Oscar Ho considers more expansive definitions of art, and some provocations around curatorial gatekeeping and authority.
Part Three of a series of notes by Oscar Ho, written for an AAA public programme on Facebook that coincided with the launch of his archive. The bilingual posts and Facebook interactions are available here on IDEAS Journal: Parts One, Two, and Four.
In 1993, I organised an exhibition titled ‘We Don’t Know How To Paint’ An Exhibition By People Who Think They Don’t Know How To Paint, which showcased works by creatives who claim that they don’t know how to paint. Professional arts organisations are naturally expected to exhibit works by serious, trained, and professional artists; being an important arts platform at the time, is it not discrediting for the Hong Kong Arts Centre to organise such an exhibition? In fact, the conceptualisation of this exhibition is rather complicated; it also originates from my own understanding of the arts, so allow me to elaborate.
Why do we create art yet emphasise our lack of knowledge? Perhaps it is not that we don’t know, but that we believe we are not up to par. It seems that society has a standard for deciding what is considered art and what is not, yet no one can clearly articulate what those standards are (dowdy statements such as “art must be beautiful” can be ignored). In any era, contemporary art is convoluted and controversial, without any clear rules; Duchamp’s urinal (The Fountain, 1917) and Manzoni’s canned faeces (Artist’s Shit, 1961) have already been included in the art history canon. It’s absurd that there are still egotistical people who will claim what is or isn’t art with conviction—but I met many such people within the art community when I returned to Hong Kong from the United States.
My question is, why are we still so insistent on defining what art is? In reality, if we were to give up on having a definition, the ecosystem would crumble; the rare “talented” and “genius” artist would cease to exist in a time where anyone can be an artist. As for the collectors who are looking to make a profit to show off their knowledge and taste, collecting becomes pointless.
However, if we cannot draw a line, how can we tell if one “knows how to paint”? From another perspective, though trying to grapple with a standard for art is a real head scratcher, we still seem to have certain methods to determine if something leans towards the better or the worse, and if they’re genuine or not. This type of obscure decision-making comes from positions of authority and expertise: reputable organisations, academics, curators, and art critics (of course, we’re only talking about the influential ones!)—and for authoritarian countries, the power falls to the leaders. The weirder contemporary art becomes, the more our confuzzled audiences will rely on such experts. It doesn’t matter if there isn’t a standard—as long as there are authoritative organisations and people, it’s enough. Whenever the New York Museum of Modern Art organises blockbuster solo exhibitions, the artist’s work is automatically deemed to be good art, and all the more with the museum’s name attached. Perhaps there are some people who would disagree with such curation, but most of the general audience would accept these archetypes. If the crowd can’t understand an exhibit or work, many would just resign themselves to the notion that they just “don’t know art,” and give up, leaving it to the “experts.” My exhibition on Lo Ting actually also touches upon this issue.
When I returned to Hong Kong in the mid-1980s, this situation was very prominent in the city; the public lacked knowledge and interest in art, and the small yet isolated art community continued to feed into elitism. Riding on the back of the notion of Hong Kong as a refined society, nepotism grew and a hierarchy was developed. Ink art dominated official art institutions, and while there were the occasional young art practitioners working with contemporary art, it was difficult for them to be a part of the mainstream.
I should probably explain my artistic background. When I was studying art as an undergraduate in Canada, I was deeply interested in the newly trending “new art history,” and believed that other than analysing visual forms and styles, we should adopt broader political, cultural, and social perspectives, and to remain critical of the hidden power structures within. The idea of viewing art with a more expansive attitude was also influenced by the anthropological departure from binary thinking, since creative expression is an indispensable and natural activity of any community.
When I was in graduate school at University of California, Davis, the school was the main hub of California Funk Art. Teachers such as Wayne Thiebaud, Roy DeForest, and Robert Arneson liked to take inspiration from folk, mainstream, and pop culture. For them, things are just the way they are; a child’s hobby is soccer, beer girls like to dress up, a chubby boy likes to draw—what is the point of being pretentious? Such an artistic view had clearly opposed the artistic elitism from the East coast.
Carrying this training with me back to Hong Kong to face this hierarchical and condescending cultural community, it’s not hard to imagine the clash I experienced. Yet I enjoyed challenging this conservative sensitivity. And so, for the first exhibition I organised as the newly appointed Exhibition Director of the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 1988, we flirted with the topic “Is This Art?” Living with Art was the first exhibition I was tasked with, and the show takes after the Royal Academy of Art’s annual Summer Exhibition, a highly respected event in which the works are judged by a selection committee, showcasing the United Kingdom’s latest art scene each year. However, given how small and elitist the art scene is in Hong Kong, it would soon be the same group of people at the top over and over again—so boring. At the time, I needed to establish a selection committee to choose the exhibiting works and immediately I was faced with the big question: Who has the right to decide what is art? With the responsibility to appoint the selection committee members, my power was even greater. Back then, the main exhibition spaces in Hong Kong were the forerunner of the Hong Kong Museum of Art at City Hall, and the perceivably “more progressive” Hong Kong Arts Centre. Being the curator of a central arts platform, naturally there was considerable power to evaluate and define art, and to be the guiding light for the public to learn from. It’s quite arrogant and egotistical to say this; but during the development of this small cultural community, there really was a certain amount of power on my part.
There are people out there who would enjoy such authority but I, on the other hand, felt infinite stress. Not only does this attitude betray my own art view, but I also didn’t feel ready to carry this burden. With so many different perspectives and motivations in looking at art, why is it that some people have the privilege to criticise art? In order to disseminate this power, I decided to just demolish the selection committee—anyone who participated would have their work exhibited. Of course, such a move within a highbrow institute like the Hong Kong Arts Centre was rather bold, and it took me a lot of effort to have to explain this to the team. I said since there weren’t many professional creatives, as I mentioned earlier, we should instead take on a sociological perspective and look at the distribution and categories of creative programmes. When the Arts Centre opened its doors, the public flooded in to participate, filling the exhibition space with works all the way to the staircase outside the room—participants came from all lines of work. The only ones who didn’t take part were artists. The art industry obviously wasn’t happy with my first exhibition; South China Morning Post art critic Nigel Cameron wrote that he hoped there wouldn’t be a next time. Though professor Matthew Turner from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University quite liked the show.
It was a historic opening night, with grandparents, parents, and children coming to take photographs of their family’s participating works, which ranged from children’s drawings to laborious imitations. If we were to abandon elitism and observed how different community sectors created “art” and what kinds of issues they were concerned with, it would be just as interesting.
It was within my expectations that the cultural sector and press media would be apathetic, but my biggest challenge? If we don’t need to pick and choose, why do we need curators? If every exhibition ditched all standards and allowed anything to be exhibited, it would only take a few of these to make them all essentially the same exhibition. None will come to see them either. I had forced myself into a corner with the first exhibition, after which I was thrown into a complicated process of struggle, of contemplation, and searching of answers—I’ll clarify this in the next part if I can.
We Don’t Know How To Paint! extends this train of thought, allowing a group of self-proclaimed unschooled people to show their work, to let them fully immerse themselves in the process—does it not motivate you to reflect on what meaning and motivation creativity has outside of technique and profundity? It was self-contradictory for the “Arts” Centre to openly invite people who don’t know how to paint to showcase their work, but it was only through such a move that we could provoke reflection.
I kept grappling with and ruminating on my curatorial projects in my first few years as Exhibition Director, especially with regards to the conservative arts community. My anti-prejudicial attitude on art has not changed. Instead, it developed in a multitude of directions. For example, like we did with community art, we brought comics onto the pedestal of art. During those early years, I organised a number of exhibitions that challenged the existence of art, curators, and institutions. Though there were still many other issues that popped up as time went on, this area of exploration remained. It seems that the tendency to provoke, and to turn things on their heads, is an innate characteristic of mine, so if you must find a reason, you can blame my mother la!
[Screenshots of Oscar's post and interactions on Facebook]
Oscar Ho Hing Kay (b. 1956) is an artist, curator, art critic, and educator. He has held various prominent positions in established arts organisations and higher education institutions in Hong Kong and China since his return from the US in 1984. He has recently retired from his position as the Programme Director of the MA programme in Cultural Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He was appointed the Exhibition Director at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, the Senior Research Officer at the Home Affairs Bureau of the Hong Kong Government, Founding Director of Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai, and a member of the Museum Advisory Group for the West Kowloon Cultural District, just to name a few. His curatorial practice and writings advocate for an understanding of art in the broader context of visual culture, as well as art’s accessibility to the public, highlighting its role in the construction of Hong Kong’s cultural identities.