The Art of Thought: David Antin, Improvisation, Asia

The Art of Thought: David Antin, Improvisation, Asia

George Leonard

Considering David Antin’s improvisations, his talk poems, will lead to insights not only about Antin, but about improvisation itself. Comparing Antin’s aesthetics with certain Asian artworld practices, we glimpse a central difference between the historic aesthetic values of the Western and East Asian high artworlds.(1)

Antin Performing a Talk Poem

By their nature, Antin’s talk poems are intimate, therefore somewhat exclusive events, and the reader may not have attended one. Let me sketch the experience.

You’re sitting in the intimate audience that poetry readings draw, most likely in a mundane academic setting: industrial carpet, beige drapes, ten or fifteen rows of sturdy, coffee-damaged desks or chairs. Antin sits to one side while an introduction is read. He rises without fanfare, stoops to turn on a cassette tape recorder placed in front of him. His opening remarks are (typically) undramatic: “don wellman wrote asking me if I would write something do something for an issue of a magazine he was putting out” (“radical coherency” 177).

For all the banality of the setting, David Antin is no banal figure–and that matters to the performance. Anyone sophisticated enough to be in this artworld audience is finding him a resonant image. Well in his sixties, he is nonetheless a powerful physical presence–Picasso-bald, built like Jackson Pollock, slouching like the 1950s Brando, dressed in a faintly Kerouac retro style, he evokes an earlier (and, to the hip audience, inevitably purer, less mercantile) artworld: the Cedar Bar, Happenings, New York in the fifties and sixties. He stands (literally stands) for a time before American artists were widely popular or domesticated into academia–a world which chic art directors now photograph for Vanity Fair in black and white to suggest integrity: “JACKSON POLLOCK WORE KHAKIS.” David Antin too is much photographed and in the photos looks most himself in a white T-shirt, jeans, and a Garrison belt.

Yet–for all the Brando look of him–Antin has been in academia for decades and was a brilliant academic gamesman, longtime chair of his own department. U.C.–San Diego built him a building for it. He is one of the most educated American poets, a linguist who speaks several languages and has translated books from French, a poet/philosopher whose work is connected with Wittgenstein’s. (John Cage, struggling to characterize him, said finally, “David’s very … smart.”)

But, physically, there is that look. Onstage, that matters, and it matters more each year. Antin, in the aimless contemporary artworld, has grown into the stature of an icon–not of the past, for his whole presence speaks of health and power–but of a healthy survival within the present of a long and genuine American artworld tradition. As books appear with titles like What Was Postmodernism?–past tense–and the American artworld awakens, cotton-mouthed, from its dogmatic French slumbers, the presence of a sustaining American tradition–in the flesh, talking to you–is exciting. David Antin, after all, not only helped establish pop art; a quarter century ago he wrote the seminal essay “Is There a Postmodernism?”(2) Present tense. He was tired of pop. Now he has wearied of postmodernism. By this act today, in front of you, creating anew, he embodies, literally, a deeper American tradition that has outlasted all of it. It is a reassuring thought.

This now iconic figure, standing quite close, can see you as well as you can see him, which is both interesting and alarming. (The first time my wife saw Antin, in a videotape, she said, alarmed, “My God … so tough!”) He begins to talk, and, as you watch, he watches you too, “tuning” in on you (so central a goal, he has made it the title of one of his poetry collections). Speaking, watching you, improvising the poem while he studies you, he is trying, through his speech, to “tune” your instruments together with his, all your minds, together, “a fundamental human act,” as he works to create a kind of rhythmic communion that the whole room joins in, “a common space” (tuning 167). Think of tuning forks resonating together. For the next hour, tuning in/on/with you, Antin improvises his new talk poem–your personal talk poem, being created in a kind of sensory dialogue with you, his face, his body language responding to your faces, your body language in a kind of weaving dance.

The poem is, you discover, a regular story, but at times it rises to an intensity of metaphor and takes on a hypnotic cadence that is more than prose; not unlike the moments in African American poetic oratory when a speaker, on topics sacred or secular, gets into the Spirit, finds a rhythm beyond mere speech. One of Antin’s best poems, “the river,” gets there almost at once. It begins:

coming into a space like this obviously a very friendly space in that it

has a very warm tone to it in a way thats almost disconcerting for a poet

mainly because what youre used to is the randomness of the road the notion

that youre going somewhere and you don’t know where that is or what its

like and you’re going to go do your talking poem talk poem talk piece do

your piece of talking which is a piece of talking because essentially your

talking is an ongoing enterprise at least my talking is an ongoing

enterprise that I try to relate to my thinking because talking for me is

the closest i can come as a poet to thinking and i had wanted for a long

time a kind of poetry of thinking not a poetry of thought but a poetry of

thinking since getting so close to the process of thinking was what I

thought the poem was (“the river” 123)

The tape recorder in front of Antin picks this up, and later, in a book, the audience will find the text, printed as above (or close to that). The best critic of modern performance art, Henry Sayre, has pointed out that Antin “privileges neither speech nor writing and uses each to undercut the other” (207).

Casually as the performance began, it ends in a dramatic climax. Typically, the story takes an unexpected turn, there is a revelation and, in the “Aha!” experience which spreads across the room, all instruments are at last in tune: a moment of understanding, agreement, and communion.

Such is an Antin talk poem. But why are there such things?

We enjoy seeing David Antin in person, surely, but why is it better that he create a new work in front of us, instead of doing the more normal thing everyone else does–read a work he has had time to revise and perfect? Why would we be disappointed if we came to think (erroneously!) that Antin had memorized his poem and simply performed it? Actors do that. We’re not disappointed in them. The complex reasons we value this unusual experience–a David Antin improvisation–and what we value about all such experiences, will occupy the rest of this essay.

Let me start by pointing out the highly personal tone of my critique so far. My deliberate centering on the poet and his presence and the audience’s contact with him is unusual in Western aesthetic criticism. In East Asian aesthetic criticism, however (of a calligrapher, for instance), it would be the norm. And that’s part of the answer.

The Experience of Improvisation: Contradictions and Anomalies

When we experience an improvisation, what exactly is it an experience of?

Improvisation is so familiar that we fail to realize how strange it is that we value it. The very same people who admire Flaubert for his five years of effort revising endless drafts of Madame Bovary shift some gear and admire David Antin for refusing to revise, for submitting a first draft. Why? Not only do artists like Antin refuse, somehow they refuse on principle to make the work as good as it could be. Then the same people who value Madame Bovary the more for its polish, seem to value the improvisation for its lack thereof. The audience does not merely excuse the improvisation. They savor the lack.

This apparent contradiction is only apparent. What audience and artist value about improvisation is an experience the Western aesthetic has traditionally scanted, but one which East Asia thought central to the art experience. (Hereafter, for brevity, I’ll simply write East Asian as shorthand for the high cultural tradition of Han-ethnicity Northern China and postsinicized Japan and Korea.) It was made literally canonical by Hseih Ho’s “Ku Hua P’in Lu” (late fifth century C.E.) (Siren 219-20). Western aestheticians are largely unaware how very different the Asian artworlds have been. The current Western artworld values Asian art, but for Western reasons; just as it values Yoruba work for Western reasons.

East Asian aesthetics will reveal what we too experience when we experience improvisation. The center of attention shifts from object to artist. We forego the greater aesthetic satisfaction we could gain from a revised, perfected object or from a memorized performance, because we believe ourselves to be gaining even more value from experiencing the making of art–that is, by experiencing creative human thought itself, the forward motion of the human mind, what Thomas Kuhn has described, in cultural history, as the work of the scientific “revolutionary.”

To make so enormous a topic manageable, we need, for improvisation, a kind of Brown v. Board of Education, a test case stating the issues with unusual clarity. And so we came to see David Antin do a talk poem.

Refining the Term Improvisation

What, however, did we really see?

What is improvisation? Is it a genre, something like landscape or oratorio or sonnet? No, for while landscapes and oratorios and sonnets exist in one art (or, with metaphoric stretches like calling a Turner a grand opera filled with arias of paint, in two or three arts, at most) improvisation occurs in all the arts, without any metaphoric stretching at all. One finds it routinely, and importantly, in jazz and painting and dance. As we start to include improvisatory stand-up comedy and public speaking in the list, we realize there are few places in life where improvisation isn’t known. I’m forced to call the term a mere designation, for I know of no genre which matches this. The only explanation is that improvisation is not inside any of the arts. Rather, they are sometimes inside it. Improvisation is a phenomenon which, to paraphrase Hopkins, plays in ten thousand places, the arts among them.

Antin and his best critics begin by carefully separating improvisations from spontaneous or automatic writing and even from superficially similar aleatory art, like John Cage’s 4’33” and Allan Kaprow’s Happenings.

First, is there anything materially there, like color in a painting or sound in a sonata, that causes us to identify an Antin poem as an improvisation? How is an improvisation different from this essay’s first draft? Is there any material difference between the two, anything we could literally point to? If a student puts off writing her paper until the night before it’s due, I might give it a low grade, saying it’s “still rough” or “needs work.” If the student replied, “That isn’t a rough draft, it’s an improvisation, and I can’t, on principle, revise it,” is there something in the work she could point to, to support her claim?

In San Diego, in 1997, Antin graciously tried to answer that question during a taped interview about his life’s work and goals, which lasted five full days. The transcript fills five hundred double-spaced pages. Listening to Antin speak and observing him at work during that five-day, marathon improvisation gave me the insights which, after three years’ reflection, have crystallized in this essay.

In 1997 Antin started by showing how works routinely designated improvisations are not casual, aleatory, nor even first drafts. Antin took the time to read into the tape transcript a long quotation from Charles Hartman’s book comparing Antin’s methods with Charlie Parker’s: “Probably the most prolific and inventive improviser in jazz was Charlie Parker, whose impromptu chorus on a familiar tune could become a jazz standard in its own right.” Once, Parker’s solo break on “Night in Tunisia” startled his fellow musicians so much they forgot to keep playing. Yet Hartman cites Thomas Owen’s “voluminous” research showing how Parker “built” his improvisations “out of a little store of about a hundred motifs which Owens catalogues in all their variations.” Antin too not only invents, but reuses and recombines (here Hartman quotes Steven Fredman about Antin) “elements, stories, ideas … arranged musically like a succession of riffs rather than being spontaneously invented ….” (78)(3) Antin felt this distinction vital to any understanding of improvisation. During the five days of interviewing, this was the only time he read a critic’s text into the record.

A week after the interview, I unexpectedly verified Antin’s practice for myself. Antin performed a brief talk piece at a celebration in honor of his close friend and longtime U.C.–San Diego colleague Allan Kaprow’s seventieth birthday. It’s relevant to note that Kaprow is, of course, the inventor of the Happenings. I was startled to recognize a long “set of variations” which I had heard Antin do for the transcript.

Improvisation, then, is not mere spontaneity or automatic writing. Antin can be said to improvise with materials without having to create all the materials then and there. Combining is also improvising.

Antin, Cage, and Flaubert

This means that Antin’s improvisations are not only art, but very much art works, very much composed. That firmly separates Antin’s improvisations from fully aleatory art, of which the most famous example is John Cage’s 4’33”.(4) Although Cage and Antin admired, respected and encouraged each other, grouping the two together only confuses us about each.

Antin’s compositions are nothing like Cage’s Zen acceptance in 4’33”. In the suggestive new language being created for evolutionary cladistics, the purported link between Cage and Antin, despite their superficial resemblances, is only convergence: bats and birds both fly, but they descend from different clades, different lineages.

Indeed, Antin’s clade, far from being Cagean, runs directly back to Gustave Flaubert. Antin “endured arduous training in preparation for a novelistic career,” Barry Alpert long ago reported. Antin even published “one highly-finished Flaubertian story, `The Balanced Aquarium,’ in the Kenyon Review (of all places)” (666). In the transcript, Antin recalls, in his youth, writing several novels before deciding the novel didn’t suit him.

Alpert must have discarded this fact as anomalous, for he goes on, like Marjorie Perloff later, to trace Antin’s affinities with Cage. Criticism imagines Antin leaving the novel, which he did, but only in the sense that birds are not the dinosaurs basal to their lineage. Antin, invited to comment on that idea, protested. His work was not Flaubertian. “if there’s anything i know it’s flaubert! i tried to escape flaubert.” He searched for improvisatory techniques not only in jazz but in “all the world’s forms–in flamenco, in ragga music, the sitar and tabla variations.” (He did not, for the record, search China or Japan.)

Yet–while Antin is surely not Flaubert–in one important way, Antin’s work never stopped being Flaubertian. In the 1997 transcript Antin viscerally describes the way, like a running back hunting for daylight, he plunges, in the talk poems, to the right, to the left, trying to get to that moment when he finally says it right.

see a lot of my work has to do with the notion of poetry as thinking the

notion that you can get at poetry as thinking and the only way that you can

get at anything as thinking is to think and what happens i i can find my

way to think and once i start thinking its not exactly conversational

because im busy thinking and im sort of locked on trying to get towards

meanings and open them up and try to find my way … once i start doing

that this peculiar kind of concentration takes over and there is very

little backing away from the stuff i mean i may circle it i may move around

in it i may rethink something i may shift gears but im constantly working

at it as if i were as if i were a running back and the play was designed to

go off tackle and no hole opened up off tackle and I had to find an opening

and i look for a little daylight and im kind of moving from one place to

another but i have to move fast but it doesn’t feel fast because im

constantly looking over the line for the opening through which you move one

quick move and you get through(5)

Antin believes his effort is closer to Charlie Parker’s than to Flaubert’s, but his effort retains every important character of Flaubert’s search for le mot juste except for two. Antin gives himself only one chance; and he takes the considerable risk of letting us watch him search. That is certainly not Flaubert, the arch-reviser, but it is in the direct Flaubertian line.

Nothing could be more foreign to the mature John Cage’s practice and above all to what Cage put forward as his overriding goal–getting the artist’s heroic personality out from between the audience and the world, so that the audience finally learns it can take the world straight (Cage 431). “Waiting for a bus we’re present at a concert. Suddenly we stand on a work of art, the pavement.” For instance, Cage lambastes Varese for allowing his “personality” to intrude in his music. The mortal sin of Western art, its ultimate failure, Cage argues, has been the romantic Western artist misusing art, not to lead us to contemplate the world, but to exhibit his artistic personality. All Cage’s creative and novel uses of the Zhou Dynasty classic, I Ching–uses which have little to do with the I Ching’s original purposes in eleventh century B.C.E. China (Schwartz 390-403)–aim at removing the heroic Flaubertian artist from the stage. Antin, precisely opposite, takes center stage to give us David Antin Tonight!

The Problem Returns

Yet we are still stuck with our original problem. We have only delayed it.

Let us accept Antin’s planned first drafts as improvisations; let us accept his partially rehearsed first drafts or even certain kinds of second drafts as improvisations; we still eventually reach the moment David Antin and I reached, looking at a talk poem he was unhappy with. The moment crystallized for me the larger aesthetic issue concerning improvisation and turned my attention to Asia for a solution.

The University of Chicago Press had a (legal, not aesthetic) contract with Antin to publish his collected essays and talk pieces, in the form he chose. When we were discussing a certain piece, he was plainly disappointed with it. The suspense had failed. Antin saw that all this particular piece needed was some pruning in the middle, yet he decided to decline publishing the piece in the Chicago collection rather than make the simple cut that would improve it.

While I had to admire Antin’s ethics, I also had to wonder what he was being ethical about? Antin had spotted how to make what he believed would be an aesthetic improvement to the object. He didn’t refuse on aesthetic grounds but on ethical grounds. He said he had an “understanding” with the audience. The piece was assumed to be an improvisation and, if revised, would no longer be. It would be aesthetically superior, but something more important would be lost.

“If the piece is better,” I asked him, “then the audience is happy, and what is unethical about that? What are we trying to do here, anyway?” If their primary enjoyment of his improvisation, I wondered, was not their enjoyment of the best object possible, what exactly were they enjoying? They could only be willing to overlook the Antin improvisation’s lack of all the formal qualities the fully revised, fully Flaubertian work had, because they were obtaining some greater kind of satisfaction from it. But what could that be? Granted, for Antin, improvisation did not mean spontaneous writing and submitting rough drafts. Granted, his talk poems were subtly polished, were artworks, not Cagean chance. Improvisation still meant Antin deliberately abandoning, after one or at the most two drafts, the effort to give the audience the best object possible. What did the audience get from him that could ever make up for that?

The East Asian high cultural aesthetic tradition has an answer. Antin’s refusal, while unfamiliar in the West, would have been far more familiar in an Asian artworld setting. From a calligrapher, for instance, it would be routine. That artworld illuminates what the West actually values about improvisation: a Confucian-humanist admiration for human prowess combines with a Taoist and Buddhist desire to share in the moment of enlightenment. (I rely on the reader to interpolate mentally the blizzard of phrases like predominantly, in most instances, with notable exceptions, but not in the south, that an undergraduate would demand I say. Otherwise the next section will be impossible to present in less than a volume. That will have to be this essay’s contract, then, between writer and audience.)

The Western Tradition of the “Ideal” Object

Our problem has now put us in a position to break some new ground and notice a large and significant difference in orientation between Western and Eastern artworlds. As Thomas Kuhn writes, insights begin with anomalous facts, and ours has been the Western audience’s odd agreement to accept improvisation, although the agreement automatically means getting a lesser art object.

I have spoken of Flaubert, for his revisions are proverbial, but in that respect Flaubert belongs to the oldest Western high artworld tradition of the arts. If any art historical statement is uncontroversial and supported by a consensus, it is the following: the doctrine most characteristic of the Western artworld from Aristotle’s time to 1800, and at intervals since, has been the “Ideal.” Let me briefly summarize Erwin Panofsky’s history of the tradition in his classic history, Idea.

Plato had provoked this theory, really a defense of the art object’s right to exist, by arguing that it had none. Plato argued that the ordinary world was itself an imitation of an idea/ideal, as a bed was an imitation of the perfect bed in the craftsman’s mind. Art objects, then, were just an imitation of an imitation, a “third remove from the truth.” What was the use of the stuff? Plato is no simple philistine. Plato, who would even ban most Greek myths from his ideal Republic as immoral, derogated the art object so that he could suggest, a moment later, that political and moral uses would redeem the otherwise third-rate thing.

Aristotle’s rebuttal to Plato’s attack (which satisfied the West so well it was repeated and refreshed down to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses) started the “Ideal object” discourse, and granted the art object a dignity apart from its Platonic use as a mere teaching aid. Art objects, he countered, were sometimes no simple imitation of mere real things: the best partook of the Ideal. The artist combined the scattered excellences of the world into a perfected object better than any mere real thing. The Christians, as Panofsky shows, then had (like Marsiglio Ficino) no trouble adapting that doctrine to suggest an Ideal object’s superiority to a world marr’d by sin.

Object-Centered Art and Artist-Centered Art

During the 2,300 years between Aristotle and its last great celebrant, Ingres, the Ideal object dominated the Western aesthetic discourse. After all, if the art object didn’t offer you better than you could find in the real world, why bother with it? The artist’s role became, inevitably, perfecting an object to the best of his ability. That had been my question to Antin. His declining to revise seemed, to my Western-educated sensibility, an abdication of the artist’s primary responsibility. Western aesthetics, in the course of mounting the ideal defense, turned all its attention on the object. Western aesthetics is object-centered. In Idea Panofsky never questions that, but (it startles me to realize) it is an almost accidental by-product of the “ideal” discourse.

Historically, Asian aesthetics is artist-centered. We are scarcely aware that it is because the West is so object-centered that much of Asian aesthetics barely seems like aesthetics to us at all. Its criticism, often to our bewilderment, centers on the artist–on gaining contact with the artist and sharing his experience. (It would falsify Asian history to write “or her experience.”)

Western aestheticians, obsessed with the object, have been embarrassed by, or have regarded as naive, the East’s interest in reading the object for the artist. “It is commonly believed in China,” the respected scholar Chiang Yee writes, in a 1973 book published by Harvard University Press, with an introduction by Sir Herbert Read, “that calligraphy expresses the personality of the writer….” Well and good, but we are unprepared for the intensity of the Chinese scholar’s interest in conjuring up the ancient artist, or the hero-worshipful tone. “The calligraphy of Su tung-P’o suggests to me a man fatter, shorter, more careless in nature than Mi Fei, but broad-minded, vigorous, a great laughter-maker and a great laugher …” (11-12). Such criticism is quite typical, and extends to painting as well, which was not really a separate art. So extensive an aesthetic orientation could stem only from even deeper cultural predispositions. As I will show, that interest wells naturally from deep cultural orientations in Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.

East Asian Aesthetics in Relation to the Cultural Predispositions

I deliberately subtitled this essay “David Antin, Improvisation, Asia,” rather than “Asian aesthetics” because improvisation takes us deep into Asian culture itself. One of the great principles of aesthetic analysis, and one of the reasons aesthetics matters philosophically, was often expressed by John Ruskin thus: “Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you who you are.” When we discuss aesthetics, we discuss precisely what a culture likes, and that is invariably revealing.

Chinese culture finds its “axial age,” as Benjamin Schwartz and all others agree, in the 500s B.C.E.(2, 16-39); its preeminent expression, by Han times, is Confucianism, as the West terms the writings of the ru jia, the scholar school. (For a book-length discussion of these points, see my essays in The Asian Pacific American Heritage.) As the great Asianist William Theodore de Bary has relentlessly pointed out, when Asian dictators like Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew claim that so-called Asian values are anti-individualist and demand the subjection of the individual to the group, they falsify tradition. The Confucianists (ru jia) are concerned with the perfection of their activist sage, the chun tze, who is to the family what the flower is to the root. If the family didn’t produce him, de Bary even argues, they wouldn’t be interested in it. If the root sends up no flower, what’s the point of it?(6) East Asian aesthetics bears de Bary out.

The Taoist countervoice to the worldly, humanist Confucian worldview emerges by the 200s B.C.E. But Taoism only disputes the nature of the hero sage, not his centrality. The collections associated with the names Lao Tsu (Tao te Ching) and Chuang Tsu are almost notoriously indifferent to the group and–in their concern for the sage’s self perfection–willingly pay the price of his withdrawal from society. “Heaven and Earth have nothing to do with ren [human compassion and benevolence]…. Being truly wise has nothing to do with ren. To the Sage, the people are like the straw animals we burn during sacrifices.”(7)

The Taoist is confident the inspiration his life affords the group more than compensates, socially, for his withdrawal. That’s a given. If he “holds fast enough to the Silence,” then, amazingly “the Ten Thousand Things of Life will all be acted on by him” (The Way 143). The modern West, by now almost unconsciously committed to the Hegelian sense of history as impersonal forces and tides, “history without names,” is constantly at a loss to deal with how effective certain individuals can be–the Gandhis and Gorbachevs and Martin Luther Kings. Asia has made cultivating such figures its central concern. Before German high romantic history, of course, the West had no difficulty believing that “history was the biography of great men.” The East, before German romanticism in the form of Marx overwhelmed it as well, assumed so. Taoism and Confucianism primarily quarreled over what his nature was and how to produce him. (Again, it would utterly falsify both to add “or her.”) Buddhism, when it finally arrived in China, only strengthened this orientation. It was creatively misinterpreted through China’s experience of Taoism. Its most characteristic Chinese form, Ch’an, scraps the scriptures, despises language, and relies instead on an intuitive “direct transmission” between heroic “patriarchs” and roshis, “Masters,” who radiate instruction through their very beings.(8)

The Chun Tze as Artist

This is why, although the West has been interested in the object, the Asian artworld, flowing out of its society’s values, Confucianist, Taoist, and Buddhist, has–contrary to the West–inevitably been interested in the chun tze as artist. I deliberately paraphrase Thomas Carlyle’s phrase “the Hero as Artist,” for Carlyle’s hero-worshipping aesthetic (very much a lone voice in the West) is the closest Western aesthetic to this position.

Western aesthetic criticism is uncomfortably aware that even the Chinese interest in Line and Form is not formal, but graphological. To us, it almost looks like handwriting analysis. Michael Sullivan acknowledges this aesthetic: “Not only is a man’s writing a clue to his temperament, his moral worth, and his learning, but the uniquely ideographic nature of the Chinese script has charged each individual character with a richness of content and association the full range of which even the most scholarly can scarcely fathom” (185). The Chinese painters, Conrad Schirokauer adds, differ from the West “in that they conceive of their art in terms of calligraphy: both painting and calligraphy served the purpose of writing down on paper or silk the ideas the gentlemen had in their minds…. [C]alligraphy was prized as a revelation of the lofty character of its cultivated practitioner….”(9)

Around 500 C.E., Hseih Ho gave this already ancient aesthetic its classic formulation. Hseih’s epigrammatic Six Canons of painting (more literally, Six Laws, liu fa) were, Michael Sullivan reports, “so significant for the whole history of Chinese Painting” that “much–perhaps too much–has been written about [them]” (88). Mai Mai Sze, in the book based on her Bollingen lectures, devotes the better part of several chapters to Hseih Ho, since his principles “had existed long before his time,” and his Six Canons “with slight modifications … were accepted as and have remained the general standards of painting and art criticism” (38).

Mimesis is respected (“Conform with the objects to give likeness”) but it is only canon 3. Canons 1 and 2, which Sullivan, Sze, and Yee rightly consider primary, concern the famous chi yun, “spirit resonance,” and its expression through the “bone manner use of the brush.”

During the Sung Period five centuries later, those two principles were being explained, by Kuo Jo-Hsu, as entirely traits of exalted character: “the Spirit Resonance (chi yun) must be inborn in the painter. It can certainly not be acquired by skill or dexterity, nor can anyone arrive at it through months and years of study, it is secretly blended with the soul, one does not know how, yet it is there.” Kuo, in the tenth century, summarized the five centuries since Hseih Ho: one experienced the chun tze artist’s chi yun through learning how to read his line. Spirit resonance

may also be perceived in the styles of people’s signatures…. [These] preserve the nobility and meanness, the adversities and successes (of the writer). How could calligraphy and painting fail to reflect the high or the low chi yun? Painting is (in this respect) quite the same as calligraphy. Master Yang said: “Words are sounds of the heart-mind (shin), calligraphy is painting of the heart-mind; both reveal whether the man is a superior character or of a low kind.” (qtd. in Siren 76)

The classical East Asian canons or principles, Osvald Siren concluded, do not refer to Western formal qualities, what we mean by line, but really describe “virtues or merits depending on the painter’s character as much as on his training and mastery of the means” (76).

Artists in the Christian West are routinely anonymous until the early Renaissance, frequently anonymous thereafter, and powerful critical schools up to the present day deride any attempt to proceed beyond the work to the artist. In sharp contrast, the Chinese by the Tang Dynasty are as interested in reading the artist’s personality in the work as Thomas Carlyle would be. John Cage’s fantasy (an enabling fantasy, which led to great work) of the self-effacing Oriental Artist is simply Orientalism. Certainly, the names of famous objects’ makers have been lost, but that is entirely different from the idea of anonymity.

We don’t talk about it in the West, but even trained art historians often approach art this way too. We may not admit it, for we have been taught that such interest is subartistic. Nonetheless, standing in front of van Gogh’s Starry Night at the Metropolitan Museum, feeling the passion of the slashing lines, I am thrilled to be sharing in his ecstasy before nature, his powerful chi yun resonating in me. I even feel, in his painting’s presence, awed and physically closer to him, as if it were a holy relic. I was taught not to have such impure feelings or, at least, not to admit them in print! Yet East Asian aesthetics believes that that ennobling contact with the painter-sage, my spirit resonating with his, is precisely the great experience in art.

The Asian artworld’s hypothesis about that experience’s importance to us, even if we are (as I am) embarrassed to admit it, is a falsifiable hypothesis and can be tested. If we really react only, or most importantly, to the object and are not seeking contact with that moment of thought, it should make no difference to us when that van Gogh, say, is proven a forgery. Not a molecule of the Object changes. The Western aesthetic must predict that we merely shrug, remark on the death of the author, perhaps, and enjoy the object as ever.

In fact, the discovery so completely destroys our interest in the object that our aversion for such fakes puzzles Western aesthetics. Books are written about the “problem.” It’s only a problem for Western aesthetics. In the Eastern artworld it is assumed that the greater part of one’s experience was that experience of the chun tze as Artist. Once that is lost, and one experiences not van Gogh receiving the Vision but some sly fellow coldheartedly deceiving you, of course the best is lost, no matter what pigments remain on the canvas. The Asian aesthetic predicts we turn from a fake in disgust, exactly as we do, despite the lack of change in the object.

One reads the art, more than looks at it, and one reads it to draw closer to, and be ennobled by, the heroic cai yun, spirit-resonance of the chun tze who produced it, to experience with him the movement of his mind in creation, the supreme moment of the most unique human ability, which, in East and West, has often been regarded as the paradigm of the highest human abilities in all fields. That aesthetic follows inevitably from the cultural consensus about the power of a chun tze’s redemptive presence and moral example.

That first moment of inspiration is erased, lost, by the act of revision. It is even lost if too much preparation is allowed. So the audience not only permits Antin to do without revision, they would be upset if they discovered he had revised and was merely reciting. That would be somehow fake. They’ve come to experience the sacred moment in which the chun tze becomes a chun tze, in which the sage becomes sagely by reaching his inspiration. In the moments that Antin calls tuning, they vibrate with him, like smaller tuning forks taking on the resonance of a larger one: chi yun, spirit-resonance. The audience willingly trades the (relatively minor, to this way of thinking) aesthetic improvements the object could acquire if Antin were permitted to write the poem beforehand and recite it to them. They can gain those perfections only by losing their contact with Antin’s moment of vision and the chi yun flowing out from it. So Antin and the calligrapher refuse, on principle, to revise a work even though the object would improve, formally. They both would rather throw it away.

The Object Isn’t What the Audience Is After, but the Experience

That possibly explains why China, in sharp contrast to the West, made the (to us) puzzling choice of calligraphy as its high art. “From the merchant who hoists up his newly written shop sign with ceremony and incense, “Michael Sullivan observes, “to the poet whose soul takes flight in the brilliant sword dance of the brush, calligraphy is revered above all other arts” (185). Calligraphy reveals the sage’s personality as no other art can, so high artists, seeking to reveal their spirit-resonance, ultimately gravitated to that art.

That art then gravitated to media, which displayed the improvising moment by forcing the work to be, of necessity, an improvisation: silk, and above all, rice paper. The West, valuing the revised, perfected object, abandoned egg-based tempera for oil painting as soon as it was perfected in Jan van Eyck’s lifetime, precisely (it is always said) for its revision possibilities. Rice paper permits no revision; does not even permit hesitation. Writing with a brush on rice paper is like writing with a felt tip pen on a paper towel: nothing can be erased, but if you become cautious and slow down, the paper instantly absorbs ink from the brush and creates an ugly cloud around the line.

Ut pictura poesis: as in calligraphy, so in poetry. Poetry, considered the highest verbal art, often claims to be, in the East, improvisation. Chinese criticism from the Tang dynasty on, traditionally describes the poets as gentlemen seated at drinking parties, firing off the poems in improvisatory contests. The written texts of poems themselves seek to further this impression, noting dates, times, occasions. Whether such notes are strictly true or not, the ideal is improvisatory. Japan carries the idea even further, for its highest poetic form, haikai (which we now irrevocably call haiku) evolves from the closing lines of improvisation contests.

Japan, through the influence of Ch’an Buddhism (Zen) carries the aesthetic to its extreme in many arts. I am tempted to argue that we see the continuation of this aesthetic even in their ceramics. The high art sometimes literally bears the fingerprints of its maker, and in its irregularity and its refusal to hide the marks of creation it brings the artist firmly to the audience’s mind and, indeed, to its hands. This Japanese valuing of the artist’s performance, above any object, culminates in the tea ceremony, like Soin’s at Daisen-in, an improvisation of motion, talk, taste, enacted by a master.

In the mature Tea Ceremony we encounter an art form the West barely has terms for–and it is our closest parallel to Antin’s talk poems. In both cases, the occasion is a ceremony. There is a master. There is no script, but the master improvises on top of what Antin calls a planned set of variations. The audience sits intimately with the sage, and his talk is a kind of tuning, with the ultimate goal a moment of communion, of chi yun, in which the audience’s spirits resonate with the Master and with each other.(10)

The Art of Thought

The Eastern tradition, then, explains to us better than the object-obsessed Western tradition can, what we value about improvisation. The experience of an Antin talk poem is as much of Antin as it is of the poem, the chance to watch the poet/philosopher think.

In natural history museums, of late, it has become popular to expose the work areas, to let the public experience, with the paleontologist, the excitement of seeing the animal appear in the stone. The Stanford Linear Accelerator conducts tours in which one watches the scientists search for ever-smaller pieces of the atom. When one enters the hollowed-out hill where the gun sits, how extraordinary it would be if, at that moment, you were present when a new quark or gluon appeared.

David Antin takes the tremendous gamble of opening his laboratory to the viewing public. The public understands the contract, and willingly lets Antin forego either preparations or improvements significant enough to turn the experience into a dull reenactment, however more concise or polished. They want to be there when the electron smashes the atom and the particles spew forth. “The fine delight which fathers thought,” Hopkins wrote of that moment, “the strong spur”–he takes a powerful image from glassblowing–“live and lancing as a blowpipe flame/breathes once, and quenched quicker than it came/leaves yet the Mind the mother of immortal son” (67).

We seek in improvisation to experience, with David Antin, the instant of that miraculous lancing flame. The improvisation is the art of thought itself, and that is why (unlike the landscape or sonata) it can exist in all artistic media. We find it in the arts of speech, music, visual arts. One could add the laboratory tour. The interest isn’t in the medium; it is in the human thought encountering the medium–any medium–and lancing it with flame.


(1) I use artworld in Arthur Danto’s well-known sense, to mean “the historically ordered world of artworks enfranchised by theories.” For a discussion of the term see Leonard, Into the Light (197).

(2) See also Antin’s influential “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry.”

(3) See also Fred Garber for a chapter, “David Antin: the Boundaries of Talking.” Stephen Cope, this issue’s editor, adds: “Hank Lazer’s essay on Antin and [Jerry] Rothenberg, `Thinking Made in the Mouth’ in Lazer’s Opposing Poetries, vol. 1 (Northwestern, 1996) is one of the more interesting that I’ve encountered, and touches on the social aspect of Antin’s talk practices. Michael Davidson deals with Antin in his essay `Technologies of Presence’ (alongside Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson, and Steven Benson) in a fairly intriguing way also, discussing a talk piece Antin delivered over the radio a few years back, and the effects this shift in venue had on the work itself, as well as its (now disembodied, now distant) audience. That’s in Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and Material World (U.C. Press, 1997), 206-12, also reprinted in Sound States, ed. Adelaide Morris (Iowa: U. of Iowa Press, 1997).” Citation from a letter to the author.

(4) For a full consideration of John Cage and 4’33” see Leonard, Into the Light 117-93.

(5) Unpublished transcript by Stephen Cope of 1997 David Antin interview with George Leonard.

(6) 1997-1998 letters, de Bary to Leonard, and New York interview transcript with Leonard, August 1998. I’m grateful to Professor de Bary for inviting me to attend a three-day conference revising the Asian Studies canon for de Bary’s standard editions of the works at Columbia University Press.

(7) Lao Tsu, Tao te Ching, chapter 5. Translation mine.

(8) Zen was a “special transmission outside the scripture” from the roshi or Master. See “On the Buddha’s Raft” in Into the Light (146-74).

(9) While considering the high artworld, let us pause to record–with some amusement–that the Asian high artworld, like the Western high artworld, battles a longstanding popular tradition–and it’s the same popular tradition! First, artists East and West must contend with political people who rank their works strictly by their tendency to promote virtue. Second, uneducated people simply value the paintings by how closely they resemble the objects they purport to represent. (“While the common people … observe most reverently the likeness of the shapes, I avoid such vulgar and common points” Li qtd. in Siren 230.) On a slightly higher level of sophistication–the level of Philostratus’ Imagines–the Asian popular tradition glories in man’s ability to counterfeit nature, mixed with nervousness about whether Frankensteins and Golems might accidentally come to life this way. This and that painter reportedly painted the eyes in last, for fear of being watched; one man sticks a pin in his painting of a lover, and the woman herself immediately feels pain there, so perfectly has he captured her soul in paint. We even find in the East the same social nervousness toward poetry which underlies Reynolds’s Discourses, for, as in the West, writing was educated, white-collar work, while the painters, who worked more obviously with their hands, seemed to many just glorified craftsmen. (“Chen Ssu Wang said: `The art of literary composition was started by scholars; the art of painting by men of skill” [222].)

(10) See “Tea,” by Kakuzo Okakura, in Leonard, Asian Pacific Heritage 219-29. For the Tea Ceremony, the most relevant work is Soshitsu Sen XV. In 1964 Soshitsu Sen succeeded his father as the hereditary Fifteenth Grand Master of the Urasenke School of Tea. An audience that has experienced an Antin talk poem is well equipped to understand this book and why the Tea Master’s work is considered art. The Master’s serving of the tea breaks the fourth wall between artist and audience as little else can; the tea enlists two more senses in the event, through its scent and its taste. I thank Kyoko Tanaka for taking me to a Tea Ceremony at Daisen-in, and Y. F. Du for showing me Chinese versions in Southern China and Beijing. Almost nothing’s been written about the Chinese Tea Ceremony, which vanished under Mao and is being reintroduced in the form of luxury teahouses from Taiwan.


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Antin, David. “Is There a Post Modernism?” Romanticism, Modernism, Postmodernism. Ed. Harry R. Garvin. Lewisberg: Bucknell UP, 1980. 127-35.

–. “Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in American Poetry.” boundary 2 1.1 (1972): 98-133.

–. “radical coherency.” OARS 1 (1981): 177-91.

–. “the river.” what it means to be avant-garde. New York: New Directions, 1993. 123-53.

–. tuning. New York: New Directions, 1984.

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Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord, if I Contend.” Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose. Ed. W. H. Gardner. Baltimore: Penguin, 1953. 67.

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Leonard, George J. Into the Light of Things: The Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

–, ed. The Asian Pacific American Heritage:A Companion to Literature and Arts. New York: Garland, 1999.

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GEORGE J. LEONARD wrote Into the Light of Things: The Art of the Commonplace from Wordsworth to John Cage (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994), selected by the American Library Association as “One of the Outstanding Academic Books of the Year.” His novels include The Ice Cathedral and Beyond Control. He edited, and wrote half of, the 700-page essay collection, The Asian Pacific American Heritage: A Companion to Literature and Arts (New York: Garland, 1999.)

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