In May 2013, AAA Head of Research Hammad Nasar visited Rasheed Araeen with a copy of Chen Kuan-hsing's Asia as Method. The following e-mail exchange ensued.
From: Rasheed Araeen / To: Kuan-Hsing Chen / 11 Aug 2013 11:00 PM / Subject: Greetings
Dear Kuan-Hsing Chen,
I have just finished your book, Asia as Method,1 which I read with great interest and I write to you to express admiration for the work you have done.
Before I respond to some of your points, I must tell you I’m not an academic, nor do I write academically, for academics. The struggle I invoke here was somewhat in defiance of what you call "the limits of colonial history." I was born and educated in Pakistan, and moved to London in 1964 after graduating with a degree in civil engineering to pursue art. Here I encountered the most advanced forms of modern sculpture but at the same time, I began to feel disillusioned and frustrated because I was seen as an outsider, "the other." I came across the work of Frantz Fanon in 1971 and began writing about cultural imperialism in 1975–1976 as part of a collective struggle of Asian and African people in the UK. In 1978, I founded the magazine Black Phoenix (later resurrected as Third Text) where I published "Black Manifesto" in the first issue. "Black Manifesto" became the mission statement for what followed as a continuing struggle against the Eurocentric production, dissemination, and legitimisation of knowledge.2
Around the same time, the British state developed its own plan and agenda to pacify the struggle. First in 1973 a controversial meeting invited Asian and African groups to discuss their situation. This was boycotted by radical groups including the Black Panthers. In 1974, Naseem Khan (later appointed as Head of Diversity for Arts Council England) supported by a committee that included Prof Stuart Hall (a pioneer of Cultural Studies) was commissioned by Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CGF), the Arts Council, and the Commission of Racial Equality, the latter two organs of the British state, to investigate "the cultures of African and Asian people." Shortly after, Khan published a book The Arts Britain Ignores (1976, the year I finished writing Black Manifesto) largely welcomed by those Africans and Asians of British society who saw in it a space in which they could pursue their careers. But this was not a space that would lead them into the mainstream, with the possibility of confrontation and decolonisation, but one that allowed for a separate discourse to define and represent exclusively those who must remain "immigrants."
In 1987, four years after I began publishing Third Text, the Arts Council launched its project: "To create in the UK the foremost gallery for the exhibition and appreciation of contemporary visual arts by artists from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific basin and those who have cultural roots in these regions but who live in Europe and the West." This project was named INIVA and had as its first director Gilane Tawadros (member of the Advisory Committee of Third Text) with Stuart Hall as the Chair of its Trustees Board. In addition, the Arts Council launched the gravy-train of so-called "cultural diversity" in the early 1990s and the first person to jump into the driver’s seat was Stuart Hall.
As Chair of the Trustees Board of INIVA for 15 years, with approximately £15 million of public money spent, why did Stuart Hall, eminent professor of cultural studies, fail to help Britain’s art institutions to decolonise themselves? Was this failure owing to his self-interest or was there something fundamentally wrong in some of the ideas of the cultural studies he pioneered and theorised? My point is that while post-colonial theories, cultural, and subaltern studies have exposed issues and produced a discourse whose importance I do not deny, they have not led us into what you have suggested as the urgent need for the decolonisation of the prevailing world system. Knowledge is still dominated, legitimised, and promoted globally by the West. While there is resistance to it, there is no substantial work done within post-colonial cultural studies scholarship which deals theoretically and art historically with it.
This brings me back to your book. I find it difficult to agree with the assertion that "the intellectual and subjective work of decolonisation . . . was stalled by the cold war." The Cold War did interfere with it and we suffered many defeats, but the struggle for decolonisation was never stalled or stopped, not even in East Asia. In fact, the ideas of modernity and modernism became tools against colonialism. They were taken up by artists in the colonies to reinforce the struggle for the independence of their countries. For instance at the end of the war, East Asia was in turmoil, trying to recover from its material devastation and assert its independence. And although it did somehow recover economically with post-war industrial modernisation, its intellectual work got trapped by the domination of American Abstract Expressionism, which created artists who were mostly surrogates of what was happening in New York. But this situation also triggered an extraordinarily original avant-garde art movement—the Gutai, emerging in Japan in 1956. Although the historical significance of Gutai lies in its defiance of American cultural hegemony, it made no impact on the continuing imperialism in Asia or elsewhere. The fault for this did not lie with the artists’ practice but with the absence of scholarship, sufficient material, and intellectual resources in Japan or the East Asia which was needed to underpin their work as historically and ideologically significant. Only when Asia produces its own interpretation and understanding of history, which advances the ideas of modernity and modernism, would it be possible to understand the true significance of Gutai. The main struggle of art today is therefore the struggle against this history.
And so I want to propose that an important part of the struggle was missing from your book: that which lies in its confrontation with the "Knowledge production [which] is one of the major sites in which imperialism operates and exercises its power." In 2008, I started publishing Third Text Asia, "to offer a critical space for the development of scholarship . . . in pursuit of [our own] understanding of art’s complexity and significance." I saw Asia as a site, not as "method" as proposed by you. Asia can and should be a site of anti-imperialist struggle, but your proposition of Asia as Method is too ambiguous and general. It does not lead us into a concrete discourse by which we can confront the particularity of neo-imperialist knowledge and produce counter-knowledge. Instead, I would propose Art as Method, because it is art by which modernity as an advancing force is defined with its exclusive European subjectivity; only art can confront neo-imperialism and offer a model of decolonisation. Moreover, art is concerned with making things and thus can enter the everyday and become part of its collective productivity. Only through collectivity can we win the struggle.
From: Kuan-Hsing Chen / To: Rasheed Araeen/ 16 August 2013 06:04 PM / Subject: Re: Greetings
Thanks for the engaged discussion. Reading your letter makes me immediately aware that you are one of our qian-bei (a respected earlier generation intellectual), from whom we learn a great deal. I also feel that we may have similar take on writing: my generation (born in 1950s) still writes for the larger intellectual community beyond the academy and despises those with academic pretensions. But my book Asia as Method has to find an entrypoint into the discussion, and "cultural studies" is a cross-discipline field which I am familiar with, and in which I have been able to get work done.
I very much appreciate your telling the story of how "British Cultural Studies" (in particular Stuart Hall as a representative figure) has supported the mediation of the state agenda of multi-culturalism through art institutions, and has not been able to carry out de-imperialisation work in the UK. Never having had a chance to study or stay there for more than a week, I do not have enough knowledge of the London intellectual scene, especially Stuart's role in the art world, so your analysis does fill an important gap in my understanding; I feel grateful for your honest account. But your stronger argument regarding what is inherent in cultural studies on the de-imperialisation and decolonisation part can perhaps open more discussions here: as a general tendency, in the imperial metropolises of London, Paris, and New York, de-imperialisation has not become a broad cultural-political movement. This cannot be explained by the "complicity" of cultural studies or post-colonial studies; though larger intellectual work (both in and outside the academy) can be held responsible, the reasons for the lack of de-imperialisation are still to be discovered. What was the historical conjuncture when the Third World decolonisation movement (in the form of national independence) began in the 1950s but did not culminate on all levels in a self-critical and reflexive intellectual movement in the metropolises, not even opening the imperialist history up for debate? My own imagined test to identify the extent of de-imperialisation would be looking at textbooks used in London schools to see how British imperialist history is being written now.
When imperial history is not fully contested, and public-political understanding of that history is not placed in the "internationalist" imagination, multiculturalism will come into the picture to contain the "post-colonial subjects" (migrants from the former Common Wealth colonies) within the British nation state as "ethnic minorities"; racism becomes a "local" issue to be absorbed into state management.
Besides the larger historical forces that need to be put in place to explain the "complicity" in different metropolises, on one level, and only one level, my short answer lies in the limits of "European modes of knowledge," which include cultural studies and post-colonial studies. To be able to articulate what "one's own" mode of knowledge is requires an outside system of thought, including language. English monolingualism would perhaps need to be overcome to even begin the work of decolonisation. I guess I'm saying that more substantial research needs to be done to explain more explicitly what undermines struggles like Black Phoenix and Third Text.
Another missing dimension of "Asia as method," as you correctly point out, is engagement with the arts. My knowledge about art is really close to nothing. In fact, I have only begun learning about the art world recently in joining the West Heaven project and in organising the Asian Circle of Thought Forum3 for the 2012 Shanghai Biennial. My initial understanding is that, as you know well, many art institutions have been and continue to be set up in different parts of Asia, but this does not mean decolonisation work is being done through institutions, and worse, certain institutions are even more Eurocentric. This is partly the case because the notion of "art," like other major subjects such as religion, philosophy, and science, has not been problematised and still follows the European understanding of art (history) which organises everything. And, you know better than I do, once these institutions are in place, they are very difficult to change, since change involves the entire apparatus surrounding the "arts." It is at this level of work that I'd like very much to learn more from you on "art as method," and to what extent it can be a major vehicle towards decolonisation, once the very notion of art itself is problematised, and to what extent art institutions in reality can lead in constituting a larger movement of de-imperialisation in the metropolises and of decolonisation in the former colonies. For me, Asia is much more than a site. Asia has many histories of practices and diverse modes of knowledge, and critical intellectual traditions. The point is whether we can re-articulate these practices and knowledge from non-Eurocentric eyes. The recent formation of Modern Asian Thought4 is precisely such an attempt.
From: Rasheed Araeen / To: Kuan Hsing-chen / 17 September 2013 11:28 PM / Subject: Re: Re: Greetings
I agree with your idea of Asia as "a site to intervene" but "cultural studies" as a site is too general for me. In order to be effective, we will have to be specific and concentrate particularly on the kind of discourse in which ordinary people can enter and turn into a collective struggle. I want to focus here on art. Its theoretical ideas as well as modern history are still being determined and dominated by a colonial discourse, so we have to develop an alternative discourse which deals with it both theoretically and historically.
Following your own guidance, there are at least three tasks to be performed: 1) to recover the suppressed or misrepresented knowledge from the history of West-centric discourse of (neo)imperialism 2) to produce new knowledge which can take humanity towards real liberation and freedom 3) these must not remain trapped within institutional ivory towers, but must enter the dynamics of ordinary people’s lives. Only when these people can speak for themselves, with the possession of knowledge and consciousness of their own creative power, will there be a revolution.
In light of the above, I want to propose Art as Method for the following reasons:
1) You were right when you referred to the Cold War as an impediment to the continuity of the struggle for decolonisation. Besides the post-war domination of American popular culture in Asia, Abstract Expressionism also distracted from and undermined the creative potential of the post-colonial nation states of Third World, particularly when they had a democratic "socialist" agenda. In Pakistan, Abstract Expressionism arrived in 1958, following the arrival of Rock-n-Roll, Coca-Cola, and blue jeans, and was patronised and promoted by the CIA-supported military regime of Ayyub Khan. As such, Abstract Expressionism was deliberately used as a Cold War policy and tool by the US against socialism, and it is art that can confront neo-imperialism.
2) Although the kind of art I have alluded to above is of an elitist disposition, dependent on and addressing the bourgeois regime, there is also a level at which ordinary people are involved. Art is about making things, and making them creatively, which is fundamental to the creativity of ordinary people. Once this creativity is recognised as central to the overall struggle for democratic freedom, the re-appropriation by people of the knowledge produced by the bourgeois regime can enhance the interface between creativity and productivity. My point is that what we produce intellectually as a counter-discourse must be transferred to the level by which the masses can enrich their understanding of what is required to move forward in the modern world.
3) While critiquing the West, it is imperative to recognise the historically valuable aspects of the knowledge produced under the shadow of imperialism, which can empower our own struggle, such as the mainstream history of modernism in art. The Western tradition of art, the precursor to modernism in the twentieth century which spread globally with colonialism, is based on representation, particularly of what the eye can see. However, one of the important aspects of modernism has been its struggle against representation, so that imagination could liberate itself from the spectacle of the visible and contemplate ideas beyond: it's not enough to reflect but to change the world (Marx). At the end of 1960s, some artists decided to abandon the making of art in the form of painting, sculpture, etc., and turn to what they found in the rural earth and to intervene in and change it. This was historically a paradigm shift in the perception of art: it was a shift from representation or reflection to intervention in what one saw and experienced to change and transform it.
4) The art world is still occupied with the idea of art as a precious object or commodity legitimised by the bourgeois art establishment and sold in the market place. Alternatively, Art as Method proposes a creative process by which to liberate the idea of transformation by transferring it to the ordinary people who, by making it part of their productivity, produce an egalitarian system of production, social relation and discourse involving other disciplines of knowledge, such as philosophy, science, history, economy, ecology, etc. as I have suggested and elaborated in my book Art Beyond Art (I can send you a copy if you like).
With kind regards,
From: Kuan-Hsing Chen / To: Rasheed Araeen / 23 September 2013 4:26PM / Subject: Re: Re: Re: Greetings
I do understand everything you are saying and I am mostly in agreement with what you try to do. But I’m not certain to what extent people involved in the art world would want to hear it, since you are attempting to challenge and redefine the very notion of art as it is practiced in the institutional (in all senses of the word) context. Elsewhere, I have used the image of "living fossils" to describe friends who are involved in some of the projects across Asia, since it is that specific generation of intellectuals who share common concerns and beliefs, and want to implement what needs to be done when they are in a position to do so. At the same time, we all realise that the larger contexts and conditions have been transformed to the extent that others, especially the latter generations, can no longer fully comprehend the historically constituted driving energies of our attempts.
When I began to be involved in the Shanghai Biennial in early 2010, I quickly realised the strategic value of the art institution as a "site for struggle," since it was estimated that there would be a half million people visiting the exhibition. But I was also quickly reminded of unrealistic expectations since there have always been well established gaps between "the elites and the masses," i.e., those who organise and produce the work and the visitors. Museum programme officers, curators, and artists are talking to and among themselves, and the success or failure of the event has nothing to do with the genuine participation of the visitors/citizens. I guess there is nothing new in this simple realisation for people like you who have always wanted to transform the situation. The dilemma is that it would be stupid to give up this potentially important strategic site, always and already put in place to be mobilised, but it is in vain to change the received elitist understanding of art, not to mention to change the brain of those who drive the institutional machine. One would further have to come to terms with the material reality that interests operate on all levels, including artists who need to make a living. It is in light of this dilemma or productive tension that I want to reflect on or echo the points made in your concrete proposal for "Art as Method."
If I correctly understand your point about Abstract Expressionism in the early Cold War period, the literati circle in the pro-US side of East Asia seemed to have a very similar experience, not only in visual arts like painting but in the triumph of modernist literature, promoted through the hand of the US Information Office based in Taipei, Hong Kong, and Seoul. In the Cold War/authoritarian era, "abstract expression" had become artistic and literary techniques to avoid political troubles. The result created a generation of works of art that avoided government censorship, but at the same time had an unintended consequence: elitist abstraction could not reach out to popular readership. A group of us have begun in the past several years to reconstruct the history of post-war leftist thought in Taiwan by focusing on the work of leading novelist Chen Yingzhen and painter Wu Yaozhong. To understand their work today, efforts have to be made to read not just contextually but to slowly unpack the nuanced expressions. I would guess that the popular understanding of art as something abstract and not fully comprehensible has to do with that moment of history, when the gap between artist and reader was opened.
In this context, as you point out, "art is about making things, and making them creatively, which is fundamental to the creativity of ordinary people." It not only means to "return" art to ordinary people, but also a redefinition of art as creative work in the daily life of popular struggle. This very understanding of art as creative practice in popular life can take us in different directions and has many implications. It may turn our eyes to the creative energies and forms of mundane daily life, such as a mother making beautiful dinner dishes invested with love and care. It may change the very idea of art institutions, since creative works are produced and created everywhere in social space, such as the eye-catching slogan displayed in the street demonstration. It may also challenge what needs to be written into the so-called art history, to include all forms of creative work. It further reveals that creative work cannot be reduced to the category of visual arts as it is now so dominantly conceived and organised in all the arts biennials. In short, if we want to follow your notion of art, we’ll need to radically turn things around.
It’s interesting to note that, in your account of the shift from "representation or reflection to intervention" in modernism, that art institutions for better or worse have consciously or unconsciously performed the function of documenting the transformation process. Perhaps, this can be highlighted: art institutions as documentation sites for popular memory, so that social transformation can be prepared or even inspired to happen elsewhere. Conceptualised this way, one would not then have the illusion to expect "bourgeois institutions" to do more than they can afford, but to redirect where forms and energies of intervention can be made in more strategically relevant social and political arenas. Conceptualised this way, one would expect genuine artistic practice to go on in the struggle of daily life; and individuals or groups who creatively make things that contribute to social transformation on all levels will be given due attention for their genuine artistic work. And only by establishing an alternative understanding of art and rewriting art history accordingly, can one begin to change the conception of art as a rare object to be sold in the market and to assign the role of art as a creative process to change the world.
I have not yet read Art Beyond Art but would very much like to. My hunch is that the key points you are making in formulating "Art as Method" are in tune with the arguments made in Art Beyond Art as well as the spirit upholding the Third Text project from the very beginning. I am certain there are many people out there sharing your ideas, and these are not necessarily the living fossils within the art world, but those who believe in the necessity for ongoing social transformation towards a better future.
From: Rasheed Araeen / To: 'Kuan-Hsing Chen' / September 23 2013 6:57 PM / Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Greetings
Many thanks for your beautiful response. By "Art as Method" I actually mean "Creativity of People as Method." Once this creativity is recognised as part of people’s productivity and is then organised as a collective endeavour, it can become the basic tool of the struggle. I will come to this later when I have some time to elaborate on this point, and respond to your letter properly. Meanwhile I want to send you my book Art Beyond Art. Please send me your address.
1. Chen, Kuan-hsing, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization, London & Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
2. Black Phoenix was discontinued after three issues, and was resurrected in 1987 as Third Text: Third World Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture.
3. "World in Transition, Imagination in Flux–Asian Circle of Thought 2012 Shanghai Summit" invited six Asian thinkers from South Korea, Japanese mainland, Okinawa, Malaysia, and India to deliver speeches from 12 to 19 October and engage in discussions with 40-plus intellectuals from across Asia.
4. This is part of a larger project contributing to the (re)integration of Asia at the level of knowledge production. Other projects include Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, East Asia Critical Journals Conference, and West Heavens.