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5 Apr 2019 / by Yeewan Koon

The Dilemma of Disciplines

Acrylic painting on paper of an architectural sketch depicting two identical, symmetrical high rise buildings facing each other. Each building consists of an L-shaped section cutting through a round section, with walls lined with windows.

Remo Riva, Painting, Exchange Square I, II & III (1981–85), Hong Kong, 1981. Acrylic paint on paper mounted on wooden board. M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Remo Riva, 2013. © M+, Hong Kong

In 1996, the journal October published the Visual Culture Questionnaire—four questions about the study of visual culture—alongside responses from art and architecture historians, film theorists, literary critics, and artists. These four questions have been republished in Chinese and English by M+, with October’s permission, to reflect on how the understanding of visual culture has changed since this 1996 enquiry. Below is Yeewan Koon’s response.

If I were to respond to October’s Visual Culture Questionnaire in 1996, my answers would be less wary than they are today. At that time, I was a Chinese art historian beginning her graduate studies in the United States and was exposed to heated debates about the merits of visual culture and the future of art history for the first time, largely by scholars in Western art. For art historians, there were concerns whether the inclusive nature of visual culture would erase historical specificity, how the disembodied image (so often reduced as ‘text’) denies the intelligence of the material, and how reducing art to the ocular can narrow discussions—not least because it excludes the self-consciousness of artists to reflect on their own antagonism with the visual.[1]

Meanwhile, proponents of visual culture pushed for scholarship that included all images and radically changed the scope of what can be investigated, expanding into new areas of visuality and the social practices of seeing. But perhaps more than anything else, visual culture (along with other New Art History theories) was making the art field reflect back on itself. My own field, in contrast, was a little slower in joining the party. In 1996, it was dominated by male scholars from elite institutions writing about other male painters, equally heralded as cultural leaders. To a female graduate student trained in a conservative British system, visual culture seemed revolutionary.

In those early beginnings, there were small steps that fulfilled the promises of visual culture in Chinese art history. Publications such as Richard Vinograd’s Boundaries of the Self: Chinese Portraits, 1600—1900 (1992) introduced a polycentric world in terms of identities and their representations. Craig Clunas’s Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China (1997) examined pictoriality and visual flows in the sixteenth century. Clunas, a curator with a doctorate degree in Mongolian literature, took the boldest strides in developing Chinese concepts of visual perception and the ideological authority of the ocular regime.

One of the advantages of visual culture was how easy it fit in with other methods and theories. In studies on non-Western art, visual culture and postcolonialism formed a fruitful partnership. Postcolonial studies, with its emphasis on geopolitics, fuelled the development of area studies. In turn, area studies provided geographical frames that could rein in the all-embracing tendencies of visual culture, creating a concentrated focus that mapped out more and more previously marginalised areas. This helped fulfill that larger ambition of postcolonialism: to create a world map where there is no ‘Other’.

That visual culture found a ready partner in postcolonial studies is not surprising given how they are both extensions of postmodernism. Both provide concepts to assess cultural productions that are outside dominant Anglophone traditions and promoted arguments of pluralism. They are both interdisciplinary with interests in issues of power, subjectivity, and subjectification. Lastly, they draw on a wealth of materials that have traditionally been marginal to mainstream scholarship. Global changes, however, have shifted centres and borders. In a period when new boundaries are being reshaped by powers that exceed an area studies approach, postcolonial studies, whose frameworks remain essentially geopolitical, have come under scrutiny.

Without wanting to stray into a hotbed of whither postcolonialism (and interested readers can find many debates about this elsewhere), let me return to the limits of visual culture as it shifts concerns from method to discipline.[2] Let me be more specific about the case of Hong Kong art and, more generally, about my concerns for the future of visual culture’s criticality. Visual culture has been crucial to the development of Hong Kong art studies. In part, this was because of the general distrust of what was seen as too much attention given to the appreciation of the autonomy of the art object by art historians, and the ensuing judgment values that serve an art market, not to mention Hong Kong’s own role within that market. Visual culture also offered an alternative model of looking, not only for the audience but also for artists who want to distance themselves from the taint of commercialism.

The distrust towards art historical methods of looking at Hong Kong art has marginalised its effectiveness as a discursive approach—a marginalisation that was countered by the rise of Comparative Literature.[3] Crucial to this rise was Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1998), which argued that sections of Hong Kong constantly disappeared and reinvented itself as a form of ‘déjà disparu’. This book inspired numerous articles and books that similarly wrote about the visual as a symptom of loss and recovery using variations of similar types of materials, including art, film, photography, journals, and memorabilia and ephemera. But let’s not be fooled that this selection of materials can stand in for a totalising comprehension of visual culture, because the grouping also excludes things like scientific graphs or architectural drawings that have no place in what constitutes a ‘visual culture’.[4]

But if art history has been slowly disappearing from the study of Hong Kong art, the mainstreaming of visual culture has been an unabashed success story. Visual culture is now institutionalised as a discipline, with MA courses available in almost every university—a success I do not begrudge, though I am concerned about the growing gap between art history and visual culture. Tellingly, none of these MA degrees are offered in an art history department and, as a result, we must ask whether we are producing too many students who investigate images without the necessary skills of knowing how to look closely, or the language and knowledge that enable them to challenge their own positions. I have heard too many presentations that carry bias, even fear, towards the imagistic and material properties of art. Has the disciplinary expansion of visual culture sacrificed the critical potential of its own methodologies?

The early success of Hong Kong visual culture studies established two methods: a mapping exercise of examples of cultural production that leads to conclusions of Hong Kong-ness (I will return to this later), or to read all related visual materials as ‘text’, so a film poster, a painting with words, or an art performance and a neon street sign are investigated as comparative, and even comparable, materials. These two approaches, which have produced some interesting works, also leave one wanting. There is a tendency to take a teleological approach to the contemporary that treats the forces of historical developments and changes too lightly. There is also an inclination to reach conclusions of a cultural zeitgeist (which T. J. Clark and others accused art historian Michael Baxandall of), and the nuanced conditions of society and their impact on the visual.[5] Moreover, to think that any disembodied image can be levelled as textual signs equal enough to become subjects of comparative discussions seldom take into account the physical (and again the historical) differences between objects. This lack of a historical investigation (and I mean where history is more than context) also renders history invisible in its role as mediator of how we see things, which is not the same as the history of what is actually seen. This is perhaps why visual culture has never found a ready home in art history, and why art historians find visual culture suspect.

But my concern is not whether art history or visual culture should be done in such-and-such a way—I am arguing that there should be a place for the embodied image that expands the methods used, whether this is through visual culture or art history. I am making an argument for the return of the object, but one that can go beyond medium and form (the conventional approach in traditional art history), and into areas of imagination, intuition, and experience. I think this can open up investigative routes that offer depth rather than simply breadth of coverage and the pluralism espoused by a tired-out postmodern narrative. I should also add that there are alternative approaches by fellow peers looking at topics such as activism, exhibitions, and heritage as ways of framing Hong Kong art. But let’s also not lose sight of the parts that make up this whole. Surely, in order to understand how art is a cultural object/subject we need to be able to read ALL of the components of the artwork, including image, scale, material, production, enactments, and lifespans—all of which I would put within the category of art history. If we are going to ask what images are doing, then let’s not shy away from looking at images through the frame of art (and vice-versa).

I understand that my proposal may carry echoes of Kant, but my proposal is for a more analytical form that sees art (and image) as something that ‘imaginatively expand[s] the ideas presented in virtue of the indirect means through which they are obliged to embody them in sensible form.’[6] It is also a way that provides a critical lens that can form connections between art practices, art histories, and visual cultures, and brings together historical art and contemporary art—something which visual culture has never managed to do.[7]

Oil painting on canvas depicting an abstract wash of beige, black, and grey, with the black and grey colours falling from the top and covering up the beige. A beige piece of plaster shaped like a flat, cracked rock is placed on the top half of the canvas, covering most of the black and grey colours.

Hon Chi-fun, HSIANG 65-5, 1965. Oil and plaster on canvas. M+, Hong Kong. © Hon Chi-fun

In short, what visual culture had promised was interrogation not explanation, and we seem to have lost sight of this important distinction. Does anyone make a sharp distinction between popular and high culture at this point? In the world of visual commodities, is there even such a thing as national culture in the age of corporate globalism? What were once charged terms now seem dated and are now more typically used to shut down thought rather than to provoke it. Perhaps that is my biggest issue with visual culture: when the image is treated as an emblem of social life, we are no longer pushing the boundaries of intellectual inquiry.

There is one more issue that I must address about Hong Kong art and visual culture. One of the common objections is that art history is a Western enterprise and we need a more ‘Hong Kong’ (often interchangeable with Chinese) approach. This proposal for a ‘Hong Kong method’[8] is an extension of the idea of ‘Asia as Method’ based on works by scholars such as Kuan-Hsing Chen and Takeuchi Yoshimi.[9] While I might once have been more sympathetic to this position of thinking more locally, in truth, I have never been quite sure what Hong Kong method means. ‘Asia’ as a method, as proposed by Chen, works because Chen was using it as a site without determinant borders or definition, and as such it was able to take on the weight of being a subject of critical investigation by always being a malleable force that is manipulated and constantly restructured. Moreover, Chen’s work was never about providing pedagogical tools, but rather disabling habitual thinking. Although some scholars have pushed for a similarly open-ended idea of Hong Kong as a ‘method’, it lacks actual and real discursive tools, and runs the far greater risk of festishising a local identity of Hong Kong-ness that closes off debates. Is there such a thing as a European, Hong Kong, or Chinese method? Continuing this line of reasoning, where methodologies are seen as culturally determining, can only add fuel to already entrenched discussions of cultural authenticity, which is not an interesting debate, let alone a conclusive one (since there is no such thing).

My bid for art history is not radical or new but bears repeating, as it is a discipline that has been sidelined. Let us not forget that Michael Baxandall—whom almost all the 1996 respondents to the Visual Culture Questionnaire recognised as a major proponent of visual culture—dismissed the role of the art historian, while also making the claim that historical reconstruction can prompt a sharper sense of pictorial cogency.[10] What would happen if we were to think of visual culture as a method of art history? If nothing else, one of the greatest impacts of visual culture is how it forced art history to interrogate its own practice. My field no longer looks the same as it did in the 1990s.

I will end on a positive note. In our high-speed digital world of social media and performative spectacles, the disembodied image is even more empowered. The difference in the speed and scale of things on the move, the different modes of transportation and circulation, and the shift of the visual to the virtual, have added greater disconnections, even severed ties, between the bodily and the visual. We only have to note how goods can readily cross borders while our own movements are curtailed or under greater scrutiny to know that dramatic shifts are remapping and rescaling our sensory worlds. In order to understand these shifts it is perhaps visual culture that has the greatest potential to guide us forward.

This article was originally published on Podium, M+ Stories.

Yeewan Koon is Associate Professor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Hong Kong. She has published numerous works including A Defiant Brush: Su Renshan and the Politics of Painting in 19th Century Guangdong, which examines how an artist produced iconoclastic works in response to the violence that besieged China in the mid-nineteenth century. She is the recipient of several research awards, including a Fulbright Senior Fellowship to conduct research for her new book project on China trade art and the construction of Canton as a portable place. Koon also works in the contemporary art field as a critic and curator. In 2014, she was guest curator of the exhibition It Begins with Metamorphosis: Xu Bing at the Asia Society, Hong Kong Center, and co-curated the 12th Gwangju Biennale in 2018.

  1. 1.

    In the October questionnaire, Tom Crow, Jonathan Crary, and Susan Buck-Morss were some of the respondents who questioned the long-term merits of visual culture.

  2. 2.

    For readers interested in the state of the field of postcolonialism (or whether it can be called a field), see the volume dedicated to this topic, New Literary History vol. 43, nos. 1 and 2 (2012).

  3. 3.

    An exception to this is the work by art historian David Clarke. Of import is his Hong Kong Art: Culture and Decolonization (London: Reaktion Books, 2001).

  4. 4.

    This is a point that has been taken up by scholars in Farewell to Visual Studies, edited by James Elkins, Gustav Frank, and Sunil Manghani (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2015). This book is the part of the Stone Art Theory Institute series.

  5. 5.

    Peter Mack and Robert Williams, eds. Michael Baxandall, Vision and the Work of Words (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 55–56.

  6. 6.

    Diarmuid Costello, ‘Kant after LeWitt: Towards an Aesthetics of Conceptual Art’, October 18 (2006), 101. Costello takes on Kant’s aesthetic idea to challenge Greenberg’s formalist approach to conceptual art to move beyond the containment of form to consider the expansion of the imaginative.

  7. 7.

    An excellent example of how historical art can be connected with contemporary art (and its concerns) is Jennifer L. Roberts, Transporting Vision: The Movement of Images in Early America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).

  8. 8.

    An example of this pedagogical proposal is Hong Kong as Method (香港作為方法), an international conference held at the University of Hong Kong (7–9 December 2014).

  9. 9.

    Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), revisits Takeuchi Yoshimi’s 1960 lecture of the same name.

  10. 10.

    Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 136–137. Baxandall, in a forthright interview held at Berkeley (3 February 1994) talked about how his writings often ruffled many of his art historian peers, and that while he often writes to irritate specific scholars, his intentions were never to irritate the progressive art historians who were also changing art history such as T. J. Clark.

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