Vietnam now participates in a capitalist market and keeps its borders open, but it still imposes a dated yet effective communist matrix of control over the country's media outlets. This article examines the effectiveness of this system of control with respect to visual art. I find that contemporary art in particular is able to communicate--and express frustrations with--the tensions between rapid economic development and political stagnation, and between cultural traditionalism and modernization. Art can speak with relative impunity because its meaning is more difficult to pinpoint than written criticism of the regime. However, it is important to note that few, if any, Vietnamese artists advocate a change of regime. Instead, they emphasize their concerns about tensions in society caused by rapid development and its effect on centuries-old traditions. The current one-party regime certainly contributes to this tension, but it would be an oversimplification to call these artists "protest artists"; rather, they act as a lens through which both Vietnamese citizens and outsiders get an honest and unbiased view of a country that is too often thought of in terms of colonialism or war.
In Vietnam, all art exhibitions must apply for an official exhibition permit from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The purpose of the board is to regulate the exposure of art to the general public according to the state's wishes and needs. In interviews for this article, several artists and art dealers--all of whom asked to remain anonymous--said that the Ministry is so disorganized and steeped in corruption that it does not do a thorough job of censoring content. As a result, the artist has possibly the freest voice in Vietnam.
In December 2010, I was working at the Bui Gallery in Hanoi and submitted two paintings, "Stop" and "The Last Party" by the artist Pham Huy Thong, to the Ministry. Only one was approved. The police insisted that the gallery remove "Stop" from the exhibition but had no complaints about the second picture. Foreign guests of the gallery expressed shock at "The Last Party," wondering how such a piece could be displayed in a public, for-profit art gallery in a communist country. (Reproductions of the paintings discussed in this article are located in the "Images" section of this issue on pages 238 to 240.) The decision to remove one painting and ignore the other highlights the failure of Vietnam's policy of control and demonstrates the fundamentally self-defeating nature of censorship.
Vietnam is in a unique position historically; it embraces Western capitalism and development and shuns the value system that brought the elites of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to power. The push and pull between modernity and Confucian and communist traditionalism can be felt in every corner of Vietnamese society, and contemporary art has become the clearest outlet for this tension.
However, this conflict is largely hidden from those outside Vietnam. Tourists enjoy their steaming bowls of pho and cyclos and marvel at the maddening traffic and cheap souvenirs. They would be right to wonder, amid rising skyscrapers, bustling shops, a growing economy and the well-dressed, mostly well-fed population: Where is the oppression? Where are the gross human rights abuses? Is freedom of speech really possible in a communist country?
In fact, human rights activists have recently called attention to an upsurge in the arrest of bloggers, religious figures and activists and to a host of constraints on freedom of speech. (1) How then can art--specifically contemporary visual art, a discipline that prides itself on freedom of expression--sustain itself and thrive in a communist state?
To understand this duality, it is necessary to discuss Vietnamese history before the "American War" or the Communist Revolution, when the fine arts tradition, the backbone of the contemporary Vietnamese art movement, first developed. …