April 28th, 2010
Just for you Nimet
OK, so recently I was at a meeting with some colleagues and during a break one of the educators said to the other “I like the work you are doing with your class, but you should have them paint other things, not bamboos and flowers, but something more like ‘hair driers.’ That would be interesting”
Her argument is as follows: she alleges that what the other educator is teaching is not contemporary art. She thinks it is “Folk Art.” This is a very tired, old, and racist notion. I am not saying that this educator is racist, but the first people to perpetuate this argument surely were. The usual reasoning is that for so-called “ethnic artists” to enter the main stream of contemporary art they have to shed all their cultural trappings and assimilate to so-called “modern” culture. In other words, a painting about the Buddha is considered folksy and boring, whereas a painting about the Buddha on a skateboard is considered cutting-edge and “up to date.” Never mind that skateboards have nothing to do with the Buddha, what’s important to these geniuses is that they can now relate to something that was previously closed to them, even if all complex meanings and associations are now replaced by shallow and simplistic comparisons.
The first time I heard this argument I was in graduate school and Johan Grimonprez was gracing me with a studio visit. He tried to question my convictions to my subject matter and told me that he wanted to “see more of me in my work,” even though a lot of my work is about the concept of no-self and part of my intention is to disassociate the author from the work itself. He then went on to dish about a series of false assumptions and misconceptions about Buddhism, among which was one of my favorites: “If you want to do Buddhist Art you should go to a monastery.”
OK people. Let me break a news story for you: MONKS ARE NOT ARTISTS. THEY ARE MONKS.
Yes, some monks do make art. SOME. Very few. They are mostly from Japanese and Tibetan traditions, and these schools are rather small in comparison to the larger Buddhist world. The large majority of the Buddhist world commissions out their artwork to local artists and workshops who may not even be Buddhist. This tradition is older and more viable than any small group of monks which may have artistic inclinations. Usually the commissions were done not by clericals, but by wealthy families who wished to sponsor artworks within a temple. The romantic ideal of the artist-monk contemplating away and doing art all day long is very unhelpful. It reduces the concept of the sangha to something akin to 19th c. French bourgeois solitude.
He added insult to nonsense by telling me that “He too was interested in Buddhism.” Apparently sometime between 545 BC and now, Buddhism became an ethnic religion instead of the world religion it is, and Mr. Grimonprez has decided to relegate me to the margins of it where I may stand and gawk, very much like he does! Want to hear something even funnier? Later that month I went to see his work at a Chelsea gallery and it was ALL about Australian aboriginal people, a group that I am sure ‘Monsieur Grimonprez’ is totally down with! (Pardon me while I puke…)
But I digress. Back to the educators.
Here is why I think this assimilation argument is disingenuous and colonialist:
1. When western artists draw from their classical tradition they never get called “folksy,” or ethnic. They simply get called artists, (Germans are never asked to do “less German stuff”), but when non-western artists draw from their own classical traditions they are accused of not being rigorous.
2. To assume that the classical traditions of other countries are not relevant to contemporary thought is racist; plain and simple. The word classical carries within it a connotation of transcendence. Mozart’s work is as relevant today as it was 250 years ago, and we are not running around wearing powdered wigs!
3. To assume that non-western symbols and references are not relevant to the heirs of that tradition is also racist and colonialist. I am a Westerner, yet I don’t have a TV. I don’t own a hairdryer either. Probably I encounter bamboo and flowers on a daily basis. Does that make me Asian? Western? Wanna be? Why do we even need to fit people into these neat, easily understandable boxes? The people who regurgitate this assimilation argument over and over never think for one second that maybe they are the ones who have a handicap, and maybe they should expand their vocabulary and learn about other cultures, instead of asking other cultures to constantly adapt to ours. To say that their motivations are part of a consciously euro-centric attitude is probably too broad a stroke to paint. While this type of thinking does have some measure of Orientalist thought attached to it, I see it more as part of a very disturbing trend to dumb down content in artwork. We don’t have a word yet for what came after post-modernism (I have heard post-post-modernism, but there are a number of problems with this term), but the trend is surely from this period. Multi-culturalism was not really a concern for the post-modernists. America sat at the top of the food chain at that time, and to whatever degree they borrowed from others, it was always done in their terms: always as clearly defined Westerners looking in from outside. The question of looking around, or looking in a web with no clearly definable point of view, gets addressed on a daily basis by the people of our era. This is largely a result of a global upsurge in migration and probably the best attempt to consciously define this cultural factor has got to be the Queens International series at the QMA. The best one of these probably being the one curated by Jose Ruiz and Erin Sickler.
One of her arguments is that by imitating master works students were not creating art. Again, there seems to be a lack of understanding here about where the other teacher is coming from. In Asia all artists learn by imitating masters during their formative years. This is the tradition in that part of the world. It is older than our tradition, and it is just as valid. Originality-at-all-costs is not a noble virtue. It is simply a style. It can produce good work, mediocre work, and bad work. It is not a panacea, and it does not produce a higher number of quality works. Orozco dealt with this question almost 100 years ago, and I even translated one of his most moving and strongest arguments for the regeneration of 20th century art in this blog. One of the most interesting parts of his argument was that “The contemporary painter currently suffers from a syndrome of originality-by-any-means as the fundamental base of creative endeavor, and by doing so, he has only gained (as paradoxical as it may seem) to distance himself further from his own personality by running away from kindred influences. El Greco did not try to hide Tintoretto’s direct influence up to the last moment of his life, and there is hardly a more original painter than El Greco. Naturally, this extraordinary Greek, trunk of the Spanish school of painting, contributed his own genius to the influence of his master, and therefore, enriched baroque conception.”
In essence, anything that we do now is contemporary. Let’s face it. We do not have to toil as hard as previous artists did for materials. The material of our daily thoughts and lives is not the same as that of our great-grandparents, or even our parents. Even if we tried to imitate previous artists our modernity would tarnish any purist efforts and nip them in the bud, therefore it is pointless, repressive and counterproductive to be running away from our influences. All we end up with is a diminished visual vocabulary, a lack of complexity in our metaphors, and run-of-the-mill artwork that anybody else could come up with without much effort.