Archive for the ‘Martha Stewart’ Category

A Treatise on Superfluous Things

December 15, 2013

We owe it all to Wen Zhenheng.  Everything we were taught in college about old Chinese porcelain being the pinnacle of the ceramic art.  Maybe it’s even true.

But Wen didn’t direct his lesson to modern European and American art students.  Wen sought to enlighten his own late Ming Dynasty’s growing ‘middle class.’  His task was tricky.  Wealth from trade with European devils had trickled down to mid-level functionaries.  It was an era of uncomfortable accommodation between the newly well off and the long-time well bred.

Of course the newcomers had no idea what they were doing.  Like their European trading partners, they desired the cultured trappings associated with porcelain.  Unlike Europeans, they knew enough not to settle for gaudy export stuff.  But without access Imperial wares, what were they to do?

Wen’s early 17th century “Treatise on Superfluous Things” showed them the way.  This “Do’s and Don’ts” compilation claimed to be the definitive arbiter of taste for the gentlemanly art of porcelain collecting (amongst other gentlemanly artistic pursuits).

True gentlemen only collected the finest porcelain, according to Wen – ie; porcelain made no later than 200 years before his time (early Ming or before).  The ideal piece should be “as blue as the sky, as lustrous as a mirror, as thin as paper, and as resonant as a chime.”   Wen and his peers emphatically believed in China’s past cultural superiority.  Anyone who owned old porcelain could feel connected to those days of yore.

But just owning fine porcelain wasn’t enough.  One had to show it off in the right way at the right time.  Certain vases could only be shown on tables “in the Japanese style.”  Nothing else would do.   One must “avoid vases with rings, and never arrange them in pairs.”  If flowers were included, “any more than 2 stems and your room will end up looking like a tavern.”

Wen’s dictums were strict.  They had to be.  Then as now, ostentatious wealth bred, more often than it suppressed, vulgarity.  Wen sought to protect cultural ‘insiders’ – that is, anyone who bought his book.

Centuries later Dale Carnegie, Martha Stewart, and even Bernard Leach bought in, each in their own unique way.  Yes, we owe it all to Wen Zenheng.

Early Ming

Readings:

Vermeers Hat. The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World.  Timothy Brook.  Bloomsbury Press/New York.  2008.

 

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