The scene is Ying Li’s office at Haverford College. Bookshelves fill a whole wall, with tomes covering everything from ancient seal carving to the most recent documenta1. After several hours, the conversation has turned to the great masters of the Yuan Dynasty. Soon I have a sticky note upon which Ying has written:
Huang Gong Wang 黃公望
Wang Meng 王蒙
Zhao Meng Fu 趙孟頫
Although I’m officially here as a writer, it’s impossible to defy Ying’s enthusiasm, and we are talking shop as fellow painters. In fact, basking in Ying’s expertise, I’m reverting to a painting student. Together we admire details of a Shen Zhou handscroll from the 15th century on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ying remarks on the varying densities of ink used to render the craggy cliffside, the Impressionist dot used to denote foliage, and the uncanny economy of, well, everything. I look and strive to learn.
To call Ying a natural teacher, although she is, isn’t quite right. She’s a natural artist and so has dug into Yuan Dynasty painting (as well as Baroque painting, Impressionism, on and on) with the determination of someone looking for solutions to a desperate problem. Desperate problems are the hallmark of a real artist’s existence. They’re not desperate in that lives are at stake; they are desperate in that they are filled with despair. The way forward is never clear and one’s powers never up to the task. To overcome this you need spirit, which Ying has in abundance. Art is an infection of feeling, said Tolstoy.2 This leaves artists who understand the problem of teaching no choice except to cough on the students, figuratively, and hope that some of them catch the germ. The craft of art can be taught, but the art of art cannot.
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