Philosophy prof looks at differences in aesthetic values between Chinese and Western art
by Candy Kuebker (B.A. ’78)
Aesthetics is an area of philosophy that examines the creation and appreciation of art and beauty. But what’s a philosopher to think about a culture that values artistic blandness?
Last summer, Assistant Professor of Philosophy Colin McQuillan, Ph.D., traveled to Beijing to find out. There, he taught a graduate seminar that addressed the importance of blandness in Chinese art. And while the idea of art and blandness may seem contradictory to the Western palate, McQuillan said that’s not the case in much Chinese art.
“A particular genre of Chinese ink painting,” McQuillan offered as an example, “uses imagery that is very spare and appears to be washed-out. Blandness isn’t about one’s perception of the art but the mood or psychological state it’s supposed to represent. At its best, Chinese art creates a sense of evenness and harmony or … blandness.”
The seminar delved into a prominent philosopher’s argument that blandness is not only an aesthetic value in Chinese art, it is one of the central values of Chinese philosophy. Art is most perfect when it is most bland, the philosopher argued. To expand upon this idea, McQuillan introduced a corresponding value in the Western philosophical tradition: disinterestedness in the judgment of art.
“Good critics don’t just respond emotionally to a work of art or express their prejudices or biases when confronted with art,” McQuillan said. “They must suspend those biases and the passions that may be part of their character and judge the art on its own terms.”
In other words, the critic is assuming something akin to the psychological state of blandness in Chinese art. The critic must suspend her interests — perhaps cognitive or moral — and, instead of saying what the art represents and how well the art represents it, simply ask whether or not the art is beautiful.
In the end, McQuillan argues, both blandness and disinterestedness as values for judging art require the viewer to leave preconceptions and emotions behind in order to experience the beauty of art for its own sake.
“A disinterested aesthetic judgment is a judgment of the beauty of the work of art itself.”