Essay: A Task for Southeast Asian Contemporary Art – Legacy of Colonialism

Modernity and Modern Art (1850s – 1945)

Let us agree for the moment on a common definition of the term Contemporary Art. The term, as succinctly as possible, is simply a type of art form and content that addresses, reflects and responds to a particular time in a particular age.

Writing in 1859, the French critic, poet and artist Charles Baudelaire laid down one of the founding principle of modern art; “I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature.” (see essay: The Painter of Modern Life)

By art, Baudelaire meant an Art that was suitable to the condition of that particular period of modern life in Paris and by extension large European cities. And ‘spirit’ or condition of modern life as modernity: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting and the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’ 

But this description of the modern life, however poetic, cannot be disconnected with the wealth, prestige and industrial might of 19th and 20th century European countries. Indeed it is partly connected with the processes of imperialism and colonisation.

It is a basic fact that European Imperialism and Colonialism has been a main feature of Europe’s interactions with Asia (South, East and Central Asia). At the apotheosis of European colonisation in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, colonial powers such as Portugal (Malacca, later East Timor) Spain (Philippines), Dutch (Indonesia), Britain (Penang, Singapore, Burma now Myanmar, later Malaya and Borneo territories), France (Indochina) and even United States of America (Philippines) competed with one another for the resources and territories of Southeast Asia.

But Europe is not only the guilty party. While American troops in Asia has been for the most part benign and defensive, it is based on the ideas of ‘globalism’, a way of being described by James Peck  where the world’s economic, political and cultural center leads to Washington.Look at the thousands of American troops in Japan, Korea and other Asian countries and you can see how imperialism, even if the seventh fleet is officially meant to be a deterrence, still exists in one form or another in Asia.

To be clear, American power has been benign as compared to European activities in Asia. At least Asian countries are not officially colonies. But America is not really innocent and free of the charges of colonialism (see history of Philippines). But what is undeniably is that ever since Europe needed the Americans to save them from Germany in World War 2, the center of power has shifted to the other side of the Atlantic.

So how is colonisation tied to art? Simply this. Culture, Language and World-Lens. Whatever one may think of European colonisation, it is undeniable that it has left a mark on Southeast Asia countries. 2

While the relationship between the two regions were primarily based on territorial expansion, resource extraction and trade, it is also natural that there was a diffusion of European art and culture to Southeast Asia

One example is the proselytising of Christian missionaries into the region. Another would be British style civil service administration. But more importantly, the language of European culture; French is still spoken in Vietnam whereas English became the working language in Singapore.

The cultural and artistic exchange includes the way in which Asia was viewed through European and Western perceptions, similar to Edward Said‘s proposition that like Orientalism, Southeast Asia becomes the Other; an uniformed set of foreigners uniquely strange and different from Europeans. Culturally, the far side of the world was wild and barbaric; peoples who needed to be ruled by a superior class of people.

Edward Said’s claim is that the portrayal of Middle Eastern Culture, despite its diversity, long history and differences between groups and territories, has been congealed into an uniformed whole by Western writers.

In that regard, what is doubtful about Western reproduction of the Other is its accuracy and neutrality. Ultimately, it is tainted by cultural and literary processes of making strange Middle Eastern Culture; with the end goal of stressing Western superiority in rationality and modernity in the development of technology, industrial and sociopolitical systems. In other words, an underlying motive for justifying a sense of superiority and a right to rule over these ‘other’ peoples.

Apart from literary realms, this line of thinking also manifest itself in official policies and behaviours. As a result, the French wanted to ‘civilise’ the region as much as the English took on the ‘white man’s burden’ to educate the ‘little brown people’ of Southeast Asia. Despite being the birthplace of modern representative governments, France and England did not much take to the idea of Equality and Freedom for Southeast Asia. In fact, Hong Kong (even though it is not a S.E.A country) was only released from colonisation in 1997; and Macau by Portugal in 1999.

Despite its negative connotations, notions of Empire, Imperialism and Colonisation are still attractive for many people. For more evidence of this desire, one only need to look at various territorial dependencies, autonomous regions and islands that are still in operation around the globe. In short, empire is still alive and well in the 21st century. Thus this undercurrent of cultural imperialism has implications on the cultural sphere.

It is an undeniable fact that all roads leads to Rome (USA). By this, ideas of ‘international law’, ‘globalism’ ‘modernisation’, ‘industrialisation’ and ‘modern life’ are based on Western-influenced ideas of modern life. This means that Culture is heavily influenced by American culture. It has been so from second half of the 20th century and will be so until the next century.

Without a doubt the most economically powerful media companies are based in America. While News and Current Affairs may be controlled state-media, other mass media such as novels, magazines, websites, movies, music and TV news are heavily circulated around the world. More people knows House of Cards or Beyoncé than their cultural icons from France or Italy. That is not to say which is better but to state the fact that almost everyone is exposed to American Media.

While Economic power does not necessarily mean Cultural, Political and Military Power, no country can possess the latter without economic power to back them up. Despite China’s rise in recent times, the country is still poor and underdeveloped. Their dominance in all four categories, though not unlikely, will not happen at least for the foreseeable future.  In this aspect, America is still the undisputed champion because of its economic strength, geographical size, international influence and military might.

So what, one may ask, has it to with Art? To adapt Nietzsche; it reinforces a master-slave relationship. In this case, the master-slave relationship is not  brutish or coercive in nature; rather it is a silent obedience to the unspoken and unwritten code of globalism or globalisation. In other words, it is a process that started out as a tribute but has now become a self-effacing gesture.

Like the Overman, the West’s ideas of Art have led the way in terms of defining what is and is not Art.

*(To be continued)



One thought on “Essay: A Task for Southeast Asian Contemporary Art – Legacy of Colonialism”

  1. Thank you so much for this. This is the second work of yours that I’ve read and I really appreciate your effort of giving space to Asian culture and arts. More power to you. Also, I would love to help you in this endeavour.


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