Retooling Cultural Identity with Art


Title: Venere Alpina by Kay Walking Stick

Two events held earlier this month offer a lens into the complex issues underlying any process of re-conceptualizing cultural identity through the contemporary arts, both East and West: one account addresses the former, that of the Chinese government’s efforts to elevate formerly marginalized underground art villages to international cultural tourism destinations; and in the latter, an international conference in New York City that brings together indigenous artists and scholars for three days to examine the cultural dynamics, instead of the government’s role, in the persistent marginalization of indigenous art. Yue Zhang’s talk on May 4, was based on her current research titled “Governing Art Districts: State Control and Cultural Production in Contemporary China,” which was sponsored by The Princeton University Center for Arts, touched on several ironies.

For example, although the entire Western world read of the contemporary artist and Human Rights Activist, Ai Weiwei’s detention by the Chinese government last month, the majority of Chinese never heard of him until they read of his arrest. Zhang, an Assistant Professor Political Science at University of Chicago, noted as well the changed attitude from that of suppression to the government’s new degree of limited tolerance toward the same contemporary artists who up until recently were seen as “flood and beast” tools of social instability. Perhaps because of its rising status in the world economy, Zhang reported that China’s direction has shifted to showcasing a vibrant creative cultural district to visitors. And through its tight control of the public relations, the government can tout the new contemporary art scene as the beacon of China’s elevated role as a world leader in innovation taking place at the Asian-version “Silicon Valley.”

One challenge for the Chinese government remains: how to rein in it’s most prominent, yet outspoken artists short of arresting them? The solution was to establish the first National Contemporary Art Institute and appoint artists as academicians, even those artists—more accurately those artists, in particular, most cynical about the Cultural Revolution and whose art explored this very theme. Now the cynicism belongs to the art community at large which feels that these artists will be constrained in their art because of this symbiotic relationship with the government. Closer to home, The National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution’s symposium sought to move the discussion from focusing on artist identity to that of focusing on the art itself. In the past, the focus on an indigenous artist has tended to pigeon hole indigenous art into its own category but with the result of isolating it from mainstream contemporary art all together. As a result, women artists seen as feminist artists were marginalized by being featured in Women’s History exhibits, just as African-American artists were tapped to flesh out Black History month. These categories, though well-intended, resulted in a double-edge sword by marginalizing minorities the rest of the year.

Indigenous artists deal with increasingly complex identities that can be either bi-racial, or bi-cultural or both. Therefore, the symposium organizers of “Essentially Indigenous?” challenged participants to take the lens off of the artist and focus it on the art instead. Once allowed to stand on its own, one may ask does it maintain its “Native-ness” in adhering to a particular iconography, or indigenous subject matter or reflect that in its aesthetic sensibility? Does it indicate a relationship to either land or ties to traditional art forms or both? If the artist is seen an individual—a conduit of the culture—what then is she expressing for herself, for her culture, for humanity? I am reminded of New York Times’ David Brooks recent column revisiting Sam Huntington’s sensational essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” in which he concludes that Huntington’s premise does not stand the test of time after all. Although acknowledging that culture is indeed important, Brooks sees underneath the differences where there are “universal aspirations for dignity and for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.”
David Brooks column: http://nyti.ms/kqsRCN
NMAI Essentially Indigenous Program http://bit.ly/jSbfGm

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