Artists Wandering the Confucian Way

My friend wrote me to ask me to think about an upcoming event with the evocative theme “artist as migrant.”

When I worked at Art Papers we commissioned Nat Slaughter to make a map of the migrations of artists and curators featured in the Whitney Biennials between 2006–2014. Perhaps expected, what we see is that over the lifetime of the participants’ lives there is a movement toward one or two cities in the U.S.

Screenshot from Nat Slaughter’s “Biennial Migrations: Geographical Data from the Whitney and the World” Art Papers 38 no. 2 (2014)

We are indebted to Chin-Tao WU for her “Biennials without Borders?” essay in which she compiled and visualized data on the movements of artists who are selected to participate in the large international biennials that mark the contemporary era. As Wu illustrates so well—despite the typical claims made by the organizers of these massive exhibitions to being more democratic and embracing an ethos of decolonialization—if an artist from a country like Taiwan wants to be shown in the Taipei Biennial, then it’s best that the artist be born in Taiwan and then resettle in North America or Europe so that they may be included in the biennial being organized in their country of birth.

If it is useful to mark an era by its dominant mode of production, then it seems profitable to characterize the contemporary art era as that period in which artists and curators are required to be nomadic in the manner that globalization has made possible.

That phrase, “artist as migrant” reminds me that the first thing that Confucius talks about in the Analects is the relationship between traveling, practice, and moral cultivation:

1.1 子曰:「學而時習之,不亦說乎?有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?人不知而不慍,不亦君子乎?」

The Master said: “Having studied, to then repeatedly apply what you have learned—is this not a source of pleasure? To have friends come from distant quarters—is this not a source of enjoyment? To go unacknowledged by others without harboring frustration—is this not the mark of an exemplary person?” (Ames & Rosemont, Jr. translation)

The application (the character he used is 習, xi ) of one’s learning that Confucius is encouraging is both moral and musical. The character 習 (xi), as we read from Brooks & Brooks, means “rehearse” or “practice,” a rote practice that leads to virtuosity. Indeed, virtuosity is the key concern for Confucius and much of the Confucian project is about elucidating and clarifying the relationship between habitual learning and moral cultivation. To become a virtuoso one not only can perform with excellent technical precision, one also imbues into their performance of that rote material the full spectrum of their human experience and it is this subterranean humanity communicated through the virtuosic performance that moves audiences. The music of Beethoven or Bach has changed very little in hundreds of years and yet the consummate performances of their works reveal a great degree of differences: Daniel Barenboim reveals a Beethoven that differs from a Glenn Gould Beethoven, and yet they’re each consummate performances of the same unchanged music.

We are moved by the virtuosity of artists who make good on the promise of cultural practices. Confucius saw a real power in moral cultivation, that there is a moral force (德 de) that the exemplary person comes to radiate over years of practice. As Confucius tells us:

12.19「[….] 君子之德風,小人之德草。草上之風,必偃。」

The excellence (德 de) of the exemplary person is the wind, while that of the petty person is the grass. As the wind blows, the grass is sure to bend. (Ames & Rosemont, Jr. trans.)