Ming: Leading Beautifully (exhibition at the British Museum)

ming vaseHow can we live and govern in a beautiful way? This is one of the questions that inspires me and the latest exhibition at the British Museum, concerning the Ming Dynasty, may provide some answers.  It covers the almost 50 years of the Ming family dominance, or rather, governance, as their rule promoted not only the development of exquisite artifacts, painting, ceramic and textiles, but also, they were truly champions of their people’s values. The Ming dynasty, famously known by their priceless vases and porcelain, favoured the development of arts. The exhibition covers a wide variety of artifacts: from exquisite hair pins, to decorated government documents, including fans and swords. It seems to me that it is the beauty of the art created in certain periods, what is the real legacy of empires.  .

 

It is just amazing to think that when Europe was just coming of age in the late Medieval period (around 1400)at the other side of the planet, the Chinese civilization was at one of their highest points. The different objects in the exhibition show how they virtually invented “everything” (much long before they made everything!): you name it… football? oh yes, there are some illustrations of Chinese playing it; polo, normally thought as the quintessential English royal sport? well, think again, Chinese had actually invented long before the English became a naval empire…. Golf? ibid, etc! You can say then that Columbus was actually discovering America or that the Portuguese had already circumnavigating the world, but this exhibition shows that the might of the Chinese navy was unparalleled: Convoys of almost 100 – 200 ships, many of them able to host around 20.000 crew members, were navigating through the world, bringing products, inviting ambassadors and diplomats, exchanging and trading! And while their power was expanding across the world, they never forgot their people. Ambassadors all over the land were documenting the daily life of folks… there is the story of this kid who saved her mother from the attack of a wild beast. The story was the talk of town, and soon it got to the Emperor ears who commended for the brave boy: not only was about celebrating his courage, but most importantly his loyalty to his family. Those values were crucial in the cohesion of this large society: everybody had their place, no matter how high or low, the society needed them all!

plum brushes ipadApart of the few vases – I was of course expecting a good sample of them – I was impressed by the exquisite “films” of rolling painting. They definitively precedes the development of moving pictures, as they develop a sort of narrative: the blossoming of the plums, a flower symbolising purity and loyalty, traits highly regarded in the Chinese culture. By unfolding the roll one can hear the whisper of the wind, playing with the pale pink flowers, the dark branches creaking in anticipation for the spring, the blue sky revealing the change of seasons, the welcoming of warmer days and the promise of succulent plums in the late summer. This celebration of nature, of the seasons, of the splendor of flowers go alongside the good government represented by the Ming Dynasty, which makes me think about the aesthetic relationship with ethics and governance. I would say that power is worthless if it is ugly and predatory; that high values should be accompanied and expressed by beautiful art, beautiful work, beautiful actions.

This link between what we are with what we do or how we live is perhaps one of the paths for spiritual development, hence the link between ethics and aesthetics. You can be a very high up executive/professional, but if your actions are not guided by beauty, is it worth it? It makes me think about how our capitalistic society produces what I’ve called “functional dysfunctional” individuals: high achieving people with poor inner lives.  Fear and stress guiding their actions (apparently successful), instead of fulfillment and joy. But our current society does not mind that: as long as people “produce and consume” the system does not care!

 

But what about the spiritual? what about happiness? what about peace, gratitude and grace?

For me art is a path for spiritual development, and beauty is not only visual or external, but needs to be grounded by inner beauty, grace, peace. This is my aim: Living beautifully, and I feel that my art makes me a better person and through my art I contribute to people’s lives surrounded by beauty. It is possible to say that my paintings are decorative, they aim at bringing comfort, rather than confrontation… yet I hope they make people think, get into that place of beauty and calm, to realise how lucky we are in living the life with are being given. And this quest for beauty and worth is exquisitely represented in the Ming exhibition: the possibility of “leading beautifully” (see previous blog when I mention the work of Donna Ladkin in this regard), the ideal of a beautiful government supporting social justice, equality, fairness and blossoming of all members of society. Yes, there is an idea… and perhaps the Ming Dynasty has so much to tell to current governments, not only in present day China balancing a high level of development with anachronistic authoritarian ways of governing, but all across the world, not less of course in our own countries.

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