Australia and the Asian Century: A personal reflection

The recent government White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century prompted some thinking about Australia’s relationship with Asia as reflected in my personal experience. It has taken decades for Australia to realize and articulate the importance of Asia to its future and then only in response to perceived economic benefits and possible strategic instabilities. Now ‘we must enter a new phase of deeper and broader engagement ’ with links that are ‘social and cultural as much as they are political and economic.’  This White Paper is not the first time that such ideas have been articulated.

If we are to enter a phase of deeper and broader engagement, this will involve all forms of education and the media. It will necessitate a concerted campaign from government, business and media to overcome inherent prejudices and parochialism. In the art world, this will necessitate a move away from the parochial/colonial obsession with Australian art – art that is integral to our national identity, but that has very little profile outside of this country – and a deeper and broader engagement with the art and culture of our neighbours, most of which is international currency. That engagement should ideally see a concerted effort on the part of the Australian art world, public and private, to ensure that Australian art becomes international currency, social and financial!

In preparing this newsletter and those past, and reviewing nearly 30 years experience as an art dealer specializing in Japanese art and culture in Australia, I am continually struck by the lack of general interest from the media in Asian-related activities. Given that the media are one of the main disseminators of information to the general public whose embrace of the white paper is essential to its success, their selection of information is obviously significant. This perceived lack of interest was particularly conspicuous in relation to the recent opening of the Pauline Gandel of Japanese Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, the first in the NGV’s long history and the only truly dedicated space to Japanese Art in the country. Japanese television, government and private, and print media made much of this, and international guests to the opening continue to lecture and write on the significant interest in, and support of, Japanese art and culture in Australia. The opening events resulted in substantial donations of art to Australian public galleries. Local media missed an important opportunity to engage the community, to profile the involvement of international scholars and specialists in the event and to disseminate information about longstanding  ‘social and cultural connections’ with Asia. In contrast, read about the recent opening the new Japanese wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Art . A ground-breaking first visit to Australia by the 16th generation Grand Master of the prestigious Urasenke Tea School in 2011, with a standing-room-only deeply probing lecture on Zen and Life at the NGV, was also ignored by local media.

Those of you who peruse our newsletters regularly will be conscious of the frequent art reviews in the New York Times relating to Japanese art (similar applies to other areas of Asian art), several in this newsletter. These range from in-depth reviews of exhibitions at the Met, Japan Society, Asia Society and private galleries and embrace both contemporary and historical works. The articles are written on the natural presumption that Japanese art is a significant part of the international art market, one that has had notable impact on the development of Western art, readily acknowledged in Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Abstract Expressionism, and given renewed attention in a forthcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim examining the Gutai movement ‘the most influential artists’ collective and artistic movement in postwar Japan and among the most important international avant-garde movements of the 1950s and 60s.’ These in-depth articles assume an intelligent interest and provide a sociological and historical background for the reader new to Japan. We do see this kind of article occasionally in the Australian and John McDonald at the Sydney Morning Herald is arguably our best art critic/ reporter (who reported on the recent Masami Teraoka exhibition in Sydney).

Artist Impression of proposed Gutai exhibition (Photo courtesy of the Guggenheim)

Cross-cultural experience, interaction and knowledge can provoke unexpected outcomes. The opening of Japan with the Meiji Restoration in 1868 saw Japanese woodblock prints, artefacts of low culture in Japan associated with the demi-monde and certainly not regarded as art, used as wrapping paper for objects sent to the Great Exhibitions. As we know, their depiction of the mundane, their unusual flat perspective and colour palette provided exciting stimuli to the Impressionists. This was brilliantly explored in an exhibition and significant catalogue at the National Gallery of Australia in 2001. Closer to home and more recently, we saw the profound influence of Japan in the works of four Australian glass artists at our November exhibition Asaka, Corr, Douglas, Loughlin: Concept, Mastery, Originality, Technique.

My own experience has, and continues to do so, proven time and time again that there are enormous cultural, social, political and economic benefits in being Asia literate. In my case this literacy is centred on Japan, but the lessons learned and wisdom gained are equally applicable to other cultures. In lectures and talks that I have presented over the years, members of the audience have commented on their broad-reaching impact: They have offered new perspectives on things totally unrelated to Japan and art and have re-energized thinking patterns. Experiences outside of our ‘already-always-known’ provide unique opportunities for growth.

I address a literacy that is beyond language although language proficiency is an essential component. Mastery, competency, in a foreign language, particularly that of an exotic culture, requires an understanding of the history, culture, sociology and politics of the country concerned. It requires an appreciation of the total context of the language, its communication patterns and networks, its etiquette and formalities, its situational rules of usage. Some form of cultural literacy is possible without language, but language proficiency without cultural literacy is inadequate. Our colonial attitudes see us relying on the English proficiency of foreign countries’ citizens with a naïve assumption that this proficiency is sufficient for the establishment of meaningful business associations and longstanding relationships.

The government white paper presents an ideal. Real change however occurs at grass roots level. A focus on language teaching is insufficient. Each level of our society has to see personal, social and cultural advantages in being Asia literate, in the broadest sense of the concept. In this context, each of Lesley Kehoe Galleries’ clients is making a significant contribution to Australia’s Asia literacy.

Read the Executive Summary of the white paper here: