The opening of “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in December, 2013, was met with both cheers and disgust by the Chinese ink painting community. The reasons were quite straightforward. At first, the prestige of the Met seemed enough to realize dreams of “bringing Chinese traditions to the world,” and indeed, the ink painting community was nothing less than elated when the announcement was made. Laying eyes on the exhibition, however, they were largely dumbfounded, after which they began to feel a swell of resentment. The list of participating artists was shocking, for it completely negated the Chinese conception of ink painting. Feelings of disappointment and helplessness immediately sparked indignation and a sense of national weakness. All kinds of rage-filled outbursts followed.
Despairing, passionate cries to recapture the authoritative voice in ink painting have become part of the nation’s sudden ascent to great power status, beginning at the start of the century, and the cultural revival which accompanied it. Obviously, the Met’s disregard for the rising power’s cultural expectations was not met with joy, instead leaving only the weightless feeling of being at someone’s mercy. The impulse to regain the authoritative voice is no different than the impulse to smash Japanese cars; it can easily be fanned into a sea of fire. A subsequent drama was similarly contrived, when the New York Times seemed to feel the surge of Chinese emotion and respond to it. “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China” was listed as one of the year’s ten least appealing exhibitions. This item of news was forwarded most vigorously throughout the mainland.
The cause for such enthusiasm is self-evident. Those promoting the story had not the least bit of interest in the evaluation criteria of the Times, it was the resulting decision they were keen on. Through the queer logic of conflict—my enemy’s enemy is my friend—the New York Times suddenly became dearer than a loved one. For a time, the challenges to the Met went an octave higher due to the friendly endorsement of the Times.With arguments like, “What discussion of ink painting can take place without cultural background?” wanton criticism was levied against the curator’s ignorance (or perhaps, intentional ignorance) of Chinese ink painting. The logic of these criticisms was often guilty of presumption: if it’s commercial, it’s immoral. If it’s through a Western gaze, it can’t understand China. Furthermore, the Met’s curation naturally lacked cultural context and was instead a product of commercialism and Western hegemony. Criticism like this can vent emotions, but it cannot begin a dialogue. And perhaps the venting was never intended to begin a dialogue, for the Met, which caused their disappointment, was prima facie not a subject which could address “Chinese issues.” That raises another question: who exactly can discuss China? Is it that “Those who agree can speak, those who oppose are silent?” Through successive waves of globalization in the past decade, this absurd logic has been the nuclear weapon that nationalists often reach for. Behind it hides the cultural supremacy of the weak. What is the supremacy of the weak? When those who lack the tenacity to discuss retreat from a deep engagement with universal issues, blindly insisting on the particularities of their values and insisting that others accept their “uniqueness.”
For example, discussions of ink painting must adhere to “the ink/brush concept and spiritual experience.” Those that don’t understand China. If the opposing party is one with power who cannot be easily dismissed, the term ‘Western hegemony’ is invoked. The righteous indignation in response to hegemony permanently obviates the need to address the question, “How does one come to understand Chinese traditions?” Are, for instance, the four topics that the Met selected inspired understandings of China? Aren’t their values worthy of examination, even if they don’t comply with tradition? If others invariably followed our customs, would there be any need for discussion and dialogue? Clearly, such doubts have not been embraced by the nationalist spirit. In the case of interaction with foreigners, we expect a recognition and acknowledgement of our uniqueness, or there will be no exchange and no dialogue. In the world of frail emotions, one is either an international friend or an enemy harboring ulterior motives; there is no such thing as a friend who differs in opinion. The doping controversy at the Olympics was just such a case. There was absolutely no consideration of one’s own problems. Instead, it was viewed simply as ulterior motives targeted at China. Driving all of it are the psychological dictates of the supremacy of the weak. The “supremacy” that the weak expect is in fact an extreme expression of poor self-confidence. The core logic is that others cannot reject or cast doubt on one’s set values.
Particularly with the growth of its economic power in this century, the subject of China in the popular imagination has gradually trended towards concepts such as “rising” and “revival.” As the corresponding subjective consciousness grows ever more intense, it even produces delusions of saving the world. This is exceptionally interesting, an extremely complex development mechanism. The power China amasses through globalization increases the ways that China’s experience differs from that of globalization. Perhaps China, which has historically been accustomed to unification, has already built a cognitive model of all that lies “under heaven” with the Hua-Yi distinction. It seems that the country is awakening to globalization solutions from different viewpoints. In terms of ink painting specifically, we cannot simply use “China’s cultural context” to establish our values. Instead, we must first understand the questions facing global art and seek out resolutions drawn from our own resources. Diversity is sharing unique cultural resources in regards to general issues.
This process requires freely undertaken, equal sharing from all participants, even if there are sharp differences in opinion. Leaving aside whether our view of China’s cultural context is accurate or not, when the Met puts forth a different solution, we must consider, “Why did they do so?” and not reach for the big stick of China’s cultural context. The viewpoint of the exhibition can be freely debated, but only after reflection on what the goal such debate serves. Is it to defend the historical value of tradition? Or is it to address general issues in art? This will help avoid falling into the trap of emotionalization and simple negation. Going back to the exhibition at the Met, Wu Hung’s essay “Transcending the East/West Dichotomy” in the exhibition’s catalog indicates that the exhibition’s curation has a theoretical vision. Why was it done this way? Because in the Met’s view, the exhibition was not done in order to show some works, but to put forth a question for cultural consideration. No matter how the exhibition was implemented, this starting point deserves our full attention. Unfortunately, those who were disappointed unthinkingly repudiated the exhibition without considering: Why would a museum that is known for its collection of traditional Chinese ink paintings make the unorthodox decision to select these works, works which seem completely unrelated to ink painting?
Clearly, it is not because the Met doesn’t understand China, but rather, because the theme of the exhibition reveals a different understanding of traditional China. The unorthodoxy results from a starting point in the whole of contemporary art as opposed to the specific issues facing China. Of course, we can still question whether the selection of works and theoretical vision were suitable, and we can thoroughly debate whether the Met did an appropriate job sharing cultural resources that relate to China. Along these lines, different participants will provide different details and deepen understandings of the issue. If the works merely meet some predetermined standard of “Chineseness,” no matter if their media, contents, style, and even process were so similar that they appear to have been cooked in the same pot, then they have not considered the specific differences among the works. This is not a method of academic study that begins in the work, but instead a quintessential “theory airdrop.” That is, the Met did not rigorously investigate the state of Chinese ink painting and seek new discoveries on the foundation of their familiarity with the works. Instead, it settled on a seemingly guaranteed method that instead became crude: select “non-typical ink works” that the West is already familiar with. Such works can break down assumed knowledge and bring about a cognitive shock, and choosing artists that the West is accustomed to would insure the “quality” of the work. It is seldom acknowledged, however, that such shocks are overly simplistic. By this line of thinking, why not bring in some works by artists like Pollock for which there are Eastern interpretations? Wouldn’t that be even more shocking? The theoretical vision in “Transcending the East/West Dichotomy” holds that some “typical” Chinese ink painting works from recent years hold a value that has been discovered. Of course, it would have taken bravery to choose such works, requiring the strength to risk making a judgment error. It is quite unfortunate that the Met did not choose this route and instead selected a list of “guaranteed” names. There was a certain awkward quality to this guarantee, for the reason these familiar faces are already so known is that they have long since been examined under other topics in contemporary art. For the audiences at the Met, these well-known faces each came with a set theoretical justification. Just because Xu Bing won a MacArthur grant doesn’t mean he’s connected to ink painting. When forced under the banner of ink painting, these supposedly guaranteed names became dangerous, for there was no way to convince people that the work of artists such as Xu Bing originated in ink painting. If the logic of the artist’s practice has no connection to ink art, then it is becoming ink art due to the requirements of the Met and naturally has no way to touch a nerve with the audience. It even gives the impression of “an exhibition assembled in the service of theory.” Perhaps this is the reason why the New York Times looked unfavorably upon the Met’s grand ink painting exhibition.
Still, for the Chinese ink painting world, the ultimate evaluation of the exhibition was secondary. The Met’s exhibition represented nothing, serving only as an attempt by a Western museum to use ink painting’s cultural resources for a discussion of art in general. In a standard encounter, there is no need to use “ink painting’s uniqueness” to defend oneself, thereby neglecting the theoretical views of the Met. Such neglect is extremely unfortunate, because criticizing the logic of the Met’s exhibition with the cultural value of ink painting’s uniqueness has become a rather trendy view among the Chinese ink painting community. It finds a resonance with the topic of a 21st century “cultural revival,” even guiding what may have been a topic on openness towards a conservative understanding of “revival.” Criticism of the Met is an important opportunity, not because of the specific criticisms, but because the positions and approaches that came to light through this criticism are the subjects for review that ink painting received as part of completely new theoretical framework. We cannot imagine others to be our enemies merely in order to bolster our weak self-confidence. We must seek new understandings of dialogue and become an equal participant in the world. Shallow generalizations like “cultural context” cannot be used to substantiate uniqueness. Instead, a new understanding of diversity is required. When ink painting is placed among the issues of today’s art, the Chinese tradition will provide new solutions and no longer be a closed-off “grand inheritance.” (Translated by Orion Martin)