Ten thousand things

Lothar Ledderose was the author of one of the West’s most formidable Sinological companions, sub-entitled Module and Mass Production in Chinese Art, below the title Ten Thousand Things. It surveys the entire cultural experience of the Far East, in the course of establishing that Chinese arts are different in kind from Western arts, though equally dynamic. The modernist (XVIth-century?) initiation of mass production in the West might be seen as uncharacteristic.

The Chinese had been “doing modular” since time out of mind, and produced most works — bronzes, terracottas, carvings, lacquerworks, enamels, other laminations, lattices, porcelain jars, architectural fittings, printed texts, paintings, calligraphy, other brushworks, &c, &c — in multiples and often large numbers. The pieces were seldom identical, however, and minute variations (which a Chinese might consider substantial) were apparent in all these series. For this is what modular production entails, and what it denies. There was no established “fine art” in China, except where it was imposed for sales purposes by pioneering Western dealers. Panicked individuation had yet to come, see, and conquer. But there was never any shortage of “art.”

This German gentleman has written several hundred other books and papers in the modular style of the Western academy, for which he probably received many prizes. Herr Professor Ledderhose is remarkably still alive (in his eighth decade); and so, arguably, is China — though now producing copious manufactures, on the modern model, that excludes art. For the genius of the Middle Kingdom formerly ran parallel to ours; the intentions ever embracing beauty.

East and West, the intention of modern life is instead economic. We are occasionally interested in industrial design, but this only from an economic motive. For what is designed will be, barring error and invincible stupidity, identical pieces, made simpler and easier to operate than something that was assembled randomly, by a moron.

As the son of an industrial designer, I can attest that only his economic reasoning was tolerated by patrons. Except, some aesthetic appreciation in Japan.

This is progress, yes? … (Salve nos, Domine.)

Neither Judaeo-Christian nor Heathen Chinee would have thought the economic motive uniquely worthy, before. For what we once had in common was a craving for the beautiful result.