.

Also fascinating are the intricately worked fabric and clothing. Some of the stitching and the designs are unbelievable and beautiful, and of course some of these clothes were worked in real gold thread.

One of the most poignant exhibits shows a large throne with a small stele on it. The stele is said to capture the spirit of Qianlong still reigning.

If you live in Dallas, and particularly if you have children, you owe it to yourself and your family to go and enjoy this exhibition. The cost includes the price of a recorded guided tour (personally, I hate those things, but a lot of people really seem to get a lot more out of their visits by using them), which is a real bargain considering that most such exhibitions I have been to require a separate fee for the recorded tour. I can heartily recommend this as one of the very best exhibits of Chinese art and artifacts that I have seen outside of museums entirely dedicated to Asian antiquities. Do yourself a favor and take it in if you have the opportunity--and don't forget the little ones. The earlier one starts an appreciation for the great achievements of art and culture, the more likely it is that they will become a permanent and enriching part of any person's life.

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I never did report on the wonders of the Qing dynasty exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art. And I'm not sure I will at this point, because first I must report on the final hall we looked at in the museum, an example of the "emperor's new clothes" school of art.

Walking down a series of steps we encounter a fluorescent light bulb stuck in a bale of hay, along with several other meaningful and profound statements. My companion's comment on the matter I thought apt (he could say it being a native son), "After all, we are in Texas."

Nothing could have prepared us for the walk through the door into the next gallery which was an exhibition by a single artist an "installation" called, I think, Stations of Dissolution. The first thing that greets you is a large black inset pool or black reflective box that looks like a pool. In this same room there is a kind of brick-lined hole in the wall.

Wandering down the connecting corridor and looking at photographs and sketches on the wall, you emerge into what seems to be a very minimalist living room scene complete with impaled dead stuff fox on the floor--transfixed by large quartz-shaped crystals with remnants of other crystals scattered around. There is a pot-bellied stove and the same brick-lined hole in the wall along with a rocking chair. I also seem to remember a shot-gun--but I wouldn't swear to that.

After the initial surprise of the thing, the only reaction one could muster up is amusement that the creative directors of a museum who would buy and display such rubbish and think it art. Modern art has abandoned all pretense at art. Much of it exists merely to shock a reaction out of an audience. Despite what they think, the primary purpose of art is not necessarily to inspire an emotion. While great art may well do so, it isn't the primary purpose of the endeavor. Nor is its primary purpose selfishly oriented. That is, it isn't about "expressing oneself," at least not exclusively. One must express oneself in a fashion intelligible to other or no expression has taken place. Your whole purpose is undermined. This little exhibition was an exercise in self-undermining. Will I remember it? Probably, but it will take an act of will to recall it so that I can hold it up as an example of what not to do as a creative artist. Just as with experimental novels delivered unbound so that the pages can be shuffled and read in any order, this is a kind of creation doomed to failure, and rightfully so. It was even more risible than the piles of brick and sand and the mirrors covered by pebbles.

(On the other hand, Dallas residents who can afford to do so should certainly hand over the money for the magnificent exhibition of Chinese Artifacts as well as some of the great antiquities available throughout the rest of the building. I'll try to write a bit about the Qing dynasty exhibition (From the Forbidden City) in a day or so.

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Finding Neverland

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A reworking of reality that never manages to convince--it tries so hard to let us feel that a man living the life of a child is perfectly ordinary, respectable even. However, there is a disturbing undercurrent throughout the film.

For one thing, the story sets off on the wrong foot by distorting the reality of Barrie's relationship with the Davis-Llewellyn children. It does this by giving us the family with four (rather than five) sons headed by the mother Sylvia--the father has died of cancer of the jaw before the story begins. In fact, when Barrie took up his relationship with the family the patriarch Arthur was alive and thoroughly disapproving.

The unfortunate circumstances of the deaths of some of the children also raise questions about Barrie's ultimate influence. Michael drowned at Oxford and Peter ended up committing suicide in 1960.

The film sanitizes this story and manipulates us into believing that all of the events portrayed were acceptable and even respectable, that it was what was best for the boys and that living a life of irresponsible pursuit of other people's children with concomitant neglect of one's own family is a reasonable and even loving thing to do.

While beautifully filmed and acted, there are so many disjuncts with reality and with the truly dark things that permeate this story that the film failed for me. Rather than facing some of the difficulties, we are given the romanticized, washed-clean version, in which divorce is just fine so long as it frees one to pursue his or her personal expression.

Perhaps I read the film too closely. As much as I am inclined to really like Johnny Depp, I found this film disconcerting and disturbing. I do not recommend it.

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His Own Words


The Holy Father's special encouragement and pastoral counsel to Artisits:

from Letter to Artists
Pope John Paul II (the Great)

It is important to recognize the distinction, but also the connection, between these two aspects of human activity. The distinction is clear. It is one thing for human beings to be the authors of their own acts, with responsibility for their moral value; it is another to be an artist, able, that is, to respond to the demands of art and faithfully to accept art's specific dictates.(2) This is what makes the artist capable of producing objects, but it says nothing as yet of his moral character. We are speaking not of moulding oneself, of forming one's own personality, but simply of actualizing one's productive capacities, giving aesthetic form to ideas conceived in the mind.

The distinction between the moral and artistic aspects is fundamental, but no less important is the connection between them. Each conditions the other in a profound way. In producing a work, artists express themselves to the point where their work becomes a unique disclosure of their own being, of what they are and of how they are what they are. And there are endless examples of this in human history. In shaping a masterpiece, the artist not only summons his work into being, but also in some way reveals his own personality by means of it. For him art offers both a new dimension and an exceptional mode of expression for his spiritual growth. Through his works, the artist speaks to others and communicates with them. The history of art, therefore, is not only a story of works produced but also a story of men and women. Works of art speak of their authors; they enable us to know their inner life, and they reveal the original contribution which artists offer to the history of culture.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Art, Music, & Film category from April 2005.

Art, Music, & Film: March 2005 is the previous archive.

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