Interviewsand Articles


Art and Ethics: Phil Chan

by Phil Chan, Sep 14, 2001



I met Phil Chan by accident in 1995, give or take. I'd gone into a small restaurant in Alameda, CA, where I spotted Gale Wagner —one of the founders in the early 1980s of the Pacific Rim Sculptors group. He invited me over to join him and his friend, whom I hadn't met, Phil Chan. Chan was passing through town. I could have made nice and been none the wiser, but instead, I sat down and started asking questions. Soon I was intrigued.
     Chan was working on an ongoing series he called Fallen Angels. What did he mean by that, I asked? Thus began one of the most unusual conversations I've ever had. Could we get together before he left town, I asked. It wasn't possible, but we exchanged information. Out of that chance meeting came the following piece, published first in The Secret Alameda, and then later, in the first issue of works & conversations.
     I find that Chan's small essay remains a unique expression of the perennial philosophy. - Richard Whittaker

[editor's note, March 2020] My efforts to contact Chan have been unsuccessful and I'm afraid he may have passed away.]

"Art and Ethics" is a complex topic. It can focus on the legalistic balance between the freedom of expression and ownership, and as society enters the information age, we must reestablish the fundamental balance between our commitment to democratic ideals and property rights. Despite the timeliness of this issue, however, I shall only in passing quote the words of Jesus: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s," and let that serve as a guiding light towards finding a balance.

As for the larger topic, my interest is to focus on something deeper—not only in my thoughts about art, but in regard to my creative work as well. This is the central concern of my "Fallen Angels," a series of paintings which has engaged me for the past ten years. As for the larger question, which I prefer to address as "Art and Morality" rather than as "Art and Ethics," it might be sensible to ask, "Are the arts a precondition to civil society?" If so, does art serve as a moral foundation for civilization? To shed light on this question, we might ask if the arts are important to us at all? Is art really necessary? What are some reasons individuals might want art to become a part of their lives? A simple answer might be that art can provide knowledge about the world. An illustration or a painting, for instance, can let us experience what was invisible by highlighting the previously overlooked in order to expose its presence. This was a compelling reason in the days when an individual’s entire life was lived in the same locality. Today, with the availability of travel and telecommunications as well as the knowledge that science and technology provide, this function of art has been trivialized when compared with other more efficient information systems.

If science, technology, and travel have undercut the role of the arts as something which informs us about the physical world, surely art can still provide images of worlds available only to the imagination. As a corollary, the arts can allow individuals to experience that which they could not or would not dare obtain in reality. This was the mark of 19th and 20th century art. Liberated from the constraints of description, art was able to focus its attention on imagination, exposing the complex inner landscape of the human mind. However, with every upside there is a corresponding downside. The opening of desires can result in cheapening the human experience as well as enriching it. In the late 20th century the availability of endless pulp fiction and television and its vicarious fulfillment of our fantasies have reduced imagination to the realm of escape. Contemporary society is so driven by escapism that fantasy has spilled over into the cheap thrills of such things as supermarket tabloids. In fact, the very notion of popular entertainment is not about uplifting the human spirit, but is about providing relief from existence. What began as a horizon in early modernism ends in the perversion of reality. The interpenetration of fantasy and reality is played out daily in our living rooms through electronic journalism. I don’t mean just those talk shows in which the bottom-feeders of society confess their innermost perversions, or the so-called "news shows" such as American Journal or Hard Copy, I mean such important news events as the Falkland war, when generals and admirals push toy aircraft carriers around to transform real conflict into Monday Night Football. I mean the teledrama of the Gulf War with program titles such as "Line in the Sand" or "Showdown at the Gulf," as if the war was some scripted movie along the line of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Though this sounds judgmental, it need not be—it needs only to highlight the point that, just as travel and science undercut the descriptive function of the arts, so popular culture, especially in conjunction with psychotropic drugs, has undercut imagination from the arts. And if this is not enough, the power of virtual reality will, in the near future, make these intrusions seem trivial.
Another reason why we may want the arts to enter our lives is that their sensuous qualities can and do provide pleasure. This is certainly the case in the culinary arts in which the consumption of pleasure does provide a basis for living. Lest we relegate sensuality to the level of hedonism, we should take note that the cultivation of taste is not reducible to simple hedonistic gluttony. Taste also sharpens the senses, allowing humanity to experience more fully the complexities of existence. Since existence is grounded in sensation, the development of sensitivity to taste is necessary grounding for the development of intellect. This connection between sense and intellect was acknowledged by no less than Plato. Two and a half millennia later, developmental psychology informs us of the importance of perceptual development as the foundation for the conceptual.

Profound art, however, must extend beyond the sensuous. Most of us enjoy good food, but few would consider it to be a profound art form. Most of us would be impressed by the exquisite taste of a connoisseur, but few would consider such understanding to be profound if his or her likes and dislikes did not extend beyond the enjoyment of surfaces. We, in fact, feel the connoisseur probably cultivated his taste from a position of privilege detached from the robust experience of the human condition. We reserve our admiration for those whose understanding extends beyond surfaces, whose understanding is embedded in the depths of the human condition.

Nonetheless there is something which taste has in common with this deeper understanding. There is a shared awareness of elementality—that life is lived out in substance. It is this substantiation of existence which transforms the material into the Ultra-material, infusing feeling into substance. Science cannot displace this aspect of materiality, for science is only interested in that which is quantifiable through instrumentation. To science, Ultramateriality, at best, floats above the substance world. To science, Ultramateriality is an epiphenomenon. But to the arts, Ultra-materiality is the primary content of existence. Since art is concerned with interiority, art is concerned with giving structure to the inner world. All too often, however, interiority is identified only as emotion and feeling. It is easy to understand this. After all, when we experience great art, we are deeply moved. When our emotions are not moved, we consider such works to be merely decorative or entertaining. We understand the connectedness between profound art and emotional content. This identification with emotion and feeling, however, fails to take into account the connection feeling and emotion have with the physical. It is this connection in which art gives image to Ultramateriality. It is this connection which allows art to speak beyond the emotional to proclaim carnality in existence.
Feelings and emotions exist in a floating world. Their detachment make them vulnerable to the exploits of escapism, political rhetoric, drugs, and virtual reality. The grounding of emotions in substance embeds them in existence. I have always been touched by President Johnson’s return to the ranch of his childhood, in his later years after he had retired. At the ranch he took pleasure in the colors and textures which formed his childhood. Those childhood attachments gave meaning to the end of his life. One can, of course, argue that this was merely the retreat of a geo-political sophisticate defeated by life, seeking shelter from the pains of existence in the simpler elemental world. It may well have been that, but it was also a calling, a calling to come to terms with existence. Elementality made it possible for him to understand and be connected to a more fundamental aspect of existence which the world of politics could not provide. In elementality, he was able to reconnect with the Ultramaterial, which had been covered over by his preoccupation with geopolitics.

It is this elementality which art must call upon us to touch. If we, as living substance, can embrace Ultramateriality we will be able to find the locus of existence, for we will have the physical understanding that existence is embedded in the anonymous flesh of living substance. This is the calling of the first understanding. Only in this way will we understand that all joy and suffering is immersed in this anonymous living substance. Only then will we develop the taste for elemental empathy. Deep art embodies this calling. It is this calling which opens the way to compassion, making it possible for morality to enter the world. We must, of course, be careful of the term, "morality." All too often it refers to a list of "do’s and don’ts" associated with Sunday school. The morality to which this calling refers is deeper than any list. It is the calling for humanity to open its heart to the joys and suffering of carnal existence. This openness permits us to receive the psycho-physical understanding of elemental empathy. This openness permits us to understand that when one suffers, one suffers as all living things suffer. It is this openness which makes it possible for morality to emerge from existence.

Although the cycle of elementality, empathy, and morality cannot be completed by the arts alone, it is the arts which heighten our awareness of its presence, making it possible for morality to transform us into civilized beings. It is no accident that all civilizations possess art. This is so because art is not simply a by-product of civilization; art is its necessary precondition. Without art mankind would less likely have developed the capacity for empathy, and without the capacity for empathy, individual lives would remain brutish. A collection of brutes cannot possibly come together to lay the groundwork for a civil society. It is also no mere coincidence that the higher the accomplishment of any particular society, the greater are its artistic expressions. Although the arts can not lay direct claim to all the accomplishments of any particular society, the deeper the groundwork laid toward empathy with existence, the higher its citizens are able to leap from this support.

It is sad when political and civil administrators seek to trivialize the importance of the arts. In the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, when the principal of the school was forced by budgetary constraints to choose between the music program and long division, he chose the latter. Society is continually being asked to make such choices. On the surface, his choice seemed reasonable; however, the choice lacks depth of understanding. The arts are the grounding to our Ultramaterial existence. Dirt is not much appreciated, but that is what sustains human existence. Society can not continually take from the earth without replenishing it, and not expect eventual depletion. Society also can not expect to take away from our Ultramaterial grounding without suffering the depletion of the moral substance which sustains life.

Episodes such as the one which occurred with the exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography are used as political hot-buttons to highlight the moral decadence of the arts. Even if that were so in a specific instance, the general condition is, nonetheless, quite the opposite. Art’s connectedness to Ultramateriality is the fountainhead for moral consciousness. Although not all art is thus connected, great art is. As in most things, society can not have the good without the bad. It is a package deal. The presence of that tension is itself a reflection of the carnality of existence. Instead of throwing out the good with the bad, we as educators must teach the public to recognize the calling of Ultramateriality. Only then will our understanding of the arts extend beyond the realm of taste. Only then will we truly understand the juxtaposition of the good and the bad to embrace the eternal image of existence.


About the Author

Phil Chan was born in Canton, China in 1946, lived in Hong Kong and moved to the U.S. in 1956. He became an American citizen in 1973. Chan received his MFA from U.C. Berkeley in 1976. He taught at many colleges and universities and retired from teaching at Youngstown State University in Ohio. Chan received NEA grants and NEH grants and his work has been widely exhibited in the U.S. and China. At the time this was published [March 1998] Phil Chan was teaching art at Youngstown State University in Ohio.             


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