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The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description


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The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description

Helenio Herrera (1916-1997)
2012, oil on canvas, 31×32 cm

The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description

Helenio Herrera (1916-1997)

The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description




The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description (Part 1)

The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description (Part 2)

Eugene Y. Wang
The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description (Part 3)*

Visual Effect as Interpretive Focus

To deny intrinsic meaning or cognitive content in paintings such as Owl is not to renounce our art historical commitment to meaning and its interpretation. The question is where to locate it. Predictably, the burden of meaning is shifted to the beholder. While this is inevitable, we ought to be aware of the hermeneutical consequences of asserting the commonplace that meaning is in the eye of the beholder. It could easily careen into unfettered relativism, an apotheosis of the beholder at the expense of the visual properties that make the act of beholding possible and meaningful in the first place and that constrain our interpretation. A more balanced view has been upheld calling for the "fusion of horizons." Yet such generalities, for all the correctness of their stance, have yet to crystallize at the level of practical criticism into concrete procedures. In dealing with paintings such as Owl, to renounce the notion of intrinsic meaning and cognitive content in the painting is not to give up looking for cues in the painting as a basis for interpretation. The question is what cues we should seize upon and what kind of interpretation may proceed from there. The shift of focus from intrinsic meaning or cognitive content to the notion of effect, as proposed by Wolfgang Iser, Stanley Fish, and, in particular, Donald Davidson, points us in the right direction.

Wang Keping, Silence (1978). Wood. Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong.

Fig. 7. Wang Keping, Silence (1978). Wood. Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong. Courtesy of Gao Minglu.

Davidson's theory of metaphor forms much of the conceptual scaffolding for the present study. He observes a tension in the conventional views of metaphor. On the one hand, metaphor is believed to do something no plain prose can do; on the other hand, interpreters want to "explain what a metaphor does by appealing to a cognitive content-just the sort of thing plain prose is designed to express." Various theorists of metaphor, according to Davidson, think they have a way of deciphering an encoded message in a metaphor. What they do in fact is talk about "the effects metaphors have on us" and "fasten on the contents of the thoughts a metaphor provokes and ... read these contents into the metaphor itself."[44] But the problem is that it is hard to decide exactly what the content is supposed to be:

The reason it is often so hard to decide is, I think, that we imagine there is a content to be captured when all the while we are in fact focusing on what the metaphor makes us notice. If what the metaphor makes us notice were finite in scope and propositional in nature, this would not in itself make trouble; we would simply project the content the metaphor brought to mind on to the metaphor. But in fact there is no limit to what a metaphor calls to our attention, and much of what we are caused to notice is not propositional in character. When we try to say what a metaphor 'means', we soon realize there is no end to what we want to mention.

W. J. T. Mitchell makes a similar observation with regard to our response to abstract paintings: "How can pure forms of paint on canvas say anything, much less articulate complex theoretical concepts? .. The problem ... is not that we have nothing to say about it, or that it says nothing to us, but rather that we feel overwhelmed and embarrassed by the number of things it can be made to say."[45] The convergence between Davidson's observation on metaphor and Mitchell's formulation of visual experience already makes it apparent that Davidson's description of the workings of metaphor and the challenge it poses for interpretation apply equally well to the experience of paintings. In fact, he explicitly extends his account of the effect of metaphor to include pictures.

If someone draws his finger along a coastline on a map, or mentions the beauty and deftness of a line in a Picasso etching, how many things are drawn to your attention? You might list a great many, but you could not finish since the idea of finishing would have no clear application. How many facts or propositions are conveyed by a photograph? None, an infinity, or one great unstated fact? Bad question. A picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture.[46]

To quote this is not to resurrect the specter of a purist argument, such as the one urged by Clement Greenberg, that seeks to purge the visual image of contamination by language.[47] Davidson acknowledges the abundance of verbal appendages that could be attached to a metaphor or a picture. He only wants to draw a distinction between the non cognitive nature of the metaphor or picture itself and the effects they produce. The question ultimately is "how metaphor [or picture] is supposed to produce them." His solution to this problem is tantalizingly evasive: "A metaphor does its work through other intermediaries." He does not specify exactly what these "other intermediaries" are, which are crucial to art historical interpretive procedures. This is the point at which we pick up where he leaves off.

Wang Keping, Idol or Buddha (1979). Wood. Courtesy of Gao Minglu.

Fig. 8. Wang Keping, Idol or Buddha (1979). Wood. Courtesy of Gao Minglu.

It is, following Davidson, apparently pointless for us to fasten on the beholder's thoughts and read them back into the painting as its meaning or cognitive content. There is no end to the chain of thoughts a painting can touch off, and these are also often too free-floating and fleeting for the beholder to care to record them all, let alone for us to sort them out in any intelligible way. But, on the other hand, these thoughts are launched from certain elements in the painting. These elements are what Davidson would call "intermediaries," or, to borrow a phrase from Richard Wollheim, "projective properties," aspects in an artwork that enable or alert the beholder to see things in a new perspective and to arrive at new insights.[48] The challenge is to locate them and to relate the spectator's perceptual activities to them. Two interpretive schemes are in order here, proposed respectively by Roland Barthes and Michael Baxandall.

Barthes has a distinct way of formulating photography's effect-what he calls alternately its "affect" -on its spectators.[49] Acknowledging photography to be purely a "contingency" that resists any linguistic or schematic reductionism, he nevertheless feels compelled to devise a schema to account for its effects. To Barthes, a photograph communicates with its spectator in two ways: studium and punctum. The former is a photograph's cultural or moral charge, which it takes the spectator's cultural or empirical knowledge to appreciate. The latter is the accidental details that prick the spectator. The studium evokes the photographer's cultural universe; the punctum opens up the spectator's private horizon. The model proposed by Baxandall works in a somewhat different way. Baxandall alerts us to "the conformity between discriminations demanded by a painting and skills of discrimination possessed by the beholder."[50] Consequently, he asserts, we would do well to mesh the "cognitive style" of the beholder with the pictorial style of the painting.[51]

Somewhere between these two schemes lies the solution to our problem. Both schemes have the virtue of matching the beholder's perceptual apparatus with properties within an artwork. For Barthes, the otherwise inchoate riot of thoughts and feelings provoked by the artwork can be traced to recognizable local properties-the punctum-in the picture. For Baxandall, the assumed fit between a painting's embedded cues and a beholder's cognitive skills creates a heuristic device that facilitates a cogent interpretive move between the two. The problem with Barthes's model is that it presumes too much on the accidental details in the photograph to do us any good. Baxandall's scheme, on the other hand, premised on the "conformity" between cognitive and pictorial styles, if followed too closely may leave little room for us to accommodate the dynamic fluidity characteristic of a spectator's perceptual activities, which are not his concern. This is where Barthes fills the gap. Conversely, Barthes's model is at once too precise in identifying the details-as if pictures work only iconographically–and too loose with their choice: he thinks they are only seized upon accidentally. A beholder often falls prey to the manipulation of a visual design. One painting may make him pensive, another may light him up. The way a painting works its effect is by no means accidental. This is where Baxandall's correspondence or fit between picture and beholder may help.

Han Meilin, variations of the owl motif as a design pattern. From Han Meilin, Shangzai renjian (Still in the human world).

Fig. 9. Han Meilin, variations of the owl motif as a design pattern. From Han Meilin, Shangzai renjian (Still in the human world) (Jinan, 1980), p. 149.

To match two things presupposes some shared features. Pictorial properties and perceptual responses, however, are, strictly speaking, un-homologous analytical constructs belonging to different categorical systems; their difference is that between physical objects and states of mind. To bring them in line with each other, we need first to fit them into homologous classes[52]. The visual effect is what brings them on a par with each other. Pictorial properties are often characterized in terms of their effect, especially sensations: cold, horrifying; warm, intimate; and so on. The beholder's response is likewise articulated in similar terms, to the extent that an effect-oriented description pertains both to a painting out there and a beholder's perceptual response, or equivocates between the two. This is where the link between the pictorial property and the beholder's perceptual meaning production can be made. If a riotous pictorial configuration suggests to a beholder a tumultuous political climate, we cannot hold the painting solely responsible for that intimation by reading it into the agitated lines-though it is always tempting to take that rhetorical flight; nor do we assign that foreboding entirely to the beholder. Some identifiable effect-qualities and impressions of agitation, for instance- provides the common ground to encompass both an abstract form in the painting and worldly events (revolution or war) that preoccupy the viewer. For these two otherwise unrelated domains to be related, we need to reduce the viewer's concepts of revolution into percepts of agitation, on the one hand, and, on the other, to ascertain certain formal aspects in the painting that produce the disquieting effect or that can be characterized as such. Integrating into the equation the historical circumstances and moment in which the viewer is rooted, we can then map out possible routes and processes in which percepts of agitation turn into concepts of revolution and sensations become circumstantially referential intimations. In this way, some beholders' responses, however freewheeling, wayward, or fanciful, can often be brought in line with the picture that triggers these thoughts. What we obtain, then, is a process of meaning production involving both the painting and its contemporary beholder.

A close analysis of a viewer's account of the effects the owl painting produced on her in 1974 suffices to demonstrate this point. Dai Qing, a bewildered and ultimately disillusioned ex-Red Guard who had devoted herself "with fresh blood and life" to the revolutionary cause only to see her utopian dreams going down the drain, was among the viewers who stumbled into the Black Painting Exhibition in 1974. She considered herself a novice in the rarefied sphere of art, but each time there was an art exhibition, be it of Picasso, Fu Baoshi, or any other, she would go. She was not, she insists, predisposed to discriminate on the basis of the value judgments of others. Nor did she subscribe to the official or mainstream interpretation of the painting being exhibited: ''All I hope is to catch a scene, a pose, a glance, even a patch of color, or a stretch of line that makes me sense or recall something. It may make me laugh, or make me sad, or itchy to say something but finally tongue-tied. The last thing I want is to walk out of the gallery bringing nothing with me."[53] At the sight of the "inexplicable owl" she was stunned and transfixed. She remained motionless on the spot for a long time. Then she suddenly raced to the zoo:

The bird in the iron cage really rose to the occasion. With its one big round eye, it stared at me without appearing to acknowledge my presence, exactly like its pictured counterpart in the exhibition. It made my hair stand on end [lingren songran]. Countless ideas flashed through my mind, such as taking a photograph and posting it below the exhibition caption or sending one to Wang Mantian,[54] and so on. Of course, I did none of these. This was good enough: for authors and readers, whether they write, paint, compose, ... all that matters is that we all walk on the same land, breathe the same polluted air; we all huddle on the jammed buses; we all have been looked at superciliously by shop attendants. We have all loved, given away, dreamed, been bitten without provocation, been kicked, thrown down; we all picked ourselves up, licked our wounds and scars, and began another round of loving, giving, and dreaming.

The chain of thoughts unleashed by her encounter with the owl, both painted and real, is riotously free-floating, tenuously associative, and often surprisingly unpredictable. Who would have thought that the image would provoke in its viewer the association, however fleeting, with an arrogant shop attendant's supercilious look, among other things? These associations are undoubtedly tangential and external to the painting. Yet something in the painting galvanized this stream of thoughts. This something is not propositional in character, since one could reduce the painting into a discursive statement without actually coming into contact with it. This something is what mediates between the definite formal properties of a painting and the viewer's indefinite associations.

Zhang Jiemin, Lass in Yellow Ski Wear (1985). From Richard E. Strassberg and Waldemar A Nielsen, Beyond the Open Door: Contemporary Paintings from the People's Republic of China (Pasadena, Calif., 1987), p. 42, pl. 16.

Fig. 10. Zhang Jiemin, Lass in Yellow Ski Wear (1985). From Richard E. Strassberg and Waldemar A Nielsen, Beyond the Open Door: Contemporary Paintings from the People's Republic of China (Pasadena, Calif., 1987), p. 42, pl. 16.

In spite of the woman's free-floating associations, we can more or less discern a pattern. The woman's response falls largely into two categories: on the one hand, chill, terror, alienation, and hostility; on the other hand, warmth, consolation, and sharing. These are the range of effects the painting produces. Effects are limited to these basic qualities and moods. Reducing these qualities further to the basic level of sensations, which characterize our reponse to a painting, we can ascertain that they come down to two primary moods: coldness and warmth. Identifying them allows us to relate the viewer's perceptual associations, which are external to the painting, to internal properties of the painting, to which we may ascribe the cause of some discernible effects.

There is, first of all, a configuration of elements that produced the cold and alienating effect. To understand the effect on the beholder here we must historicize it in relation to the cognitive and perceptual stock possessed by Dai in her time and circumstances. The range of factors that may have made claims on her perception include linguistic habit and her previous exposure and acclimation to iconographic generic conventions and expectations, and so forth. The association of the one-eye-open stare, in Chinese idiom, with a "cold-eyed" (lengyan) mood, must have made the owl appear to exude reticence and a remote and inscrutable aloofness.[55] Moreover, it is a stare that must have been disorienting to a perceptual habit conditioned by the generic conventions to which she had been exposed. Even though the traditional perception of the owl as a harbinger of dark night, death, and the inauspicious had been considerably softened in modern times, the choice of an owl as proper subject matter–not for a cartoon illustration but for a serious traditional Chinese ink painting-was still somewhat unsettling to a viewer such as Dai in the 1970s. Bird-and-flower painting is a distinct, time-honored pictorial genre in China. But owls had long been banished from it.[56] They are conspicuously absent even in the anguished compositions of Zhu Da (ca. 1626-ca. 1705), arguably the consummate master of the bird-and-flower genre. Zhu was a disgruntled "leftover subject," a Ming loyalist living under the foreign Manchu rule. His oeuvre is shot through with isolated and often lonely birds in various unpredictable bleak moods, poses, and bizarre compositions, and yet even for him, painting an owl seemed out of the question.[57] It is not until the twentieth century that we find some radical artists who occasionally admit owls into their pictorial universe, employing it in the representation of sinister matters.[58] Gao Jianfu (1879- 1951), for instance, provides us with an early precedent of depicting an owl face-on in the mode of traditional Chinese painting (see fig. 2). But such paintings are still comparatively rare and hardly enough to acclimate viewers to the owl as a pictorial subject. Furthermore, for viewers in 1974, eight years into the Cultural Revolution, whose eyes had been persistently attuned to the heroic style of socialist realism, the freakish owl image inevitably intimated an alienating otherness. Compounding the effect of the shock Huang's Owl had on its viewer was its unconventional rendition of the bird's posture. Predators such as eagles or vultures in traditional Chinese bird-and-flower painting are typically shown in sideways or three-quarter views.[59] Experiments with head-on dispositions appeared in the early twentieth century. Not only are they rare instances, they seldom fill up the entire composition as Huang's Owl does. There is also a discontinuity between the early twentieth-century style and that of the 1970s. Long predisposed to such representational conventions, a viewer in the 1970s must have found it disorienting to confront a staring predatory bird head-on. In any case, the owl painting must have caused the eerie anxiety that attends an encounter with the uncanny. Small wonder that Dai describes the sensation she felt as "songran," a phrase meaning "making one's hair stand on end," "shuddering," or "sending shivers down one's spine."

The painting had such a chilling effect on Dai that she dashed to the zoo to verify whatever speculations she may have had on her mind, or simply to check if the painter had gone out of his way to fashion a wayward image. The eerie resemblance between the painted owl and the real owl in the iron cage deepened the sense of the uncanny. It was not so much that she marveled at the verisimilitude accomplished by the painter, which is not in any case what the genre of ink painting is generically about; rather, it was the coincidence, seeming to border on conspiracy, of the two mysterious stares simultaneously occurring in both the real and the pictorial worlds that made the woman shudder.

Then there is the effect of warmth. The distancing otherness of the staring owl is counterbalanced by its anthropomorphized character. The squat bird, with its hunched back and orderly curved contour, has a mischievous and cartoonish drollery about it. Its frontally exposed belly, made fluffy by an aggregate of lightly touched, diluted, ink-brushed grayish dots over a faintly pinkish hue, oozes a heartwarming tenderness. The bird's one-eye-open stare seems to dissolve readily into an all-too-human wink that promises a tacit understanding and sharing-though what precisely is being shared hinges on each viewer's private experiences. The head-on frontality further helps to co-opt the viewer into a secret-sharer. No wonder Dai was also moved; she took solace in the thought that "we have all" gone through this or that experience.

Huang Yongyu, Five Owls (1991). From Huang Yongyu, ed. Huang Heiman (Hong Kong, 1993), p. 57, pl. 21.

Fig. 11. Huang Yongyu, Five Owls (1991). Ink and color on paper. 33.5 x 136 cm. From Huang Yongyu, ed. Huang Heiman (Hong Kong, 1993), p. 57, pl. 21.

The painting is therefore at once chillingly alienating and intimately beckoning, which is a curious effect. It takes a horror film to produce the former feeling and a tearjerker to produce the latter. These different generic conventions put the viewer into different frames of mind, and it is not always easy to disorient his or her generic expectations. Owl did precisely this to Dai and other sensitive Chinese viewers in 1974.

This peculiar effect of conflicting moods provided a fitting formula for viewers like Dai to map out their complex feelings. The tumultuous Cultural Revolution had been a curious mixture of noise and silence. It was a vociferous era, with deafening slogans, shrill verbal assaults, and heated debates in public, on the one hand, and hushed thoughts, muted voices, and pregnant silence on the other. Being outspoken could have deadly consequences, and to remain silent was mostly often the only choice.[60] It was also a period of mob frenzy and private loneliness. Out of these paradoxical conditions were born conflicting desires: yearning for intimacy and trust while being wary of closeness and betrayal, wanting to speak yet fearing giving anything away, living in fear while nursing hope. The forceful yoking together of two opposing moods in the owl painting- cold alienation and warm sharing-corresponded to this structure of desire for communication coupled with distrust of language.

For a more erudite Chinese viewer equipped with some classical learning, Owl would have produced a deeper effect, albeit of a similar kind, through the traditional association of the bird with the intimation of unknown numinous darkness, which signals a paradoxical promise of apocalyptic divination and deadening reticence. In classical literature, the owl's presence is itself an omen or an oracle to be deciphered and fathomed, whose answer is ultimately withheld. One of the earliest prophetic poems in ancient China is said to have been sealed in a "metal-bound coffer" to be opened only when the time was ripe. Even after it was opened, its content still remained a mystery to posterity; all that is known is a synecdochic image cum title: "The Owl."[61] The bird is an endlessly regressed deferral of final revelation, a false promise of a message that it cannot deliver. In Jia Yi's "The Poetic Exposition on the Owl;' the locus classicus of the subject, the speaker anxiously questions the ominous owl that unexpectedly descends on him:

Of this owl I would ask,
"On leaving, where will I go?
Do you tell me words of luck,
or ill words of my doom?
Will my span end soon or late? –
speak to me the time."
A breath then passed the owl's beak,
it raised its head, spread its wings.
Its mouth incapable ofwords.[62]

The tension between the owl's role as a revelatory augur and its mystifying reticence heightens the apprehension about the unknown. A less bookish and more intuitive viewer like Dai may not have had the classical allusion at her fingertips. The owl painting nevertheless produced the same effect of apprehension in her. In 1974 the sense of the unknown and uncanny had a special contextual bearing. The collective angst in China at the time was an apprehension about what was to come as the Cultural Revolution drew to its bizarre closing years. The vaguely ominous and apocalyptic overtone of the owl image called to Dai's mind an enigmatic couplet from Baoguangsi, a Buddhist temple, that was in wide circulation at the time and that captured the contemporary anxiety:

For the other-worldlings, the Dharma-law has no law,
thereby one knows that the lawlessness is the law;
For the worldly events, they end while appearing not to end,
so why not end up without ending them?

The couplet, at once revelatory and mystifying, captures the paradoxical attitude of the time: the desire for, and despair over, revelation. It is a fitting formulation for Dai to bring to bear upon the owl painting.

The artist who painted Owl for a fellow artist on a social occasion was unlikely to have encrypted these thoughts in his painting. The visual model inadvertently lent itself to being seen as suggestive, as in Dai's view. It lent itself to an expressive use by Huang and his friends as well. During the inquisition period when strained charges were pressed against the painting, when Huang's friends saw him on the street they dared not openly speak to him; instead they would, across a distance, beckon him with one eye open, the other closed. Huang would look back with the same facial expression.[63] When Huang's friends tried to talk him into writing memoirs or publishing his diaries following his exoneration, Huang exploded in the exasperated voice of his owl, "Forget it. Without producing a noise, I have already been cursed for thousands of years; for me to write in black and white, can you imagine what would have happened to me?"[64]

While he may be wary of saying too much, retreating behind reticent visual images such as the owl painting, Huang cannot avoid being taken as saying much through them. Since the dark cloud was lifted from the painting in the post-Mao years, the winking owl, having generated so much discursive heat, can no longer unload the freight of language it has taken on. Huang himself busily inscribed words onto his reworked owl paintings to make the owl freely loquacious (see figs. 1, 3). The layered contexts and subtexts-the shrill charges, the subsequent vindication, and so forth-weighing on the painting made it an anchor point for dizzying dialectics oscillating between rhetorical plenitude and its absence, referential topicality and its denial, semantic richness and its depletion, a dialectics exacerbated by the long-lasting debates concerning its deposited cryptic meaning or its oblivious state of innocent nonmeaning.

The oscillation between these two poles makes the one-eye-open owl image a potent visual formula in post-Mao China. References to the winking owl thrive on the memory of its coy poise between imagined eloquence and brooding silence. With the end of the Cultural Revolution the long-held silence was finally broken. Critical reflection on silence became a cathartic topos that released the pent-up desire for speaking out. A play titled Amidst Silence, by Zong Fuxian, staged at the Shanghai People's Theater in the immediate wake of the Cultural Revolution, became the monumental mouthpiece for the collective sentiment of the time. The title alludes to a classical poetic line by Lu Xun, the foremost man of letters of twentieth-century China: ''Amidst the brooding silence, one hears a sudden clap of thunder."[65] Not coincidentally, Wang Keping, a Beijing-based artist, made a group of wooden sculptures that includes two quite suggestive pieces. One, titled Silence (1978), shows a human head with one eye mutilated and other widely open (fig. 7). The other is a sculpted face of Mao, initially titled Idol (1979), and retitled Buddha in 1980, with one eyeball protruding, and the other eye half-closed (fig. 8).[66] The two pieces by the same artist are mutually illuminating. It is impossible not to think of them as making visual reference to Huang's well-known one-eye-open owl. If so, it makes sense that one points us to the Maoist years and that the other should be titled Silence. The wink, in its extended sense, is premised on a tacitly shared knowledge of what it was like to have gone through the Maoist years and what it takes to be able to wink, with the memory of the winking owl as its shadowy referent. As with Owl, the force of the image is an ineffable signal of the conviction that the unspoken message is getting across to its viewer-whatever that message is. That Wang should match the issue of silence with the visual form of the one-eye-open face validates our interpretive reconstruction of an unarticulated sensibility, the anxiety of the waning years of the Cultural Revolution, and the paradoxical conflation of the yearning for communication and the retreat behind silence. Huang's painting of the one-eye-open owl inadvertently became the pictorial articulation of all these.

Like a fresh trope that can ossify into a dead metaphor, Huang's visual device is in danger of losing its original communicative efficacy as well. The winking owl has been appropriated as a popular design pattern (fig. 9), inspired by-if not parasitic on-Huang's painting. By the time Zhang Jiemin created Lass in Yellow Ski Wear (1985), which depicts, in a cubist style, a young woman with one eye open and the other closed (fig. 10), the winking icon had become a hot commodity in the cultural fashion industry. Its increased currency goes hand in hand with its decreased efficacy, a sad fact that bothered Huang so much that he vowed to quit winking by lining up five owls horizontally on a branch with the penultimate one turning its rear to the viewer and the last one falling off (fig. 11).

The situation materializes the hypothetical scenario dreamed up by Ryle and made memorable by Clifford Geertz, namely, we have "winking, fake-winking, burlesque-fake-winking, [and] rehearsed-burlesque-fake-winking" all stacked upon one another.[67] Geertz sees in situations like this the occasion for an anthropologist to engage in "thick description" in order to get into, or out of, the thicket of phenomenological charades posed by the cultural other.[68] While its methodological appeal for art historians is equally irresistible, the pictorial indistinction between a wink and whatever it is that masquerades as the semblance of a wink calls for a thick description of a different sort. While we cannot do too well in distinguishing between a wink and a twitch in a painting, we can shift the focus and give equal attention to the accomplice of the winker and determine the kind of communicative game taking place between the two.

The paradoxical attitude-the simultaneous yearning for communication and retreat into silence-we have extrapolated from the viewer's response to the winking owl would, in the old art historical vocabulary, have been characterized as a cultural symptom that Owl manifests. Now by shifting interpretive focus from the imagined latent cognitive content of a painting to its visual effect, we locate the cultural aspirations and anxieties logically in the viewer's perception without divorcing them from the properties of the painting, such as iconographic cues, generic traits, stylistic dispositions, and so forth. The owl winks only because its accomplice, the beholder, winks at it. The real winker is the viewer; the owl that appears to be winking in the painting is in fact made an imagined accomplice and an unwitting, co-opted secret-sharer. It may thus get implicated in a fictive conspiracy that is not its design and for which it should not be held liable. It is an inadvertent partner in a charged or secretive exchange of fleeting glances and darting winks. As ephemeral perceptual acts, the glances and winks have all faded into thin air with the disappearance of the real winker, leaving the painted owl as the only physical trace-hard evidence, witness, and unwitting accomplice all in one-to testify to the visual drama and conspiracy that has taken place. No wonder it attracts both persecutors and art historians for whom the taste for visual evidence is their only shared passion.

* Eugene Y. Wang; The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No.3 / Spring, 2000, pp. 458-473.


[44] Donald Davidson, "What Metaphors Mean," Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford, 1984), p. 261; hereafter abbreviated "WM."
[45] W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago, 1994), p. 223.
[46] Richard Rorty makes a similar observation: "tossing a metaphor into a conversation is like suddenly breaking off the conversation long enough to make a face, or pulling a photograph out of your pocket and displaying it" (Richard Rorty, Contigency, Irony, and Solidarity [New York, 1989], p. 18). It is interesting that Rorty equates the effect of making a face with displaying a picture. In this sense, the owl painting has a double effect.
[47] See Clement Greenberg, "Towards a Newer Laocoon" (1940), The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O'Brian, 4 vols. (Chicago, 1986), 1:23-38. For a compelling critique of the purity argument, see Mitchell, Picture Theory, pp. 95-97, 213-39.
[48] Richard Wollheim, The Mind and Its Depths (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), p. 144; see pp. 144-58.
[49] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York, 1981), p. 21; hereafter abbreviated CL. Some art historians prefer the term affect, which Schapiro also used. See Schapiro, "Style;' p. 304, and Irene Winter, "The Affective Properties of Styles: An Inquiry into Analytical Process and the Inscription of Meaning in Art History;' in Picturing Science, Producing Art, ed. Caroline A. Jones and Peter Galison (New York, 1998), pp. 55-77. Winter's argument is also quite relevant to the present inquiry, namely, her claim that properties in artworks set up "emotional linkages of affective experience, via the culturally conditioned sensory motors of visual perception" and that "style both inheres in a work and lives in the eye of the beholder" (p. 72).
[50] Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1988), p. 34.
[51] Ibid., p. 38. There is a certain affinity between Baxanall and Wollheim, who also suggests the need to work out the relationship between the "visual stimuli" in an artwork and the perceiver's "cognitive stock" (Wollheim, The Mind and Its Depths, p. 134). While Wollheim's model posits the critic as the perceiver, Baxandall brings in the historical viewer's "cognitive style" as an object of inquiry, which is of more relevance for art historians.
[52] This strategy is in part indebted to Baxandall's methodological reflection on the question of how to bring society on a par with art. He suggests that a modification of terms on both parts is needed in order to make a match. See Baxandall, ''Art, Society, and the Bouguer Principle," Representations, no. 12 (Fall 1985): 32-43.
[53] Dai Qing, "Cong xiaoshu dao dashu; cong dashu dao xiaoshu–Du Yongyu sanji" (From small books to larger ones, and the reverse-Reading the Three Notes by Yongyu), Dushu 71, no. 2 (1985): 17; hereafter abbreviated "C."
[54] Wang Mantian, an official working in the Ministry of Culture during the Cultural Revolution, was a partisan of Jiang's extremist clique. She convened the meeting in the Friendship Hotel on 23 November 1973 at which Shao sold out Huang's owl painting and was the principal architect of the Black Painting Exhibition. See Huang Yongyu, "Shao Yu he maotouying shijian," p. 101, and Critics Group of the Ministry of Culture, "Yige jingxin cehua de fandang yinmo," pp. 147-48.
[55] Fang Dan, for instance, sees the owl as "looking at the world with a cold eye" (Fang Dan, "Qicai Huang Yongyu (III)," p. 63).
[56] Except in ancient times when people were more closely engaged with the numinous other, owls had been largely absent throughout the post-Han Chinese artistic canon in a culture hypersensitive to inauspicious matters.
[57] The inscription on an album piece by Zhu explicitly mentions "squatting owl," an alias for taro, a starchy root. See Rao Zongyi [Jao Tsung-i], "Bada shanren shishuoshi jie jianji qi jiazi huaniaoce" (On Zhu Da's "Shishuo Poems" and his bird-and-flower album dated 1684), Journal of the Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong 8 (Dec. 1976): 519-29, esp. pI. 3, leaf 2. Phrases like this must have prompted the artist to play with the idea of owl images as pictorial possibilities, especially since he was interested in portraying the brooding moods that the image would have served to project. Zhu nonetheless refrained from painting an owl.
[58] A 1945 cartoon by Liao Bingxiong, titled "Owl's Violence," shows the owl as a treacherous predator bullying a rooster, thereby making a political satire of the tyranny of the time. See Bi Keguan and Huang Yuanlin, Zhongguo manhua shi (History of Chinese cartoons) (Beijing, 1986), pI. 245. Incidentally, Huang may have been aware of the picture, as evidenced in his own cartoon "Chick's Questions." See Huang Yongyu, Jiemoju zaji, pp. 33-34.
[59] One notable example is New Moon (ca. 1914) by Chen Shuren, which depicts an eagle face-on. See Ralph C. Croizier, Art and Revolution in Modern China: The Lingnan (Cantonese) School of Painting, 1906-1951 (Berkeley, 1988), p. 82, fig. 37.
[60] For an expert portrayal of Chinese artists' predicaments during the Cultural Revolution, see Jerome Silbergeld and Gong Jisui, Contradictions: Artistic Life, the Socialist State, and the Chinese Painter Li Huasheng (Seattle, 1993), pp. 55-S4 and Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People's Republic of China, 1949-1979, pp. 314-76. For accounts of silence in contemporary China, see Vera Schwarcz, ''A Brimming Darkness: The Voice of Memory/the Silence of Pain in China after the Cultural Revolution," Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 30 (Jan.-Mar. 1995): 46-54. See also Wu Hung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (exhibition catalog, The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, Chicago, IS Feb.-IS Apr. 1999). pp. 66-72.
[61] Anonymous, "The Metal-Bound Coffer," in The Shoo King, vol. 3 of The Chinese Classics, pp. 356-59.
[62] Jia Yi, "The Poetic Exposition on the Owl," in An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, trans. and ed. Stephen Owen (New York, 1996), p. 110.
[63] Fang Dan, "Qicai Huang Yongyu (III)," p. 63.
[64] Huang Yongyu, Jiemoju zaji, p. 209.
[65] Lu Xun, "Wuti" (Untitled; 1934), in Lu Xun quanji (Complete works of Lu Xun), 16 vols. (Beijing, 1981), 7:448.
[66] Wang Keping belonged to the Star Group, the first avant-garde artists to emerge in the post-Mao era. The two sculptures discussed here were first exhibited in the National Art Gallery, Beijing, in August 1980, with official approval, since their critical edge was directed at the oppression of the Cultural Revolution and the focus was mostly on the Gang of Four rather than Mao himself, putting them therefore more or less in line with the post-Mao revisionist ethos. They were nevertheless controversial. Wang changed the title to Buddha because he found Idol too limiting. For the Star Group and their exhibitions, see Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People~ Republic of China, 1949-1979, pp. 396-400; Inside Out: New Chinese Art, ed. Gao Minglu (Berkeley, 1998), pp. 150, 197; and Wu, Transience, p.17.
[67] See Ryle, "The Thinking of Thoughts," 2:480-96, and Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), p. 7.
[68] Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, p. 10.