Doing world art history with modern and contemporary Asian art

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Calgary]On: 03 October 2014, At: 23:57Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office:Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Doing world art history with modern andcontemporary Asian artJohn Clark aa University of SydneyPublished online: 25 Feb 2011.

    To cite this article: John Clark (2011) Doing world art history with modern and contemporary Asian art,World Art, 1:1, 93-99, DOI: 10.1080/21500894.2011.520914

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  • Intervention: position piece

    Doing world art history with modern and contemporaryAsian art

    John Clark*

    University of Sydney

    Three approaches to world art history are outlined: top down(transnational); bottom up (national); and interstitial. The con-structed category of Modern Asian Art relativizes all othermodernities, including the Euramerican, and is first of all differ-entiated by a new corpus of reference works and the criteria forcanonizing these. The implied audience for national studies maychallenge the validity of these criteria.

    Keywords: modern and contemporary art; Asian; Euramerican;relativise; non-identical but similar; canonize; nomothetic; proleptic

    The question envisages world art as constructed by different types ofpractice in the domain of different actors: those of the artist and theart audience, or that of the art historian, theorist and critic. I willrespect the first two practices by restricting myself to one of thosepractices found in the third (Clark 2009).

    There may be three ways of approaching World Art (History),which I take to be a disciplined, self-interrogating approach to thehistories of art, art discourses and their theories of interpretation,conceived on a world historical scale.

    One is to work from the global level down to the civilizational,national and cultural levels, where, we might think as an openinghypothetical approach, whatever art is, is constituted. We would thinkabout what works, artists and methodologies could be included in aworld art history. The purpose would be to check and where necessarybroaden and re-conceive the notion of art and the history of itsdiscourses away from the motivated restrictions of projecting onecivilizational, national or cultural level on another. This approach wouldprovide the not inconsiderable benefit of denying the automaticuniversalism of cultural projections (Clark 2008). In the last 150 years

    *Email: john.clark@sydney.edu.au

    World ArtVol. 1, No. 1, March 2011, 9399

    ISSN 2150-0894 print/ISSN 2150-0908 online

    # 2011 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/21500894.2011.520914

    http://www.informaworld.com

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    http://www.informaworld.com

  • these have been dominated by those of Euramerica, so this approachwould not abide by Eurocentrism, at least in its form practised inEuramerica (Clark 2007).

    But these projections are by no means so limited in theory orpractice. One can easily conceive at the grand civilizational level ofcounter projections from the Chinese, Indic or Islamic worlds, as muchas counter projections from the level of national painting in Japan or theart of smaller, and by now small minority peoples, sometimes notmaking a single autonomous ethnicity, such as indigenous peoples inNorth and South America or Australia. Furthermore, it is important herenot to confuse the global with the transnational, art discourses withcross-national boundaries. They are found to arise, quasi-spontaneouslyperhaps, due to the reproduction across national boundaries of theirconditions of emergence and circulation, even as such boundaries haverecently become more porous.

    A second approach would be to work from the civilizational, nationaland cultural levels up to the global. This level would be interrogated forthe constitution of its actual histories and the as yet unrealized possiblerelations with the other levels. This is the approach where principally thenotion of art discourse is formulated as a national, independent or post-colonial project. But it also discovers and re-privileges latent discoursesprior to the era of Euramerican political and economic domination of theglobal which extended to art, very roughly but indicatively speaking,from 1850 to 2000. The sense that this age is thought to have come to itsend or to be transforming into some other system is present in historicalconsciousness and constitutes a position within the theorization ofglobal cultures. Here the conception of world art will be radically alteredby this bottom-up projection since world art will only be definable asworld by its ability to incorporate and re-topologize itself via thenational and other unit projections.

    A third approach is much more complicated and interpretively richthough frequently occluded by the former two. This is to look at localsites as the domain in art discourses of interaction, of transfer, ofcounter-appropriation from the global, and of these sites subsequenttransformation along with the global. This is the level which I havepreviously seen as that of the exogenous embedded within theendogenous (Clark 2008, 408). It is where art inserts itself into aspace between cultures as much as within them. On this level we seethe-formulation of art discourses that speak back to the exogenous, byenabling art works and art makers to circulate between sites whoseconstitution is otherwise dominated by a single or centre or archipelago

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  • of dominant centres. Vertical relations may also be subverted byhorizontal mobility of art works and makers both at the dominatingcentres and at the dominated sites from which they come. It may be auseful contribution to these debates if I now venture to look at this thirdapproach, rather than provide a general summarization of the first twoapproaches. I will do so principally through reference to my own work.

    By distinguishing a category of modernity called Modern Asian Art,one simultaneously distinguishes modernism everywhere into sub-categories such as African modernities, Latin American modernitiesand, of course, Euramerican modernities (Clark 1998, 1112). Thiscategory then subdivides further into national modernities such asIndian modern art, Chinese modern art. It can be taken further andeven locally into Calcutta modern art or Kobe modern art. But theprincipal change in analytical practice in naming Modern Asian Art is tosuggest and enjoin the understanding of modernities which are notEuramerican as the default originating paradigm. As it happens, notonly are verbal compounds translatable as Euramerican found in Asianlanguages, but the term also indicates that much of the art amongstthe other cultural products which characterise the West no longer, ifthey ever did, belong to or originate from The West. This is a factborne out by the diffusions of technology and art discourses, includingcodes of interpretation, practices, media and forms, that also implythat, for the restricted purposes of this kind of analysis, thecontinuities between Europe and chiefly North America are far moreimportant than any historical articulations which discriminate Parisfrom New York, or London from Berlin, for example.

    But the discrimination of Modern Asian Art like the other ones alsoimplies at the very least that there is a modernity in a geographical andcultural zone which is not dependent on, or that is relativelyindependent of, the Euramerican modernity or modernities. It suggeststhat modernity is a phenomenon in art for which other kinds ofsituation, construction or historical change should be sought whichinhere to a practice and a cultural domain before the transference ofEuramerican academy realism and then various modernisms between,say, 1850 and 1950.

    There are many theoretical and empirical consequences for arthistory which stem from this discrimination. Among them is a change inthe corpus of works to be considered, including many which may notbe properly considered art at all and here the recent methodologicalshifts in art history to visual cultural studies have largely beenanticipated: the change in the definition of what is art as it is located

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  • in different cultures; the awareness that transfer may conceal manyother kinds of transformation beneath or inside it which are less thanvisible; the change in the scope and the nature of works to bediscerned as datum works in evaluating others, as models for otherpractice, or as monuments of achievement.

    The most deep-seated implication of this change of perspective withdirect significance in articulating a world art history is that it proposesthat Euramerican modernities are of a specifiable kind, of which thereare other non-identical but similar cognate kinds. Thus the kind or classof modernities has to be reciprocally re-defined by reference to all themodernities which can be included within the category. There is nolonger any possible factual or theoretical justification for privilegingone kind of modernity, the Euramerican, as origin or as foundingparadigm.

    This shift also takes away the categorical sovereignty of differencebetween modernities since they must be intrinsically comparable ifthey are to be included in the same category. The shift turns modernityinto a probabilistic mapping which will redefine itself as the mapping isbroadened. Thus the understanding of Asian modernities in Art as agroup of types of modernity within the general category of Modernityis a re-mapping procedure which might provide insights and evenmethodological trial cases for the general re-mapping of art itself on aworld historical and recently geographically global scale. In any case,World Art would have to be a set of concepts and procedures foridentifying its own presence and aetiological conditions which startedfrom some kinds of art whose genesis and circulation were relativelyeasy to identify. It is likely that chronologically recent examples wouldbe better in providing this because of all the other kinds of historicalinter-linkage which can be identified in the modern era. We might, inother words, better know what to look for as World Art and how tolook for it in pre-modern contexts if we could modify the conceptualtools for the modern we found useful away from those which might becustomary in Euramerica, China or the Islamic world before the adventof the modern. This would also make clear how much the under-standing of World Art depended on concepts which explained or wereinherent within that of modernity in art itself.

    What, to begin with, differentiates Modern Asian Art as a test casefor understanding World Art? Is it the different corpus of works to beexamined? These works are not those produced in Euramerica or LatinAmerica or Africa. The requirement for understanding begins with anempirical grasp of their conditions of production and circulation whose

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  • historical contingencies are not Euramerican. This will be the casehowever much they have been occluded by their first productionhaving been under various types of Euramerican hegemony, includingdirect colonial rule except for Siam and Japan or by indirectimpredation, as in China. Indeed, it must be grasped that colonialdomination, even in cultural spheres dominated by the introductionand implementation of linguistic controls through Dutch, English,French, Portuguese and Spanish, was not absolute and was, as far asone could see, everywhere bracketed and limited by local discourses.Even in the case of direct colonial transfer, this bracketing was alsoreinforced by the counter-appropriation of imperial discourses for localrepresentation in India, the Dutch Indies and the Philippines.

    These differences also extend to different criteria for canonizingworks. Even so, the process of defining works as monuments ofmodernity or worthy of emulation has such a complex and culturallyspecific contingency that the notion of a transfer of central criteriafrom the imperial metropolises must have been untenable even for thecolonial official class which tried so unsuccessfully to impose them.Differences were due to specific local conditions, such as the structureand extension of the educational system, the way models of art styleand efficacious practice were conveyed by institutions. Differencescould also be mapped by analogies between the different contexts inwhich they arose, and here for the first time the constructed notion ofAsian modernities in art could arise, because those similarities can beseen even in the absence of aetiological connections between them.Indeed, it is these a-causal analogies which could predicate new kindsof anticipatory claim, where relations between the different contextsof a proleptic pan-Asian modern beyond simply a differentiation fromEuramerican modernity arose quite early in the twentieth century.However tragic the political consequences of this call would be whenassociated with pathological aggression by Japan against China in the1890s, by Japan against Korea in the 1910s, and by Japan against Chinaagain in th...

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