China is Like a Hundred Years Old

Were you aware that non-Europeans have made art? I was not, until my recent visit to the Charlotte C. Weber Galleries of The Arts of Ancient China (insider tip for elite museum-goers only: when visiting the Met, enter through the door labeled “Groups and Tours” to the south of the main entrance. It’s much less crowded than its more impressive counterpart at the façade’s center).

The Weber galleries impress in their breadth and scope. The artifacts are from Neolithic and Bronze Age China, and they range from ornamented wine vessels from the Shang Dynasty to clay figurines crafted by nomads living North of the Great Wall.
To the rube (me), the wow factor here comes from the sheer age of these objects—some of the carved jade ornaments predate the Roman Empire by two thousand years. Walking through this place, I think of the flawed but attractive idea of the telescoping nature of technological progress. For obvious reasons, it’s limiting to think of “progress” as directional. But if we’re forced to graph it, we can imagine technological innovation like a hockey stick, its handle flush with the ground and the blade shooting up at the graph’s very end. So it took however many thousands of years to get from horse riding to the internal-combustion engine, but it only took a few decades to get from the engine to space-travel. You know the drill.
Anyway, I think about all that deterministic poppycock because you have on display in the Weber galleries some two thousand years of Chinese art, and to my (rube) eye, it all looks of a piece, like the passage of time had no effect inside the Great Wall (this was probably desirable in a culture that prioritized harmony as an intrinsic good). There’s clearly some innovation there—the decoration on the bronze vessels, in particular, gets more ornate over time—but basically, it all looks like Old Pretty Things to me.


I guess what I’m trying to say here is: I don’t know anything about Chinese art. Or  history (on review: is my argument really that China made no technological advances for three thousand years? I guess it is. If only I could edit this “blog-posting,” but everyone knows that the Internet is a permanent and unalterable record. Woe!) Also, I’m ignorant about determinism. And I’m not totally sure that the end part of a hockey stick is called a blade (foot?)

But contained in the Weber galleries is a beautiful collection of belt buckles and daggers, tiny figurines, rhythmically engraved stone, and cast metal. Wall text sheds some light on the mysteries for the patient. For the rest of us, the aesthetic impact of five thousand year-old axes is enough.


The Charlotte C. Weber Galleries

Highlights: Ceremonial bronze wine vessel with its lid cast in the form of a slug/giraffe creature; really old axes that still look dangerous as shit.

Memorable quote: “Another common type of weapon from the steppe was the ax with a tubular socket first conceived of in the West and later introduced to North China through Central Asia.” From the wall text.

Next week: Arms AND armor.