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The Role of the Artist in the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties of China

Vase, approx. 1100-1368

Vase, approx. 1100-1368. China; probably Zhejiang province. Song dynasty (960-1279) or Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Ge ware; porcelaneous ware with crackled glaze. Porcelaneous ware with crackled glaze, B60P1308.

What can be said about artists during the Tang and Song dynasties? The vast majority of people who created the works that have survived were anonymous artisans and tradesmen (or in some cases women). They may have moved around from place to place seeking employment. Some may have been farmers, who became part-time craftsmen when they were not needed in the fields harvesting or planting crops. Some were specialized stone carvers or bronze workers. Others specialized in clay, how to fire kilns, or how to raise silk worms. These workers were responding, just like today’s workers, to issues of trade, competition, taste and fashion, marketplace dictates, and new ideas from elsewhere.

As can be seen through many examples of ceramic wares, tastes changed frequently, and styles fell in and out of favor. Workers had to be inventive; they had to be willing to adjust, to experiment, and to learn new skills in order to survive.

During the Tang and Song dynasties, there was a class of educated artists—initially working at court, but later working in their own private domains—who began to produce works of art that were judged more for their aesthetic criteria than their economic or utilitarian value. These scholarartists, sometimes referred to as literati, or wen-ren (cultured person) developed their own criteria, their own art criticism, even their own art history. We know very few artists’ names before the Tang dynasty, but from the Tang and Song dynasties onward, we know the names of many, even if only a few reliable works of art by these artists have survived. We know about these artists names because the scholar-artists began to write about them, and many of their writings have come down to us. 

Tang and Song dynasty calligraphers and painters were educated through a rigorous system of examinations based largely on knowledge of classic literature, set down by the followers of Confucius and institutionalized during the Han dynasty. During the Tang dynasty, the intervening Five Kingdoms period, and the Song, talented painters became part of official court academies. These academies had demanding and rigorous standards, and put artists in close proximity to the emperor himself. The painting and calligraphy examples in this packet were produced by scholar- artists working mostly at court. It should be noted that trained artists would have been expected to be proficient in a number of art forms—painting, calligraphy, poetry, and so on. The principal tool of such artists was brush and ink. working mostly at court. It should be noted that trained artists would have been expected to be proficient in a number of art forms—painting, calligraphy, poetry, and so on. The principal tool of such artists was brush and ink.

By the Song dynasty, some artists began to question the kinds of standards developed at court academies, rejecting "professional” values in favor of highly personal or “amateur” values. (This dichotomy became a defining theme for painting in the following period, the Yuan dynasty.) In a parallel development, the Tang and Song witnessed the rise of calligraphy as a high art form, through the adoption of past masters as models of orthodox style; some more progressive and idiosyncratic calligraphers began to reject these official styles championing instead very personal forms of calligraphic expression. The proliferation of new styles of painting and calligraphy—whether By the Song dynasty, some artists began to question the kinds of standards developed at court academies, rejecting "professional” values in favor of highly personal or “amateur” values. (This dichotomy became a defining theme for painting in the following period, the Yuan dynasty.) In a parallel development, the Tang and Song witnessed the rise of calligraphy as a high art form, through the adoption of past masters as models of orthodox style; some more progressive and idiosyncratic calligraphers began to reject these official styles championing instead very personal forms of calligraphic expression. The proliferation of new styles of painting and calligraphy—whether based on court styles or through individual “amateur” styles—was frequently justified through reference to past masters. For example, one reads about this artist following in the tradition of that artist from the past. Another artist goes to great lengths to describe how some past artists are to be held in high regard while others should be disregarded. By now, it should be apparent that a notable feature of Chinese art is its constant reflection and reinterpretation of the past. 

In summary, during the Tang and Song dynasties, we see a proliferation of many different types of manufactured goods, principally ceramics, but also metal work, textiles, lacquer objects, religious objects, burial goods, and trade goods produced by anonymous craftsmen, and "fine" art—mostly paintings and calligraphies—produced by highly educated individuals, either formally at court or informally in the company of friends and other like-minded “literary” persons.

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