Introduction: Asia, Community and Aesthetics
By Felicia LOW
Asia and ‘Community’
Asia constitutes a very large chunk of the world. The countries that span across Asia, marked on one end by the edges of Palestine and the other end by the edge of Japan (Spivak, 2003), are completely disparate in terms of race and nationality. Within countries, hundreds of ethnicities each with their own language, customs and cultural norms, exist. The plurality of Asia is the norm of Asia. To try to reduce it to a particular way of life, or set of values, is to miss the main trait of the Asian continent, marked by the strength of its diversity and pluralism.
Diversity and pluralism are also the tenants of Asian history and politics. Many Asian countries bear the scars of colonial, imperial conquests that persisted over centuries. Over time, borders were constantly drawn and redrawn, ethnicities divided artificially to maintain a host of political agendas. Amidst the ebb of time, memories of Western colonial administration of various Asian countries are well etched into the psyche of post-colonial nation states. Along with this memory, the Cold War has effected even further complexes of positionality between capitalism, communism and the non-aligned states. Depending on the political situation that panned out for each country, complexes of anti-colonialism, anti-communism, communism and nationalism have had to negotiate the persistence of a Western led globalising, capitalistic force (Chen, 2010). Identities were split asunder, as in the case of Korea, where post WW2 arrangements led to the country being carved into two halves of the North and South. Other states now free from their colonial masters, sought to resolve issues of identity through nationalisms – of which various ethnicities and religious groups reacted against or settled into an uneasy acceptance. Globalisation added even more complexity to the search for identity, proliferating forms of Western culture, education and economics, transforming traditional ways of Asian life and livelihood into hybrid forms of modern life.
‘Community’ in Asia is a loaded word. Nationalistically, ‘community’ is an untroubled collective that represents cohesiveness. Asia’s history however inevitably reveals that the constructs of its various nationalisms were fraught with unrest over religious, ethnic and political ideologies. The struggle to construct identity, after the forces of colonialism, in dealing with the forces of globalisation, makes the concept of ‘community’ in Asia different from that of the West – who were and are the colonialising and globalising force to be reckoned with. The assertion of local identities and ideologies, alongside affinities to technological (western) modes of progress and hence, Western ideologies and identities makes any discussion of ‘community’ very complicated indeed. As a result, the words ‘diversity’ and ‘plurality’ can be taken to new heights thanks to Asia’s complex ‘predicament’. While Western nations congregate around a common Anglo-Saxon, capitalistic, democratic and modern identity in their articulations of community, there is no such commonality in Asia. Anyone who tries to fix a universalism of homogenous community on Asia will find himself or herself in a real fix instead. Diversity and plurality are Asia’s strengths, and as a result, it has a wider scope of understanding how disparate forms of collectives can still be part of a ‘community’ that need not be reduced to a singular universalism or ideological intent.
Community & Aesthetics
What does this have to do with artists who work with communities in Asia? A heck of a lot – because of the word ‘community’. The diversity and plurality of Asian communities also means that forms of aesthetics that emerge from these communities are equally diverse and pluralistic. It definitely goes beyond Western forms of aesthetics. Modern forms of Western art were categorised into various sections, such as fine art, textiles or design (Munro, 1992). Later modernist approaches to defining aesthetics in art took a conceptual turn, resulting in discourses on aesthetic and art theory. Formalist definitions of aesthetic theory presented an interpretation of aesthetics that were based on formal elements of art, such as form and texture. The art museum became the temple to go to for an aesthetic experience (Berleant, 1992). In contemporary times however, aesthetic theory is expected to keep up with contemporary art practice, rather than set the measure for its practice. Locating definitions for aesthetics and art are now open to both personal and communal (discipline-based) interpretations (Barrett, 2002).
In Asia, contemporary western forms of arts and aesthetics may dominate institutions of the cultural elite and educational institutions of developed countries – but this constitutes a minority component among other forms of aesthetics that exist. Historically, Asian aesthetics include the concept of ‘absence of the self’ as a form of spiritual expression in Korea (Boulesteix, 2010), the 8 rasas of Indian aesthetics that focus of human affective states and emotion (Chakrabarti, 2010), and semangat – the life force of all things animate and inanimate – in South East Asia (Chou-Shulin, 2010). Modern forms of Asian aesthetics include influences from the Soviet Union in Uzbekistan (Khakimov, 2008) and Chinese Maxist aesthetics which rejected an ‘art for art’s sake’ approach in favour for an aesthetic value that was directly co-related to utilitarian value (Peng, 2010). These other forms of aesthetics exist within forms of cultural nationalism, products of localization, or forms of community articulations and expression.
This collection of essays seeks to approach the form of aesthetics that lie within the artistic forms of community articulation and expression. Various approaches have been used to create a theory of aesthetics with regards to community engagement through the arts. More famous theories include Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed and Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, which have come to influence the practices of contemporary artists in Asia. When working with communities in Asia however, one encounters other forms and politics of aesthetics that spill out of famous concepts (made famous through the cultural vehicles of the West and subsequently globalisation). Is there any possibility of defining the aesthetics that emerge from artistic engagement with communities in Asia? And to add another layer to the complication – marginalized or excluded communities in Asia?
The CCD symposium of 2016 brought together artists across Asia who work with a wide range of excluded communities. These communities have been excluded in various ways on the basis of their economic status, physical and cognitive ‘disability’, choice of gender, age and politics. At the end of the two day symposium, both presenters and the participants created a map of the words that stood out for them, as a result of the presentations they experienced. I will now attempt to link these words, gleaned from the presentations of artists working on the ground, to an approach of aesthetics.
The inner circle of the map contained the top three words, which came to the mind of the participants with regards to what they experienced at the symposium. The larger green circle contains the next 5 words. Based in the inner red circle, these are the 10 words that appeared repeatedly or were selected by the participants to be in the top 10:
3. Thought provoking: Value, redefining
4. Purpose: Why, intent
6. Engagement: Community
8. Insightful: Beauty