Vietnamese Art Scene – Anthropologist’s View

June 2001

Distinguishing Distinctions: How to compare different sets of criteria from Vietnam to France?

In what way can we use anthropology to understand the various mechanisms within the thoroughly specialised art worlds, where art historians, politicians, sociologists and philosophers have ruled the ground for so long? Is it possible for us to contribute in the understanding of such an well-analysed institution? My answer is that our method of comparison between different art worlds from different parts of the world can be a source of new insight into the mechanisms that define the structure and cultural contains of the specific art world one wants to analyse. Until recently, anthropologists occupied with studying art have mostly concentrated on the so-called ”primitive” art of the third or fourth world. But the forthcoming of modern art also in these countries demands a revision of the themes discussed, just as they can be valuable means of comparison to our own study of the institution of modern or contemporary art in our own part of the world.

In this essay I will use Howard S. Becker’s definition of an ‘art world’:


“Art worlds consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art. Members of art worlds coordinate the activities by which work is produced by referring to a body of conventional understandings embodied in common practice and in frequently used artifacts. The same people often cooperate repeatedly, even routinely, in similar ways to produce similar works, so that we can think of an art world as an established network of cooperative links among participants.”[1]

Becker’s conclusion is that the art world merely mirrors society at large, being a kind of compressed society. One can therefore use an art world to analyse some functions present in the society within which it exists.

The “Distinction” as a book about judgment

In Bourdieu’s Distinction, the readers are presented with a thorough analysis, based on empirical examples from the French – or perhaps basically Parisian – society, on the way judgments are based on social positions as well as personal taste. He also manages to show that personal taste is closely related to the social stratum to which one belongs. People belonging to the higher social layers of society tend to make fewer “errors” when judging cultural events, art, clothes, furniture, books, music, etc., due to their upbringing and learned behaviour. This learned set of criteria works as a frame for their judgments, and one can detect a clear congruence in the answers given by members of the same social stratum, when asked for instance about their favourite music, artist, etc.

Another thing Bourdieu found, was that art and culture was one of the categories suitable for distinguishing between people and groups – and not just economic capital, as we so often see. By calling the knowledge and skill within cultural matters ‘cultural capital’, he also managed to create a measurement for this “asset”. If one can be said to have a high cultural capital, it implies that one has a good upbringing or a good education, seen from the dominant group’s point of view, whereas if one is said to have a high economic capital, but a low cultural capital, one could easily be taken to be a part of the “nouveau riche” group. The settled upper class or upper middle class often looks down upon this group. All in all one can say that the whole system of distinctive judgments is meant to categorise people, by showing to what social group each and everyone belongs. These groups are of course not rigid and clear cut, but are more or less abstract communities. It is also possible that these distinctions are built up due to the increasing anonymity in the large-scale societies in order to divide them into manageable sizes.

My hypothesis is that Bourdieu’s theory of the Distinction craves an established and resourceful society, though it necessarily has to be a class-divided one, in order to work. In a society undergoing rapid economic and social changes one will therefore not find the same patterns or distinction lines between different social groups. This is caused by the social mobility possible in such societies, paired with the fluctuation in power relations such changes bring along. I will explain this by using empirical examples from the Hanoian art world.

Social evolution in Vietnam during the 20th century

For readers who have knowledge about the various revolutions in China, and the Cultural Revolution especially, it is easy to grasp the changes that took place in Vietnam after the communists reunited the country in 1975. Vietnam has always taken on the role as China’s little brother, repeating after them in their own way. When Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, leading to the persecution of nearly all intellectual capacities in the republic, Vietnam launched a similar one, only a little less aggressive. The same thing happened when China in the mid-eighties decided to open up to more foreign trade, giving some economic reforms. Vietnam, in 1986, stated to change in the same direction, launching the doi moi, or ”open door”, policy of renovation. Since the leader of the communist forces, Ho Chi Minh, won the war against the Americans, bringing a socialist regime to the country, the doi moi has been the single most extensive reform in Vietnam this century. It opened the door to private investment and ownership, giving individuals the right to start a business and keep most of the outcome. It started slowly and without much trouble, and has ended in an explosion of private owned shops, factories, agrarian industry etc. Rice production more than doubled, and in Hanoi today there are thousands of shops, where you twenty years ago only had a few state owned stores. The pace of economic growth still seems relatively stable.

Before the doi moi reform, one was only allowed to buy necessary items using ration tickets. This made distribution fairly equal among people, if you ignore the corruption and crime that took place. But it made it difficult for people to obtain things of distinguishing quality. There was no true upper class, and the dominant group was made up by the top party members. And when one considers the anti-intellectual movement in the late seventies, one can easily see that there was little ”cultural capital” among the leaders. The potential cultural capital was at least thoroughly hidden, even though some forms of ”high culture” were allowed. Visits at the opera house or the theatre, for instance, were something most people could afford in the city, but were scarcely used by the broad group of people.

The result today is that hardly any Vietnamese ever visit art galleries, make use of theatres, operas and other high culture offers. The exceptions are the people who are themselves involved in businesses related to these areas. And apart from a handful of art collectors, people do not buy art whenever they have money to spend. An anthropologist who has lived in Vietnam for about thirty years estimates that only three percent of the art sold in Vietnam is bought by Vietnamese. In other words, the distinctions between the different social groups do not at all follow the same demarcation lines that they do in for instance the French society.

Art objects and the judgment of taste

Fine art fills many functions in our own society. An art object can be an investment, obtained by someone who wants to signalise taste and knowledge about art, or someone who anticipates the art piece to rise in monetary value. It can be an object meant to criticise, awaken or disturb people’s attitudes to society itself, or it can be a romantic portrait of a beloved country. It may not necessarily be meant for sale, and in many cases nobody wants to own it, but simply to look at it for a while. Still, art has become a marker for social distinctions, in that one needs a certain knowledge and a trained eye in order to distinguish between good and bad art. It is the dominant class’ privilege to set these distinctions, Bourdieu states, as it is to be able to condemn the taste of groups who lack the same notions of taste. People from lower social strata often complain about not being able to “understand” modern art, for instance, thereby indirectly accepting the norms set by the dominant group. What they often mean, said in other words, is that they don’t like modern art, but that they know that they are supposed to like it. The result is a feeling of distance and (fremmedgjøring) when faced with these art forms, whereas they are fully able to appreciate the art the dominant group finds “vulgar” or “shallow”.

In Vietnam one of the noticeable things is that there are hardly any Vietnamese people visiting the various galleries. Those who go to openings are basically art dealers, artists or friends and family of the artists exhibiting there.  The average Vietnamese have probably never set foot in a gallery. Does this mean that they deprive themselves of all art experience? Not necessarily. The pagodas and temples are richly decorated with art of many different categories. Not exactly modern art, but often quite experimental. According to a more strict definition on art, these art pieces would perhaps end up being labeled ‘artifacts’, due to their function as religious ornaments. But they do have meanings comparable to many of our own society’s biggest cultural treasures, which also happen to be paintings made within a religious setting. Aesthetics and spirituality are combined so as to give people a sense of the sacred, and looking at them can bring a rich and mighty art experience. This is both because of the high technical skill needed to make them, and the imaginativeness they represent.

But this art belongs to the public sphere, or semi-public, if you like. All Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists are allowed to enter any pagoda, but if one belongs to another belief, one would perhaps not feel easy about going to such a place. Anyhow, most people could have their appetite for aesthetics filled via the regular, often daily, visits to the local pagoda. And at festivals and special occasions it is common to travel a little further to visit some famous pagoda outside the neighbourhood.[2]

Through the symbolism utilised in the art works in the pagodas and temples, people obtain a certain ”symbol-language”. This means that they draw information from what they see – information that is hidden from people coming from outside the Buddhist community. Take myself, for instance, I could not grasp the meaning of the different colours used. Red, to me, means fear, strong aggressive emotions, or passion, whereas it’s the colour of luck and happiness for the Vietnamese. While white, which is the colour of innocence and light emotions in the West, is the colour of death in Vietnam. Cerise, a strong red/pink/purple colour, is hardly ever used in large amounts at one place in our society, and if it were, one would sense a touch of madness or chaotic emotions. In Vietnam, it is used to dye rice paper, and this paper is sacrificed to obtain more luck. The pagodas are filled with objects in this colour, and this again adds to people’s perception of the pagoda as a happy place.

The community becomes a useful term in this analysis. For in ”normal” Vietnamese homes there are few objects meant for decoration only apart from the family shrines. Some may have a poster of a Dutch tulip garden, or a lacquer board with traditional motives on one of the walls, but rarely more than that. Most events take place outside the home, so that it is not ordinary practice to invite foreigners to one’s house. The nearest neighbourhood, the local pagoda or the work places are places where people interact, and this is where both loose and close contacts are made. If a person wants to ”show off”, he better do it on the street or at work. That’s where people who know you would notice. And the most common object obtained to show off, is the motorbike. For the average person, the Honda Dream II is the prime object of desire. But some have gone beyond this to mark their success. Everyone knows the market value of a Honda Dream II, some 2800 USD. And surprisingly many have managed to buy one. For most people in the city, this means borrowing money from friends and family, and paying back over a few years. For an average person, on an average Vietnamese salary (some 40 USD a month), it would hardly ever be possible to save enough money to buy it cash. And there is a lot of black market involvement in these transactions. But for those few who make up what is settling as a new upper class, a price like this is a small amount. They buy far more expensive vehicles, like Suzuki scooters, Honda motorcycles, etc. – vehicles worth twice the price or more.

But they do not buy art. It would be impossible to show off an art object unless one owns a gallery or runs a big company where lots of people come by. Besides, the modern art tradition is so young in Hanoi that few have enough cultural capital to distinguish between art pieces of high and low quality. Allusions to art and artists are not common in their language, and media focus on art have only been directed towards those artists who have been faithful to the regime and made paintings and sculptures of the right spirit. The religious decorations and art pieces in the pagodas and temples are never signed by the artist himself, and so one is not trained in noticing the connection between an art piece and the artist. Besides, the shrines and decorations in the pagodas are very often made by more than one person and often by a master and his trainees. Some may know who has made what shortly after, but some generations later it will be forgotten. In addition to this, the fact that these works belongs to the religious, and not the economic sphere. They may be donations or sacrifices to the giver’s ancestors, or they may be purchased by the religious community after saving up other monetary donations. The art pieces that people see most often are therefore not usually estimated after their economic value.

When saying that art is not yet used as a distinction does not mean it never will be. After fifteen years of rather free trade with the West, and presence of Western tourists, aid program workers, diplomats and businessmen in Hanoi, the growing new bourgeoisie has adapted some of the life style of the foreigners. Besides, it gets more and more obvious that art could be a good investment for the future as the foreigners spend quite a lot of their money in art galleries. But one must not forget that the last famine is only about fifteen years back in the past, when unofficial figures say that about a million people starved to death. So investment for the future is still rather careful and pragmatic. Though one artist in whose atelier/work shop studio I spent some time, had started collecting antique lacquer ornaments from pagodas, along with antique water puppets. The water puppets has since the start of foreign tourism to Vietnam been a favourite collecting object for tourists. They are mainly sold as puppets gone out of use, but have in fact mainly not been in use at all, and have been added a fake patina and a large amount of dust in order to look old and worn out. The artist acquaintance of mine, on the other hand, has extensive knowledge in lacquer, and can more easily see what is original or not. Still, rumours make it that he has also lost face after investing in quite a big amount of antiques that turned out to be fakes.

Another case is that the former intellectual elite now has free hands, almost, in picking up their ancient family traditions. Among my own informants, there were many from well educated families, some seeming almost a bit upper class – not counting in income but in cultural capital. This implies that the hierarchy is once again rising, giving a new set of potential distinctions. Knowledge in Western authors and thinkers was one thing that some of my informants underscored in describing what their parents had always appreciated. The access to such literature has for some decades been scarce, but not absent. The black market has kept a certain distribution going.

There is one more issue related to the explanation of why art is less used as a social distinction in Vietnam than in the West. And this is the relatively new connection between an artwork and its maker. Since the end of the middle ages European art has become more and more focused on the person behind the art works. Schooling and training in art has given a part of society extensive knowledge in art history and art theory, as well as making a demarcation between the autodidact and the educated. The signature, often the mark of quality or originality, has become almost unavoidable in order to sell an art piece. But there is not necessarily a connection between the signature and the appreciation of an art piece. Most people would agree when asked if they can have a rich and mighty art experience without being aware of who the artist behind the art piece is. But in a time when focus on authenticity, originality and labels has become so apparent, the artwork’s autonomy has perhaps decreased, as one is just as interested in its creator as in the piece per se. It is still necessary for me to underline that this is not the case with those who are interested in art for the sake of the art expression only, but most with those who are interested in art as an investment or as a symbol of a higher status.

In Vietnam, the focus on the signature on art works has come only recently. One does not have to look back many years to find that artists who are now famous didn’t bother to keep record of their works, and often didn’t even sign their works. This has led to a situation where reproductions and plagiats are abundant on the market, undermining the value of the original pieces. The American anthropologist Nora A. Taylor describes this in her article on one of the artists, Phai, who became famous after his death. His widow had not kept record of her husband’s works, and since he all his life was very generous in donating paintings to friends and one particular cafe owner, she could not say which paintings now abundant in the various galleries that actually was made by Phai.

In order to see why the theory of the distinction in terms of art is not applicable to the Vietnamese social division, we have found that the connection between an artist and his works is an important weakness. But why is this connection so important?

The sleeping bourgeoisie

After a century of colonialism, much of the upper class had become more oriented towards France than against China, who had always been the major source of spiritual and cultural inspiration. There was still a lot of resistance against what many schooled mandarins looked upon as decadent Western influence, but many gained on the French presence. Ho Chi Minh, like his Marxist companions in many other countries before him, saw the bourgeoisie as a threat to the new order. The former mandarins and bourgeoisie were deprived of their property, an effective means of ensuring that they lost their previous influence. Attempts at criticisms were held down by various sanctions. It didn’t matter whether one had been on the communist side before the revolution, and so even many communist thinkers were in fact sent to re-education camps. These camps were meant to turn opponents of the new regime to good citizens, but have been described as mere working camps, where people could be kept from a few years and up till fifteen years. Coming back from these camps can be seen as a punishment in itself, in that nobody wanted or dared to be associated with such social misfits. Many of them work as peddlers or cyclo-drivers today, not having been able to find employment anywhere.

The party has been in control of most institutions. In order to seek employment, you need a registration card, and if you have done something unapproved of, this could be a large obstacle. Enrolment in all higher schools and universities demand a good personal record, and some of my informants have described the selection of students for the Art College as unfair and slightly corrupt. Skills matter little if someone with a better background than you applies.

Until the beginning of the nineties, the police in charge of each street saw to it that all people stayed at their own house, unless they had delivered a detailed report on their whereabouts. If someone wanted to spend the night at a friend’s house, he or she had to report to the police the name and address of the friend, and for how long one intended to stay there. After the curfew, one was supposed to stay indoors. In this way, the police could keep record of all people’s movements, and could pay special attention to suspect persons.

All these regulations are to a certain degree prevalent even today, when everything else has loosened more up. My artist informants seem well aware of the fact that they are, or may well be, kept under supervision. And whereas many artists in the West complain about the restrictions put on their work by the demanding market, artists of Vietnam complain about the too strict rules – written or unwritten. But more important, the system has put an end to the workings of the former bourgeoisie. For forty years they have not been able to keep up their habits and way of life. All Western books were confiscated and burnt, apart from a few well-hidden ones. Poetry, literature, song, dance, music, art and official events were under strict supervision, if not simply banned. Neighbours complained as soon as they discovered tendencies of bourgeoisie behaviour, and a new upper class, the one of party officials, became apparent. Material goods were not necessarily a part of this new group’s benefits, but freedom of movement and political power. Or, one might say, influence and control. Suddenly intellectualism and high cultural capital were not in centre for the dominant group. A completely new set of deeds was applied. In order to rule one had to command these new ”virtues”. And as time went, these party-ethics were taught to the children of the higher officials as well, keeping the tradition going. Non-intellectualism, in our Western sense of the word, has therefore become an apparent part of the dominant class, or group.

Art ended in a mid-position in all this. When used correctly, it was considered a good means of educating the people in the socialist spirit. Artist who were judged as good portraitist, as well as being good citizens, were allowed to paint portraits of Uncle Ho. Together with the flag, Ho Chi Minh’s face was a national symbol held sacred to everyone, and fear of misuse pushed forward the ban on ”unauthorised” usage. All art that served the ”cause” were promoted and supported, but at the same time everyone who made art for other means were suspected of being bourgeoisie. Nora A. Taylor writes about a now famous Hanoian painter, Bui Xuan Phai, who were held outside the official art life because most of his paintings depicted empty, grey street motives. The paintings are now seen as picturesque and nostalgic to the pre-capitalist era, but were at that time viewed as reactionary and bourgeoisie. Party members suspected the artist of wanting to show to the people that the grey and melancholic streets were the results of a failing socialist economy. Socialist art should be colourful and motivating, or at least educating.

This does not mean that all art produced before the policy of renovation was socialist or ”state art”. It only meant that there were fewer sources of income for those who decided to make more autonomous art. Since people didn’t have money to buy art, the art collections we find among Vietnamese today, basically began from gifts given to them by artist friends or colleagues, or art given as payment. A good example of the latter is the cafe owner of Cafe Lam, who received many paintings from poor painters as payment for coffee and other drinks. Today he has the largest collections of original paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. This is an important contribution to keeping art within the country, taken into consideration that approximately 97% of the art buyers in Vietnam are foreigners.

We have now seen that the former bourgeoisie of Vietnam has more or less disappeared, and that a political elite of party members has replaced the dominant group. These are not necessarily former people of means, and mostly they have been at the right place at the right time. One can say that they represent a suddenly social and political mobility, where the cards where dealt differently from the former regimes. What is certain, is that none of the new leaders had been known to have colonial sympathies before the revolution. In the new Republic of Vietnam they became more and more a petit bourgeoisie, in that they, in stark contrast to the rest of the people, had access to some material goods as well as decision power. Bourdieu writes that the differences between the bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie lie in the cultural capital, rather than the economic capital. Whereas the former has inherited knowledge and taste in high culture, art, interior decoration, etc. from their parents, the latter has little such knowledge. The result is that they find their own way about things, often in a way the dominant group finds tasteless or comical.

Time is a precious thing

This may be the case with the new petit bourgeoisie growing from the political elite as well. They were the ones who were allowed to define what was acceptable culture and what was not. But instead of showing off their new wealth (compared to the rest of the population), they stuck to the ascetic ideal created by, or after, Ho Chi Minh – at least publicly.

After the doi moi, the cards have been dealt again, and the petit bourgeoisie we now see racing on fancy motorbikes and hidden behind dark car windows, have a far more conspicuous consumption. They fulfill the petit bourgeoisie stereotype set up by Bourdieu quite well. Being seen in the right restaurants and cafes is essential, and so is dressing in clothes with large labels. There is little modesty in their life styles, and if one tries to localise their particular ”culture”, it would be more the American one than a conservative, value laden Vietnamese one.  But there is one crucial aspect that still separates the petit bourgeoisie in Hanoi from the ones we find in other countries: leisure time. Jukka Gronow[3] writes about this as a visible indication on wealth. Refraining from work is a conventional sign of high social status. This has traditionally been seen among those who could afford to have an “idle wife”. Taken up by the petit bourgeoisie, this has lead to the creation of “the housewife” as a social virtue. But just staying at home was never enough. One had to keep servants in order to achieve a higher social position. Gronow uses Veblen’s theories on this, calling the various forms of chosen idleness “conspicuous leisure”[4]. In leisure no work is done, and therefore nothing is produced. One is doing an activity for another purpose than making money; e.g. one receives money from elsewhere. The leisure should ideally be concentrated on aesthetic activities, so that one can communicate a refined taste. Art, etiquette, sport of certain kinds – especially the vastly time-consuming ones as golf – or theatre visits may do.

But one problem is that our societies have become so anonymous that it’s difficult to notice leisure. Therefore leisure activities are often sporadic and short-lived, taken over by conspicuous consumption, Veblen states. But what one often find, is that sports activities that at the same time function as conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption, such as speed boats, sailing, horse racing, golfing (in the “right” clubs, that is), etc, have become very popular among the higher social layers.

In Vietnam, on the other hand, very few can be found doing nothing unless they are out of work.  Being idle is definitely no Confucianist virtue. As far as I could see, the leisure activities that took place in Hanoi were based in the evenings, and were often combined with consumption of expensive German or Danish beer, racing on fast motorbikes for the younger generation and being seen dining out on the right places. Going on holidays seemed very rare, but were beginning to become more popular among the city dwellers with a high income. But things are obviously changing quickly, as foreign investments have found their ways into the pockets of the most inventive Hanoians. Still, visiting galleries, as I have mentioned, has not become a “conspicuous” leisure activity. This may be because no one is doing it apart from foreigners, and because it has never been a part of the upper class activities.

Who defines the ”high layer” of Vietnamese art?

Is it the people of means within Vietnam, or do we need to look further to find the answer? The answer gives itself. Since foreigners of some kind buy about 97% percent of the art bought in Vietnam, it would necessarily have to be those same buyers who set the market. But in order to be able to decide on what is being produced and sold within the Hanoian Art World, for instance, those buyers would have to have a very powerful influence on the producers. In Hanoi there are a couple of thousand artists, or people producing art of one kind or another. Out of these there is a majority who produce what the market demands, by seeing what other artists have been successful with, or by trying different variants. These often revert to what we would probably call “tourist art” or (even worse) “ethno kitsch”. But there is a strong influence on the market by more autonomous artists, artists who have found, or are looking for, an expression of their own. They may have more success in receiving good critics and attention from galleries and curators from abroad and within the country than actually selling, but they still become idols or receive respect and admiration from colleagues who themselves are drawn between autonomy and market dependency.

But does the market necessarily have to ruin good art? Do we have a too pessimistic view on market influence on art? Tyler Cowen writes about the European art history as one that has created many great talents through letting the market or patrons decide what is being produced. He reminds us that Michelangelo, Rembrandt and other artists now considered geniuses, all depended on orders and missions from patrons. In Cowen’s opinion this didn’t have a bad effect on their works. But let us look more closely on the art market of Hanoi, in order to see what is at work there.

Who are the art consumers of Hanoi?

Many of the art buyers in Vietnam are diplomats, NGO-workers, NGOs, foreign institutions of both commercial and non-commercial bases, employees of various international or transnational companies and tourists. But it’s the foreign collectors and art galleries who make up the most influential fraction. Those are the ones who are willing to put large sums into it, and when buying art they seem to be thinking that ”if we are buying a large piece of art and shipping it home anyway, we might as well fill up a whole container”. I was myself present at a lacquer studio where three French art dealers bought three or four lacquer paintings measuring almost one square meter each. With thick hand carved and gold leafed frames, the price was high even in European measures. And throughout the nearly two months I frequented the studio, large lacquer panels were painted and carried out or stacked in wooden boxes and shipped out of the country regularly. The master of these paintings had eleven trainees, either learning the wood carving and lacquer preparation occupations, or learning lacquer painting by actually making most of the master’s works. Lacquer painting, both when painting abstracts and naturalistically figurative, is an even more time consuming task than Rembrandt’s portrait work, and is therefore often produced in teams.

The other fraction, the tourist art or ethno kitsch, as it has been labeled by Nelson Graburn[5] and others after him, is made especially for the tourist market. Whereas Graburn is more occupied with fourth world societies, we can easily find the same development in nearly all countries where tourism is an important part of the GNP. What is characteristic about this production, is that it is very clever at analysing what the travelers are looking for. In the beginning the producers noticed a search for antique, ethnic and traditional products. The newcomers could be seen bargaining with an old grandmother over a hand crafted rice basket, or a hand woven, worn out silk table cloth. But it didn’t take long before these items were either sold already, or had been reproduced and put up for sale. As soon as the Vietnamese understood the value of a traditional silk painting, they of course started either making or commissioning such items. But the expanding new market didn’t lead to reproductions only. Art dealers noticed that the items didn’t have to be exactly according to the tradition. In fact, since the tourists often have only limited knowledge about the material cultures of the countries that they visit, there was an equally good market for other “ethnic” products.  Graburn has written an article on this subject with the telling title “I like things to look more different than that stuff did”[6].

What does this imply to the Vietnamese art market? Firstly, it means that the dominant influence on art production has its roots outside the country. Secondly, it implies that the cultural capital within Vietnam has little influence on the direction the market takes. In order to build up cultural capital for use in ones own society, to enable cultural dominance, one need to control at least part of the network – be it the production, the distribution or the consumption. The way things are today; the foreign ”agents” decides what art it is wise to make in order to be able to exhibit in renowned art galleries and museums the world over – and inside Vietnam. In addition they also decide what art sells best, though it differs a lot between the various layers of art buyers. Whereas foreign gallerists, collectors and curators look for something innovative and daring, diplomats buy what’s considered expensive and a good investment by their advisors (this can be both art critics in newspapers, magazines, books or people they trust), whereas tourists buy what would match Nelson Graburn’s ”ethno kitsch”.

A discussion on the various influences on art will necessarily involve certain aspects of aesthetics and taste. What is considered good art, or at least buyable art, will theoretically vary from group to group. Whereas curators seems to have their own criteria for what’s good art, judged on basis of a choosy audience with a liking for avant guard art, collectors seem to consider the ”authentic”, ever lasting, and technically advanced as the best buys. For tourists, the basic thing is price and whether it is being representative. In the ”tourist galleries” of Hanoi, one can see bright colours, naïvist shapes and low prices. The qualities of the works are usually good, but often give a notion of serial production and rationality in time consumption. The tourists in Hanoi, like tourists so many other places, tend to look for the exotic and place-specific. As Graburn describes it, they look for something that can tell other people something about themselves. If they place such a painting in their living rooms, they will automatically communicate something about their encounters with exotic cultures, as well as the appreciation of hand made objects rather than mass-produced ones[7].  Chinese style lacquer paintings or silk paintings have therefore a very stable market share. In order to find the most “authentic” Vietnamese expressions they choose a style that was prevalent long before the French Colonial period. Another group of tourists choose paintings that look like European or Western, like French expressionism, Romanticism, Modernism or Post-Modernism. Having talked to only a few of those customers, I got the impression that it was the opportunity to be able to buy an oil painting, something they could not afford at home, that counted the most to them. The obtaining of an art object could give them the pleasure of admiring art in their own home, and not only at galleries or museums. Some of them apologised for not having much knowledge about art, but explained their choice as solely a matter of personal taste.

This gives us the following picture: In Hanoi there’s a market for the avant guard, both the paintings influenced by Western art trends, and the ones that have roots basically within the Eastern symbol world.  These are bought by art specialists of some sort, either professional art collectors or dealers, or by people with certain knowledge in art stationed in the South East of Asia. In the other end of the continuum, there’s a market for the conservative tradition-based expressions, paintings that are essentially of a high technical and stable value. In between those, there is a broad market for reproductions, paintings strongly influenced by either one, but not quite as good and unproblematic, the so-called ”nice” art[8]. Beautiful colours, simple, clean shapes and a conscientious composition, mixed with a lower price makes sure that the distribution stays rather stable.


We have seen that despite the fact that Vietnam has been under French influence for more than a century, there is little in their social stratification that may resemble the French social situation of today. There are new tendencies towards an easy going, nouveau riche social stratum, but these have largely adapted to the American satellite-TV-culture instead of the petit-bourgeoisie culture of the more settled and conservative societies in the West.

[1] Becker, H.S. (1982) pp.34-35

[2] One of my informants told me that one particular pagoda had always made a strong impression on her. It was near the West Lake, north of central Hanoi. Even if it didn’t take long to get there from her house, it was a place the family only visited once a year, or some years not at all.

[3] Gronow, Jukka (1997)

[4] Ibid., p. 36

[5] Graburn, N. (1976b)

[6] Graburn, N. (1976a)

[7] Graburn, Nelson (1976b:2)

[8] This was a label many of my informants used in order to distinguish between themselves and those of their colleagues who had a less “avant guard” style or attitude to their work.

 Anne Kristine Naess


Woodblock craft is a time-honored art that holds a special place in Vietnam's cultural history. By … [Read More...]

Paper Painting

From "Vietnam Contemporary Art", 1996 By The Hanoi Fine Arts Publisher Among the Vietnamese … [Read More...]

Conservation – Care for your paintings

This page is meant to educate and equip you to better care for your paintings and art works. It … [Read More...]

Tạ Tỵ’s Cubist masterpiece completed

by Bettina Ebert Aug 08, 2012 About a year ago, I reported on the cleaning of a cubist … [Read More...]

A story about painter Nguyen Sang

  - Bui Thanh Phuong - Nguyen Sang (1923-1988) was a painter who had the ideal to solve … [Read More...]

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