29 May ART, BUT ASIAN: ASIAN AESTHETICS
I would start the year in my high school art class by creating a tonal value scale where you fill in boxes with pencils from light to dark. Afterwards, I’d practice shading geometric shapes using light and dark values to transform a square into a cube or a circle into a sphere. From there, I graduated towards creating still life pieces. I arranged wine bottles and fake fruits into a satisfactory pile, set up my chair in a specific position, and then spent a month reproducing the scene in pencil.
I’ve come to realize that this is a very Western notion of art. It’s not a bad thing! European art is so rich and beautiful – there’s a reason tourists (pre-COVID-19) flock to Europe in droves. However, to me, visual art seems like it should be more personal or more independent, from external influence. As a Chinese person who has lived in Western culture for my entire life, it’s strange to think about how my surroundings may have impacted my ideas about art and beauty. I am not an art history major, nor am I a high art connoisseur – but I felt inspired to investigate the differences in Western and Asian interpretations of art.
Western artists strived to capture the world exactly as they viewed it, especially in the Renaissance. These artists employed a rational, almost mathematical, approach to beauty – I think of Leonardo Da Vinci and his Vitruvian man, which explored the perfect proportions of the human body. Depth was used to organize the visual environment to recreate their view perfectly.
Colour was used to construct light and dark, creating dimensions that replicated the visual environment.
Western art is also characterized by its focus on the subject rather than on the context. Artists tended to create object-centred scenes, which captured a particular moment, in a specific position, at a particular time. The depth in Western art naturally suggested a fixed, external perspective from which to view the image.
This approach to art stands in contrast to East Asian artists who sought to capture the dynamic human relationship with the environment. Since Asian philosophy emphasized the importance of harmony, it followed that artists often integrated poetry, calligraphy, and painting into one composition, reflecting their deep connection and contemplation about the natural universe found in their philosophies. Colour expression was simpler and more monochrome, as they did not use colour to express light and dark. This assisted in the dynamic quality of their paintings as artists were not restricted to one perspective: multiple viewpoints invited the viewer to shift their position and observe multiple places at once.
East Asian artists favoured context-oriented scenes; their objects are integrated, rather than distinguished, from their background environment. The Chinese, for example, used the scroll form to represent background information, giving their landscapes a panoramic quality. These details add to the sense of wholeness and belongingness of the piece. East Asian art could perfectly capture the essence, or the feeling, of a scene.
Nathalie Trouveroy, an art historian, nicely summarized what each form of art endeavoured to achieve: “a perfect, illusionistic likeness in Europe, the essence of inner life and spirit in Asia.”
In the postmodern era, geographic boundaries are a thing of the past. Technology and movement have allowed the cross-cultural exchange to occur more rapidly than ever; it only makes sense that artistic ideas and influences have coalesced. However, this wasn’t limited to the modern era. Asian artists have inspired Western art, particularly the Impressionists. Monet, for example, was inspired by Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts to integrate asymmetry and shortened perspective in his paintings. Van Gogh had described his admiration for the simplicity, asymmetry, colour, and natural motifs of Japanese artwork:
“Look, we love Japanese painting, we’ve experienced its influence — all the Impressionists have that in common [ . . . ] after some time your vision changes, you see with a more Japanese eye, you feel colour differently. I’m also convinced that it’s precisely through a long stay here that I’ll bring out my personality. The Japanese draws quickly, very quickly, like a flash of lightning, because his nerves are finer, his feeling simpler.”
Nonetheless, Asian art has been historically sidelined. It is often viewed as complementary to the central sophistication of Western art rather than as beauty deserving of its own recognition. This is particularly terrible for artists outside the East Asian diaspora, as Google searches and research for “Asian” art primarily consider Chinese, Japanese, or Korean artwork – West, Central, and South Asian artists are overlooked in the West’s “Asian” definition. I understand how those in the West obtain a Western-centric focus of art; however, I look forward to seeing this practice corrected by the West drawing on Asian art.
Today, Asian artists are essential contributors to a global artistic identity. Artists like Subodh Gupta, whose sculptures depict wealth inequality, or Ai Weiwei, who highlights individualism in the collectivist Chinese culture, use their talents to emphasize important political and social matters. Asian-Canadian and Asian-American artists are uniquely capable of creating art that contends with displacement, discrimination, and transnational identities. For example, Allan DeSouza photographed the Trump Taj Mahal hotel to showcase Orientalism – how the beauty and history behind Asian culture are reduced to their “exotic” features for cheap, leisurely purposes.
Even for art that is not distinctly “Asian,” Asian artists blend traditional techniques with new media and technology to create artwork that articulates their unique perspectives. Artists in the Asian diaspora will continue to pave their creative path. To watch how they define meaning and beauty in the coming eras will be endlessly exciting.
Happy Asian heritage month!