Vietnamese Modern Art: Change, Stagnation, Potential, Strategy

By Natalia Kraevskaia, Ph.D

March 30, 2000

The unprecedented shift in Vietnamese modern art after “doi moi” is widely recognized (1). The emergence of new art forms and stylistic diversity, the recognition of Vietnamese modern art by foreign critics and the public, the participation of the artists in different international exhibitions and art projects abroad – all these predicted the future flowering of art.

However, the first indications of some stagnation became obvious in the late 90’s. The analysis of the situation in other Asian countries shows similarities in some decline of the development of modern art in the countries with insufficient government patronage and the absence of a local art market (2).

In order to work out a strategy which can help overcome the problems, let’s first point out these negative aspects:

1. The abyss between the traditional and modern experimental and conventional became imperceptible and the striking contrasts in the art scene of the middle 90’s turned to a more flat surface. Even the opposition of two types of exhibitions – the modern and those inherited from the pre-“doi moi” times – was transformed to a co-existence. Many modern exhibitions lacked a search for new ideas and forms of representation and became more boring than so called “traditional” art;

2. The artists’ self-limitation, a fear to overstep the borders of the ordinary and to taste the new is very common these days. It’s often accompanied by the artists’ equivocation in the face of government institutional control, but those complaints serve sometimes as excuses for a lack of curiosity and of original ideas;

3. Innovations are rare. They can be bright and outstanding but often are not recognized by the art community itself. High aestheticism is appreciated more than conceptualism though the latter is the main trend in world contemporary art where the aesthetic principles have been dislodged by an urge towards an understanding of self, where art is not simply a skill to depict, but rather the means to construct a personality, to draw up an ethical, philosophical and aesthetic program (3). This is what Vietnamese artists in general are lacking.

The obvious proof of this is installation art in Vietnam, with visual effects but very representational, without profound symbolism or metaphoric content. The artists take a topic or a theme for the concept which demonstrates their incomprehension of installation art. This is explicable if you consider the lack of information and knowledge and insufficient educational levels within the art community in Vietnam. This fact was accentuated by Pham Cam Thuong and Luong Xuan Doan, in the excellent essay in the book Young Artists of Vietnam. “Seen from a wider perspective, the young artists in Vietnam are very different from the writers of their age in the sense that they are not as intellectual and put less thought into their work. They lack the latter’s keen sense of awareness for philosophy.”(4) I know that this phrase as well as some others from the book made a couple of artists very angry, but this is the bitter truth. Those in their 50’s, 60’s or 70’s got a better education and upbringing, but not those who would determine the future of modern art;

4. The best, well known and well established artists “plagiarize their own lives, their creativity is based solely on their desire to reproduce themselves.” (5) Their art making turned to commodity production, which regularly supplies the market with goods of approved quality;

5. The young generation has jumped to the same flow of copying the bestsellers and composing a featureless crowd behind the names Cuong, Phuong and Phong;

6. The next, negative factor is the undoubted influence of the market which includes mainly foreigners. It’s not the rare curators, galleries or museum representatives looking for innovative art, who form the market strategy, but the numerous foreigners who consider art as a good investment or buy art to decorate their offices and guest rooms.

Who are those foreigners who are buying art in Vietnam?

The first group are diplomats and business executives living in Vietnam. Their social position and income in Vietnam is higher than in their own countries. Many have hardly visited art exhibitions before and mostly had never (except the race art collectors) bought art. Here in Vietnam their new higher social status oblige them to satisfy certain requirements among which is art buying (I wouldn’t use the word “collecting” in this case), as it’s considered a virtue. The lower prices also encourage them to buy art.

The second group are the Europeans coming from Hong Kong and Singapore. They are middle-class people who have just made some money in these countries or are nouveaux riches.

Here I want to refer to the research done by the Norwegian anthropologist A.K. Naes on the Vietnamese art community and art market (6). Her research is based on the theory of P. Bourdieux (7) about judgements of taste, whose concept can be summarized briefly as follows:

Judgements are based on social position as well as personal taste. Personal taste is related to the social stratum to which one belongs. The higher class is characterized by “economic capital” and “cultural capital” (good upbringing and good education). The lack of “cultural capital” wouldn’t allow them to be considered upper class. Those with a high economic capital but without “cultural capital” form the class of nouveaux riches which are not accepted by the upper or upper-middle classes.

This category of people is usually describable as lacking taste.

The third group are tourists and they prefer ethno-kitsch art which has traces of exoticism and orientalism. As Nora Taylor writes, “The market for Vietnamese paintings is constructed on Western Orientalism prejudices.” (8)

So not the State, not the Artists’ Association but those foreigners dictate to the artists what should be painted and this is very destructive.

The problem of the artist and money and the artist and the market are not specifically Vietnamese and not new. They are universal and everlasting, reflected in the literature of different countries and of different periods.

Thus, for example, the Portrait by Gogol, written 160 years ago, shows the image of one Russian artist who did sell his talent for money and cheap popularity, but when he tried to come back to his real art, his brush was powerless to break the boundaries and cast the chains with which he had bound his hands.

We have taken a look at some negative aspects in the develop of modern Vietnamese art.

But enriched by traditions and talents and with an established system of art education, having developed an “open-door” policy, Vietnam has great potential and even advantages if compared with some other Asian countries. Let us now examine the major factors which are able to determine its future course (9):

1. The major factor to be considered is the institution of patronage which is central in the rise, expansion or fall of art in every country throughout history.

Here are some examples (10):

– the rise of Realism and the expansion of Salon pictures in Europe were closely allied to the emergence of large-scale bourgeois patronage;

– the flourishing of fine arts and architecture in Russia since the 18th century can be explained by the tradition of patronage maintained from Peter I and Catherine II;

– the development of experimental architecture in Germany during the first part of the 20th century is the result of the enlightened governmental and industrial patronage before 1930;

– the decline of sculpture in general is connected with the absence of patronage-less public commissions.

Among the institutions of patronage the main sector is the state sector. The State and governmental structures should be responsible for supporting art projects and sponsoring major exhibitions. The limited budget for the arts is understandable but the situation can be improved by its more proper distribution. The second question here is who makes the decisions. According to AK Naes, the most influential group in Vietnam, because of historical circumstances, has a lack of “high cultural capital”. (11) So in the present situation it’s necessary to form a new type of art administrator with a definite level of education.

The following strategies within the government sector are important as well:

– better education for art historians and art critics;

– the organization of symposiums, conferences such as this one and discussions on art and strategies to put it on a more equal level with other Asian and Western art;

– the collaboration with different institutions, private galleries and individuals in art projects since the most exciting and important things happening now are within the framework of the private sector;

– the development of exhibition and project exchanges on the international level because there is a gap between local concepts and information and that of international curators;

– the promotion of such forms of art which in the present situation can’t be supported by other art institutions, such as installation art, sculpture, video art, performance and public art;

– new policies regarding top modern artists who are recognized abroad but who are ignored in their own country.

The private sector of patronage includes:

1. Companies and banks, but they often purchase mediocre works and rarely sponsor art events (in Vietnam);

2. The general public, including the middle and even higher class – in Vietnam in general they don’t purchase art. There is a financial reason for this and a social one which is not less important – till now “high cultural capital” is not central to the dominant group and wealthy people. Their leisure activities do no include visits to museums, galleries and exhibitions (12). It’s obviously necessary to strengthen the educational program on arts. The Monday TV art hour is not sufficient. The government art administrators should reinforce the role of media and museums in educating the public.

In museums all over the world, community and educational programs are not less important than collecting and exhibiting art though in Vietnam they do not exist at all.

Besides the other institutions the private galleries are or should also be an integral part of the system for art promotion. Though in Vietnam most of the galleries or those who call themselves galleries ignore this side. The people running these spaces are not professionals.

To be different is not considered a great virtue in Vietnam – it’s the same regarding the galleries. It’s surprising, but most of the artists have a fixed idea about how a gallery should look. The difference even in outward appearance from their ideal image wouldn’t be respected by them. It proves once more that they have little information about contemporary galleries outside of Vietnam. They normally don’t know and don’t care about what the gallery does or should do except sell their paintings.

In that context when the artists themselves don’t imagine that there can be diversity in gallery types, when they lack the knowledge about gallery activity and do not respect it, even ignore their own promotion, an attempt to monopolize the market, which is normally not regarded as positive in other countries, can be successful in Vietnam.

The relations of artists and gallery in Vietnam are also very specific.

The grouping of artists around a gallery on a conceptual basis, so typical for modern, avant-garde, non-commercial art, doesn’t exist in Vietnam. Obviously, mutual sympathy is not sufficient to create a direction in art. Within modern Vietnamese art life, the attempts by some galleries to promote the artists as a group failed since there was not any conceptual basis and because galleries lose stimulus for promotion since the artists are running from gallery to gallery in search for dollars.

Are Vietnamese artists ambitious? If yes, why don’t they appreciate gallery promotion of their art even at the international level? Are they mercantile? If yes, why would they continue to give their works to a gallery which doesn’t pay them after a sale? Do they respect their own art? If yes, why do they place it in dozens of galleries which devaluate it in the eyes of customers?

The galleries themselves don’t always have principles. They usually wouldn’t take the risk of exhibiting young talented but not yet established artists. But after the artist receives public attention, they hunt for the work.

I often hear from foreign galleries about their problems in dealing with Vietnamese artists. The artists don’t accept the western rate of 50% commission even in galleries with an established system of promotion. Well researched and prepared exhibitions, promotion of their work through press and other means is not in the field of their vision. They are never thinking that by selling their works the gallery owner also sells his own education, knowledge, charm and reputation.

The other factors playing a leading role in the development of modern art such as art schools and the media are not within the scope of this talk. I only would like to mention that the significant progress in the Hanoi Fine Arts University is visible even for an outside observer. However, government support should be wider in educating University graduates or young teachers abroad in such fields as new art media, art history and art theory, art administration and management, and musicology.

The sphere of print or broadcast media also needs adequate attention from the government, since it’s the mission of the media to bring art to the people and to educate the public, but the quantity and quality of art writers and art critics is not satisfactory at present.

In this review, I allowed myself to speak in detail about the negative aspects within the contemporary art scene not just because of the empty wish to criticize everything and everybody but in order to work out the strategies to overcome the obstacles, the strategies which can help Vietnamese contemporary art to take a place in the international art scene according to its merits.

Notes

1. Ian Howard, “A Blossoming Tradition,” Asian Art News, 1997, vol. 7, number 1, pages 44-45; Duong Tuong , “A Tradition of the New,” Asian Art News, 1997, vol. 7, number 2, page 42; Neil Jamieson, “The Evolving Context of Contemporary Vietnamese Painting,” Cultural Representation in Transition: New Vietnamese Painting (The Siam Society, Thailand, 1995), 14-27.

2. Robert Preece and Gridthiya Goweewong, “Cracking Beneath the Surface: an Interview with Chatcha Puipia, Art Asia Pacific, 1999, issue 22, pages 72-73; Sang Ye. Fringle, “Dwellers,” Art Asia Pacific, 1997, issue 15, pages 74-77.

3. Andrici Erofeev, “Die Kunst der Nonkonformisten”, Kunst im Verborgenen. Nonkonformisten. Rusland 1957 – 1993 (Prestel, Munchen and New York, 1995), page 13.

4. Phan Cam Tuong and Luong Xuan Doan, “The Life of Artists in Vietnam,” Young Artists of Vietnam (Fine Arts Publishing House, Hanoi, Vietnam, 1996), page 20.

5. Sang Ye. Fringle, ibid., page 76.

6. Anne Kristine Naes, “Art Distinctions in Today’s Hanoi – a comparison between a former colony and its colonisers,” Hoved fagsstudentenes Arbok 2000 (Institute of Anthropology, University of Oslo, Norway).

7. P. Bourdieux, Distinction – a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1984).

8. Nora A. Taylor, “Pho Phai and Faux Phais: The Market for Fakes and the Appropriation of a Vietnamese National Symbol,” Ethnos, 1999, vol. 64, issue 2, page 247.

9. Here I partly follow the scheme proposed in the article by the Thai art critic and art educator Kamchorn Soonpongsri in “Thailand: Looking at the Past and Future of Modern Art in Thailand,” The Philip Morris Group of Companies ASEAN Art Awards catalogue, 1998.

10. H. Arnason, A History of Modern Art, 3rd edition, Thames and Hudson, 1986, pages 23, 89, 185, 208, 210, 361, 369, 379, 563.

11. AK Naes, ibid.

12. AK Naes, ibid.

13. AK Naes, ibid.

Natalia Kraevskaia is the director of Salon Natasha in Hanoi.

This keynote speech was delivered at a symposium of contemporary Vietnamese art organized at the Fine Arts Institute in Hanoi on March 30, 2000.

Reproduced by kind permission of the author.
Copyright© Natalia Kraevskaia, 2000.

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