The Uncertain Aesthetics of Contemporary Chinese Visual Culture

By Paul Gladston

From the point of view of contemporary western(ised) theory, enquiry into the nature of aesthetic experience is inescapably problematic. Within the western philosophical tradition, aesthetic experience has conventionally been regarded as a matter of feeling or taste that, by its very nature, exceeds cognitive thought. As such, it is something to be approached only indirectly through the circumlocutory use of metaphors, or the application of ostensibly precise, but ultimately generalising concepts such as pleasure and pain. Consequently, what each of us feels in relation to aesthetic experience cannot be communicated with absolute certainty. More importantly, contemporary western(ised) theory no longer supports philosophical beliefs in the existence of a shared aesthetic sense (sensus communis) beyond the play of language. Such beliefs are simply inimical to what is widely seen by contemporary Western(ised) theorists as the immanence of metaphoricity to all forms of linguistic signification and, therefore, the inability of language (philosophical or otherwise) to give outright fixity to meaning.

This problematic sense of conceptual indeterminacy in relation to questions of aesthetic experience has, of course, been compounded still further by the increasingly conspicuous hybridisation of cultures, which has taken place as part of the process of globalisation. Against this background, we have come to see the grafting of one culture onto another not just as a product of recent socio-economic events, but also as a persistent aspect of the historical formation of cultural identities. Consider here, for example, the periodic and highly variegated influence of Oriental culture on that of the West and that of the West on the Orient since antiquity. As a result, it is no longer possible to view in any convincing manner contemporary aesthetic experience, as well as the combined histories of cultural development that precede it, from a position informed solely by the Western intellectual/philosophical tradition.

Given the prevalence of this overdetermination of conceptual uncertainty, how then should we seek to frame our contemporary understanding of aesthetic experience? Genealogical comparisons are arguably useful insofar as they serve to highlight differences and similarities between discursive approaches to aesthetic experience as well as particular historical orderings of ideas. However, analysis of this sort does not – as a matter of methodological predisposition – help us to fully resolve questions of ‘either-or’ in relation to differing discursive constructions of aesthetic feeling, nor, by the same token, does it provide justification for the synthesis of those constructions. Arguably, close comparative cultural analysis ultimately serves to amplify rather than to curtail conceptual inconsistency with regard to the nature of aesthetic experience. Moreover, it requires continuing sensitivity to unconscious acts of discursive closure – the exclusion of the ‘Other’.

To turn to the specific question of aesthetic experience in relation to the conspicuous cultural hybridity of contemporary Chinese visual culture, it is no wonder, then, that commentators have often struggled to fit their particular, culturally inflected conceptions of aesthetic feeling precisely with the phenomenological experience of particular texts, performances and artifacts. Although Western notions of beauty and sublimity have a certain purchase in this regard, there would often appear to be an unfolding indeterminacy of sensation in the face of contemporary Chinese visual production that cannot be encompassed satisfactorily by the conventional western association of the term beauty with unalloyed feelings of pleasure, or, indeed, that of sublimity with a sequential relay of pain and pleasure. Equally, the sense of harmonious reciprocity conventionally attached to Chinese aesthetic sensibilities would seem to be somewhat out of kilter with a continuing western(ised) belief in the critical potential of contemporary visual culture (not least in respect of recent arguments relating to the notion of a post-modern sublime as well as a strategic return to beauty). Contemporary Chinese visual culture thus stands in constant danger of falling short of the cultural demands of both China and the West.

Although it is difficult to see how this apparent slippage of views might be reconciled, there is perhaps something to be taken from the notion that contemporary Chinese visual culture acts not simply as a focus for the hybridising of differing cultural points of view, but also as an active translation (re-contextualization and re-motivation) of those positions in relation to one another. Moreover, it is also important not to overlook the continuing immanence of aesthetic experience to everyday life in China. If nothing else, the interrelationship of tastes can be understood to act as a medium through which Chinese society has been able to conduct itself both more reciprocally and with enhanced communal pleasure. Seen in this light there is an urgency in engaging critically with the impossible complexity of aesthetic responses to contemporary Chinese visual culture, both as a matter of intellectual curiosity, and, perhaps most importantly, as a way of taking part in the active negotiation of new global/local cultural networks.

Paul Gladston holds an academic post in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham and is currently seconded to the University of Nottingham Ningbo China as Head of the Division of International Communications and Director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies. He is author of Art History After Deconstruction (Magnolia, 2005) and edited China and Other Spaces (CCCP Press, 2008).