With an ever changing world, our view of art is changing, but is it keeping up with tradition?

By Rosalind Wang: Arts Columnist

Looking at contemporary art through the lens of Chinese poems in the Song dynasty.

Since the early 20th century, the Artworld has undergone such a dramatic change that contemporary art now seems to be anything but art. This puzzlement comes to anyone who intends to decipher the meaning of contemporary artworks, clustering in galleries and museums, contemporary artwork seem to resemble anything or, in most cases, nothing. Does this mean contemporary art has become superficial and, as most people believe, too vulgar to contain any meaning?

We, as contemporary audiences, understand art passively. We would like to be told what an artwork means. For us, with their uncanny presentations, always come to be inscrutable. As if we are in the middle of a maze and there is only one way out. This is how we encounter bewilderment.

Perhaps, we have approached contemporary art in the wrong way. The meaning of contemporary art lies not in its presentation but the heart of the perceiver. Contemporary art presents nothing but a cluster of signs whose meaning is never certain. Chinese poems, in this sense, give us insight into how the meaning is conceived. Like contemporary art, Chinese poets in the Song dynasty free words from the fetter of certain meanings. They focus on the flow of the sound and the ‘意象’ (the image) that sentences provoke. Take a sentence in a famous Song dynasty poem as an example.

mackayan: what contemporary art tells us

‘砌下落梅如雪乱, 拂了一身还满。

‘The fall of the Wintersweet resembles snowflakes blown in the wind, they are gathering on me despite how much I want to get rid of them.’

It baffles us as we try to understand this sentence. We are clear though, of the literal meaning that this sentence delivers. But it is because of the simpleness of this sentence that we are confused. This sentence seems to be meaningless after all. However, as I mentioned, the real spirit of Song dynasty poems lies in the ‘意象'(the image) rather than the literal meaning. The image comes as we bring ourselves to this described situation and experience it as if we are the poet. Therefore, the image emerging from our spirits resonates with the spirit of the poem. The literal meanings are gone since what comes to our minds is a sequence of images concerning our memories, emotions, and expectations.

Accordingly, when we encounter contemporary artworks, no longer are we searching for a certain meaning of a specific artwork. Rather, the ‘意象'(the image) becomes the centre of our experience. Deciphering the meaning of contemporary art is bringing the image that accounts for the spirit of art to us.


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