Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Is the Modernity of Chinese Art Comparable? an Opening of a Theoretical Space

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Is the Modernity of Chinese Art Comparable? an Opening of a Theoretical Space

Article excerpt

This essay is basically a shortened version of the overall arguments advanced in my 2010 book Asian Modernities: Chinese and Thai art of the 1980s and 1990s. These arguments might also benefit from wider critical exposure.1

Can Asian modernity be seen as one of a kind, or are there multiple modernities, with one variation or constitutive subtype being 'Asian' (which would include the 'Chinese')? We can look at two or more art cultures across Asia to see if Chinese modern art is of one kind, or whether it has a similar conceptual and empirical topology to other modernities in Asia, and examine how these art cultures face the same issues over time. Similarity between the Asian cases such as China and Thailand indicates some of the ways in which an Asian modernity in art can be mapped that is relatively independent of Euramerican types or models.2 This is the Asian-centric perspective, and we could repeat it for comparisons with other Asian art cultures, particularly India or Japan. Even if the subject of comparison is with China, it is not in itself a China-centred perspective. The methodological and ideological emphasis on a single country or, at most, binary examinations involving the 'West' may account for the rarity with which such comparison has been carried out until recently in China, with the notable and revealing set of comparisons thrown up by the West Heavens exchanges.3

However, where there is no identifiable similarity between Asian modernities in art or between a general model of these and the particular modernity in China, modernity can be seen as a context-specific situation of processes and styles simply transferred from elsewhere and locally adjusted. This is the (up until now) conventional Euramerican position, and is intrinsically Euramerican-centric, whatever modifications may be understood in different kinds of transfer processes.

China and Thailand are particularly suitable for a comparative exercise. Because of the difference in physical scale of the two art cultures and their grounding in quite different broader histories, those similarities once found permit these art-historical cases to be assimilated into a more inclusive type of other modernity. The assimilation was all the more reinforced because of these differences, particularly in apparent scale.

The core issue is not what is Chinese modernity as such, but how 'Western' modernity in art is relativised by a model derived from an Asian comparison, such as between China and Thailand. This 'Western' modernity can now be seen as one provincial result of cognate processes underway in many cultural discourses, and within the same typological family.

I think we must see later processes such as globalisation as epiphenomena of modernity and which should be considered after initial structural consideration of modernity and its types. Comparative understandings of globalisation then assist us in assessing the relationship between exogenous creation and reception, and the circulation of artists and works between culturally exogenous and endogenous sites. The terms exogenous and endogenous denote notions of causation either external or internal to nationally defined art worlds. For the purpose of comparison one can identify thematic areas in common between many Asian art cultures, such as those of China and Thailand, under the general category of styles and institutions:

· styles

· the dichotomy of official and non-official art

· neo-traditionalist painting

· women artists and women's art

· mass culture and art

· the structure of artists' lives

· artist commentaries

· sites of reception and exhibitions

· the place of the global.

Since the 1990s, there has also occurred a sharp decoupling of the modern from the contemporary in biennale-type exhibitions. This arose partly from the exigencies of curatorial practice, and partly from the need to add positional clarity to an exhibition concept. …

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