Archive for April, 2011

The Teriyaki Sauce of Art in America

April 17, 2011

Exoticism of the other is still alive and well in the American art scene.  A recent article by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter somewhat inadvertently exposes the persistent bias against non-western/non-European culture in American art, at least in the area of art critique.  Until a decade or two ago the face of art in this country was Caucasian and male – not exclusively, but the dominance was a substantial one – and many of the “art stars” today are still white males.  As the Times’ article illustrates, we’ve some way to go yet before the arts are free of discriminatory bias.

The article at issue consists, in part, of a criticism of a (perceived) lessening focus upon traditional (old) ethnic art and a trend in contemporary art that prefers (non-traditional) non-western artists over  artwork that focuses upon identifiable traditional cultural visuals.  “Another thing. A lot of new non-Western acquisitions by museums are of contemporary art. Classical African sculptures still turn up. But they’re outnumbered by dynamic, straight-from-the-studio work…”  That view was apparently not posited as progress, but as criticism.

A discussion of objects that are sometimes (rightly or wrongly) designated as cultural or patrimonial objects versus “fine” art might be useful…but, oddly, Cotter’s argument seems to get this all mixed up.  In essence, his complaint seems to be that, e.g., contemporary Chinese art isn’t Chinese enough.  Or, rather, that the best contemporary Chinese art is that which looks “Chinese” somehow.  The message seeming to be that non-western artists are worthwhile so long as they produce art that is consistent with our (American) vision of their native cultures.  And darn it, the Chinese government keeps taking their own cultural patrimony away from us (loosely paraphrasing Cotter).

Of the art that Mr. Cotter references, including a piece by Ai Weiwei, which he designates as good examples of contemporary art, he says, “These artists combine old and new in ways that look like nothing seen before.”  This view of those works is a simplistic one and tends to misread the artists’ intentions and even the progress of the history of art.  From a limited viewpoint, a shadow of the western attachment to the exotic can be found in those works, not because that was necessarily the artists’ intents, but  rather it is because the artworks reference traditional culture and history.  It is [a] viewer’s reading, and it occurs in many cases without substantial direct cultural experience.  If a work of art contains no references to that which some westerners value in non-western art, the exotic, would it have the same appeal?  If the article answers this, then the result implied by Cotter suggests that non-western artwork has less value if it is not sufficiently exotic (comprehensible) for western tastes.

In contrast, a view exposing that contemporary American artists should produce art that is primarily concerned with traditional American history and culture (whatever that may be) at the exclusion of other subject matter would sound pathetic.  This is not to say that (non-western) artists who happen to work with cultural issues or visuals are not valid; the contrary.  However, there should be a caution as to over-reading Western values into these works if that is not what the artist intended.  The fact is that bias against contemporary non-western art still exists is evident in the persistence of exoticism and other such preconceptions.  The American art world is not an egalitarian paradise, nor are many of those in it necessarily well informed about the (global) cultural world.

Mr. Cotter also offers subtle criticisms for future curators and their (according to him) over-focus on contemporary.  “That said, the reasons people pursue careers in newer art are understandable. Money is one.”  Maybe.  But also, importantly, because the dialogue of contemporary art is a living and changing thing.  Cotter’s perspective on embryo curators suggest that art of the past has value over all else, but this is a misperception of the history of art.  The criticism should not be on students who designate contemporary as their major field, but rather, the focus should be on ensuring that they have a solid basis in history as well.  Really, do we need many more Italian Renaissance historians?  It is a fair certainty that a substantial share of that history has been written already many times over.

Rather than seeing a movement towards contemporary as a kind of progress, Mr. Cotter remains entrenched.  “Young scholars of African art began focusing on present-day urban material culture rather than on an object-intensive study of rural traditions.”  Maybe this is progress, but Cotter does not seem to see it that way.  Yet, when some of these students move on to curatorial positions, perhaps African artists can be viewed without the art market’s fetishization of traditional and old objects, and preconceived ideas about African life and culture.

The reality is that museums need contemporary artists–of all kinds.  All art builds upon the past, and through contemporary art, contemporary audiences are engaged within the visual language of their own times.  There has, notably, been a trend, especially in European museums to incorporate exhibitions of contemporary art along with the older works, and Mr. Cotter briefly mentions this.  It brings in the viewers and refreshes, in a way, the old collections.  It is one way for museums with even primarily old collections to keep bringing in the visitors.  In the bigger picture these types of exhibitions can serve to illustrate the complexity of global contemporary culture.  However, if contemporary artwork is displayed because it conforms to what we already think is valuable–according to preconceived notions of what is important, exotic, about other cultures, then the true dialogue of art is lost.

Why Teriyaki sauce?  To Americans it is an iconic Japanese flavor.  It’s on the menu in virtually every “Japanese” restaurant in America, but is nearly never on a menu in Japan.