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Of “Good” Art and the East/ West Divide

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.

Question 1: “How will I be able to tell if an artist or artwork is any ‘good’?”

When the online arts magazine Arts Equator 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.

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 a 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 actually “good” i.e. 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 art world 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, if I could outline my own theory on what makes good art, instead of discoursing on aesthetic principles in the abstract, my answer would be that the best way to explain “excellence in art” is through particular examples.

Lim Tzay Chuen, for example, is someone whom I consider to be a “good” artist:

MIKE by Lim Tzay Chuen. This work documents Lim’s attempt to uproot and ship the 70-tonne Merlion statue for the Singapore Pavilion of the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005.
I discuss Lim’s work in this rather long essay of mine, “The Assumption of Love: Friendship and the Search for Discursive Density;” the discussion on Lim begins on page 10 if you want to skip straight to it.

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 and North and South America as well.

Question 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 countries in Asia? 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.  I could perhaps get behind a formulation of “why should I care what West has to say,” in the context of a certain Kanye’s remarks about slavery being a “choice”…..

Clearly, not the best example of thinking from the “West”

…but 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 and the whole world. 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.


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