In addition to such unfashionable ideas as attention to craft and technique—even going as far as to place importance on drawing in a visual arts practice—and ideas that invoke concepts like spirituality, I set off a lot of warning bells for a certain breed of postcolonial theorist because my work—and the way I talk about it—has strong links to East Asian ideas. The easy route for me would have been to throw my lot in with the new age community and limit the energy spent addressing academics to the act of sending positive vibes in their direction. But this would be an avoidance of the issue, and I’ve spent enough time in the past on the periphery of such movements to I realize that although I am capable of fitting myself and my work into that community, the community doesn’t fit me. Many academics and other serious-minded self-important people level critiques of weak-minded new age fluffiness at this community and in many ways I am no different. As for the postcolonial theorists, I think they need to get their heads out of their academics and into the world of cultures interacting. This might force them to revisit their terminology since I, a nonspecialist, have found an extremely simple and descriptive word for what they refer to as “cultural appropration.” It’s a word that anyone who has ever been to school should be intimately familiar with: learning.
Enough about others and their issues. Let’s talk about me. Significant undercurrents of my work are strongly influenced by East Asian ideas that I absorbed as a child and which I have revisited in recent years. But many of these ideas are attacked or dismissed in contemporary critical theory for a perceived lack of academic rigor. Though this is more like rigor mortis, in my opinion. But I digress. The attacks come despite my strong rationalist bias. And despite my mixed ethnicity and upbringing, another attack comes in the form of labels of cultural appropriation and Orientalism.1
And here we are, back to those creepy academic issues. Postmodern discourse would have me admit to cultural appropriation of Eastern ideas and philosophies, of handpicking whatever suits my needs in order to present my marketable product, and thereby further my capitalistic goals—in my case the works of art I make and my written words—stomping wholesale on the rights and values of non-Westerners the world over in my mad rush to exploit the exotic. Who said that we live in a world of true binaries? There’s a lot more yellow and brown skin in the world than black or white. But again I digress. I would agree that I hand pick that which appeals to me from non-Western cultures, but this practice is no different from handpicking that which appeals to me from the Western culture in which I was primarily raised. The next argument might be to claim it is imperialistic for me to take from the East, an accusation to which I would respond that this is a matter of handpicking from the broader context of all human knowledge. Given that my mother is Chinese, a great deal of East Asian culture is part of my ethnic heritage. And given that my father was Belgian—a country that historically has been both a colonial power and a subject of foreign rule—I can use that to my advantage in drawing from the entire history of continental Europe. Furthermore, having been raised in an English-speaking region of Canada, I get to play in the multicultural sandbox of that loose confederation of nations known in Victorian times as the empire upon which the sun never sets. Not only that, but I’m a native speaker of the current dominant language of science, communication, commerce, and education. Yay me!
This makes the cultural appropriation argument—the logical conclusion of which is a wholehearted embrace of xenophobic individualism/isolationism where everyone lives in their own little vacuum, and doesn’t allow contact with any ideas outside of those they come up with on their own, lest they somehow take advantage of those others who unknowingly feed their insatiable appetite for stimuli—look completely absurd.2 For me, it is not a matter of finding other cultures and ideas to exploit, it is the search for—or recognition of—similarities and correspondences to my thoughts and work, of which there appear to be more in Eastern ideas than those of the West.
While I’m aware that there is a lot of postmodern handwringing about cultural and gender identity, these issues as well as ethnicity and nationality are lesser concerns for me, only rearing their heads when I feel a need to defend myself from certain fashionable academics. I find that if anything, it is more difficult for me because I do not self-identify with any of the visible “minority” groups. As I said, I was raised in Canada by immigrant parents—one Belgian, one Chinese—I don’t identify completely with people who have deeper Canadian roots. But having grown up away from my hereditary ethnic roots, I have an even weaker bond with China and Belgium. I find myself in this Western culture but also have a strong sense of being not a part of it. I don’t self-identify as being Asian-Canadian. I don’t self-identify as being from one of the former colonial powers. This may be, as my wife Lia—who is a fourth-generation Canadian of (in alphabetical order) German/Polish/Russian/Ukrainian heritage, making our son one hundred percent ummm… Canadian—commented to me, simply a symptom “Canadian-ness,” wherein the country is so young that the culture is still figuring itself out. In many ways I find myself in the world but not of the world, but more in the sense of not really fitting in, than any sense of superiority or aloofness.
I find that the postmodern technique of creating binary oppositions—East/West, colonial/colonized, male/female, and such—in order to give power and voice to those who might have had less of it, break down very quickly when applied to my life. I remember from my art school days having been up in arms about academic injustices perpetrated by Western scholars—as pointed out by Edward Said—when we studied Orientalism in one of my art history courses. It was only in the fall and winter of 2005, many years after the fact, that I realized how hypocritical it was to have had feelings of postcolonial theory-based angst and guilt imposed on me by British-trained and -influenced academics. This penance for previous Western imperialistic practices, a phenomenon that can be described as “white-man’s guilt,” was something that seemed expected of me despite my partial Chinese ethnicity. It’s no surprise that in this climate I downplayed the use of Asian references in my work. Of course, I haven’t spent the last thirteen years fretting about the issue. Issues of Orientalism and postcolonial theory often break down the mixed-heritage individuals like me. In a country that has as varied a heritage as Canada, these questions often seem irrelevant. This is because a great deal of postcolonial theory fails to take into account that many of the cultures in contact—and sometimes conflict—are not homogeneous.
Having said that, questions of identity rarely enter my practice when I’m working in my studio. They do come to bear when it comes time to send work out, as well as when I’m thinking about how to make a living as an artist. Identity touches on marketing and how I want people to understand and perceive me. I find that the biggest issue is not my cultural identity, but how to find support—that is, money—to continue my practice within a society that is more likely to embrace shallow commercialism than the kind of introspection that my work explores.
I see the values of the surrounding society, the obsessions that at times seem like materialistic rituals, and for the most part want to have very little to do with the shallowness. In this age of mandated consensus reality and belief, personal exploration and creation of symbols and cosmology outside of professional sports enterprises and multinational corporate entities seems to be frowned upon. At best it is looked upon with suspicion unless it can be commercially exploited.
In my culture, which I’ve pointed out is arguably a culture of one, there isn’t and never was a common artistic or cultural heritage. I find that I synthesize ideas across cultures. Perhaps rather than trying to place myself at one pole or another of a binary system, I should embrace the elasticity of a continuum. In Essay 3 (Contemplation and Spirituality) I talked about the vagueness of certain terms, using the example of a restaurant menu, asking what “Hot Asian” is supposed to mean and whether one should interpret it based on taste, temperature, or style. A methodology of vaguness might lead to reduced clarity, and in some cases even confusion, but it’s certainly more accurate than the alternatives. Maybe this vagueness is why so much postmodernist discourse is so hard to pin down. Perhaps rather than getting angry reading all of those theorists we should use my identity declaration as a model for the future of hybrid culture:
Male visual artist, born in Canada to Belgian and Chinese parents, also loves to cook. Expert in creating an alchemical mix of hot Asian “dishes” in new spiritual combinations that are attractive to Eastern and Western sensibilities alike. Seeking patrons for tasteful show and tell. Your age, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity are unimportant, but you must have a high net worth and available funds. Are you ready to sample my tasty digital manipulations?
- Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism introduced the idea that Western scholars had been systematically denigrating all Asian cultures—including, but definitely not limited to, those of the Middle East, India, China, Japan—and by corollary all nonwestern cultures, creating binary oppositions and engaging in other such acts of imperialistic tomfoolery. In addition to launching the academic field we know as Postcolonial Theory, Orientalism also created a backlash against what its critics—and targets—felt was a one-sided and somewhat myopic premise. There is a presumption in postcolonial theory that all Western use or study of any aspect of nonwestern cultures is exploitation. Edward Said himself is accused of creating binary oppositions—specifically the Occidental/Oriental pair—and in many ways of being a product of the very Western imperialistic system he criticizes. Needless to say, the subject has been the topic of acrimonious debate since its inception. But just as any discussion of physical geography does not require a preamble to explain the fact that the Earth is not a flat disc, to my mind Said’s points are duly noted but no longer need to take the foreground of every discussion to which they might apply. Most people are now aware that some historical scholarship which predates the publication of Orientalism is what in these “enlightened” times is called “politically incorrect.” Rather than stagnating in accusations, remorse, guilt, and endless meta-scholarship I think it’s time for academics to move on and do something more productive with their time. ^
- Whew! Isn’t that a mouthful? But unlike most postcolonial theory, you’re unlikely to need a dictionary to understand what I’m saying. Hint: xenophobic means “scared of others.” ^