Greetings Readers! The plan was for the good people at Plural to send me three questions, from which I would choose one to answer. However, for my first foray into this column, I thought instead to take on a pair of queries, so as to show contrasting approaches to my answers. Even simple questions can belie complex assumptions, so it’s not always easy to offer short and straightforward answers. For the first question, I try to build up to an answer that might be useful for the question-asker. In the second instance, I never really get around to answering the question, as I attempt to defeat the impulse to ask it in the first place.
1) “How will I be able to tell if an artist or artwork is any ‘good’?”
When the online arts magazine ArtsEquator launched in late 2016, I contributed an essay on the subject of taste, which addressed this particular question somewhat. My answer here derives from that essay, but for those interested in reading the entire earlier text, go to: https://artsequator.com/an-essay-on-taste/
Years ago, a major international art magazine published a special issue which invited a number of critics and curators to write about artists from Asia whom they thought were “important”. A number of articles began with the claim, “so-and-so is one of the most interesting artists from such-and-such country”. Not only is that sentence one of the worst ways to persuade a reader that the artist in question is actually interesting, what’s also problematic is the implication that these artists are notable primarily because they represent their respective Asian countries. We should be interested in art from Asia not only because it is Asian; we should also ask if it is “good”, worth looking at and thinking about again and again. But here we will find all sorts of disagreements. Difficult as it is to argue why a work of art is good or deserving of attention — and judgements are never ideologically neutral — that is the task of criticism. It is a task made all the more difficult because, today, conversations about art involve persons speaking from so many diverse backgrounds, positions, places and languages.
And yet I would argue against taking a position that art is subjective. Whenever I hear someone assert that, it’s uttered in order to close the door on the discussion, rather than as a philosophical conclusion about the true nature of art. Have your views, plenty of them, but have the conviction to defend them, as well as the respect to listen to others do the same. Not all statements about art are equally interesting. To claim that varying judgements about art are merely differences in opinion is to flatten all arguments as somehow equivalent.
Ever since the artworld has become more global than predominantly Euro-American, the Euro-American canon has been challenged. Challenging a canon does not mean disposing of it. We need grounds from which to debate difference. If you were to ask me, as a critic, could I outline my own theory on what makes good art, instead of discoursing on aesthetic principles in the abstract, my answer is that the best way to explain “excellence in art” is through particular examples. Therefore, what serves as a guide to good art is art history. We inherit our canons and standards, but this must be a critical inheritance — we have to question our intersecting global art histories. When I argue that what is good for me should be good for you too, I am making a commitment to the possibility that we can understand differences across histories and cultures, whether on a communal scale or a continental one — we in Asia can understand the canons of Euro-American art histories, and that Asia’s art histories can speak to Africa, Australia, Europe, North and South America.
2) “Why should I care about Western art when I am from Asia?”
My response to this question incorporates what I said above. Also, let me stress that the “you” here is a hypothetical person to whom I attribute the question.
Let’s say you and I agree that the guide to good art is art history. So, if we were to ask the best art historians who study Asia if you should care about Western art, I’m willing to bet — one hundred dollars! — that not just most, but all of them would say, Yes!, you should care. So why should you care about Western art? Because the best Asian art historians say that you should!
Of course, I don’t know you, and maybe you aren’t someone easily swayed by appeals to authority. (Although isn’t that supposed to be an Asian value? Deference to authority?) Maybe you are critical of the West. But did you know that the work of the best Asian art historians is a challenge to the presumed authority of the West? My appeal to them was not just because they are knowledgeable but precisely because they are highly critical — of colonialism, capitalism, and so on. I’m also willing to wager, though maybe less money this time, that you are less critical of the West than these “best Asian art historians”.
I suppose the answer you might have expected was a discourse on how Asian art histories are profoundly interlinked with Western art histories.
Let me try another approach. As a citizen of a specific Asian country, do you care equally about art from all of the other Asian countries? What about the Asian countries that you care less about? What are your reasons for caring more, or for caring a little less? The form of your question, “why should I care”, is what I find troubling. The form of our questions can sometimes be more important than their content. There are a few instances where I could get behind such a formulation — for example, “why should I care what West has to say”, especially after Kanye’s remarks about “slavery being a choice”. Even then, we shouldn’t as a rule ignore the opinions of the ignorant. We can learn, not from their stupidity as such, but from what it says about larger social tendencies or problems.
I would think as a starting point we should want to care as much as we can. We have our limits, of course, so we can’t attend to everything equally. But we should try hard to care about each other, the whole world, and so on. Be that as it may, we might want to focus more on what is in front of us. We might be more interested in art from Asia than from Europe. But we would certainly still care about the latter.