Comment on Ilza Burchett’s review of “Vietnamese Contemporary Art 1990 – 2010”

Nguyen Dinh Dang

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Honoré Daumier
Famous motive

In the recent review of the monograph “Vietnamese Contemporary Art 1990 – 2010” by Bui Nhu Huong and Pham Trung, Ilza Burchett blamed the authors that they confused definition with description of contemporary art but she failed herself to give a proper definition of contemporary art as well. As a matter of fact, the paragraph she cites from Kathrin Busch is not a definition of contemporary art, but only points out some aspects (not the essence) of contemporary art such as its high saturation of theoretical knowledge, that contemporary art becomes a research or an independent form of knowledge itself, etc. But these aspects are so generic as they can be applied to Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Impressionism arts, etc, as well. We all know that the theory of linear perspective was worked out in the treatise by Piero Della Francesca, that the paintings and drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are based on his pioneering and outstanding knowledge of human anatomy. In this sense, the “definition” by Kathrin Busch has the same quality as that by the authors of “Vietnamese Contemporary Art 1990 – 2010”. These authors have already pointed out the difficulties, which on faces when attempting to give a “definition” to contemporary art. In fact, a definition as such does not exist. What we have is just a diversity of notions.

Next, by stating that “Contemporary artists that claim or happened to have no interest, access or exposure, or do not wish to engage in any way with philosophical thought for whatever reasons, are nevertheless subject to our ‘contemporary’ world, which is infused with information of all sorts, unavoidably impacting on their work,” Ilza Burchett contradicts herself. Her statement effectively means that contemporary artists may actually not need any theoretical background or philosophical thought at all, but are nonetheless “contemporary” simply because they live and create in our time.

Contemporary art is not the postmodernism as a philosophical concept. The fact that one may have to study in art colleges the mimesis theory of art by Plato and Aristotle and/or postmodern theory in art colleges does not mean that these theories define contemporary art [1]. According to J.F. Lyotard, “the text he (i.e. the postmodern artist) writes, the work he produces are not in principle governed by preestablished rules, and they cannot be judged according to a determining judgment, by applying familiar categories to the text or to the work. Those rules and categories are what the work of art itself are looking for. The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done.”[2] In other words, postmodern art is like traffic in Hanoi, where the only rule is no rule.

Moreover, contemporary art, understood as art of our present time, is no longer postmodern either. The postmodern time was effectively over at the end of the Cold War (around 1990). The invention of the internet and world-wide web in 1992 – 1994, the digital age, and the new situations in the world including the collapse of the communist bloc, the fall of dictatorship and totalitarian regimes, the worldwide blossom of democracy, the war on terrorism, the rise of nationalist expansionism in East Asia, global warming, the recession of the nuclear power plants after the Fukushima disaster, etc. are just some developments, which actually turned a new page in human history. The present condition in the world forces us to deeply question our attitude we bear since the postmodern time, where truth and justice were replaced with group consensus, good performance, commodity, and profits. Artists are not exempted from this common tendency because, before being an artist, one is a human being, a citizen notwithstanding a citizen of the world, or a cosmopolitan. Once again, we see that the artistic values that the artist puts into the creation of an art work are becoming important apart from its commercial value. The esteem for the artist’s skill is growing. We see more and more appreciation for the painters, who can actually draw and paint, the sculptors who can actually sculpt, the writers who can actually write.

 10/1/2013

Bản tiếng Việt (Vietnamese version)

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[1] One should be very careful in selective reading to avoid falling into the pseudoscientific nonsense written in the works by the postmodern “intellectuals-geniuses” like Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deleuze or Felix Guatarri.

[2] J.F. Lyotard, The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (Manchester University Press, 1984).


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