Decentralizing the Western Art Historical Canon

Huang Yong Ping, The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987 (reconstructed 1993), Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp, and glass, Image courtesy of the artist.
Dr. Apinan Poshyananda
Dr. Eugene Tan
Alexandra Seno
Alexandra Munroe
Hou Hanru
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COBO Challenge

Our annual printed publication – the CoBo Supplement strives to increase awareness by serving as a platform to develop conversations pertaining to contemporary art.  This year’s edition, released to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong 2019,  features the opinions and viewpoints of over fifty influential, global art leaders on eleven dynamic topics addressing significant ongoing discourses in the art world. To kickstart on our conversation on Decentralizing the Western Art Historical Canon, we bring to you the musings of Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, Dr. Eugene Tan, Alexandra Seno, Alexandra Munroe, and Hou Hanru .

 

Huang Yong Ping, The History of Chinese Painting and A Concise History of Modern Painting Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes, 1987 (reconstructed 1993), Ink on wooden crate, paper pulp, and glass, Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Text: Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, Dr. Eugene Tan, Alexandra Seno, Alexandra Munroe, and Hou Hanru .
Images: Courtesy of the Huang Yong Ping and contributors.

 

Dr. Apinan Poshyananda

Dr. Apinan Poshyananda, Co-Founder & Artistic Director, Bangkok Art Biennale

Different Slants

The desire to decentralize the canon of Western art history has long been recognized; discourses on an alternative to art history taught from western perspectives have been given increasing attention. Cultural syncretism is a core question; in any case, contemporary art cannot be fully understood by looking through the windows of a European and North American-centered paradigm.

Asia has been perceived as a place of tradition and heritage while its contemporary art has been stereotyped as inferior and insignificant. The 1990s witnessed a flourish of activity in contemporary Asian art as the economy in the region boomed. In step with global interest in expatriate dissident Chinese artists of the post-Tiananmen Square uprising, serious interest began to shift towards living Asian artists.

Ironically, a major attempt to decentralize the contemporary Western art canon took place not in Asia, but on Park Avenue, New York. In 1992, a symposium on contemporary Asian art at The Asia Society discussed a definition of Asian art, its unknown qualities, its potential and the challenges that needed to be taken into consideration. One of the most urgent issues raised was the lack of a comprehensive Asian art history and the need for a shift in perspective on the evolution of art, from that which had been monopolized by the European/American-centric weltanschauung. In academia, there was no available curriculum for students interested in modern and contemporary Asian art history, Asian curatorial studies and its art market.1993 was a turning point for contemporary Asian art studies, and it occurred at a new “uncentered” centre, in Australia’s Brisbane. The 1st Asia-Pacific Triennial was an attempt to position Australia as an important player in contemporary Asian art. Despite clinging to the European/American stereotype of art history, Australia (which still projects herself as part of the west) made an effort to fill the gap in art history of the region. The symposium and accompanying book, Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art and the Pacific, was a landmark, proving that there was enormous demand for scholarly research and publications in this field.

In 1996 the symposium and catalogue from the exhibition: Contemporary Art in Asia: Traditions/Tensions (organized by The Asia Society at New York University) was a major breakthrough in dismantling the Western-oriented art canon. The exhibition opened in New York and travelled to Vancouver, Perth and Taipei. This was followed by exhibitions and publications: Cities on the Move /Global Chaos and Global Change, East Asian Art, Architecture and Film Now in 1997 and Inside Out: New Chinese Art in 1998. Academicians, researchers, curators and artists were beginning to realize the necessity of researching and exploring the history of modern and contemporary Asian art.

For southeast Asia, the permanent exhibition and publication of Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia since the 19the Century at the National Gallery Singapore in 2015 was a vital initiative by the government to improve study and research in this area.

Today, despite an increasing interest in an Asian-centric curriculum, and a widening dialogue around Asian cultural studies and art history, there are clear obstacles. A holistic study requires knowledge of varied languages, customs and historical backgrounds. Moreover, the global currency of the terms “the West” and “Asia” can be highly problematic. Hyphenated and nomadic Asians need to be taken into consideration too, in order that the continued exploration and study of Asian art history may be expansive and multi-disciplinary.

 

Dr. Eugene Tan

 

Dr. Eugene Tan, Director, National Gallery Singapore

Attempts to decentralize the Euro-American paradigm of art were seen to emerge in the late-1980s through exhibitions such as the 2nd Havana Biennial in 1986, which was dedicated to artists from outside of Europe and America (Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Middle East), and Jean-Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la Terre at the Centre Pompidou in 1989. Martin famously noted that one important impetus for the exhibition was the fact that, at the time, “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignore eighty percent of the earth.”

The end of modernism and the emergence of the “contemporary” – linked to a global shift in the 1990s – allowed a certain reframing, where artistic practices from outside the Euro-American canon were no longer seen as derivative, but instead as practices emerging from specific local conditions and connected ontologically to other practices (including those from Europe and America) from a different time and space. This has resulted in the increased attention paid to art and artists outside of Europe and America in museums, biennales, exhibitions and art fairs. However, in spite of this, it has still not been possible to fully move beyond a paradigm that is premised on dichotomous and binary relationships, including relations of power.

To truly decentralize the Euro-American paradigm, it is necessary to recognize that the concept of art, and the art system as we recognize it, is a western construct less than two hundred years old. It is, therefore, necessary not only to re-examine the concept of art itself from other perspectives, but also the system within which it currently operates – its underlying structure of production, validation, distribution and reception. While these structures are, in themselves, already rapidly undergoing transformation in our new digitally prevalent societies, fundamental changes will be necessary in order to effect any decentralization of the Western art canon.

 

 

Alexandra Seno

Alexandra Seno

Alexandra A. Seno serves as art critic for RTHK Radio 4. She is Head of Development for Asia Art Archive, a non-profit that advocates for and conducts research in support of a “more generous art history.” Views expressed are personal and her own.

If the canon is going to be more inclusive and relevant to visual art’s growing audiences – many from places outside of Europe or North America – the conversation needs to start by fully and frankly acknowledging the historical facts, and then shaping the canon for the future. In many ways, we are very fortunate to live in this golden age of contemporary art from Asia: one where histories are being written and rewritten, where there is an unprecedented interest in the past and future of the art of today, and where technologies have become an equalizer.

 

 

Alexandra Munroe

Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator, Asian Art and Senior Advisor, Global Arts, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Interim Director, Curatorial Affairs, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Project

While Euro-American centrism still influences how art since the 1960s is shown in most major museums in the West, the Guggenheim has sought to devise, through focused studies on select regional movements or artist clusters, an expansive framework that can actively incorporate art from beyond the putative centers into a more dynamic and multi-centred narrative of world art history. Bypassing a linear narrative of modern and contemporary art, as well as a narrowly regional one, we see the history of experimental art since circa 1960 through the lens of transnational synergies

Certain questions have guided our research and inspired our exhibitions program and acquisitions strategy. How can we show the actual and conceptual connections among local, national and international art discourses, that might, for example, link Mono-ha to American Post-Minimalism and Arte Povera through an event like the 1970 Tokyo Biennial? How can we dive deep into local manifestations like Gutai while using such an example to retell the story of international gestural abstraction, Conceptual art or performance art? What analytic models can we propose that would compare characteristics between post-Mao Chinese and post-Soviet Russian artists of the 1980s grappling with titanic social changes that would allow us to make connections but also appreciate differences among their common heritage of Social Realism and Socialist Realism?

The project of expanding the Western canon by integrating less-examined artists cannot be a mere exercise of adding examples of ‘other modernisms’ to an existing master narrative of movements like Pop art; nor should it attempt to move art history into the province of area studies. For the Guggenheim, our curatorial thinking since we launched the Asian Art Initiative in 2006 has tried to map the creative achievements of post-1960s art from a multi-centred perspective while examining artists’ historical contexts, such as the post-war era in Japan or Korea, and sources of cultural heritage and experimentation, such as folk art, shamanism, or a deeply coded art like ink painting.  We never set out to topple the Western canon, just to interrogate it.

 

 

Hou Hanru

 Hou Hanru, Artistic Director, MAXXI, Rome

The formation of this so-called “Western” canon is a result of the expansion of the West through exchange, trading, colonization, war, aggression, etc. There has always a cultural component to this dynamic – however you characterize it.  When we speak of modernity and forming a mode of assessment, there is a tension between the need to build a stable structure, and the movement to destabilize said structure by introducing elements which are not Western. Today we call for a more inclusive and diverse world culture, yet we should not forget the danger of falling back into regionalism or nationalism, and the dangerous tendency to reject communication and interaction with the others.

Perhaps more pertinent than the East-West binary, is to speak of the world, and how we assess art and culture, in terms of North and South. This interesting discourse, which has developed over the past 20 years, approaches economic, social and cultural values from the perspective of the North – First World “developed” countries, and the South – composed of underdeveloped or developing nations often with colonial histories.

 

 

 
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