ARTISTIC EVOLUTION ON

A FAST TRACK

 

James Mann, Ph.D.

 

New Asian art is too little exhibited in the U.S., and the Las Vegas Art Museum is striving to help ameliorate this shortcoming. On the other hand, this present exhibition, like last year's, raises at least as many questions as it answers. Many of the artists' styles look familiar to us, and are clearly related to Euro-American innovations of the past hundred years. Yet the cultures these artists operate within have not been through the same philosophical and esthetic evolution as has our own, that we simultaneously both inhabit and create. This evolution in the West has been driven by a powerful inner logic that has essentially made its developments inexorable for more than a century. While Romanticism was flowering across Europe two centuries ago, Japan was two centuries deep into a period of self-imposed national isolation from world trade and foreign cultural contact, isolation which would not slacken for another half-century. Western high culture's long period of deconstructive self-analysis has simply not been undergone in the Asian countries, and a Japanese version of Surrealism, for example, or Abstract Expressionism, cannot have the deep, systematic inevitability or philosophical meaningfulness that these and other movements have in the cultures that originated them.

Yet suppose a Japanese artist does with, say, Color Field painting, something further than have the North American artists who made the initial innovations. Is the work no more than derivative, or does it reap a value-added tax from its further declension of the original breakthrough? We should proceed with caution in attempting to answer such a question, wary of our own esthetic preconditioning. Perhaps no known culture has ever made more out of borrowing ideas - both economically and culturally - than has Japan. Before Romanticism reared its revolutionary head in Europe around 1800, the major influences on the arts in Japan came from China and Korea. Even the most through influence of all, Buddhism, came to Japan from India by way of China in the sixth century. Over the ensuing centuries, Japan's arts grew more distinctive and individual during periods of isolation from foreign influence.

At the end of the twentieth century, the most astonishing, readily observable high-cultural development in Japan has been its new architecture. The years after World War II, completely under Western influence, covered Japan with a squared-off Modernist architecture that now looks decidedly dingy and dreary, overshadowed by building developments of the 1980s and '90s. With the boom times of the Japanese economic "miracle" came a flowering of architectural innovation that, although still little known in this country, places it at the pinnacle of international achievement in architecture at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Nowhere else has the notion of a total architecture - exploring all the formal, structural, decorative, and material possibilities of building - been carried farther than it has in Japan in the last two decades. The imagination of Japanese architects has carried the world across a new threshold of conception as to what a building can be and do. They have done this by an unprecedented fusion of their native building and design traditions with those of the West, and with an unleashing of creative originality made possible by their country's extraordinary economic growth in the 1980s. They have dared greatly, and the country's business and civic leadership has bankrolled the architects' wildest flights of conception by actually building them.

If the new architecture in Japan explores the possibilities of building design and extent, one has to say that the range of new art being produced in Japan is virtually total as well. No significant art produced in the West since 1945 has going or is going untried in Japan, as the evidence in the present exhibition clearly demonstrates. To what extent it does or does not represent an advance over its foreign models is a vast and fertile field for future books and doctoral dessertations, bringing to bear the country's entire artistic history, and this is not a question meant to imply that there is not an astounding, even bewildering amount of originality present in this exhibition. In an era in which many critics hold that there are no new styles to be invented or discovered (not a position held by the present curator), the thoroughgoing exploration of all available historical styles, present in this gathering of new Asian art, is perhaps the most universal impression viewers will have of the exhibition.

If the no-new-styles credo were true, one of its corollaries would have to be that the God of genius is now to be found only in the details. And there is plenty of that type of genius in this exhibition. But among other goals, the Las Vegas Art Museum wishes with this show to help open up a whole area of intellectual problem-solving in multicultural, artistic cross-fertilization. It is a realm of intellectual inquiry that is destined to become increasingly prominent in the new world of a global economy that awaits all of us, in the century which we the living have just entered.

 

ArtBeat, Spring, 2001