What is the purpose of cross cultural art exchanges?

This has been a season of cross cultural art because I’m participating in the SZHK Biennale and have been translating for the OCAT International Artists Residency Program. I have had opportunities to talk with artists not only from the United States, but also Europe and heard questions and comments that are interestingly different from those of Western academics and business people, until recently my usual non-Chinese interlocutors.

Other than the fact that good, deep cross cultural artistic collaboration takes time and patience and a willingness to let go of preconceptions and even values, what have I learned?

Short answer: philosophically, we’re all of us still carrying way too much baggage and practically, translators are seriously underpaid for the work we do facilitating communication despite break downs therein.

Long answer: As a form of social praxis and value structure, art functions very differently in China and the West. I have written about these differences with respect to theater (here and here). Briefly, in the West, artistic praxis has been a means of overcoming four forms of capitalist alienation (as identified by Marx):

  1. Alienation of the worker from the work she produces. Under capitalism workers make things, but they do not own the products of their labor. Instead, these things belong to a capitalist, who owns the means to produce said things and thus, the right to sell them for profit.
  2. Alienation of the worker from working. Assembly lines and work modeled on assembly line production separate jobs into discrete, trivial, and meaningless functions so that a worker repeats the same movement and / or task without ever having the satisfaction of completing a total job.
  3. Alienation of the worker from herself as a being. As human beings, we realize important aspects of our selves through the work we do. Importantly, this nature can only be realized through integrated, collaborative work. However, under capitalism work is organized so that only a few people (rather than all) benefit, resulting in social antagonisms that cannot be resolved within the system itself because the point of capitalism is to transfer social goods, including profits that have created by a majority to a minority, or from workers to capitalists.
  4. Alienation of the worker from other workers. In order to maximize profits (by lowering the cost of labor), in capitalism, workers are in competition with each other for wages. This competition means that workers are unable to realize the collaboration and mutual benefit that predicate full realization of our shared human nature.

Thus, in the capitalist West, artistic praxis as a form of labor has allowed art workers to overcome alienation because they own the product of their labor and experience the satisfaction of completing a total job. However, given the fact that artistic labor has been commodified, it is difficult (but still possible) for artists to work in collaborative relationships, thus realizing their individual and collective natures.  In other words, for many Westerners art has functioned as and continues to offer ways of overcoming alienation in capitalism.

In China, long story shortened almost beyond recognition, art did not exist as an isolated praxis, but rather art was part of elite literary expression that included painting, calligraphy, poetry writing, and seals or stamps in addition to correct ritual and archery skills. Indeed, painting as separate (alienated?) from elite literary culture has been a result of modernization, as there is no longer a need for either calligraphy or poetry writing. Moreover, artistic praxis for self-realization against society (rather than within Confucian hierarchies or friendship circles) came to China along with other forms of Western capitalism. Consequently, Chinese contemporary painting praxis (rather than traditional painting praxis, and yes the distinction is common because necessary in Mandarin) does and does not overcome the same forms of alienation as Western painting praxis might.

More to the point: both contemporary and traditional Chinese artistic praxis have functioned to overcome forms of political rather than economic alienation, resulting in at least three modifications of Marx’s four-fold formulation of alienation with respect to artistic praxis.

First, Marx’s theory needs to be reworked in terms of alienation in feudal hierarchy; peasants and merchants alienated from full social recognition for their contributions because of their low status. (Yes, this was Mao’s contribution to Marxist theory.) But here’s the point: the literati were not politically alienated in traditional China and much of the disgruntlement that contemporary Chinese artists feel today is a result of not having traditional status.

Second, the theory needs to take into account how the CCP has controlled and directed artistic practices since 1949. This means that for many artists alienation from the products of their work, their being and their community has been a result of political, rather than economic inequality. Indeed, one of the contradictory moments within forms of Chinese alienations is precisely the extent to which capitalism and market freedom might offer alternatives to Party dominance. However, the traditional status of Chinese literati means that the CCP takes artistic production much more seriously than do Western governments. This means that all Chinese art is implicitly political and calling attention to its political nature – as Western art practitioners and Party ideologues are want to do – does not have the same affects in China as it does in the West.

Third, the theory also needs to look at how Western aesthetic forms have been taken up in China both domestically and internationally. On the one hand, the theory has to look at what Chinese artists are saying by rejecting traditional forms and taking up symbolic forms that came with colonialism. On the other hand, the theory of alienation would then have to take into account the way colonialism has shaped the contemporary art world and unequal access to that world by Chinese and Western artists, respectively. (Hello, post colonial theorists.)

Claim du jour: just as Westerners overcome economic alienation by searching for non-exploitative forms of artistic praxis, Chinese artists overcome political alienation not by calling attention to a work’s inherently political nature but by excavating for non-political possibilities. In other words, unlike in the West, where government funding signals recognition for the need and value of non-economic artistic work, in China, government funding signals collaboration in all senses of the word. Thus, for a Chinese artist taking government money is tantamount to a Western artist taking money from large corporations; each walks a fine line between political submission and selling out, respectively.

Thus, today I’m thinking that to realize artwork that would be emancipatory cross culturally (and not just in my corner of the world), it seems necessary to work together and see what happens, rather than starting off with proposals as they are called in grant applications and  方案 as they’re called in the Chinese political apparatus. Process rather than product, so to speak. This way of working is smaller and less glamorous than the alternatives. Nevertheless, I believe that decentering alienation as we have come to know it might open a larger space to accommodate and respect real and important differences in alienation as each of us lives it.

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