Volume 1, 2008
Aesthetics and Philosophy of Arts
The Beauty of Literati Strokes
Shi Tao, Merleau-Ponty and Communion with Nature
How is the painter’s body related to the process of making a beautiful brush stroke? Those interested in this question will benefit from Jianping Gao’s findings, in The Expressive Act in Chinese Painting, a book that presents the aesthetic ideas of Chinese literati painters and art critics. Gao’s assigns five features to the actual practice of painting that results in the making of brush strokes that literati audiences would call “naturally beautiful.” These five are the interaction of idea and body, the concentration on paper, the suspension of the perception of natural objects, the emergence of a “pure self”, and the intersection of self with nature. I begin with the practice of concentration on paper and find that the literati painter observes the whole of the visible paper. After that, I introduce Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s late writings on the flesh of the body that belongs to the working painter. By developing the idea of an innate, interior whole of visibility, which persists through fleeting perceptions and Gestalts, Merleau-Ponty offers us a way to describe the individual painter’s innate corporeality, the transformation of the
painter, and intimate contact with nature. With Merleau-Ponty’s term “flesh of the body,” I return to interpret the five features of the literati process of making naturally beautiful strokes. I conclude that the literati writings help to reshape present-day aesthetics, and I note the philosophical language for a non-physical corporeality helps us appreciate the ideas of Chinese literati painters.