Sunday, March 15, 2009

Showing in Shanghai as Taiwan, China

An interesting piece in the Taipei Times today:

Care to Join the Party?

...all about Taiwanese artists and how they deal with China's restrictions on their freedom of expression, or how they are labeled, when showing in China - as well as interviews with some Taiwanese artists who refuse to show in China.

What I found interesting about this piece was that so many artists seem apathetic about how they are labeled politically. How many 'don't think about' (or don't allow themselves to think about) whether they are billed as being from "Taiwan" or "Taipei, China", and what that means to their identity, their expression and their art.

I realize that the argument that art and politics shouldn't mix has some credence, and there is certainly a strong case to be made for separating the two in the name of...well of I don't know what, but something.

That said, I'm sorry but art is political. The only art that is not political in some way is found in hotels or in Painting Technique 101 classes. Maybe some civic sculpture put in place by extremely non-controversial town boards. (A good friend of mine once defined public art as "stuff so bad that nobody would pay for it except a committee of people with bad taste" - I wouldn't go that far, and I've seen public art that I've liked).

Even a basic landscape can be political; what is in that landscape, and what does it say about the place it purports to represent? Why did the artist choose this scene, and not that one, and how does that reflect on his feelings toward the place he's painting. Someone who chose to paint a traditional-style scroll of cliffs, waterfalls, cranes and bamboo must have a very different opinion on Taiwan than someone who paints a scene of downtown Sanchong.

A sculpture of a naked woman is political, as well. Why did the artist choose this model and this body, and what does his/her technique say about how he views that body? In turn, what does that say about how he/she perceives women and their place in society? How does that compare with the status of women in this artist's home country?

Art is all about expression - art that is merely about aesthetics and not about both aesthetics and expression is, in my humble opinion, less interesting art.

Some of this expression really is free from politics - ideas about universal things such as death and love, for example, although even those can be politicized. See: Guernica. That was bursting with death and yet was also deeply political. Any photograph of modern poverty is just as tied in with death and politics. Love is affected heavily by culture, and politics is also tied into that. So unless you are merely trying to convey emotions of death, love, frustration, boredom, excitement or what have you, and not trying to tie them to a greater cultural entity, even these have a political underpinning.

As such, a good artist has to be careful about things like political labels. It is very telling that some Taiwanese artists don't care how they are introduced in a show; it makes me wonder if they show the same apathy towards their work. Who you are affects how others see your work, so it is really of the utmost importance that you be as honest as you can about who you are. How can an artist do that, if said artist doesn't care how they are labeled?

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