By Lee Weng Choy
(1130 words, 17-minute read)
Do you like chocolate? I like chocolate. Who doesn’t like chocolate? Although, come to think of it, I do know of some people who don’t like chocolate — at least, I remember somebody once telling me he or she didn’t like chocolate. But that’s a vague memory. It’s like, as far as I know, everyone in the world likes chocolate…. What if absolutely everyone on earth actually liked chocolate? — I mean, even that person I can’t recall, what if he or she still liked chocolate, she just wasn’t crazy about it, and that’s what she really meant when she said she didn’t like chocolate. What if we live in a universe where liking chocolate is universal. Could we then say to everyone that “you must like chocolate”? Not that we would make it into law or anything, but we would expect everyone to like chocolate, and if someone didn’t, we would think less of him. We would be making a moral judgement against him.
People don’t normally talk like this. Although I can imagine a few philosophy students after several beers at the local pub discoursing on the Kantian Chocolate Imperative.* If I had joined them, they would pedantically remind me not to confuse “taste” with “preference”. The former is for everyone: you should learn to appreciate Amanda Heng’s work, she’s a great artist. Whereas the latter is up to the individual: it’s all right if you prefer to wear those blazing red skinny jeans, even though I would never be caught dead in them.
Provocation is the prerogative of the writer today. Sure, like everyone else, I have my opinions. Moreover, being an art critic, some people might expect me to be opinionated — like when I contend that a particularly awful public sculpture should be blown apart by a low-yield nuclear weapon (and, perhaps more importantly, that safely blowing up ugly art is the only legitimate use for nuclear weapons). Everyone has a right to freedom of expression — let me be emphatic about that. One often hears that “art is subjective”. Well, I disagree. Rather, to be more precise, I think it’s a very misleading thing to say about art.
Diversity and debate in views about art, or anything else for that matter, are a good thing. Have your views, plenty of them, but have the conviction to defend them, as well as the respect to listen to others do the same. But not all statements about art are equally interesting. When I hear some assert, “art is subjective”, more often than not, it’s uttered in order to close the door on debate, rather than as a philosophical position about the true nature of art. To avoid the contest of perspectives is to abdicate the responsibility of trying to communicate and persuade. And to claim that varying judgements about art are merely differences in opinion is to flatten all arguments as somehow equivalent.
Since the 1990s, contemporary art from Asia has become a big part of a more global artworld, and years ago, a major international art magazine offered a survey of artists from the region to document these new developments. A number of the writers started their texts by claiming that “so-and-so is one of the most interesting artists from such-and-such country”. Not only is this one of the worst ways to persuade a reader that the artist in question is actually interesting, what’s worse is the inadvertent implication that these artists are notable primarily because they represent their respective non-Western societies. We should be interested in art from Asia not only because it is Asian; we should also ask if it is “good”, worth looking at and thinking about again and again. Here we will find all sorts of disagreements. Difficult as it is to argue why a work of art is good or deserving of attention — and judgements are never ideologically neutral — that is the task of criticism. It is a task made all the more difficult because conversations about art involve persons speaking from so many diverse backgrounds, positions and places.
Yet speaking from our various places is not enough. There is also that universal imperative — which is to listen and speak to each other. These days, a default prevails, not only within Asia, but throughout the entire artworld, and that is a well-meaning but flawed relativism. This relativism opposes the notion of an objective history, and instead celebrates the multiplicities of subjective perspectives. But this is a “bad” opposition. The real practical and ethical challenges of writing from a given place isn’t in trying to present the one true version of history, but in trying to speak truthfully from within a specific situation. Which is the opposite of declaring, without much self-reflection, that “my subjectivity is my truth”.
Ever since modern and contemporary art have become more global than predominantly EuroAmerican, the EuroAmerican artistic canon has been challenged. But challenging a canon does not mean disposing of it. We need grounds from which to debate difference. As a critic I make judgements about art. If you were to ask me, could I outline my own theory on what makes good art, my answer, instead of discoursing on aesthetic principles in the abstract, is that the best way to explain “excellence in art” is through particular examples. Therefore, what serves as a guide to excellence in art is art history. We inherit our canons and standards, but this must be a critical inheritance — we have to question and rethink them. When I insist on universalism, when I insist that what is good for me should also be good for you too — I am also making a commitment to the possibility that we can understand differences in history. That we can inherit difference. That we in Asia can understand the canons and standards of modern EuroAmerican art histories. And that Asia’s art histories can speak to Europe, North and South America, and anywhere else in the world.
In arguing against the notion that “art is subjective”, I have never meant to deny the fact that life is subjective; it is lived by individuals, with all our particular circumstances and contingencies. Aesthetics, the theory about artistic values, and ethics, the theory about values in the fullest sense, intersect: both are centred on the struggle to speak to the Other and to construct common grounds. These grounds may always only be provisional and situational, but for a moment in history, they are exemplary expressions of the commitment to listen and speak to all others, not merely ourselves. A universal aesthetics and ethics believes in the project of translating across different historical contexts. Across space, across time. These translations will not be perfect — if a perfect translation could exist, then the fundamentalists would be absolutely right. Thankfully they are not.
* The quote from Kant alongside his likeness isn’t quite right. The philosopher didn’t talk about chocolate. The actual quote from the Critique of Judgement is: “when [a man] puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Thus he says that the thing is beautiful; and it is not as if he counts on others agreeing with him in his judgment of liking owing to his having found them in such agreement on a number of occasions, but he demands this agreement of them. […] to this extent it is not open to men to say: Every one has his own taste. This would be equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as taste, i.e. no aesthetic judgment capable of making a rightful claim upon the assent of all men.
Note: a different version of this text appeared in SingaporeEdge: Design Culture in Singapore, published by Systems Design, 2005.
Guest Contributor Lee Weng-Choy is president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA SG). From 2000 to 2009, he was Artistic Co-Director of The Substation arts centre. Lee has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore.