A&O – Asemic Art



[“Asemic writing is a wordless open semantic form of writing.[1][2][3] The word asemic /ˈsmɪk/ means “having no specific semantic content”, or “without the smallest unit of meaning”.[4] With the non-specificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning, which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret.”]


  • ASIAN WRITING & PAINTING.  “The written word is central to Chinese brush-and-ink painting in a way that it is not in most Western art. The same brush is used for calligraphy and painting; artists ‘write’ rather than paint a painting; and text is an integral part of any work: a poetic inscription is usually added to a painting, sometimes with a dedication to the person it is being created for, together with the artist’s signature, a date and the artist’s seal. “(Claire Roberts (2012)[i]




…is associated with marks—drawings perhaps—made with a minimum of conscious attention.  It can have positive effects on memory, be anxiolytic, (Wikipedia on Doodling), and may provide clues about non-conscious processing of information.  My own favorite doodles emerged during boring lectures (high school and college) or seminar presentations (by faculty colleagues or their guests).  Something I liked about them is that they often incorporated technical notes from the lecture.

Not generally very refined, but doodling can be associated with a very refined expression of feelings in Asian calligraphy, often regarded as amongst the highest forms of art. Arguably Chinese scroll paintings (especially landscapes) began in this way. 

I was invited to present a lecture at a conference on consciousness in Beijing in 2004. (link to paper I gave there).  Wonderful experience.  While there, I bought a book on calligraphy and learned about the evolution of Caoshu, grass writing.”  

I was startled to see how my own doodles resembled caoshu as described in Shi Bo’s Between Heaven and Earth: A History of Chinese Writing (Shambhala 2003): “rapidly drawn strokes done very much at the urging of the author’s moods and feelings” (p64) an extreme expression “manifesting madness, passion, insolence… [using words that are illegible … sometimes called Kuangcao, “crazy calligraphy.” –p69) …   Also spotted a section of “grass style” (Ts’ai Shu) in Chiang Yee’s Chinese Calligraphy… a kind of rapid, rough sketch of ideas.  (now read about Kenko and the abandonment of ego as you “follow the brush”)

More on Doodling


…is this the vocal music equivalent of asemic art?  

late evening, I often find myself reciting utterly meaningless little ditties when alone and when in transition between parts of my day.  Vey much like scat singing, This may be a rare habit, but it’s almost always when I’m alone. And this occasionally brings to mind my great pleasure in some operatic arias (for example, un bel di, first heard in 1957 when my family bought a phonograph and my father brought home periodically offered records from his grocery store (“Great Music of the Western World”).  I was in love with the words–memorized them–long before I knew their meaning.  OK, so the music is magnificent– but the same thing happened listening to poetry: I heard the poetry of Garcia Lorca, especially A las cinqo de la tarde

Saturday, October 26, 2019   early afternoon, I Might have dozed off but thinking about “asemic writing” the term applicable to many of my doodles… a new term to me that turned up in Pinterest just now and has a great Wikipedia entry. Some examples are also featured at art  makes people blog.

Monday, December 2, 2019.   Writing has come to represent something we know or want to know.  A tool for understanding a shared language.  But even then, what can be known is at best a narrow slice of what we could know.  I started trying to know more when my mother read to me the contents of the little word balloons above the heads of the characters we looked at together at the breakfast table. I knew a lot from the non-verbal illustrations but then understood I could know even more–even more deeply (and we are, after all, ‘infovores’–hungry for informtion).  We learn the writing we grow up with, but also learn eventually that other people may look at other squiggles that we don’t recognize.  But we do recognize a certain pattern of presentation to make reading easier: back-and-forth on the page… left to right—or the opposite, up & down.    In other words (pun?) certain shapes and patterns are saturated with meaning we do not understand.   (Monday, December 2, 2019)

Also in Brittanica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/caoshu (Sept 16, 2019): 

(Chinese: “draft script,” or “grass script”) Wade-Giles romanization ts’ao-shu, in Chinese calligraphy, a cursive variant of the standard Chinese scripts lishu and kaishu and their semicursive derivative xingshu. The script developed during the Han dynasty (206 BCAD 220), and it had its period of greatest growth during the Tang dynasty (618–907). In caoshu the number of strokes in characters are reduced to single scrawls or abstract abbreviations of curves and dots. Strokes of varying thickness and modulation show a great variety of shapes. Caoshu is not bound by rules for even spacing, and characters need not be of the same approximate size; the calligrapher thus has the fullest freedom of expressive movement of line. Caoshu can be subcategorized into three major forms that chronologically transmuted and developed as follows: (1) zhangcao (draft cursive), (2) jincao (modern cursive), and (3) kuangcao (wild, or “crazy” cursive).”    [grass script derives from idea of wind-blown grass: disorderly, yet orderly]

  • A phrase from Mark Johnson (2007) For a title for a section of my “portfolio”—

“Meaning Is More Than Words and Deeper Than Concepts”

(in: The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (p. 1). University of Chicago Press.)  Look in on the A&O notes on EMBODIED COGNITION) [in A&O we consider that CONNECTEDNESS is the source of MEANING]


Thursday, December 19, 2019    from https://asiasociety.org/new-york/exhibitions/wang-dongling-ink-motion    

  • Overview:  “Wang Dongling is widely recognized as one of the most celebrated living calligraphers from China. The artist is best known for his large-scale compositions, which are created on the floor with oversized brushes through highly physical movements. Historically, calligraphy has been regarded in China as the highest art form. Wang’s experimental approach to calligraphy, featuring his luanshu (chaos script), expands this venerated literati tradition through the artist’s dynamic style that renders the texts almost completely indecipherable. Wang’s expressive movements create a field of abstract gestures that prioritize the formal aesthetics of his script over its legibility. Language becomes a formalistic tool rather than the primary subject in traditional calligraphy. The resulting controlled chaos, in a nod to western gestural abstraction, alters the distinction between calligraphy and painting as well as the conventional relationship between reading and looking in relation to traditional Chinese calligraphy.

Laozi, Dao De Jing, Chapter I & II, presented publicly for the first time, was created specifically for Asia Society as part of a special performance given by the artist at the Museum on March 2, 2018. Meant to be read from right to left, the work is the first two chapters of Laozi’s Dao De Jing, a classic of Taoist philosophy written during the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE). The first chapter, “Embodying the Dao,” serves as an introduction of the Dao’s meaning and purpose. Chapter two, “The Nourishment of the Person,” outlines the concept that all experience is relative and that one must have a holistic perspective to gain enlightenment. Wang’s work is an excellent example of contemporary experiments in Chinese calligraphic techniques and the lasting interconnectedness between text, calligraphy, and painting. This exceptional piece is now part of the Asia Society Museum Collection of text- and calligraphy-based artworks.

Wang Dongling was born in 1945 in Rudong, Jiangsu Province, China. The artist studied traditional calligraphy under Master Lin Sanzhi (1898–1989) and later under Master Sha Menghai (1900–1992) at Zhejiang Academy of Art (now China National Academy of Arts) in Hangzhou. He currently serves as the Director of the Modern Calligraphy Study Center at China National Academy of Arts in Hangzhou.”     —Michelle Yun, Senior Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, Asia Society Museum

Also see http://www.taiheart.com/en/portfolio-posts/wang-dongling/


(I’ve doodled for as long as I can remember–most recently accompanying the technical lectures of colleagues and visiting scientists (examples) …)

“Asemic writing is a wordless open semantic form of writing.[1][2][3] The word asemic /ˈsmɪk/ means “having no specific semantic content”, or “without the smallest unit of meaning”.[4] With the non-specificity of asemic writing there comes a vacuum of meaning, which is left for the reader to fill in and interpret. All of this is similar to the way one would deduce meaning from an abstract work of art. Where asemic writing distinguishes itself among traditions of abstract art is in the asemic author’s use of gestural constraint, and the retention of physical characteristics of writing such as lines and symbols.” (Wikipedia


[i] Claire Roberts (2012) Metal and Stone, Brush and Ink: Word as Source in the Art of Huang Binhong.” In: PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, November 2012. Politics and Aesthetics in China Special Issue, guest edited by Maurizio Marinelli. ISSN: 1449-2490; http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/ojs/index.php/portal (LINK)

Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.