Welcoming Real Artistic Multiculturalism…Maybe

Art historian Minglu Gao has become the principal documentarian of the explosive Chinese art movement of the 1980s.
Art historian Minglu Gao has become the principal documentarian of the explosive Chinese art movement of the 1980s.

For far too long the notion of multiculturalism in America has been a joke, a shorthand for affirmative action policies that are about creating a rainbow of colors, faiths or sexual identities without celebrating a real diversity of ideas.

Dan Cameron mentions in his introduction to the Prospect.1 biennial catalogue that America’s perception of itself as a meeting place of the world is a distortion based on our immigration-induced diversity. The American model of multiculturalism forces groups to check real differences in favor of a cultural “flavor” model, which celebrates “accents.”

With the recent dwindling of American supremacy on the world stage (politically, culturally and economically, if not yet militarily) there is a new openness to new forms of multiculturalism fueled by emerging centers of power, notably China’s growing economic might and cultural sophistication (even if it is being undermined by continued political repression).

A keen China observer, Ellen Pearlman has written a must read in this month’s Brooklyn Rail about new rumblings in the world of Chinese art theory, “Letter from Beijing: Dragon Eats Tail, China’s Post-Olympic Art Conundrum.”

She suggests that a new wave of ideas may be on the horizon, offering a real alternative to Western-centric art theory:

The Harvard-trained art historian and critic Gao Ming Lu has a forthcoming book from MIT Press on Yi Pai that aims to distinguish contemporary Chinese art from Western Modernism and Japanese Monoha. Yi Pai, derived from Li, Shi, and Xing, or “principle, concept, and likeness” from the 9th century Tang Dynasty, is a continuum from the ancient period of synthesis using a methodological perspective of yizai yanwai or “meaning beyond language.”

Ming Lu is an important voice in contemporary Chinese art as he was the curator of “No U Turn,” which launched the Chinese avant-garde in 1989. Ellen gives us a peak at his ideas:

He critiques Western theories of classicism, modernism and postmodernism. Western representation, he posits, regards art as a substitute for human reality and therefore it is inherently fragmented. This Western flaw is the foundation for realism, conceptual art and abstract art. Chinese art of the last hundred years, however, embraces representation, Marxism and modernism.

She also suggests that Ming Lu’s China-centric theory may be well received by Chinese authorities, who never fail to tout their nationalistic agenda.

Western theory’s vice grip has been so utterly successful that even that which some of us perceive as non-Western isn’t. In their book Occidentalism, Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit may be writing about anti-Westernism but they provide a very interesting example from Western art history that also illuminated this perceptual distortion we all face:

It is indeed one of our contentions that Occidentalism, like capitalism, Marxism, and many other modern isms, was born in Europe, before it was transferred to other parts of the world…In a way, Occidentalism can be compared to those colorful textiles exported from France to Tahiti, where they were adopted as native dress, only to be depicted by Gauguin and others as a typical example of tropical exoticism.

What really interests me about this new Chinese development is that it may offer a possibility for real multiculturalism in America, one that offers a clear alternative to Western art’s obsession with representations of reality that began in Plato’s cave or when a Corinthian maiden traced the outline of her lover’s shadow on a wall. Real multiculturalism, I believe, may just be the best thing to ever happen to us.


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