Asia’s Invisible [?] Modernism

by John Clark, University of Sydney



This paper began with an invitation to consider the question: where was Southeast Asian modernism in the works selected for exhibition from the Museum of Modern Art (hereafter MoMA) exhibited in Tokyo from April to October 2004?  The question may seem strange to people in Asia, since they may very well know where their own modernisms are to be found, even if such works have not been collected by MoMA.  But the question posed in terms of location was more specifically in response to the absence of Southeast Asian, South Asian and, with a few exceptions, Northeast Asian modern art.

The MoMA Collection has been built up since the late 1920s and reflects the selections based on sincerely held opinions of prominent North American collectors and curators, chiefly Alfred H. Barr and those whom he persuaded to donate works to MoMA.  There is no space here to identify and discriminate in their own right all of the underlying suppositions which this collection and the policies of its holding Museum embody, much as they have been the subject of biographical and historical analysis.  I would like simply to analyse their consequences for the reception of ‘non-Western’ modernism which underlie the MoMA collections.  These can be linked to some currents in ‘Western’ thought about ‘development’ which indicate how the problem of ‘non-Western’ modernity, including art was to be received.  A third set of ‘postcolonial’ suppositions involve how the first two sets might be overcome, but I think these are  complex and as deeply problematic as those they seek to displace, and have no space here to examine them.  All these considerations from ‘outside’ are merely a preamble to substantively considering what Asian Modernism in art might be, and from where it might be seen, and how it is visible.

The ‘MoMA’ suppositions

One can put the MoMA suppositions together in a list where the various items are relatively independent and do not entirely depend on a particular order or specific causal inter-relations.

i   that modern art can change the world: this belief is the secular analogue of religious messianism;


ii   that art worth looking at is defined by criteria deriving from a Euramerican genealogy;


iii   that modernism as a reflexive ideology within the modern has a clear trajectory based on historical experience in Europe;


iv   that the USA inherited and supplanted both this excellence and historical experience;


v   that modern art is validated by the works’ rarity and prescient early collection by a  restricted circle of patrons and connoisseurs;


vi   modernist art has a cultural value which will only be understood after its own time; collectors and museums may anticipate the market by purchase before this value is recognized and prices rise;


vii   modernism is an invention of the ‘West’ whose ability to secure its own origin allows it the legitimacy to cast other arts as ‘primitive’ or ‘early’;


viii   the development of modern art follows a formal discourse whose genealogy has absolute hermeneutic precedence over social, psychological, anthropological or other cultural explication;


ix   important contemporary art involves a radical reshaping or re-casting of art discourse, a lack of such re-shaping indicates that the art involved is secondary, imitative, or exhausted; the criteria for assessing this reshaping are derived from within modernism itself;


x   that modernism carries an educational purpose to unlock artistic appreciation from the fetishising of beauty or the exclusive sanctioning of genteel connoisseurship.


One could go on.  There is a broad literature from which such suppositions can be derived and further refined, but let us now analyse how problematic a modern Asian art should be to such a perspective.  It may be the laudable intention now to ‘be able to look at creativity in visual art, architecture and design of our times as a phenomenon which embraces the whole world rather than just one era’, but this view carries the danger of simply continuing the rationalization of an existing canon based on New York criteria.  ‘ “Modern Means” is meant to provoke innovative ideas and a fresh understanding of the history of  art in the modern period’.  But that cannot help the fact that MoMA also represents a New York position in Modern Art.  As an institution dedicated to determining excellence via reference to its own standards of modern art, MoMA has been very interested in privileging innovation itself.   Also when ‘Modern Means’ claims that ‘for decades the standard approach to modern art was to examine its unfolding movements as a linear progression of formal developments, each one leading to the next.  Modern Means adopts thematic approaches but focussed on specific period’, it is proposing a misleading neutrality or possible self-reflection.  The curatorial categories in the exhibition are being used as a base for avoiding the genealogy of linear development.  Yet it was MoMA itself which was precisely involved in establishing those lineages and situating its own aesthetic vision at a privileged place within them: the curatorial categories deployed in the exhibition arise from that Euramerican-centred set of genealogies the exhibition is pretending to have overcome or by-passed.

The problem for the reception of modern Asian art within the framework set by the MoMA suppositions is that it is the world outside MOmA and by extension the USA which is to be changed (i), the ‘other’ is placed in an object position from the outset.  It is not seen as an actor on Euramerican modernism or even as a minor participant in its formation (ill.1 Yorozu).  If Euramerican criteria are applied to judge artistic worth (ii) then everything which may be seen as deriving from a local variant or a development following from Euramerican art becomes an imitation or a pale follower of the centre (ill.2 Umehara).  This problem does not only apply to ‘Asian’ art but to any modern art not of the centre, such as that of Australasia or Latin America.  Posed in this way, there are only a limited number of situations for such modernism at the periphery: absorption by the centre, or, more creatively, adoption of a strategy of self-generating circles of counter-appropriation which translate, traduce, and defer the borrowings from the centre or the genealogy of value in which its works are located (ill.3 Tillers).  The supposition that the reflexive structure of modernism is found within a Euramerican series (iii) of course ignores the reflexive situation with regard to Euramerican art and its modern and modernist avatars with which most non-Euramerican and specifically Asian art has been faced since the mid-19th century (ill.4 Raden Salleh).  It is a ‘modernist’ reflexivity, or as I call it ‘relativization,’ that takes plural forms and inheres in plural situations; to think that Euramerican reflexiveness is uniquely privileged by its purportedly ‘prior’ discoveries with their inherence to complex philosophical questioning seems merely to translocate to another domain the kinds of superiority and precedence that in history have been worked out elsewhere on the fields of colonial warfare.  The underpinning of supposition (iv) by a deep-seated US’ providentialism should be noted as well as the fact that the historical caesura of 1939-1945 and the Cold War prevented recognition of the rigor and development of modern Japanese art until the late 1980s.  It has still not been collected in any historical depth by MoMA, in spite of this work having been circulated in international exhibitions from the late 1950s (ill. 5 Sugai)

The nexus between the art market and exclusivity is well-known.  The cultural connotations of decisive purchase of masterworks of Euramerican modernism by MOMA and its patrons (v), (vi), is that those works not included within the purview of that market are not allowed to enter the domain of canonization (ill.6 Lee).  Modern Asian art can hardly enter this field when its major art works remained unrecognized at the time they might have been purchased, still less when the fictive category of the ‘contemporary’ still functions to exclude its current practitioners except in the most tokenist manners, and then only largely by Asian artists long active at the ‘centre’.

The problem of casting other works as ‘primitive’ is doubly articulated.  On the one hand because of the origination of ‘Western’ modernism (vii), it provides sovereignty to any attempt to understand those works in the ‘Western’ context by which reception or appropriation is structured.  On the other hand it sharply, even radically de-privileges the historical processes and differences of position which may have produced any cognate modernisms outside Euramerica, and in consideration here, in Asia.  The latter are deeply imbricated in social and historical contexts quite inexplicable and materially separate from those of Euramerica.  Thus the development of any modernism in Asia will challenge the separation of formal discourse from, or the precedence of formal discourse over, other forms of interpretation (viii).  Asian modernism or the critical precedence of various kinds of Salon realism (ill.7 Jin), may seem intrinsically hackeneyed or unable to re-cast discourse from a Euramerican position (ix) when both the different conditions of its generation and the different functions of its translocation and development challenge the sovereignty of modernism for setting its own criteria of the new or the exhausted.  Finally, the educative function and in the case of MoMA its explicitly messianistic goal to circumvent fetishized beauty or closed class-codes of connoisseurship keeps out art which may in Asia have used the modernist exploration of  new types of beauty as a resistance against class, caste, national, race, or gender codes which constrained it (ill.8 Sher-Gil)  This resistance was only possible by an art practice which privileged the artists as member of narrowly recruited elite class of intellectuals whose final aims were frequently political or technocratic.

Basically the way modern Asian art might be received and interpreted in these ‘Western’ codes would be if the MoMA genealogy was not accepted as authoritative, and merely seen as one of many references where the mode of referring was itself defined by local or regional situations.  It is also apparent that the MoMA suppositions do not include a conception of ‘other’ times as heterogenous, socially defined temporalities.  Nor do they accept that in say some Asian contexts, the successive band of the contemporary, innovative, or avant garde might lead to a critical separation off of art forms which were modern in these societies but regarded as hackneyed in their countries of origin (ill.9 Soedjojono).  This also involves a recognition of the institutionality of ‘modern’ art and that much that is modern and falls within the domain of art in Asian societies is not formalizable as art, but as a kind of visual location or translocation of the visual.  This letting the street into the museum also involves letting in other histories with different structures of aesthetic valuation (ill.10 Tiravanija) than might be seen in a canonical ‘Museum of Modern Art’, and establishes rather a kind of anthropological interface to the aesthetics of everyday life.

‘Western’ Developmental suppositions

Underlying the MoMA suppositions are a raft of Euramerican understandings about how modern culture and its formal expressions depends on different types and stages of development, and in particular the relationship between the processes of modernization and the visions and values grouped under modernism’, between which modernity serves as a mediating historical experience.  Here we might also see a very strong correlation between Marxist or broadly ‘Left’ analyses of development and the MoMA categories, supported as the latter institution is by the pillars of the North Amercian capitalist establishment.  The central concept of development is of objective economic transformations and subjective transformations of individual life, seen particularly in the analyses of Marshal Berman.  A basic position noted in Berman by Anderson is in the peculiar conditions of forced modernization from above in a backward societies, such as Pre-Revolutionary Russian Petersburg or Moscow (ill.11 Moscow), where the condition of modernity is of a ‘more or less unified public still possessing a memory of what it was like to live in a pre-modern world’.  If the differential condition for modernity was found in late Tsarist and early Revolutionary Russia, we might ask why were modern cultural products also found in Asian cities such as Calcutta (ill12. 19th c. Calcutta), Tokyo (ill.13), or Shanghai (ill. 14) not also collected with the same avid recognition that Barr sought for formalist works he had seen in Russia in the 1920s?  The answer clearly is of an unspoken sense that the development of these cities was somehow not yet at the level or type of advancement required to create such a condition of modernity, one which could be reflected in their cultural products and on a level found to be relevant elsewhere.

Anderson, ever the broadly tolerant and curious encyclopaedic universalist, suggests that ‘an alternative way to understand the origins and adventures of modernism is to look more closely at the differential historical temporality in which it was inscribed’.  This might theoretically allow for different or parallel forms of modernity and their cultural expression, such as those found in Asia.  However, Anderson immediately sheets these types of differential historical temporality to a Euramerican context and identifies three principal coordinates of modernist art:

1   highly formalized academicism, under domination of remnant aristocratic or landowning classes

2   Incipient hence novel emergence of new technologies

3   imaginative proximity of social revolution


Some elements of the anciens régimes which provided cultural values against which modernist arts could articulate themselves can be found outside Euramerica, and resistance to the mores of their times can be found in modernizing neo-traditionalist tendencies, certainly in 19th  century Bengali literature or 19th century Japanese neo-traditional painting[ ill.15] .

But the critical position for Berman is that modernity is ‘an experienced lived at once as emancipation and ordeal’.  For him,

‘the modernisms of the past can give us back a sense of our modern roots, roots that go back two hundred years.  They can help us connect our lives with the lives of millions of people who are living through the trauma of modernization thousands of miles away, in societies radically different  from out own –with millions of people who lived through it a century or more ago’.


This implies a basic a caution to non-Euramerican historical situations and the peoples who experience them: ‘wait until you have been through such and such a developmental stage before the historical experience of modernity can serve as a mediator between modernization and modernism’.  This position is basically also held by Anderson who qualifies classical modernism as a product of a particular historical conjuncture from La Belle Époque to WWII, with a significant reservation: ‘even if a version of it can be found in the underdeveloped world today’ (ill.16, Kingelez).  Here is the final underpinning of the MoMA suppositions, one which with variations is widely held in Euramerica: the historical generation of developmental processes in Euramerica is the interpretive criterion or the modernization-modernity-modernism trinity, and allows only a modal difference [‘a version’] to those not its inheritors.  It is therefore hardly surprising that modern Asian art is hardly recognized in the MoMA collections, and then only in terms that this interpretive criterion suggests.

A rather concrete if no doubt somewhat simplistic way of foregrounding this exclusion of Asian modernity, or inclusion only as ‘a version’ of the Euramerican, is to examine a crucial theme for Berman in modern urban thought, that ‘the street itself is a form of living theatre’.   This perception of a modernist site for the spectacle in the street identified by Baudelaire in Paris and also found by Berman in Petersburg and New York (ill.17, New York crowd) seems to be based on a notion of ‘the crowd’ as both figural agent and representational site of historical change.  At the 2000 lecture in Sydney which was the occasion for the presentation of Berman’s 2001 text, I asked the audience why his chosen set of cities did not include 18th century Edo (ill.18 Toyoharu) or indeed hypothetically at least, 12th century Kaifeng (ill.19 Qingming Shanghe Tu), both of which have left us with extensive representations of the theatre of their streets in a context where the circulation of consumer goods and a kind of fashion consciousness were to be found.  Berman felt, if I report him correctly, that modernity could not arise in a society where absolutism had not been overthrown, a view which – although subsequent discussion did not allow any specific discussion – could incline to the ‘Oriental Despotism’ view of Chinese imperial rule or Edo shôgunal authority which many have later seen as problematic.  The problem presented by Edo or even Hangzhou is not merely that the life in their streets was a sign of a ‘proto-modernity’ in the absence of other fundamental political conditions which would allow them to interpreted from the Euramerican hermeneutic modulus as modern.  Modernity itself may have multiple definitions many of which have been excluded in Euramerica due to this inheritance.

The concomitant condition might be that modernity requires formalizable ideas and principles communicable beyond the site where they arise, not accumulated place-specific historical experience which did not ostensibly generate these, particularly under the conditions of universal law, human rights, and citizenship which may be seen as arising in England, the then North American colonies, and France, under different constitutions, in the 18th century.  But then we can argue that from 1934-1945 (ill.20. Portrait of Hitler) in Germany, or from 1917-1991 in Soviet Russia (ill.21 Portrait of Stalin), many of these conditions did not apply even in the Europe which had supposedly overthrown absolutism.  Why should their absence, in terms recognizable to the Euramerican criteria mean that Asian cultures did not include many other kinds of modernity or routes to modernity from those found in Euramerica?  Let me now in truncated form try to indicate where those kinds of modernity may be found in Asian art.

Asian Modernisms

Substantive definitions


There is no longer any need to debate whether ‘Asia’ refers to a certain discursive space with geographical, cultural, and political boundaries and identities or interlinked heterogeneities and relative homogeneities.  But it is not the mirror of the ‘West’ or some alternate pair with ‘The West’.  Nor do I suspect that it ever was so considered by many Asians.  Why, after all, should it be expected that Asians would perceive themselves via an indirect reflection of Euramerican terms?  Unless, that is, in our minds we ascribe to Euramerican colonialism some absolute dominance it did not in the world actually have.  The single identifying element which differentiates this vast zone from Europe and its Northern and Southern American extensions, is that it never was unified, however tenuously.  Neither was it linked by a single civilizational system or by the modern state and economic system itself derived from post-Renaissance Euramerica and its colonial extensions.  Europe itself had been articulated over the very heterogenous continuum of Roman Law and the highly diverse religion called Christianity, whose papal unity in Western Europe is probably only to be seen as a ‘late’ rather than a permanent or continuous phenomenon.  I here take a position which sees values as having precedence in pre-industrial societies over the structures of material life in economic circuits, and the latter as Braudel has shown were highly integrated across Europe even by the 13th century.  This was even before the 17th century mercantile proto-world markets, or the Industrial Revolution which began from the early 18th century in parts of peripheral Northern Europe when ‘all that is solid melts into air’ before the onslaughts of industrial capitalism.

The three great arcs which positively and sometimes negatively by reaction unified Asia – at least inter-articulated its heterogeneities – were Chinese Confucian civilization, Hindu and Buddhist religions carried by traders from India, and Islamic monotheism with its carefully translated and transmitted heritage of Greek scientific concepts and philosophy, carried initially by Arabian traders and later by other Islamic traders and immigrants chiefly from the Indian worlds.

Communicating zones, peoples, and cultures lie to the north in the steppes and in the south in the southern oceans, the latter increasingly since the 16th century, but principally since the later 18th century traversed by Europeans.   It should be argued that Europe in Asia whilst first appearing in the guise of pirates, colonial armies, traders, and missionaries, is now the fourth constituting link in Asian homogeneities.  This is so much the case that the binary of West and East also used in various linguistic pairs within Asia no longer makes any civilizational sense.  From an Asian, or perhaps you may think from an unduly or problematically ‘Asianised’ Australasian perspective, there is surely now no such thing as ‘Western science’, ‘Western technology’, and I would argue ‘Western art’, but science, technology, and art.  What there remains is clearly the particular geographical, cultural, and political extension of Western Europe, North America, and parts of urban South America, which I have called along lines found in Chinese and Japanese binary pairs ‘Euramerica’.  It is this zone which still claims sovereignty over its own inventions which have long since passed out of its origination, control, or application.  The continued claim to sovereignty over what it has lost or transmitted or even given to other humanities [apart from the bayonets, cannon, and lust for gold there was/is, however flawed, a Euramerican altruism] still inflects/infects the view from Euramerica over those cultural products which as we have seen in Anderson and Berman it most specifically considers were its own invention: the processes of modernization and the experience of a reflexive cultural state now called modernity.  And, as I hope I have taken sufficient care to analyse above, it is this claim which surely underlies the cultural positions and curatorial collection categories of the very institution which first claims to have given an intellectual and aesthetic order to modern art, MoMA, New York.

In cross-cultural perception, things rarely appear the same the other way around.  The single largest problem to the recognition of modernity is Asian art in Euramerica is that as a property of artistic discourses this modernity was founded by the transfer, appropriation, and counter-exploitation of an artistic discourse in rebellion and resistance to which artists in Euramerica had founded their own modernism: 19th century academy realism in various stylistic tropes (ill.22 Ragusa, ill. 23 Bhirasri).  This phenomenon is so widespread in Asia between colonized, semi-colonized, uncolonized, and later socialist regimes, that its very prevalence may have accounted for why it has been so roundly ignored by Euramerica from the mid-19th century.  The advent of academy realism has also been exceedingly problematic for Asian cultures who have seen it as an imposed or treacherously adopted discourse and have sought to oppose it either by the creation of a fictitiously homogenous neo-traditional ‘national art’ (ill.24 Yokoyama) or by a kind of importation and radical transformation of later Euramerican discourse which were seen as modernist and more susceptible to local relativization in terms of chiefly line, spatial construction, and the use of colour (ill.25 Yasui).  The fairly open agreement between national chauvinist insiders and essence-seeking outsiders over time has quite obscured the fact that the grounds for these two trajectories were formed precisely by the processes of transfer and adaptation of academy realism.  These processes relativized local discourses and allowed them in many cases to establish a kind of neo-traditional homogeneity – an umbrella linkage of historical heterogeneities – which was itself the product of that very modern relativization.  They also allowed the potential for a most fertile relation between further relativizations of the transferred and transformed academy discourse which have been the almost inexhaustible fountain from which most subsequent Asian avant gardes have sprung (ill.26 Murayama).  It resulted in a kind of domesticated interstitiality or hybridity, in place of the cosmopolitan or diasporic hybridity so beloved of post-colonial theoreticians at the Euramerican centres.

It has always been very difficult for Euramericans to find modernity or relevance to modern life in art works which they consider to have been mere imitations, and poor imitations at that, of Euramerican practice.  One would have thought that the history of technological development in some Asian countries – the prize for printing, for example, that was awarded to a compendium of illustrated masterworks of Japanese art  Shinbi Taikan in the 1900 Paris World Exposition (ill.27, 28 Shinbi Taikan), or other kinds of Japanese technological development from the Zero fighter during World War II to the earthquake-proof multi-storey skyscrapers of the 1970s – was proof enough of the technological context of non-art visual culture for modern Asian art.  Japan is merely the forerunner, not the exception.  Printing technology in Japan is particularly relevant because this has always been so highly developed [as well as in China and Eastern India], particularly after the shift from relief woodblock printing in the 1870s, to various kinds of intaglio and relief printing in the 1880s.  Recent thinking about the interaction between modernism in art and totalitarianism in politics in 1920s and 1930s Europe has been applied back to Japan where it has been seen that ‘despite the appearance of a linear narrative that starts with modernism and ends with fascism. Modernism and fascism were contemporary and constantly imbricating each other’.  When we actually look at the development of illustrated material in Japanese magazines from the late 1890s it can be seen that many of the graphic techniques such as montage-like cutting of the picture plane and disruption of narrative, actually precede the arrival of movies and the mass-consumer society graphics of the 1920s which some would see as a pre-condition or at least a parallel condition for modernism.  In other words non-art visual culture has a more intense development in many Asian urban zones from the late 19th century, Tokyo, central Kinki Japan, Mumbai Calcutta and Bengal (ill.29 Calcutta print), Shanghai and Tianjin, even Bangkok in the 1920s, than is visible in the Euramerican developmentalist discourses which underpin the privileging of Euramerican modernism as originary.

The second major social constitution of Euramerican modernism has been its social base in a disaffected or at least from time-to-time radicalized avant-garde, often with a strong link to contemporary radical politics of one kind or another.  The problem for the reception of the artistic work which emerges from this avant-garde is that whereas in Euramerica from the 1890s to1920s – this was largely constituted from short-term groups associated with a ‘style’ or a manifesto or a current of ideas, in Asia the avant-garde has been constituted by a small generationally bound cohort of artists coming from the institutional background of higher institutes of learning (ill.30, Juelanshe). They are, moreover, also part of a licensed intellectual class who can hold counter opinions to the rest of the elite, and sometimes are even able to intervene in policy debates.  Because the avant-garde are largely constituted from a single cohort, they tend to cycle through the art educational system with a variable but more or less even predictability of 5-10 years (ill.31 Gu Wenda), depending on how we assess their ‘moment of radical assertion’ (ill.30, Qiu Zhijie).  By the 1990s in China this periodicity and the rather predictable formal qualities of their works and positions is, or at any rate on the surface appears to be more linked to the arrival of a new artistic cohort itself, rather than as in the Euramerican avant-gardes where innovations in style or practice can be relatively accurately correlated with other changes in thought, the economy or the cultural mediation of ideas and goods.  In other words, with the Asian avant-gardes we are dealing with practices whose radicalizing moment is in a sense already legitimized; in Euramerica the radicalizing moment is only post facto legitimated by the strength of the ideas or by the later extent of the influences of the art styles and practices they disseminate.

The dissimilarity of Euramerican conventional ideas about modernism with those in Asia or, put in another way, the number of adjustments that have to be made to the notion of modernity to accommodate Asian modernities, can be seen if we directly compare two Asian countries without reference to Euramerica. I have done so in a recent comparison of Chinese and Thai art during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Mapping of Asian Modernities in Art: a Chinese-Thai comparison

What particular perspectives allow us to map the modernity of Chinese and Thai art in the 1980s and 1990s?  Do these allow us to identify ‘other’ modernities in a replicable way?  Stated as binary oppositions some of these dimensions include those below.

State ideology and Art:

1.    explicit state art ideology/inexplicit state ideology


It is assumed the state has an ideology which in some cases may be explicit such as the former dominance in China of Chairman Mao’s Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature (1942) or Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations Line (1979) which modified the Maoist line so that art was acceptable as a semi-autonomous professional discourse as long as it did not oppose socialism in China (ill.31 portrait of Mao Zedong).  In Thailand there has been no explicit statement of state ideology for art, save that it is imbricated within the general national ideology of loyalty to state, Buddhism, and the monarch (ill.33 King Bhumipol).  Significantly both China and Thailand have highly negative sanctions against the satirical or subversive depictions of national icons and work which formally and explicitly criticizes either the Communist Party or the Thai monarch hardly exists.

2. non-art discourse intervention in art / non-art discourse isolated from art

Until at least the late 1980s and arguably up until 2000, Chinese art discourses had almost no autonomy from non-art discourses, particularly those of politics. Not only were constant prescriptions and proscriptions laid down for art, but art was seen as a domain of cultural representation over which the political authorities could not relinquish control.  Whereas in Thailand, with the exceptions of right-wing hostility to work showing anti-American sentiments during the upheavals of the 1970s, and the strong reaction to a putative insult to the Crown prince in one political skit in 1976, non-art discourses seem not to have intervened in artistic expression directly.  Of course both art cultures were subject to the extensive articulation of those art styles in the favour of certain patrons, either official or private (ill.34 Hou Yimin), but in the Thai case this intervention had more to do with the economic conditions at the base of art practice rather than nameable political or economic intervention in particular works, as was the case in China.


3. relativized past / naturalized past


For all the attention given to revolutionary disjunctures in Euramerican history as a basic element in constituting modernity, it is surprising how the widespread evidence for both revolutionary breaks and a glossed over, supposedly homogenous national history in Asia have both been ignored.  China with its historical breaks since in the 1840s, late 1850s, 1910s and 1930s-1940s presents precisely that political context for modernist art where political disjuncture, accompanied often by radical disjuncture in art forms, has made revolution appear not merely principally, but as the sole way in which the past may be relativized.  Whereas in Thailand – in spite of the self-interested claims by the royal court about the unbroken history of Siamese and, from the 1930s, ‘Thai’ culture – a history is presented in which there is a strong  claim to continuity unbroken by the revolutionary distancing of the past (ill.36 Thai Neo traditional painting).  That this past has been constructed by the intent, if not always in the name of, interested power groups and that this relativization has been concealed beneath the claim to natural succession, is all the more noteworthy in that it highlights the major but concealed caesurae to which the Thai case is subject. (ill.37 Sutthee), as well as the many continuities that lie beneath the revolutionary breaks that have created such a distinctive historical consciousness in China.

4. highly developed art critical discourse / underdeveloped art critical discourse

In spite of continuous political interventions in culture, including art, the status of Chinese intellectuals and the programmatic, thought-through characteristics of Marxist ideology, have meant that Chinese artists have, since 1949, been systematically constrained to conceive of their art in critical terms in which external standards of formal relevance and social purpose were applied, if not always willingly internalised, by the artists themselves.  This was accompanied by many opportunities to publish texts about art in art journals and public newspapers.  Despite these all being under the control of the Communist Party or its nomenklatura [posts in non-party organs effectively reserved for party members], there was always room for differing interpretations of party positions as well as, in the 1980s, space for the introduction of recent ‘Western’ ideas.  The latter reached a flood in the 1990s – so much so that the Party seems to have almost stopped trying to control it when compared with the anti-‘spiritual pollution’ campaigns of the 1980s.

In Thailand, this context of critical appraisal did not exist, partly because of the effective bureaucratization of artists as civil servant teachers, through the implicit essentialization of “Thai’ representations via interpretations of Buddhist subjects in painting or prints (ill.37 Apiromrak), and later, in the 1990s, because of the pressure of consumer interest in art through the ‘star’ status accorded some artists in the media.  Art critical discourse can only exist, I suppose, where artists are fully recognized within the intellectual class.  It is surprising then in Thailand that modernist art can still exist within an underdeveloped art critical discourse, and this despite the efforts of several artists to problematize political, environmental problems via their work, or criticize ‘Thai’ essential values from within.

5. art discourse periodization correlates strongly with political periodization / art discourse periodization correlates weakly with political periodization


The role of ideology, political intervention, and the importance of ideas for art critical discourse in China unsurprisingly leads to the periodization of art discourse itself being strongly correlated with that of politics.  But in Thailand it would appear, despite certain stylistic and practice caesura after political events in 1976 and 1992, art discourse has ticked along in its own direction and speed to the extent that the development of distinctive surrealist expressions or decorative abstraction (ill.38 Itthipol) seems to have been periodized along the lines of the life experiences of particular artists involved rather than by the political events which may, however momentarily, have galvanized their society.

Historical periodizations

6. style cycling rapid and exogenously correlated / style cycling slow and endogenously correlated


But even if we look at the periodizations of art history as if, hypothetically for a moment, they were only marginally dependent on political periodizations, it is clear that style cycles can, in some art cultures, be rapid and correlated with access to exogenous sources, while others seem to have a slower speed, more to do with those endogenous issues which may condition the ability or the relative facility by which exogenous influences may be taken up or transposed into the endogenous.

Clearly, at least in this formulation, China inclines towards the rapid and the exogenous, while Thailand moves to the slow and endogenous correlation.  It could seem straightforward to identify a close linkage between dimensions 5 and 6, but I would not immediately jump to this conclusion.  This is because of what I call ‘historical habit’ or ‘historical precedence’.  Many times in Chinese history extremely rapid changes in social structure, the dominance or overthrow of particular elites or religions,  and the wholesale destruction of monuments to be rapidly be replaced by others have taken place.  Thailand has also seen such rapid changes especially in the case of Burmese invasions in the 18th century or the post-1976 development of a relatively well-educated, literate, material-consumption society linked to the world economy (ill 39 Damrong).  But it has also carried on slowly as a village society of local elites without much pressure to adopt competitively defined styles- just think of the differences between the complexities of Javanese and the relatively naïve, almost deliberate, simplicity of Thai music despite these two musical traditions having many closely related instruments and, to my untutored ear at least, many similar modalities.

In the 1980s and 1990s the styles and practices of modern art in China changed rapidly with a strong correlation to exogenous sources which became available; in Thailand there were various formal developments according to which art cultures artists went to study as postgraduate students.  In and one or two cases , such as the 1990 seminar held in  Bangkok by the German artists Rainer Wittenborn, some foreign artists change Thai awareness of current practice, leading in this case to the development of installation practice dealing with environmental issues.  But these changes seem to have taken place relatively slowly, certainly so if compared to China, and more in terms of local contexts where a new relation between art practices and social issues became apparent.

Externality and Internality

7. privileging of exogenous discourse / de-privileging of exogenous discourse


Perhaps the most radical relativization of Modernity is that brought about by the interposition of an exogenous reference between local discourses and their pasts.  Merely the fact of the movement of objects, artists, art styles, or art institutions between differently constituted cultural zones dominated by particular art discourses, relativizes those pasts internal to the existing discourses.  I have called this the exogeneity / endogeneity problem, and conceived of the exogenous not as a super-imposition – the typical view of ‘cultural transfer’ or ‘cultural colonial’ positions – which it certainly can be, but more of an inter-position which becomes ‘nested’ in endogenous discourses.  It is the way in which cultures refer to the exogenous via this ‘nesting’ that typifies whether exogenous or endogenous discourses are privileged.

Even in the short period of genuinely humane Marxism, Chinese discourses seem to have been produced around a binary structure where the ‘civilized’ or the highly developed is conceived of as the binary pair of the ‘Chinese’.  For all practical purposes this has meant that the pair of ‘China’ was ‘The West’, not Soviet Russia nor the Third World, however much these were used for various internal and external political purposes.  Thus when it became politically possible for Chinese art discourses to have a closer relation with the outside in the 1980s (ill.41 Shang Yang), they did so by the wholesale importation and dalliance with Euramerican art forms.  In this sense the ‘nesting’ was more that of the cuckoo laying its eggs in the Chinese Other’s nest, and having its offspring brought up by the Chinese host parents.

In Thailand, in spite of the following of colonial and European models for internal political control, education, and art since the late 19th century for the purposes of securing monarchical rule, and in spite of the extensive education of Thai artists overseas at research student level since the 1970s, Thai art discourses of the 1980s and 1990s seem to have incorporated the exogenous as one reference among many.  The ‘nesting’ here is looser and less determinative than the kind of binary opposition one sees in China.

8. overseas recognition of art work & artist privileges artist at home / overseas recognition of art work & artist does not privilege artist at home


Many Chinese artists have positively sought foreign appraisal.  This has been an active feature of Chinese self-perception as the inheritors of a magnificent artistic tradition that this should receive due recognition from overseas cultures.  Quite a few Chinese artists have extended this notion to wishing for a recognition of Chinese modern art (ill.42 Liu Guosong) particularly those who have received that recognition  as international artists through residence or extensive activity overseas.  Thai art discourses on the contrary only seem recently to have recognized the international prominence of a few artists.  Aside from foreign postgraduate matriculation aiding employment opportunities inside the Thai tertiary educational system, overseas recognition or sales has not had much appreciable affect on how the artists are received or their work sold in Thailand.

Position of the artist

9. Conscience bearers as members of professional elite / decorators as members of craftsmen coterie or ateliers


Since the May 4th Movement of 1919 or even since the self-strengthening movement before Manchu rule was overthrown in 1911, Chinese artists have been part of a renovating intellectual class who in many cases saw themselves as the true inheritors of the literati tradition, able to show prowess by their knowledge, able to rule justly and if necessary, at cost of their own lives, to admonish the [imperial] status quo.  These attitudes congealed in the graduation to professional out of the modern tertiary educational system in which art education was an important part (ill.43 Liu Chunhua).  Certainly in mainland China some artists have often been socially close to members of the central political elite, whether the Guomindang or the Chinese Communist Party.

In Thailand this position never seems to have been reached.  Artists were little more than skilled craftsmen and recently craftswomen, and have offered no alternative views on how the nation was to be governed or how it was to conceive itself.  Artists have not been part of the professional class which became bureaucrats or economic entrepreneurs.  Art has been regarded as decoration or play, but except for a brief interlude in the 1970s, not until the 1990s has art been the serious domain of reconceiving cultural values or presenting political values.

National Affiliation

10. Artist affiliates to the transnational / artist affiliates to the national


The twin heritage of Marxist developmentalism and a ‘national’ position was seen under Maoist interpretation in terms of broad currents of world history where the country side would dominate the cities.   Perhaps in reaction to Mao-speak, perhaps because of the embedded civilizational binary mentioned earlier, Chinese artists seem to be split into two groups, one conceiving themselves as affiliates of local discursive forms such as a modified ink painting (ill.44 Chen Ping), one as the local enactors of discursive forms now found on a global., trans-national scale (ill,.45 Cai Guoqiang)  Artists of this latter group may identify with their Chinese position, but their practice is conceived in terms of a flow of images, works, and artists which is now articulated far beyond China.

In Thailand, despite there being a small group of artists with transnational identifications of life style or art practice (ill.46 Pinaree), many artists place their work squarely within a self-limiting set of ‘Thai’ values, despite their reference to ‘nested’ exogenous values or practices.   This affiliation may be due as much to the way group or cohort identification is articulated within Thai society as such – simply put, in acephalous groups loosely coordinated by a hierarchy of age, seniority, wealth, or power.  One might also consider that with increasing educational levels, foreign language skills, and the support of an increasingly broad professional middle class, and in the context of other kinds of freedom available to this class (not the case for the increasing urban poor), affiliation with the national is less contrasted with international or transnational affiliations as it might be in China.

Educational Provision

11. >1.0 per 100,000 fine arts graduates per annum / 1.0< 100,000 fine arts graduates per annum


Although it is difficult to obtain reliable statistics for China, and those mediating modern and contemporary art have been ignorant or unwilling to countenance arguments based on the level and breadth of institutional modernity, China and Thailand are highly contrasted in the relative output of trained artists by the modern tertiary educational system.  There are around 0.25 fine arts graduates per 100,000 population in China but around four times that level in Thailand where there are about 1.1 per 100,000.  The sheer scale of contemporary art practice in China, where informal estimates speak of around 1,000 contemporary artists in Beijing alone (ill.47 Beijing Biennale alternative event), pass over the fact that this volume of activity is on a huge population base, compared with which the activity is small indeed.

The more general conclusion might be that the institutional base for modernity in different Asian cultures is highly skewed between countries with narrowly recruited, highly invested elite institutions, and those with a relatively much more diffuse and evenly spread art culture with various kinds of formal possibility in terms of variety of practice provided for by this spread, as would be the Thai case.

12. high development of art discourses in urban environments / high development of art discourses in rural environments


The urban / rural contrast is to some extent now being overthrown by the rush of the rural poor into cities, a tendency more advanced even in 2000 in China than in Thailand.  Certainly the craft production base is being denuded in both countries, even as the increasingly prosperous middle class in both seek for “Chinese’ or ‘Thai’ definitions and accoutrements in the decoration of domestic life-styles.  These are far more likely to be manufactured by small factories within the urban environment rather than represent the continuation of craft customs or traditions in rural areas.  Already both China and Thailand have seen the counter-movement of artists back into the countryside partly because of cheaper and more extensive housing, as well as ostensible subscription to a revival or sustenance of endogenous lifestyle values and objects (ill. 48 Prasong Luemang)

Certainly both Chinese and Thai political elites are increasingly aware of the role of contemporary art exchange in positioning the self-image of their cultures, both at home and abroad.  The institutional provision is almost all found in the form of large tertiary art schools in cities, as well as since around 2000 of increasing provision being made for museum and art gallery complexes.

13. arts practice taught as part of selective education / arts practice taught as part of general education

14. arts practice education before tertiary level / arts practice only after tertiary level


Two interesting and usually elided issues concerning art education are the role and extent of pre-tertiary selective secondary art education, and related to this, the extent to which art education is only available at tertiary level, reflecting minimal integration of art within the secondary syllabus.  The latter of course indicates that art is a specialized or elite concern, and likely to be increasingly so, even within a modern education system.

So far as can be judged via anecdotal understanding of the situation in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou, Chinese art education presents a picture of a very minor teaching of art within the general secondary syllabus, except at specially selective secondary schools.  Some of the latter have until recently been directly linked to the main and nationally funded art schools formerly under the Ministry of Culture.  Artists have recently been able to earn a living at an equivalent or higher level than many other professionals, and so art school education, particularly if generalized to include design, is seen by parents as one route an attractive and potentially lucrative career.  Thus pre-tertiary provision in China, whilst limited within general education certainly has allowed for specialized education in some schools near the tertiary level.  This means that anyone graduating at say the age of 24-26 with an MFA will have had at least ten years of formal art training.  This long time and the conventionality of the official art training system has itself led some artists to step away from the established state system into other kinds of practice (fig 49, Jiao Yingqi).

In Thailand, secondary art education has often been a minor part of the secondary syllabus, although some schools have allowed more emphasis.  Technical art schools and the increasing provision of basic art courses at technical institutes mean that art education is mostly a late secondary or quasi-tertiary educational possibility.  However, the quasi-tertiary level does form the recruitment base for universities with fine arts faculties, so the trained artist component of tertiary educational output is also likely to be higher in Thailand than China for this reason.

Art Markets and Artist’s Economy

15. Large amount of monetary sales / small amount of monetary sales

16. Sales for economic capital accumulation / sales for cultural capital accumulation


The final two dimensions are economic ones.  These can be loosely regarded as co-occurring phenomena, or more strongly as sufficient but not necessary conditions for other kinds of formal modernity in art.  At different times in both China in the 1990s and Thailand before the financial crash of 1997, there have been periods when large numbers of art objects were sold.  In China, these sales were firstly made to local foreign resident and international purchasers and then, closely followed by the rise of a domestic entrepreneurial class, to local ones by the late 1990s.  However, a persistent feature of both art markets is that whilst sales of works marginally increase the incomes of leading artists, as important have been periods when small volumes of monetary sales, sometimes in the form of project commissions, have been accompanied by prestige returns from state or private patrons in the form of teaching employment, patronage for overseas visits, or prestige-earning lower financial reward projects which might lead to higher monetary returns in future.  One can indeed question why artists with irregular but at times high monetary value income from sales should continue to stay within the domain of official patronage by working at tertiary art schools.  The only reply which in different contexts holds good for both China and Thailand, is that art school employment is a guarantee of quality in a developing local market for contemporary art, and it also brings with it the social and bureaucratic connections which facilitate sales as well as patronage for official or corporate projects.

The two kinds of economic nexus in the market for art works seem to run parallel to processes of investment in art works for other than cultural or domestic decoration or prestige.  That is, they are bought for their likely accumulation of economic value.  It is significant that two such contrasting economic and political systems should produce such a similarity of interconnection between economic market and patronage structures.

Concluding Remarks

It would seem that the reason why the ‘MoMA suppositions’ do not apply in modern and contemporary Asian art is due either to different functionalities in innovation in stylistic discourse or to different conceptualizations of practice between Asia and Euramerica.  In the latter these are still produced in teleological terms to privilege Euramerican art, whereas in the former far greater room is given, under various constitutions, for ‘nested endogeny’ that indicates a less than automatic assumption of priority of the exogenous.  Fairly predictably, changing markets and economic competition as well as simply style-fatigue may switch Euramerica towards recognizing contemporary Asian art, but this is unlikely to lead to the recognition of the 150 years or so of modern Asian art it has so far ignored.  In Asia itself new emphases on the national, tribal, or the religious as indentitarian projects unleashed on or by the state, may cause the rejection of the assimilation of the exogenous into the endogenous.  Some artists are fully aware of the ironies and contrasts between these systems: Huang Yongping’s model made out of sand (fig.50 Huang Yongping) which was of the library that actually became the Shanghai Art Museum or his ironic, absurdist Chinese creatures for the French pavilion at the Venice Biennale, may stand as concrete allegories for this whole question.



John Clark, FAHA, CIHA, is Professor in Art History at the University of Sydney.  Among his books is Modern Asian Art, Sydney, Craftsman House & Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.  He has recently completed two book drafts, Modernities of Chinese Art and Modernities compared: Chinese and Thai Art in the 1980s and 1990s.  Current research examines the role of new Biennales in contemporary Asian art.  A summary of part of his earlier work, ‘Ajia bijutsu no gendaisei ni tsuite’ was translated into Japanese by Yomota Inuhiko in Gengo Bunka, no.20, March 2003, from Meijigakuin Daigaku.

Web site:



Anderson, Perry, ‘Marshall Berman’ in Anderson, Perry, A Zone of Engagement, London, Verso, 1992

Anderson, Perry, Lineages of the Absolutist State, London, Verso, 1974.

Barr, Alfred H. Jr, What is Modern painting?, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1943

Becker, Jasper, Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine, New York, Henry Holt, 1998.

Berman, Marshall, ‘Too much is not enough: metamorphoses of Times Square’, in Smith, Terry, ed., Impossible Presence: surface and screen in the photogenic era, Sydney, Power Publications, 2001

Berman, Marshall, All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1982

Bourriauld, Nicolas, Relational Aesthetics [1998, translated by Pleasance, Simon; Woods, Fronza; Copeland, Mathieu], Dijon, Les presses du réel, 2002

Braudel, Fernand, Civilization and Capitlaism 15th-18th century, volume II, The Wheels of Commerce, (tr. Reynolds, S.), London, William Collins, 1982.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000.

Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra ,The Poison Tree: Three Novellas [tr. Madden, Marian & Mukherjee, S.N.], New Delhi, Penguin Books India, 1996 [review in The Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, vol.31, 1999.

Clark, John, ‘Modernism and Traditional Japanese-style Painting’, Semiotica, vol. 19, no. 1, 1988

Clark, John ‘Yôga in Japan:Model or Exception? Modenrity in Japanese art, 1850s-1940s: an international comparison’, Art History, vol.18, no.2, June 1995, 253-285.

Clark, John, Modern Asian Art, Sydney, Craftsman House & Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 1998.

Clark, John, ‘Kindai Ajia no bijutsu gensetsu ni okeru “taka ‘ [Othering in Modern Asian Art discourses] (tr. Morino Yutaka, Fujiwara Sadao) in Shamamoto Kan, Kasuya Makoto, hen, Bijutsishi to Tasha, Kyoto, Kôyô Shuppan, 2000, 39-67.

Clark, John, ‘chronology for modern Japanese print technology in Tipton, E., Clark, J., eds., Being Modern in Japan, Sydney, Australian Humanities Research Foundation & Honolulu, University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

Clark, John, ‘Indices of Modernity: Changes in Popular Reprographic Representation’, in Tipton & Clark, 2000.

Curnow, Wystan, Imants Tillers and the ‘Book of Power’, Sydney, Craftsman House, 1998

Davis, Mike, ‘Planet of Slums, urban involution and the informal proletariat’, New left Review, vol.26, March-April 2004.

Elliot, David, & Kaidô, Kazu, Reconstructions: Avant-Garde Art in Japan 1945-1965, Oxford, Museum of Modern Art, 1985.

Gernet, Jacques Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol invasion [tr. Wright, H.M], London, George Allen & Unwin, 1962 & Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1970.

Gopnik, Blake, article in The Washington Post, 9.4.2003.

Guilbaut, Serge, ed., Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal 1945-1964, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1990

Guilbaut, Serge, How New York stole the idea of modern art: Abstractionism, Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, (Tr. Goldhammer, Arthur), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Kantor, Sybil Gordon, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and the intellectual origins of the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 2002

Kondo Kazuyo, Tomomichi Nakao; and Yamaki Yuko, ed., Imagined Workshop: The 2nd Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale 2002, Fukuoka: Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, 2002

Marquis, Alice Goldfarb, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Missionary for the Modern, Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1989.

McEvilley, T., ‘Doctor Lawyer Indian Chief’, Artforum, November 1984.

McEvilley, T., Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, Kingston, Documentext, 1992.

Menzies, Jackie, ed., 1998, Modern Boy, Modern Girl: Modernity in Japanese Art, 1910-1935, (co-curated by Ajioka, Clark, Menzies, Mizusawa), Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998.

Mori Art Museum, Press Release for the Exhibition ‘Modern Means’, Tokyo, Mori Art Museum, 2004.

Mote, F.W, Imperial China, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1999

Munro, A., et al., Scream against the Sky: Japanese Art after 1945, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

Murphy, Bernice, ‘ “Provincialism Refigured” or Culture Disfigured?’, Art Monthly [Australia], no.15, October 1988

Na Zhiliang, Qingming Shanghe tu¸ Taipei, Gugong Bowuyuan, 1977,.

Rubin, W., “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the tribal and the Modern, 2 vols, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1984.

Sandler, Irving; Newman, Amy eds., Defining Modern Art: Selected Writings of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1986.

Seppälä, Marketta, ‘Imants Tillers and “The Provincialism Problem” ’, in the catalogue of Tillers’ work Diaspora in context: connections in a fragmented world, Pori, Pori Art Museum, 1995.

Smith, T., ‘Provincialism Refigured’, Art Monthly [Australia], no.13, August 1988, and in Art Monthly [Australia], no.16, 1988

Smith, Terry, ‘The Provincialism Problem’, Art Forum, 1974, reprinted in Taylor, P. ed., Anything Goes: Art in Australia 1970-1980, Melbourne, Art & Text, 1984; also reprinted in Smith T., Transformations in Australian Art, Volume Two: The Twentieth Century –Modernism and Aboriginality, Sydney, Craftsman House, 2002 [reviewed by Ian McLean in Art Monthly Australia, no.164, October 2003].

Suzuki, Kei, Chûgoku Kaigashi, Chû no Ichi, Zuhan, [ill.50], Tokyo, Yoshikawa Kôbunkan, 1984.

Tipton, Elise; Clark, John, eds, Being Modern in Japan: Culture and Society from the 1910s to the 1930s, Sydney, Australian Humanities Research Foundation & Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Zayas, Marius de, How, when, and why modern art came to New York, (Naumann, Francis, M. ed.), Cambridge, Mass., The MIT Press, 1996