Here’s an interesting claim made in the current issue of the Art Newspaper. Anna Somers Cocks worries about the effects of Western collecting on Middle Eastern artists. She offers the example of Chinese Contemporary art. On the face of it, the argument seems compelling. And museums have had a powerful effect on what art becomes dominant. Many would say a more determinant effect than the art market itself which is not a great predictor of future value. But the case of Indonesian and other Southeast Asian Contemporary artists would seem to offer a counter case. Your thoughts?
The west largely defined the Chinese avant-garde of the last few years, choosing for its museums and market the art that fitted its concept of what an avant-garde should be. It blew up the bubble of the past two or three years, with a corrupting effect on some of the artists, who started churning out formulaic work for the market. Something similar happened in the 18th century when one sort of porcelain was made for export to the west, while a completely different and much more refined aesthetic governed what the Chinese made for themselves. In the visual arts today, the parallel might be with brush painting, which is still what the Chinese themselves like best, but which we in the west tend to dismiss as retrograde, repetitive and lacking in ideas‹all qualities that disqualify it from being “Contemporary”, although, of course, it is contemporary, just not our contemporary.
The way the London museums have dealt with these two artistic visions is that the Tate collects western-style Chinese contemporary while Chinese-style contemporary is collected by the British Museum. Now something similar is going to happen with Middle Eastern art. The conceptual work, film and photography are being sought by the Tate, while calligraphic work, the art that has the most deep-rooted following in the Middle East, will go into the British Museum. This sounds very reasonable, except that the market follows the lead of the Tate, not the British Museum, because of the key role the Tate has in the international art system. The decisive power of money will come down behind the Tate’s choices, inevitably affecting what artists choose to produce. If this happens we will be artistically the poorer, which is why it is good to hear of a museum initiative that seems to be sensitive to the need to nurture an art that does not just mimic our own.
Are We Colonialising Middle Easter Art? (The Art Newspaper)