Thursday, February 10, 2011

Heavy thoughts for heavy times

Among those works deemed to be good enough for preservation, none are by men base in character. If by chance a man morally despicable was found to be artistically gifted, his works would surely be rejected.
             - Ho Iu-kwong

This delightful quote was discovered by one of my party on an excursion to the Hong Kong Museum of Art. We were on the third floor admiring the calligraphy and watercolour exhibits, the captions of which spoke of age-old traditions and name dropped artists who had ‘drawn inspiration from’ (read: copied) artists who had copied artists all the way back to the age of dinosaurs. The exhibit showed calligraphy brush technique which had inched closer to ‘perfection’ with every generation. Watercolours depicting the same iconic cliffs and forests and lakes repeat themselves into an oblivion of washed out colours. To the untrained eye, (read: everybody’s eye) these artworks showcase an absolute lack of originality, and almost hypnotise you into thinking that this is the only kind of 2D artwork that the Chinese are capable of producing. Moreover, taking even one moment to read any one of the many artists’ biographies, you can find that all featured were sons of wealthy men of high standing. Apparently these men were deemed to possess not only the highest moral fortitude, but also unmatchable insight in regards to everything within the entirety of the universe. The calligraphy is often poetry - also demonstrating their depth of acceptable emotions. The landscapes are painted from lavish pavilions in the countryside – proof of their noble (and ample) heritage.

This artwork is not about the art so much as it is about the individual. The viewer is supposed to think of the artist when they see the work, as oppose to the aesthetic value or message of what is in front of them. It is almost the epitome of what I find so unimpressive about the direction of the modern art world. One side of this cynical coin, is that so long as the man/artist was excellent in the aforementioned ways, so his work would be excellent. The flip side is that it was/is completely unacceptable for a ‘scoundrel’ (read: simply non-wealthy-with-no-connections) to produce great work. They could not possibly possess the personal attributes necessary to create beautiful work. I hope I do not even have to begin explaining how ludicrous this is.

I began my theory of protestation to another member of our party. Explaining why I thought Iu-kwong was foundationally stupid. I received the response:

“Yeah, but that is Chinese culture. That’s what they believe.”

Now here is where the true ideological discussion begins. From an early age, we are taught that things from other places are not ‘wrong’ but ‘different’, that cultural differences should not result in a relationship of superiority and inferiority, and that we must be accepting of ‘foreignness’ because it will always be ‘normal’ to others. But where do we draw the line? Where do we stop and say “that is not only different, but in its difference it is wrong.” When does it become acceptable to recognise that the idea of any ‘culture’ is simply a set of ideas and practices which have become tradition over time – and therefore are not necessarily correct. The repetition of an action over centuries does not make it acceptable. It has been normalised by a group of people who therefore call it their ‘culture’ - an indestructible word to the politically correct. A person of one culture cannot criticise another’s. This is how we are taught. And this is called ‘respect’.

I remember becoming upset when I was first exposed to the Masai tribe in Africa. It was a gigantic slap in the face of culture shock, but more than that, it was sadness. I recognised the obvious differences between our cultures (their rejection of modernisation made Tony Stark look Amish) but there were more serious differences that I could not simply accept as ‘different’. Female circumcision is different. Completely denying AIDS is different. Domestic violence mixed with polygamy is different. Valuing the life of a child as identical to the value of a head of cattle is different. Here’s the problem. I believe these things are not only different, but wrong. Why? Because this is how I have been brought up. Because I am judging what is normal to me as what is right. So how can I justify my opinion? My values correlate with those of the UN declaration of human rights – but this declaration was created primarily by people from similar cultures to mine. Who am I to say that equality is better than strict patriarchy? Who gave me the power of universal moral knowledge?

These are questions I struggle with the more I travel. Every time I see something that makes me angry in a foreign country, I am reminded of my presumptions and arrogance. The ye olde idea of me travelling to a foreign land and ‘civilising’ people who clearly don’t know better just sends off alarm bells of colonisation, and yet I believe so strongly in happiness for all I find myself lost in a self-imposed powerlessness. When can we draw these lines? How valuable is tradition and culture in opposition to forward-thinking change?

People laugh when I tell them that one day we will all look back and become ashamed that we ever ate the meat of animals. The practice has become so normalised that people cannot even conceptualise a world without meat, let alone a meal that tastes good without it. I liken it to slaverly, however, and many become uncomfortable. Slavery was, for hundreds of years, not only acceptable but it was believed to be the ‘natural order of things.’ People who encouraged thoughts of equality were not even considered sane. There were obviously reasons people kept slaves, and it had always been that way and so it would continue to be. I cannot help but see the horrendous treatment and slaughter of animals as akin to this blatant denial of humane logic. The suffering of another is not lessened by centuries of suffering. I have heard every reason in the book to support the consumption of meat by humans – and why? Because they enjoy it. I do not think a wealthy Roman could not come up with an extensive list of logical reasons as to why he kept slaves as property. I’m sure you realise, however, that he is missing the point. That the opposition to slavery did not win over simply because the cons outweighed the pros, but because humanity prevailed. The people who fought for equality against slavery are heroes in the modern world, but were afflicted with brands of lunacy in their own time.

Again, how can we label what is right and wrong, other than by beginning at the centre of our own universes? I do not believe that a poor person cannot create beautiful artwork, nor that a rich person’s poetry will always be great. I do not believe that female circumcision for the purpose of control and male domination is acceptable in order to keep order within tribal communities. I do not believe that humans are oblivious to the suffering of inferior races or species throughout history.

Who am I to tell others these things are right, and that by natural contrast their ideas are wrong? Well, I am Bri Lee and I’m working on it.

If you wanna fight me, you know where to find me.

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