Zehou, Li

Assigned: Zehou, Li. From Four Essays on Art: Toward a Global View (1658-70). Also read the editors’ introduction (1655-58).

From Four Essays on Art: Toward a Global View (1989/2006)

Chapter 8. The Stratification of Form and Primitive Sedimentation

1. On 1658-59 (“Contemporary aesthetics focuses on art…”), Li Zehou points out that “there is still no common agreement about what art is and which works constitute art” (1658 middle). What things, at least, have we learned about how to define art? Besides the basic need to define what art is, what other questions does Li Zehou raise in this section? In addition to the matter of maintaining a distinction between “artworks” and “aesthetic objects” (1658), how has the advent of artistic modernism complicated matters?

Artworks Exist only When They Have Become Aesthetic Objects

2. On 1659-60 (“So how do objects made by humans…”), Zehou continues his engagement with the definition of artworks. First, how does he discuss the relationship between the material dimension of art and the experience of the perceiver, the latter captured in the phrases “aesthetic psychoemotional construction” (1659) and “aesthetic psychological construction” (1660)? Why is an artwork’s “formal structure” (1660) vital to its determination as an artwork, and how do you interpret Zehou’s statement that “The legacy of art is deeply sedimented in the human psychological construction…” (1660)? In what sense, according to this statement, is aesthetic perception properly understood to be the product of historical development rather than “given”?

What Are Artworks?

3. On 1660-61 (“Now I will expand on my response…”), Zehou addresses what he calls the “illusory existence” of works of art (1661). This term “illusory existence” clearly is not meant to suggest that aesthetic experience is somehow fake or illegitimate, so what explanation of such experience is Zehou thereby promoting? How do the art object’s material dimension and the perceiver’s complex response to it come together to create an “aesthetic object” or “artwork” (1661)?

4. On 1661-62 (“Now, I wish to turn to the question…”), in what sense, according to Zehou, can it be said that “The beauty of art possesses an objective character” (1661)? Even so, why does Zehou also write, “there is no use in seeking an eternal and unchangeable definition of art” (1661)? Since that is the case, what should art critics and students of art do by way of making progress in the understanding of art?

Sociology of Art as a Study of Aesthetic Consciousness

5. On 1662-63 (“In mainland China, questions are raised about…”), how, according to Zehou, is the study of artworks different from pursuing “art theory in general” (1662)? What kind of sociology best honors Zehou’s statement that “Art is the brilliant mirror of the mind and soul” (1662) and a way of studying human beings’ taste and perceptual habits over time, or what Zehou calls “the history of cultures formed by humans and inherited generation after generation”? (1662) What examples of the objects of this kind of sociology does Zehou provide using Chinese aesthetic history? (1663)

Three Stratifications of a Work of Art

6. On 1663-64 (“Now, I will consider the three stratifications…”), what “three stratifications” of a work of art does Zehou refer to? Why does consideration of these lead him to ask the question, “Which came first, art or the sense of beauty?” (1664) How does Zehou respond to this question, and what reasons does he offer for his response—how does he believe early people developed a sense of beauty?

Primitive Sedimentation                               

7. On 1664-65 (“What is primitive sedimentation…”), how does Zehou explain what he means by “primitive sedimentation,” and why is it important to the development of a capacity for aesthetic experience in early humans? According to Zehou, what happened over time as early people carried out their toolmaking activities—how did the patterns they created in or on useful objects correspond to the patterns and rhythms of the natural world? How did these forms or patterns begin to take on “an independent nature” (1664) of their own, and how is that development connected to human beings’ development of a sense of beauty? Finally, how does Zehou describe the development of the species of pleasure associated with aesthetic experience, again in connection to toolmaking activities (1664-65; “At first, humans produced very simple tools…”)?

8. On 1665-66 (“Does any primitive sedimentation remain…”), To what extent, according to Zehou, does primitive sedimentation still shape or account for modern people’s aesthetic experiences and responses to contemporary art forms? How does he characterize the difference between ancient people’s “sense of space and time” (1665) and modern humanity’s experience of space and time? How might a work of art reflect this difference, or produce different responses in us based upon its presentation of space and time?

The Appeal of an Artwork Is Dependent Upon Its Medium

9. On 1666-67 (“Although critically important, primitive sedimentation…”), Zehou discusses the significance of the Chinese term qi ( 氣 pronounced approximately as “chee”) within the aesthetic theory he has developed. What, then, is meant by qi in this context? How is it, according to Zehou, that qi impacts the perceiver of art more directly and profoundly than an artwork’s content?

The Genius of Artists Lies in the Use of Form

10. On 1667-68 (“The genius of an artist lies in…”), in what, according to Zehou, does the genius of an artist consist? What example does Zehou give of an artist’s capacity to “discover, organize, and create the structural forms universally owned by everybody and imbue the sensuous forms with significance” (1668)? On these pages, how does Zehou also address the difference between natural patterns as captured in photography, colors, etc., and those generated by, say, a painter? Why can’t painting be reduced to photographic reproduction of reality? Is he to some extent asserting the superiority of art over nature, or would that be a misconstruction of his claims?

Stratification of Form in Artworks Corresponds to the Humanization of a Person’s Sensation

11. On 1668-70 (“In summary, the formal stratification of artworks…”), Zehou tells us that “the formal stratification of artworks extends itself […] in two directions” (1668). What two directions does he go on to ascribe to this extension? In the course of this explication, how does Zehou suggest we should try to account for the changes we find in aesthetic production and taste over time and across different countries and regions? In spite of all the emphasis on change, is he nonetheless suggesting that there is something permanent about humanity’s production and experience of art? If so, explain.

12. General question: In Four Essays on Aesthetics: Toward a Global View, Zehou develops a strikingly original theory of aesthetic experience that tries to capture the coming-together of many forces (individual, social, and natural, conscious or unconscious) that go into the creation, historical development and enjoyment of art while also paying a visit to earlier theorists in both the Western and Eastern aesthetic traditions. What about your own experiences with art? What influences have shaped your responses to “aesthetic objects”? Some avenues to explore: are you closer to a formalist response to art, an expressive emphasis, or a cultural materialist response that sees art as reflective of social and political reality? Is art mainly a private matter with you, or is your experience grounded more in collective or communal sensibilities? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake