The implications of a New York Times art review for Tibetan artists and society.

This piece was originally published on Losang Gyatso’s website here.

Click here to read the original review.

The implications of a New York Times art review for Tibetan artists and society.
In Ken Johnson’s review of Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond, an exhibition of contemporary Tibetan art at New York City’s Rubin Museum, most of the artists don’t come off too well, including myself. Mr. Johnson’s remark on my piece ‘if Buddha-mindedness has anything to do with digital consciousness, we need to see more.’, reminded me of high school reports I used to get that both cajoled and  reprimanded on behalf of the school, and perhaps the Queen and all of Britain, with the use of the word ‘we’.  I responded by listening to more Pink Floyd back then, and today, I certainly can’t put forward an elegant formula that equates the Buddha mind to digital consciousness for Mr. Johnson…..mainly because that was the farthest thing from my intentions when making the piece.  And therein lies both the relevance and non relevance of art criticism made across such a wide cultural and historical chasm, and I’m not saying that necessarily to defend my or any other artist’s work in the show.     

As an artist, while appreciation by a critic of any culture would be a welcome thing, I feel that it would be a very rare instance for a non-Tibetan critic to be able to gauge the relative power and cultural relevance of a contemporary Tibetan artist’s work for Tibetan society. But an art review by the New York Times on contemporary Tibetan art brings up a point that’s a lot more complex, and one that has far reaching implications for both Tibetan artists and Tibetan society; how much of it is relevant to us and how much, if, at all, should artists try and tilt their art to accommodate the critic’s views and expectations in the hopes of better future reviews and increased commercial success? In my view, since the vast majority of the buyers of Tibetan art are non-Tibetans today, many of us will find it a smart move to do some keen note taking when critics, gallery owners and buyers speak. But I hope that Tibetan artists will always find the time to make some work purely for themselves and the Tibetan audience, regardless of whether they sell or not. Not to do so, and to only make artworks geared for sale would be a sad injustice to Tibetan art and Tibetan audiences. The artists in Lhasa back in the 80s and 90s found a solution to this dilemma that we would be wise to  emulate if our work is becoming increasingly guided by market forces. They made one set of art that would appeal more to tourists and others who had certain expectations of what contemporary Tibetan art might look like, and then made another set for themselves that they felt had fewer possibilities for sales. Needless to say, the latter work was truer and closer to the artist’s interests and obsessions, and were the ones that had the potential to move receptive Tibetans.  And today, quite remarkably, quite a few of the Lhasa based artists have succeeded in finding commercial success with their ‘real’ work, and in turn, gaining control over what their art is.

But no matter what the relevance of a New York Times review has for Tibetans, for the vast majority of New York Times readers, the review was probably very helpful as it viewed the show through the narrow reference points that most New Yorkers, or a tourist from Austin or Australia who is perusing the paper’s culture pages for  tips on what to do and see in the city, have when they think of Tibet and Tibetan art. It’s perhaps with that purpose in mind that prompts Mr. Johnson to take well known cliche images such as tantric depictions of deities in sexual union, and wrathful manifestations of dual form deities as points of departure from which to critique some of the work in the show, and that also cause him to lament the failure of some artists to take things to either their obvious or extreme conclusions along the narrative concepts of the works as he saw them. If I were to separate myself from being one of the artists in the show, or even from being a Tibetan, I think the article would probably be quite stimulating, and would intrigue me sufficiently to go see the show if I had an interest in contemporary art and Asia. And in that sense the the review is probably of great benefit to the artists, especially my friend Kesang Lamdark, who comes closest to getting rave reviews, the Rubin Museum, and the project of contemporary Tibetan art in general. There is a potential for new Tibetan art to contribute towards the shattering of stereotypes and pigeon holes that act to confine and deny realistic Tibetan identities, and the complexity of the changes that our culture is undergoing today, and the more focus and awareness there is for new Tibetan art and other Tibetan expressions, (regardless of whether it’s a good or bad review as in this case), the better the chances of people becoming aware of how far the fantasies and iconic images of Tibetans are from the reality of the Tibetan experience today. And once this disconnect becomes acknowledged by Tibetans ourselves and others, then we more easily begin to look at the reality of our lives, and start confronting questions of what cultural anchors and buoys we can carry forward in order to negotiate our future, and enable us to start controlling and defining our evolving identities. To this end I welcome the review and thank Mr. Johnson and the New York Times for focusing on this show.

I appreciate Mr. Johnson’s astute observation when he says ‘That few speak to old-new, East-West tensions in very surprising, deep or challenging ways does not make the show less interesting to think about. This is rich philosophical territory. The more the culture of corporate capitalism dominates the planet, the more urgent becomes the question of what happens to traditional, local cultures. Do they become extinct? Can they be modernized without losing their souls? Can their essences be recast in nontraditional forms?’. Of course what’s dominating Tibetan culture is less ‘corporate capitalism’, but more the impact of Chinese exploitative and rapacious policies that are marginalizing traditional Tibetan lives and livelihoods, and smothering any initiatives by Tibetans to engage in culture production, but still, Mr. Johnson’s point touches very closely on the ideas and challenges that I believe most Tibetan contemporary artists are grappling with today.

Now if only a brilliantly astute, insightful, and culturally engaged Tibetan art critic would give us a piece of her mind on Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond, now that would be a refreshingly terrifying experience.

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