Increasing Cultural Understanding Through Art Exhibitions and Education

At Asia Society in New York last Wednesday, Vishakha N. Desai, and artists Arahmaiani, and Xu Bing participated in a panel moderated by Michelle Yun to discuss the evolution of an increasingly globalized art world over the past 30 years, and the role of exhibitions and education in improving mutual cultural understanding between East and West.

During her tenure, former Asia Society President and CEO Vishakha N. Desai inaugurated the contemporary Asian art program at Asia Society Museum, making it one of the pioneering institutions in the field. The creation of the program was a response to what she interpreted as a lack of understanding in the West, even among curators and scholars, of the new challenges facing contemporary Asian art in the 1980s and 1990s. During the panel she argued that the program was not “just about one institution, but was instead part of something greater — of an ongoing process” aimed at promoting contemporary Asian art globally.

For Chinese-born artist Xu Bing, who has participated in several exhibitions at Asia Society Museum, a solution to the misunderstanding Desai referenced is the improvement of art education in a museum context. He shared an anecdote about the 1998 Inside Out: New Chinese Art exhibition: prior to the opening of the exhibition, in which his piece "A Book from the Sky" was on view, Xu worried that his work would not be understood by Western viewers. The amount of text and information accompanying his installation in the exhibition proved reassuring. “Exhibitions at Asia Society educate the audience,” Xu Bing concluded. “The reason why Inside Out became so popular has to do with this type of educational effort.”

Despite such endeavors, Desai maintained that she “does not believe that we have gone far enough in education to understand the nuances of cultural specificity in the global arena.”

Improving art education is a challenge that also speaks to Indonesian artist Arahmaiani. Speaking on the panel, she expanded on the difficulties that she faced — both in Indonesia and abroad — when presenting her work and collaborating with curators and art professionals who did not understand its cultural and artistic specificities. She shared her concern over the growing absence of educational value attached to contemporary art, leading to its commodification — “the new rule of the game,” as she put it.

For Desai, seeing the educational value of art helps to build bridges between cultures, to understand cultural specificities, and to avoid categorizations. Art is a powerful tool, she asserted, “because art has become so central to understanding political and cultural realities. It is worth making it central to Asia Society’s future.”