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Arts in Asia – Re-Viewing its Historical Outline

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Even though modern art works produced in Asia were created within the realm of different context, historical, geographical, social and cultural condition, this has not been the subject of art historical scholarship until quite recently. Art historians, critics, and theorists in international art circles have never taken modern art in developing countries seriously, especially in terms of academic interest. Western art critics have largely been interested only in the development of Western ideas in Asian art by judging its integration with Western tradition, but these cultural assumptions limit the various possible accounts of Asian art approaches.

Though there are quite a few books and writings on the national art histories in a few countries in Asia, Alison Carroll in her book “The Revolutionary Century,” tries to address and link art histories in a larger framework of Asia. A challenging quest, as this raises more questions than answers. Nevertheless, despite the increase in writings on art in Asia, the study of modern art in non-Western societies is still in its early years and this book is useful in terms of how it examines the scopes of art in Asia in a larger geographical context.

“The Revolutionary Century” introduces the major themes and practices of art in Asia in the twentieth century. The author has been an academic, critic, writer, curator and administrator of art exhibitions and artist exchanges with Asia for over twenty years. She has served on several boards, including the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, Arts Victoria’s Arts Development and International Advisory Committees, the Advisory Committees for Arts Management at the University of Melbourne and the University of South Australia, the Board of the Art Museums Association of Australia, the City of Melbourne’s Arts Advisory Board, the Australia-Indonesia Institute and the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board, to name a few. In 1990 she established and was the Director (until June 2010) of the Arts Program at Asialink, University of Melbourne – a program for arts exchange between Asia and Australia for visual arts, performing arts, literature and arts management practice. She has clearly been exposed to the various aspects of arts, artistic practices and artists, especially those from Asia.

Of course “Asia” as a term invites so much complexities and the “art” produced within this simplistic geographical domain are more complex than ever. Though the geographical demarcation of what constitutes Asia appears simplistic, for example, the division of North Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia as being employed by the author, these divisions were made based on the fact that they would make the research subjects more manageable. The second division employed by the author is time; the book is divided into 1900-1940, 1940- 1960, and 1960-2000.

The book discusses the major themes and practices of art in Asia within this wider geographic context, with the focus on development in art and arts practices, in particular those adapted from the outside especially in the context of “the new”. Carroll addresses in the first chapter a few major points that are pertinent to the discussion of the study of art in Asia in response to the West – such as the issue of art as copies or derivatives; the burden of Asian artists who are expected to never deviate from their art’s pure traditional form; terminologies from the West being used in the context of Asian art; the impact of the western preference for individual practice and innovation, compared to the importance in Asia of the master-pupil relationship, consensus and a desire for calm.

Although Carroll’s attempts to tease out the overall development of art in this context is commendable, I find that certain complexities should be explored by, for example, looking at how artistic practices in the various geographical areas of Asia influence each other and how they perhaps extend beyond these regions. Though the approach of this book is straightforward and is undoubtedly very useful to those who are interested in a preliminary survey of the situation in Asia’s art world, the attempt to cover multiple Asian regions means that not all aspects and complexities in the framework of Asian art can be addressed. For example, the ever problematic limited development of art critics and criticism.

As an art historian working on Malaysian art, there is still this deep sense of  how art in Southeast Asia is in uncharted territory, not yet detangled and conceptualized. Art of ASEAN, as noted by the author, is “very different in terms of interests, focus and capacity” (p. 169). Each country’s approach of nation building in Southeast Asia, its unexpected consequences and the new possibilities that can occur due to extensive flows in capital, culture and people are one of the topics that should be further explored and discussed and the idea of a single modern Asian art and the one-way flow of influence from the West to Asia in general, should be explored further to  prove that the persistent complex ebb and flow of information and transformations within and across the region do interact.

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