Wendy Moonan wrote a fascinating "Antiques" column in last week's New York Times (Friday 20 Dec 2002, page B46) entitled "Scholarship, Morality and Taste". She begins:
Ancient China didn't have a phrase for "rite of passage," but if one existed, it would probably revolve around mastering appreciation of what the Chinese called superfluous things. For the scholar, the sage and the monk, the creation of art was an act of self-actualization, and the "superfluous" tools used in the creation of art were actually essential.
Moonan goes on to quote various academics and dealers involved with these scholar's objects --- artifacts such as carved brush pots, ornate water droppers, brush rests, ink stones, trays, seals, and so forth. Sometimes she and her sources lapse into unfortunate promotional prose (e.g. "... probably the most affordable Chinese antiques on the market. There are many for sale in Manhattan this season, and they make wonderful presents, as they have for a thousand years in China. ..."). But for the most part the article offers a delightful glance at a captivating area of æsthetics.
Besides the self-actualization theme, some of the words that recur in Moonan's piece simply resonate with my psyche. "Superfluous", for instance --- Lysander Spooner, an American anarchist (and semi-pro baseball player) called his autobiography Memoirs of a Superfluous Man; I read it with great enjoyment a few decades ago during my antistatist years, along with Benjamin Tucker's Instead of a Book: By a Man Too Busy to Write One. Similarly, on the Asian cultural mystique and æsthetic vandalism front, "Scholarship, Morality and Taste" reminds me of a scene in Neal Stephenson's sf thriller The Diamond Age, in which one character sends another a piece of calligraphy so beautiful, so refined, so precious, that the recipient cannot refuse to do whatever is requested in the message.
To tickle the word-collector in me, Wendy Moonan quotes from Craig Clunas's Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (1991). Clunas defines three key words:
In concluding her column, Moonan relays a vital thought out of Chandra Mukerji's book From Graven Images (via Clunas) --- a point that echoes central conclusions of Daniel Dennett and other philosophers of knowledge:
Objects are carriers of ideas. ... They help to make autonomous forces out of ideas by remaining in the physical world long after their production.