Art is a major facet of human life that some have cross-culturally held to a particular standard through which human civilizations have been critiqued. In order to do the entire subject of what all humans around the globe consider to be ‘art’, much more than this short article would have to be written. Thusly, I will only focus on a few aspects of two-dimensional painting as can be generally seen in the East with a focus on Japan, and in the West with a focus on the United States.
It would be impossible to speak of Japanese art without largely regarding the major cultural impact that Chinese culture has had on Japan, and what a ‘good painting’ would entail according to Chinese and Japanese consciousness. In this same vein, it would be impossible to speak of American art without largely regarding European art, and what is considered to be a ‘good painting’ in this Western consciousness as well.
Paintings from both the worlds of the West and the Far East are intriguingly different from one another, but at the same time convey expressions of fundamental beauty of equal quality. Each meta-culture has formed independently of one another which has resulted in distinct expressions, yet each has an equally and majorly important school of thought and technique to contribute to the attainment of a representation of visual beauty, done in paint.
“After they master the painting techniques, accomplished painters from the Eastern cultures and Western cultures express things differently in their paintings” (Zheng Zhou). One major technique found in Chinese painting, which has impacted Japanese culture, is a concept calledgong bi (工筆), meaning “meticulous”. Gong biconnotes that the art created through the use of this technique will contain “highly detailed brush strokes” and would typically be highly colored (“Chinese art”). Another technique which originated in China, but also influenced Japanese art, is sui boku ga [Japanese], or shui mo hua [Chinese], which is written with the same characters in both languages for “water” (水), “ink” (墨), and “painting” (画). These three characters combined transliterate simply to “ink painting”. It is unmistakable that a great deal of Far Eastern art appears to be very crisp, with distinct lines and boundaries that do not overlap with one another, as can be seen in Hokusai’s “View Through Waves Off the Coast of Kanagawa” – where strokes on the canvas have been meticulously placed. Even though “View Through Waves Off the Coast of Kanagawa” can also be part of Ukiyo-e, (Japanese woodblock printing), it can still convey these concepts of gong bi, and sui boku ga.
European painting on the other hand, utilizes techniques of blending and gradation within their portrayal of an image whether from physical reality or from an abstract concept in one’s mind. Although watercolor is part of Western painting, what one would today consider to be unmistakably a painting of European origin might utilize tempera paints (made from dyes and an egg base), or oil paints (made from a mixture of linseed oil and resin) which give the painting a “glossy finish” (“Painting”).
Despite these differences to behold between Eastern and Western art, these differences do not subtract from the quality of what the Eastern eye and/or Western eye may register as a ‘good painting’.
Zheng Zhou feels as though Eastern artwork was “established from a semi-divine culture…” and that “…half of the emphasis was not on the human surface, but on the spirit of the subject, its allure and inner meanings” (Zheng Zhou). It is because of this sentiment that he also feels surface details are not as prevalently depicted in Chinese/Eastern paintings. He relates this to Western artwork as well in that it was “…also passed down to humans from Gods, but their emphasis is on human beings’ surface culture”; in essence, conveying that Western art focuses on the superlative, and realistic portrayal of something – striving to make an image look like a photograph more so than would be done in Eastern painting (Zheng Zhou).
Even though Japanese paintings have been created through the same techniques of China, there are some aspects that make the paintings of Japan unique. Japanese paintings may portray nature in more of a permeating way, since “such a relationship to nature had already been at the core of ancient Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto”, which is non-existent in China (36, Lee et al). Cultural influences from the native Ainu people of Japan are also featured in Japanese paintings, which have not occurred in China.
Lee, Sherman E., Michael R. Cunningham, and Ursula Korneitchouk. One Thousand Years of Japanese Art (650 – 1650): From the Cleveland Museum of Art: Catalogue. New York: Japan Society, 1981.