New Old Master and the Spirit of the East –
Interpreting the aesthetics of Li Chen’s sculptures


Peng Feng

Curator, Chinese Pavilion for the 54th Venice Biennale 2011
Chair, Art Theory and Criticism Department at Peking University
Delegate-At-Large, International Association for Aesthetics (IAA)


There was a period in the 20th century when art diverged from aesthetics to such an extent that certain critics rushed to draw a distinction between themselves and so-called aesthetics.[1] In the years, words with positive connotations such as beautiful, good and spirit, all but disappeared from art criticism, and in some instances were even criticized as being an enemy of true art. Barnett Newman said: “The impulse of modern art is the desire to destroy beauty.[2]” Arthur Danto was even more direct with his observation: “It is extremely important to distinguish between aesthetic beauty and a wider sense of artistic excellence where aesthetic beauty may not be relevant at all.[3]” For such critics, aesthetics in contemporary art criticism was replaced by sociology. Moreover, in a rapidly changing society history invariably pokes fun at intellectuals. Clement Greenberg’s insistence on staying loyal to abstract expressionism made him a laughing stock in some circles. Today, it is those critics who continue to embrace the sociological narrative approach that run the risk of becoming irrelevant.

The more astute critics have already begun to comment on a new trend in the world of art. Dave Hickey has boldly predicted the “return of beauty” to contemporary art.[4] In the same vein, Donald Kuspit has noted a shift in modern art from “new masters” to “new old masters.” In this discourse Kuspit contrasted “new masters’ art” and its focus on concepts, critique and innovation, with “old masters’ art” which pays more attention to technique, culture and aesthetics. As such, “new old masters’ art” is an amalgam of the aforementioned terms. To use a word coined by Hegel, “new old masters’ art” constitutes a sublation of the other two methodologies. Little wonder then that Kuspit called on painters to return from the streets to their art studios, where they could better research and hone their artistic expressionism.[5] With the return of beauty and the appearance of new old masters’ art, aesthetic narrative is set to make a return to art criticism.

The sculptures of Li Chen are not only a testament to the “return of beauty,” they are also an example of classic new old masters’ art, and therefore at the very forefront of contemporary artistic developments in the 21st century. It is on the basis of this determination that this paper offers an aesthetic interpretation of Li’s art.

The beauty of the materials Li Chen uses for his sculptures leaves many viewers speechless. However, the beauty of the material is not restricted to the visual impression the work makes on the viewer, but also in the way it impacts one’s sense of touch and hearing. Li’s exquisite use of purity of color, changes in brightness and darkness, and transitional light, combined with the rounded and curved surfaces of his sculptures presents viewers with a comforting sense of aesthetics. Moreover, the visual experience of these pieces creates a desire to touch them, but doing so causes viewers to question whether the sculptures are really bronze or steel, because the sense of refinement and smoothness conveyed by the metallic material is almost as beautiful as jade. If viewers are sufficiently experienced in the field of art appreciation and have some understanding of Buddhist culture, then the visual and tactile experience of Li Chen’s work should awaken their sense of hearing, almost like feeling the melodious silence after the ringing of a temple bell. All of the sensations and characteristics conveyed by the artist’s sculptures relate to aesthetics. Indeed, they bring to mind the praise of Johan Joachin Winckelmann when describing ancient Greek sculptures: “The general character of outstanding Greek art is to be found in its noble purity and its solemn greatness, both in terms of posture and expression. In the same way that the depths of the ocean are in perpetual silence regardless of the raging waves on its surface, the expressions on the faces of Greek images reveal a great placidity of the soul, even when found within great passions.[6]” Although Winckelmann wrote more than 200 years ago and was describing Greek sculptures from more than 2,000 years ago, his words fit perfectly the sculptures of Li Chen. This fact alone is an indication that art and beauty share qualities that transcend time and culture.

Of course, even the most casual of observers would notice that ancient Greek sculpture and the works of Li Chen are very different. To start with, Li is a 21st century sculptor and as such his works cannot but be infused with a sense of beauty that is unique to the era in which he lives. Although one could say that Li’s work is imbued with the same “noble purity” and “solemn greatness” of ancient Greek sculpture, it also contains round lines that highlight a simple outline and disproportionate human proportions. As a result, his pieces are simple and unadorned, but also infused a modern sense of black humor. In addition, the Qi, power and rhythm that are such an integral part of Li’s work are unheard of in ancient Greek sculpture. In other words, differences in time and culture are clearly identifiable in different art work.

Li Chen’s sculptures are possessed of a certain inner stature and this creates a life energy that differs from the way in which Western sculpture strives to capture a single moment of physical movement. If we are to draw a distinction in terms of designation, then the former refers to “lifelikeness,” whereas the latter focuses on “movement.” Western sculptors are particularly adept at the expression of physical movement. For example, when discussing how to best express movement Rodin said: “You ask me how my sculptures are able to express the ‘manifestation of movement?’ In point of fact this secret is quite simple. It is important to first determine that ‘movement’ is from one status quo to another status quo. In expressing the ‘manifestation of movement’ painters and sculptors must then focus on the process between the two states. If a sculpture or a painting shows the first status quo unconsciously transforming into the second, viewers are simultaneously presented with signs of the first status quo and the creative shadows of the second, then the ‘manifestation of movement’ appears right in front of us.” However, Rodin’s “manifestation of movement” displayed only movement, which is different to the focus on lifelikeness in Chinese aesthetics. The concept of lifelikeness is closely related to that of Qi or inner essence and only when there is sufficient Qi and it flows smoothly can people and objects be made to appear lifelike. Generally speaking, lifelikeness does not need to be expressed through external movement, but rather depends more on the inner movement and force of Qi. Clearly then, viewers lacking a background in Chinese culture would find it very difficult to feel the Qi described here. However, it is in these elements that one finds the core appeal of Chinese art. The ability of Li Chen’s sculptures to so thoroughly express the power, rhythm and lifelikeness that are held in such high esteem in Chinese aesthetics can be attributed to the artist’s background in traditional Chinese culture. Li has not only researched traditional Chinese philosophy, but has an excellent understanding of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. He also has a deep appreciation of artistic forms beyond the visual arts, including music, dance and even Chinese martial arts.

When Li Chen first started to express the aesthetic spirit of eastern tradition through his sculptures, there were those in the art world who thought such an approach was inappropriate, because the aesthetic spirit of Chinese culture had never before been positively expressed in Chinese contemporary art. Most of the artists who were active in the 1980s were fond of copying modern Western art and produced works that are perhaps best characterized as “Asian Western art.” After the 1990s, the handful of artists who became internationally successful did so by using cultural semiotics that showcased cultural identity. These works were “Asian art for the West,” which is to say they were a mixture of eastern art infused with post-colonialist ideas. Despite the fact that Li’s sculptures incorporate many elements from the Western sculpture tradition and utilize many resources from traditional Chinese aesthetics, they could not be more different than “Asian Western art” and “Asian art for the West.” Although his works are well received by art lovers and collectors around the world, they have resonated most powerfully within eastern cultural circles, because they speak directly to the aesthetic needs of those who grew up with Asian culture. From this perspective, Li Chen’s sculptures are “Asian art for the East.” His works are completely different to post-colonial Orientalism in the sense that the concepts and thinking that underpin them are Neo-Orientalist or indicative of the spirit of the East.

Whether we use “new old master” or “the spirit of the east,” both terms encapsulate the fact that contemporary art across the world is now moving in a different direction. Although their divergent narrative perspective means that eastern critics have a slightly different understanding of this shift in focus, viewed from a broader point of view, contemporary art is clearly moving from a focus on the sociological narrative of art to one that returns pride of place to an aesthetic narrative. When people think of the works of Li Chen, what first comes to mind is their pursuit of spiritual perfection and the way they satisfy the desire for an aesthetic narrative. However, Li’s sculptures also have another more critical aspect, one that despite being addressed in only a very low key way and appearing in just a handful of his works has been evident from the very beginning. In these the artist satirizes human nature and offers observations on the absurdities of modern society. The single most important contribution made by Li Chen is the way in which his sculptures present a modern expression of ancient eastern spirit. On the surface, this form of self-expression does not seem particularly difficult, but the comprehensive failure of people to understand Chinese culture in the face of the global advance of modernism, means that the only way to restore such expression is to have the requisite cultural self-confidence and self-awareness. However, the sheer length of Chinese history means that there is no shortage of classical examples of self-expression. In such a situation, identifying an expressive form that suits the needs of the current era requires a unique awareness and creativity. Li’s sculptures transform eastern aesthetics into a contemporary language in the same way that his art is an appealing mixture of tradition and modernity. Li Chen’s art showcases a way of thinking that can be characterized as “inclusive,” the diametric opposite of the popular Western way of thinking that emphasizes “choosing one or the other.” As globalization becomes more entrenched and we seek to avoid cultural conflict and appreciate other cultures, an “inclusive” approach has a number of obvious advantages over “exclusive” art. Today Li’s works are warmly welcomed by art lovers and bought by collectors all over the world, evidence of the inherent appeal of the philosophy that imbues his art.


[1] James Elkins (ed.), Art History Versus Aesthetics (London: Routledge, 2005).

[2] Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now,” in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews (New York: Knopf, 1990), p. 172.

[3] Arthur Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Peru, Ill., Open Court, 2003), p. 107.

[4] Dave Hichey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993), p. 11.

[5] Donald Kuspit, The Death of Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 182-183.

[6] Johan Joachin Winckelmann “On Greek Engraving,” in Zong Baihua’s Translations on Aesthetics and Literature, Beijing: Peking University Press, 1982, p2.

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