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Cultural Experiment Policies of Asian Organizations

Shiraz Arts Festival. Photo courtesy of Cunningham Dance Foundation archive
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A parallel System Reproducing the Traditional

For nations in Asia, the 19th century was a painful yet decisive moment, in which ancient customs and traditions were forcibly re-organized. Either being merged into the colonial system or being forced into creating new modern nations symbolized a rupture with the past. Faced with modernization, Asian nations could only take the initiative to modernize themselves or accept the process of modernizing passively; and all specific measures of reform, even if it was merely importing the most miniscule forms of new technology, all possibly led to the loosening and collapse of older regime structures. Today, the Asia of the past no longer exists, while the ties of new group of countries located both on the continent and islands to the old world are likely to be more vulnerable than people might think.

Technological innovation manifests itself in all aspects, from the rules and regulations of a society and its calendric system to medicine and industrialization, suggesting the extent to which change is implemented is more widespread and thorough than to the eye. This so-called thoroughness, is the mutual repulsion between older and newer systems. In other words, when a new international system is introduced, it is impossible for it to co-exist with an old one. The medical field makes for an obvious example: with the importation of the modern medical system to Asian nations, either older forms of tradition were to be completed abolished, or they had to be incorporated into a parallel system in order to co-exist with the new doctrines. However, this parallel structure often slowly marginalized those traditional techniques it originally housed, until the latter ultimately barely survives either as a cultural form or folkloric craft in contemporary society. As the most paradoxical element of modernity, culture is reproduced in a peculiar fashion and reconstitutes a particular historical construct in the process of Asian modernization.

The aforementioned parallel structure is most evident in cultural systems. As new nation states in Asia were first being built, the political, social, and cultural systems that were completely different from the past were already being shaped; but in order to produce a modern sense of national identity that could sufficiently fit into the international context, culture became a significant factor for locales in Asia to absorb new ideas and create nationalism in a modern sense. Culture provided a linkage/bond of sorts, one that allowed these new-born nation states to forge connections with established orders, as a way to offset the anxiety of social reform. As for the new colonies, although being deprived of political sovereignty, they were still able to effectively and precisely engineer such a cultural linkage structure under the control of the colonizers.

Cultural Center of the Philippines. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons; photo by Allan JAY

However, this linkage structure is by no means an inevitable existence: at the start of the Meiji period in Japan, the “Haibutsu kishaku” movement (1868) on the one hand aimed to re-establish the modernity of Shinto practices; on the other hand, it was also a radical purging of the old world—its destruction of cultural property was possibly no less than the Cultural Revolution. When art historian Ernest FENOLLOSA arrived at the Kofukuji Temple in Nara, he was shocked by the Meiji Revolution’s senseless destruction of priceless artworks. Of course, the motivations of the destruction were political, including the disintegration of preexisting forms of cultural organization and the extraction of political capital by the dominant, just like other important cultural reforms that ensued in Asia.

What happened hereafter corresponds to the art historical narrative that we are all too familiar with: OKAKURA Tenshin introduced the art of the “old era” to the United States, along with works written in English, formulating its significance of modernization. We can go as far to say that, traditional culture that is re-absorbed into modern ways of thought is akin to “Japanese painting,” in the sense that it belongs to a “new tradition” reinvented to co-exist with modern systems, which serves as the foundation upon which the parallel structure in cultural systems of these new Asian nation state were built. It is just like the fact that, in addition to organizing symphony orchestras, it is equally important to have a symphonic “Chinese orchestra.” This parallel structure permeated into exhibitions, performance, literature, and educational systems, becoming the means through which cultural signs of modern Asian countries are constructed.

The Origins of Modern Cultural Institutions in Asia: The Re-Imagination of Post-War International Order

As this parallel structure in cultural systems of new Asian nations gradually stabilized, it entered a new structure of reconfiguration due to the Cold War following WWII. Let us tentatively refrain from talking about cultural organizations or cultural experiments at the other side of the iron curtain, since the context of its developments differs drastically from modes of organization under the logic of contemporary capitalism, and its related forms of cultural construction often came to a halt at the end of the Cold War. The few instances of cultural organizations that remained, such as artists associations of former Communist countries, were also often mocked as outmoded crony structures. Or, take the example of national arts institutions of countries like North Korea, they were often reduced to subjects of oddity. As such, it is hard to make contextualized connections between these more-or-less alienate states and the contemporary cultural concepts that we are currently discussing. That is the main reason why we are skipping this topic for now.

Going back to Asia’s pro-American camp during the Cold War, we can find that often in short periods of time, many countries absorbed the expressions of contemporary art, transforming them into the content of official cultural events. Take the example of Iran’s pro-American PAHLAVI Regime during the Cold War, the power of cultural policy-making lay in the hands of the then queen Farah Diba. While it is true that the regime employed ruthless means similar to White Terror to wipe out political dissents, its cultural circle of the same period could be characterized as Iran’s most “cosmopolitan” golden era. Many of the most spectacular contemporary art happenings of the 1970s, including performances and exhibitions, could be found in Iran. From 1967 onwards, Queen Farah held the “Shiraz Arts Festival” in the old city, and the international arts festival continued until the Islamic Revolution overthrew the PAHLAVI Regime.

Not only traditional dances of Japan and India and Western classical music, but also Avantgarde performances such as the music of John CAGE and the stage designs of Robert RAUSCHENBERG were introduced to Iran during “Shiraz Arts Festival.” In the early 1970s, Iran invested in the ambitious plan to construct the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. When the museum opened in 1977, the avantgarde abstract artworks from New York became the highlight of the exhibition, while the inauguration show also coincided with the queen’s birthday. This scenario inevitably recalls the 1969 opening of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which took enormous funds to construct—the event also coincided with the 52nd birthday of MARCOS. With the examples of Iran and the Philippines comes a particular kind of tension, demonstrating that while authoritarian regimes work to repress those voicing dissents within the nation, they can also maintain a relatively open attitude towards experimental artmaking and creativity on an ‘international’ scale. Either Iran’s avantgarde art experimentations or the Philippines’ Cultural Center served as Asian tyrannical regimes’ showcases for Western society.

Shiraz Art Festival, Persepolis Event, Douglas DUNN (left) and Merce CUNNINGHAM (far right). Photo courtesy of Cunningham Dance Foundation archive

Not only traditional dances of Japan and India and Western classical music, but also Avantgarde performances such as the music of John CAGE and the stage designs of Robert RAUSCHENBERG were introduced to Iran during “Shiraz Arts Festival.”

We cannot deny that these special cases of experimental projects really did boost the development of contemporary art in Iran and the Philippines, suggesting that the pursuit of experimental art could be unaffected by the radical politics. At the same time, however, it lends no excuse for the opponents of these regimes. MARCOS’ successors lacked any imagination whatsoever for cultural policies, making cultural construction in the Philippines come to a standstill even today. As for the Islamic revolutionaries that overthrew the PAHLAVI Regime, they executed Iran’s first female education minister, purely on the basis of her gender. Avantgarde theater and art enraged Islamists, and were deployed as tools for political propaganda to vilify the regime. Many stage workers were described as promiscuous traitors that violated the law. After the revolution, Iran’s tolerance for cultural experimentation reverted to the state of even before the Middle-Ages.

Such an importing of western arts to emphasizes on cultural experimentation actually originated from the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo. In the early 1950s, Post-War Japan and France were negotiating how to properly return the Western artworks of the Zaibatsu’s collection, which were stored in Europe during the war time. The French government insisted that if works were to be shipped back to Japan, not only were museums to be especially built for displaying these works, the architects also had to be French. Under this backdrop, Le Corbusier headed to Japan to design what would be today’s “National Museum of Western Art.” The museum that opened in Ueno, Tokyo in 1959 became the token of the postwar diplomatic power struggle. We can even go as far to say that, this museum could be broadly construed as the West’s cultural reform of Japan after the war, in order to assimilate Japan into the western ideological structure. Similar cultural constructions and happenings repeatedly occurred in the ensuing Cold War period.

Anxiety of Globalization and Liberalization

With the end of the Cold War, it was no longer possible to secure support for specific organizations and institutions through the relationships among political camps based on ideologies. For developed countries in Asia like Japan, the construction of museums and cultural centers at various levels were almost near completion at the end of the Cold War. As such, it was necessary to find new avenues to acquire respective funding and support for cultural construction within the national budget. Amidst this particular environment, prospective plans concerned with the “cultural and creative industry” and with the goal of connecting global culture and reinvigorating local economies shot up one after another. For developing countries late to modernization and experiencing bottlenecks in transforming the economy like Thailand, the concept of cultural economy became an important slogan for attracting large-scale government investment. Since these slogans were just empty promises, once the governmental entities realize that the art organizations were unable to fulfill the needs of economic development, another similar slogan would take the previous one’s place.

The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyp. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Bangkok Art And Culture Centre. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons; photo by Supanut ARUNOPRAYOTE

BACC (Bangkok Arts & Culture Center) is an important example: it was founded to develop Thailand’s cultural and creative industries and to improve their quality through the promotion of contemporary art and the regulation of expenditures by the combination of commercial venues. However, with changes in governmental policies, BACC is currently under pressure to transform into a “youth entrepreneurial base.” At the root of it is with the end of the Cold War and rapid economic growth, most Asian governments could no longer afford unlimited expenditures on cultural construction. And for the same reason, it was no longer possible to obtain limited resources solely through meeting the governments’ political requirements. Therefore, cultural policies tied with a variety of motives and economic incentives came into being, hoping to find points of entry within the logic of economic liberalism.

Another form of social policy also found fertile ground in this round of cultural construction. For example, countries with higher levels of economic development in East Asia started taking notice of disproportionate cultural resources due to the urban-rural divide; they also aimed to deepen international ties. Hence, the activities such as art festivals or art seasons of various scales were performed to solve the urban-rural divide, as well as the marginalization of rural areas or an aging population in the country by combining with the tourism industry. Although to some extent, these activities have evidently encouraged young artists to flow towards rural areas for artistic exploration, in many cases in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, local art initiatives of this kind often become formalized and futile.

Relatedly, the arts and cultural policies of media art are shaped under similar circumstances. As the high-tech industry in Asia rapidly achieved economic success, discussions about the development of media or expositions of technology have never ceased. And from the 1990s, those who invest in the technological industry sector in East-Asia, such as traditional manufacturing, fabrication and export processing enterprises also expect to facilitate technological innovation through sponsoring media art and categories of art dealing with technology. Yet these fads of investment often come in waves; with the exit of tech companies and their sponsorship, the support for media and technology art mainly rest on the government. Interestingly, with constant upgrades in the application of these technologies, once the development of media art and technology closely follow the most advanced of commercially applicable technologies, the resources in need can be acquired in a relatively easy manner.

To conclude, the development of art and cultural policies in Asia after the Cold War went hand in hand with specific policies or narrative logic to establish certain organizations or carry out activities. And these specific policies and narrative logic, in being flexible to adapt to fluctuations in the technological and economic environment, are not unlike fashion trends that constantly produce changes wave after wave. Though these top-down cultural experiments that come and go tended to result in a waste of resources, we should not fail to see that each time a policy is implemented, potentials for experimentation are also accumulated and unleashed. Perhaps, what we do need is to systematically investigate the performances of cultural experiments accomplished by various countries in Asia, analyze them, and pull out possible threads that connect them all.

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