Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Chinese scroll art by Sheng Mou, 1350

By Elaine Meinel Supkis

I grew up with Asian art mostly because my parent's activities took them to Asia a great deal and they came back with all sorts of goodies and we went to Asian events here in America and this is how I got hooked on Japanese anime, for these were the cartoons they showed us kids...the artistic ethos of Asia is quite different from main stream post 1500 European Art. Indeed, the reason I adore, really adore Bosch is because his art is very Asian: the background is as in focus as the foreground and figures in the pictures are of equal value and are set in place by everything around them. One can be lost for hours, moving the eye from point to point in his paintings, drinking in the dense scene.

The scroll above is like that. It is very tiny here but if you see it in a museum, you can see the three little humans walking along the road, the waterfall on one side, the pine trees climing the mountains with the peak rearing overhead. To view Chinese scrolls is to take a long walk with the eye.

So today's goofy, aggravating story is connected to all this: From Yahoo news:
Asians and North Americans really do see the world differently. Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene, according to University of Michigan researchers.

The researchers, led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett, tracked the eye movements of the students — 25 European Americans and 27 native Chinese — to determine where they were looking in a picture and how long they focused on a particular area.

"They literally are seeing the world differently," said Nisbett, who believes the differences are cultural.

"Asians live in a more socially complicated world than we do," he said in a telephone interview. "They have to pay more attention to others than we do. We are individualists. We can be bulls in a china shop, they can't afford it."
A lot of baggage dumped on a frail beast of burden, I would say! Why do these people jump, and this is a huge jump, to this conclusion? The reason for the difference is cultural but not social.
Japanese screen, 1500

It is all due to artistic sensibility that one learns in one's youth. I "see" in the Asian style because of the art around me and my first babysitter was Chinese and she also taught me how to eat with chopsticks. It is a learned process! Western art the last 500 years due entirely and totally to the revolution in creating a sense of perspective, sees the foreground in focus and important and the background as a backdrop framing the figure in the front! Cameras aggravated this aesthetic.

The most distant leaf on the far horizon in Asian art is as elaborate and in relative size equal to anything in the foreground. This was true of Medieval art, too. This is the natural way to look at things close up. The Modern method is to see things within a frame, like in a theater. The Rafaelian clouds surrounding his virgins and saints were theater curtains pulled aside to reveal the all important foreground figure.
In ancient China, farmers developed a system of irrigated agriculture, Nisbett said. Rice farmers had to get along with each other to share water and make sure no one cheated.

Western attitudes, on the other hand, developed in ancient Greece where there were more people running individual farms, raising grapes and olives, and operating like individual businessmen.
Obviously, when one is making up stuff, best to go all the way! Village farming from the Neolithic onwards carries an amazing degree of similarity to solving farming problems of security, commonality and sharing of lands. The differences are slight, if any. Any view of Europe shows all the villages clustered with houses with the fields lying outwards in concentric rings or long strips! When settlers came to America, thanks to the military/police set up of the Europeans, they abandoned the village model only after the natives were ruthlessly eliminated. There was no need for mutual protection when the new fangled rifled guns came into everyone's hands.

Even so, living in isolated farms took such a severe toll socially, the midlands are still falling apart from it. One drives through the Midwest and it is one long abandoned farm after another. Men struggle to keep women on these remote, asocial, sad places.

I live on a farm on a mountain a very short walk from a real, European style village. When it was built, back in 1770, Berliners had to stick together or be killed so they lived in a tight community.

In modern American films, from the beginning, the camera tracks the foreground. If you watch Japanese anime and look only at the figures in the front, you miss tons of amusing and well drawn activity going on in the background, sometimes, the elements of the next story development is something that was happening behind the main characters in a previous scene. This is true also of video games. I would suggest that kids playing Asian video games are already tracking their eyes like their counterparts on the opposite side of the world.
Cave said researchers in his lab have found differences in eye movement between Asians and Westerners in reading, based on differences in the styles of writing in each language.

"When you look beyond this study to all of the studies finding cultural differences, you find that people from one culture do better on some tasks, while people from other cultures do better on others. I think it would be hard to argue from these studies that one culture is generally outperforming the other cognitively," Cave said.
Note the sop thrown to us all. We shouldn't worry, we are still smart...heh.

But the fact is, learning Chinese or Japanese, just for example, requires much more memorization. The subtle differences of the characters require sensitivity and a steady effort to comprehend and integrate it all into the mind. As someone who went to school in other languages, trying to cope with Chinese, for example, is tremendously difficult. To read it, one has to focus on every character rather than groups of words. Different focus style. Because of the intellectual effort in learning to read, this stimulates the mind of the young scholars to greater efforts. A half hearted stab won't do the trick.

The decline in American scholarship shows this clearly. This is why we have to lure people from Asia to come here. The brain drain is strictly one way in this regard.

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