Where are all the non-Western artists in the global marketplace of ideas?
Why are they put in silos labeled “Korean”, “Thai”, etc. from which they are politely let out from time to time in the name of multiculturalism? It’s a long story, but we must start with an eighteenth century scientist named Carl Linnaeus.
Carl Linnaeus was the father of modern taxonomy, or the system of naming and categorizing organisms found in the natural world.
Unfortunately, while Linnaeus confined his classification efforts to plants and animals, his contemporaries thought it a good idea to similarly categorize human beings, especially the ones they were encountering on their colonial adventures. As a prerequisite to this endeavor, however, they first had to invent categories.
In the Indian subcontinent, for example, the term “Hindu” had only ever been used by foreign invaders to refer to the people who lived south of the river Sindh. It was never used by the people themselves, whose differences were as numerous as their similarities. With the arrival of the taxonomists, “Hindu” became a default descriptor for people who were not Muslim or Christian. Except, the customs and beliefs of the Hindus were not unitary and did not lend themselves easily to categorization as a religion in the Judeo-Christian sense of that word.
In Singapore, racial and ethnic categories were innumerable in the early years of colonial census-taking. Immigrants identified themselves according to the village they came from and not as Chinese, Indian or Malay. At the time, “Malay” was occasionally used by the people of Malacca/ East Sumatra to refer to themselves. It did not include people from Bugis, Minangkabau or even Java.1 “Malay” as it exists in the census today is an invented identity, arising from interactions with colonial taxonomists.2
Having invented “races,” the taxonomist project of reading difference then made its way to the arts.
For James Fergusson, an architectural historian who was dubbed the Linnaeus of Indian architecture, architectural style was invariably correlated to race, and art was the purest representation of the “essence” of the race. Thus, the “clarity” of the mosque embodied the “realist” mind of the Muslim, in contrast to the “mysterious” temple that embodied the “introspective” Hindu.3
And just as colonial officials did not care for the mixing of races, they did not care for the hybridity of Indo-Islamic architecture either, which they inevitably linked with cultural decline. They even wrote about it in very sexual terms, to wit: “the developing Muslim style was being penetrated by the Indian tradition.”
Today, the intellectual successors of yesteryear’s taxonomists continue to demand that modern art in Asia exhibit a national essence.* Asian artists who borrow from the West are said to be simply imitating.4 Never mind that Western artists from Frank Lloyd Wright to Picasso have liberally borrowed from Asian traditions—in that case it’s just inspiration.
*After seeing Paddington, I’m hopeful that the world will see taxidermists, taxonomists and the rest of their ilk for the villains they really were. JK.