From September 16 to September 20, 2016, the 34th World Conference on Art History was held at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (abbr. CAFA) and Peking University in Beijing. Mr. Frederick Asher is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Art History at the University of Minnesota. His research has focused on Buddhist monasteries in India and most recently on the visual culture of Indian Ocean trade before 1500. He has served as President of the U.S. National Committee for the History of Art (CIHA), President of the American Institute of Indian Studies, and editor-in-chief of caa.reviews, the online journal of the College Art Association. Mr. Frederick Asher was invited to co-chair the discussions of Session 18 entitled Media and Visuality. CAFA ART INFO took this opportunity to take an interview with him.
We’re journalists from the public media and the way artist uses to convey his or her idea is also called a media. What do you think of the influence of media on the visuality of contemporary art?
Frederick Asher: Let me start off by explaining. My area of expertise is South Asia, that is, India. And I work mostly on pre-modern material, not on modern, on the one hand. On the other hand, we do live in a world with instantaneous communication, when I’m in many parts of the world, in China, in India, and in Australia, I can even teach my classes because of Skype and several times I have taught a class simultaneously at my university in the US and National University in Singapore. So I do think the kind of impact of instantaneous communication is enormous. And when you think as I do of the number of artists who now work in video inconceivable, just 15 years ago. What a difference that’s made? Now I’m not happy with that change, by the way. But people whose work I really, really like are now working primarily in video or, and I think this is similar using Photoshop to manipulate the images, so that I find a much more exciting development than video, which seems to me “ephemeral”, meaning it doesn’t last. It means that is extremely expansive of, sort of thing to have. Where can you see it? Only in a museum what individual could ever hope to have a video.
You know this is a globalization of media, we have so many types of media, like Selfie. People can use their smart phones to shoot everything and they would like to present the things and as media themselves. What do you think of the originality of art expressions? especially in such a media age?
Frederick Asher: Oh, I mean it’s still quite regional, that doesn’t bother me. But do we overplay, do we make too much of originality? Thinking of the Chinese tradition, for example, of copying the masters. I am not sure at all the originality is all that important that we give one other example that came from one of the papers I heard not in this session but in one of the others, artists made an altar piece for a church. The outer piece didn’t fit. Just by that much but didn’t quite fit. So they made a copy and the church was happy to pay for it and accept it and then the artists could sell on the market the larger one. This is a 17th century Italian artist.
It’s the first time for this conference to be held in Beijing, even in China, or anywhere in Asia. What do you think of the influence of global effects on contemporary art according to your own experience based on this conference?
Frederick Asher: Well, let me start with this. I was on the Executive Committee of CIHA when we planned this conference. And I strongly advocated that we have the conference in Beijing. And that papers have been permitted in Mandarin. I think it’s terribly important to have Chinese language, not just European languages for the papers. So I do think that the globalization of intellectual endeavors is very important to art. But as an art story, let me see, I think it’s very important to art history.
Frederick Asher: Absolutely. Art history for most of my life and for all the years before that was isolated. That is, one study Chinese art, one study India art, one study Italian art or Spanish art, but we forget all of the relationships that the movement of artists and their products would have, after all, think of just to take a couple of very prime examples, that Mona Lisa was not made for Italy, not for France. All the way over to the East African coast and in East Africa, we have found a great great many Chinese ceramics, for example, the very late Tang dynasty, but also the Song Dynasty. In East Africa, think of that huge distance. And I’m talking about the late ninth through the twelfth centuries. So if things moved in that way, if they lent inspiration both to collectors and to artists as they did because we know that ceramics were locally copy. Then to think of globalization is very very important, we cannot any longer be isolated, just think of a narrow way once we did.
As a specialist in South Asian art as you mentioned, what do you know about Chinese contemporary art, have you come across any kind of Chinese contemporary art?
Frederick Asher: Of course, here’s a good story. Tomorrow as you found the Gallery in Florence, they major in museum in Florence, and exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s is coming and will be opened. And so if that is happening, imagine the global impact of modern Chinese art. Now Ai Weiwei, everybody knows. But I’ve seen so much good, modern, contemporary Chinese art at the Tate Modem. For example in London, I was there at the beginning of August, about a little more than a month ago. And some Chinese artists represent a new collection, people are looking, and I am too, and I am gaining a sense of who these artists are. I also think it’s one of another measure the way which Chinese contemporary art is having a global impact, the market, and the prices. The price for even Chinese photography is enormous now. I don’t pay much attention to the art market. It doesn’t interest me but I listened by computer to one auction of photographs. Not just Chinese, not just Indian, but global photographs. The prices fetched by the Chinese artists, the Chinese photographers, higher than anybody else! That sounds really wonderful. Higher than the Europeans, higher than Israelian artists. I really want it. And it’s just amazing.
The last question is about this conference and especially about this section of discussions. Would you like to talk about the most impressive view of point or the most valuable opinion you have heard?
Frederick Asher: No, only because there were so many great papers, so many interesting comments from the audience you could hear just now. They have different perspectives. I think they shape what the speaker will do with this information. They bring new ideas, it’s really, I think, terribly, terribly important.
Transcribed and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO, Photo by Hu Sichen/CAFA ART INFO