The ongoing American art retrospective America Is Hard to See at the newly reopened Whitney museum in New York showcases American artists at the turn of the twentieth century.

Early twentieth century paintings celebrated the engineering marvels of the Machine Age, the pulsating music and dance of the Jazz Age, the flappers, the dandies, the homosexuals, the whole shebang, all documented and analyzed for posterity.

So, given that out East we’re in the midst of our own “Asian century”–where are our Joseph Stellas, Archibald Motleys and Reginald Marshes?

Instead, all our contemporary artists are preoccupied with the alienation wrought by modernization and change. Look! Here’s Ai Weiwei breaking priceless Han vases as commentary on our disregard for the past.

But wasn’t the unchanging East always a fiction? We’ve seen nothing but change throughout history: the Manchu Qing dynasty taking over the Han Ming empire, the Turkic-Mongol invasions wiping away Buddhism in India, Islam coming to Java and so forth.

None of the art from those earlier periods—that still exists today—speaks of the alienation of the Buddhists or Hindus or Ming literati. Alienation seems to be a uniquely contemporary fixation.

Of course the modernization of Asia has not been pretty. But it has also brought increased standards of living and a time of relative peace and prosperity. All without the bloodshed of past regime changes.

Isn’t there some cause for celebration here?

Who could not be awed by Shanghai’s crush of humanity, the glittering skyscrapers, the majestic Bund rising from the banks of the Huangpu River? How could you not feel the enormous energy and potential for a new future, maybe even a better one? The nightclubs, the shops, the restaurants, the glamour—Shanghai is an exciting, exciting city. As exciting as New York or Paris, even more so since it’s so unpredictable.

Don’t these guys ever go out to party?

Few, if any, of our prominent artists have ever chosen to celebrate the urban subcultures, the “Harlems” of migrant laborers or the futuristic cityscapes.


Joseph Stella’s New York City is a seductress; Shi Guorui’s Shanghai in Shanghai 22-23 Oct 2004 is a terrifying specter.


Rare are paintings like Gulammohammed Sheikh’s City for Sale (our answer to Reginald Marsh maybe?) that engage with the sensory assault that is the modern Asian metropolis.

The point is not to glorify modernization in Asia but to engage with it (something our filmmakers have been far better at). Instead, our artists have leapfrogged over modernism straight to post-modernism.

Is it because we’re just a jaded lot? Were we just not that keen to modernize to begin with—the outside world forced it upon us? Or is it that the international art buyers—the bulk of the market for contemporary Asian art–are a little bit Orientalist?