The infiltration of pieces of Asian art into the museums and art houses of Europe and America goes back a long way. In spite of the obvious cultural differences between the hemispheric East and West, the exchange of artefacts across the divide is as old as international commerce. Asian art has not only found patronage in the West, but have also had a significant influence in moulding the European and American conception of art. This essay will explore these developments in greater detail and find out why Asian art and artists have found acceptance and patronage in the West. Scholarly sources in the form of journal articles have been perused for composing this essay.
Recently in the United States of America, The Asia Society organized a couple of important exhibitions, which typify the changing perception of Asian art in the West. The exhibition called ‘Buddha of the Future’ featured a bronze statue of Buddhist deity Maitreya which is nearly twelve hundred years old. Originally sculpted in Thailand, the artefact drew the attention and admiration of patrons and scholars alike, who unanimously agreed that it is a masterpiece. This masterpiece was accompanied by other equally remarkable exhibits of Asian art dating back a millennium. One of the reasons for this connection between the audience and the exhibit is the general awareness of Buddhist philosophy among western intellectuals. Books on Zen Buddhism have found wide readership in Europe and America. So, this initial acquaintance to an alien philosophy of life had wetted the appetite for further exploration of the culture of the East, as manifest in the Maitreya sculpture. According to one visitor of the exhibition, he “admired the sheer beauty of the Maitreya figure and other related images in the first exhibition and appreciated the information that accompanied the displays. He explained that he could enjoy the images as great works of art because they “transcended” their time and place; the label information simply amplified his visual pleasure” (Desai, 1995).
Further, the fact that such works were made of more durable materials have enhanced their value in the eyes of Western art critics, whose bias arises from equating durability with high civilization. This is reflected in the fact that “until the Western paradigm of the ‘authentic’ primitive art became firmly established, certain ephemeral yet nonetheless major areas of Indian art – such as folk textiles and tribal objects – remained outside the canon of Asian art history as practiced in the West as well as in the Asian countries” (Desai, 1995).
The marketability of Asian art in Europe and America is also boosted by the tradition of art collection among elites here. Till very recently, before repatriation of art to its original society was not in practice, for most collectors and curators in the West the notion of collecting is equated with investment, wealth and property. Asian art served the same purpose that the bullion serves today – to provide investments with lasting value. Key historical events of the twentieth century had also helped promote Asian art markets in Europe and America. Also,
“the relatively strong economic position of the United States after the World War II also made possible the continuous flow of fine Asian objects to the United States. It could be argued that such movement of works of art from relatively weak countries to more powerful ones was not very different from the early days of the founding of art museums in Europe, when institutions such as the Louvre were established to show off the war trophies of the victorious colonial empires. Although objects were no longer looted in the same manner, the economic lure of the United States guaranteed that Asian works of art found good homes abroad.“ (Desai, 1995)
But, as the first few years of the new century has demonstrated, the change in balance of economic power across the globe has given rise to new markets for Asian art. Simultaneously, as the Asian nations such as China and India gain global recognition in the economic realm, the Western art market is impelled to pay more attention to sources of Asian art, which in the past had proved relatively easy. For example, “major North American art magazines have begun to address the art scene not only in Tokyo but also in Korea and Taiwan. Australia and Japan have undertaken regular programs of contemporary Asian art exhibitions and publications. Serious journals specializing in contemporary Asian are now being published in Hong Kong and Australia” (Pyne, 1996). The Asian artists who benefited the most as a result of this boom included David Chung, who is of Korean and German heritage, the legendary painter Chang Dai-Chien, Vishakha N. Desai and the like. Some of these artists’ paintings have even found a place in the historical refuge of finest art the Louvre in France.