How cultural and economic inequality influences how we see art

Sanne van Oosten

Artists from all over the world have always gotten inspiration out of imitation. Through imitating the current or former kinds of art and giving it a twist of one’s own. This inspiration also takes place on an intercultural basis. For instance, Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese art. He took the existing art and made it into something of his own. Van Gogh has been extensively revered for his version of Blossoming Almond Tree as seen in the picture above.

This is an example of a western artists who was inspired by eastern art. But, of course, many eastern artists were also inspired by western art. In the Hong Kong museum of Art we visited an exhibition called Artistic Inclusion of the East and West. It featured paintings that western artists made of Hong Kong and China throughout the ages accompanied by paintings by Chinese artists who were inspired by their style, subject matter and techniques.

One painting, Dragon Boat Festival, 1815, Murdoch Bruce, is discussed with the following caption: “Murdoch Bruce … juxtaposes two boats competing along oblique lines. A large group of spectators is cheering along the bank. This Scotsman who lived in Hong Kong for a long time was keen to capture the drama of a festival”.

Another painting, Dragon Boat on the Pearl River, 1854, Tingqua, was inspired by the painting by Murdoch Bruce. This is how the caption in the museum reads. “Tinqua puts the dragon boat squarely in the middle of the picture plane along a horizontal line, giving a feeling of stillness rather than motion. The work displays an object but not the actual race”.

Even though the caption doesn’t blatantly say anything like: “the eastern artist obviously didn’t know what he was doing. This is not the way to paint a dragon boat race”, it is very clear that the museum favors the western artist. This wasn’t only the case with these two comparable paintings, this was a theme throughout the exhibition. Every time a western piece of art was discussed it was positive, whereas its eastern imitation is phrased in slightly negative wordings.

The caption could have also said something along the lines of this: Contrarily to Bruce Murdoch, Tinqua puts more emphasis on the actual boat, giving it more vivid colors creating a more vivacious piece of art to look at. It is clear that Tinqua understood the subject matter better than Bruce Murdoch, the foreigner, because a very important feature of the Dragon Boat race is not the race itself, but the beauty of the boat, on which many skilled craftsmen spent much time in order to complete. Of course, I’m just making this stuff up. But in a world in which west and east are equal this kind of caption could have very well been possible as well.

And this happened again and again and again. Throughout the exhibition, the eastern artists were seen as mere apprentices and the western artists as the masters. But what are they masters at? Their own style, of course. But couldn’t it also be the case that the so-called apprentices from the east were actually also masters in their own style, albeit a style that was inspired by the west? Who is to say who is the master? Couldn’t they both be masters in their own world? Interestingly, these descriptions were written in the Hong Kong museum of Art. Part of the Eastern world. Inequality is the most pervasive if even the disadvantaged ones believe it to be true.

Imagine western artists being valued like the eastern artists in the exhibition. Imagine the Japanese almond blossom art to be displayed next to Van Goghs rendition of such almond blossoms and imagine the museum caption saying something like this: Van Gogh was trying to imitate this traditional Japanese art, but was obviously failing to do so. Whereas the blossoms in the Japanese art are neatly drawn with monochromatic coloring and soft tones, Van Gogh’s rendition of these blossoms are chaotic, sloppy, some even with big blobs of paint on top of the surface of the painting. Once again, I’m making this stuff up. But my point is this: in a world in which the east was dominant, economically and culturally, over the west, such a normative caption could have been completely possible.  

Cultural hegemony, usually accompanied and even instigated by economic hegemony, colors how we see art and what we deem to be beautiful, innovative and important. It is important to understand how these dynamics work, especially in light with the upcoming (or current?) global power shift. I’m definitely not worried about the east. They’ll get theirs.

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