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ALLLOOKSAME?/TUTTTUGUALE?—Art from Japan, China and Korea

I once wrote to a professor of philosophy, asking him why he never mentioned the similarities between the philosophies of certain Western philosophers and Eastern philosophies. In his response, although he agreed about the similarities, he said he could not write about them because he respected Eastern philosophies too much to speak of them “ignorantly.” He further explained that, to do an “authoritative” job, he must have much “deeper” knowledge of the entire system of thought, as well as the ability to read the original texts in the original language.

This little vignette captures a uniquely Western tendency of thought; the attempt to dig “deeper” into the essence of an object, as opposed to extending one’s knowledge wider to see the relationship of the object to the whole. To the scholar above, “ignorance” consisted of not knowing deeply enough, but to an Eastern philosopher, “ignorance” would be not knowing widely enough.

This difference is manifested clearly in medicine. Most traditional Eastern doctors fear that they would miss the bigger picture if they specialized too much. Many Western doctors are scared of treating a medical problem that lies outside of their specialties, because the Western society condemns any medical practice that does not carry the “badge of authority” that comes with specialization.

In 2001, I created a website called AllLookSame.com which featured 18 pictures of Pacific Asians (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), and asked the visitors to identify their nationalities. This is one of the common fears that Westerners face about Asians. They ask themselves, “Can I ask him if he is Chinese, Japanese, or Korean? Or would that be offensive to him?” Out of the fear of appearing “ignorant,” they end up never asking. My quiz was not scientific, so I cannot claim this as an indisputable fact, but it is not easy for anyone, including Asians themselves, to make those distinctions. According to the data gathered from AllLookSame.com, those who live in Asian countries do slightly better than those who live in the West, but many Asians still struggle with the test. So no one should feel afraid of asking.

I believe that this fear of “ignorance” is partly responsible for hindering the Western understanding of the East. Many Westerners feel that they should either specialize and dig deep into Eastern culture, or stay out of it completely. As long as they don’t say anything about it, they feel safe from the accusation of “ignorance,” and ironically, they remain ignorant in that process.

This problem is seen less in the East where specialists are no more respected than generalists. This encourages everyone to learn about the West without fear, without feeling they need to specialize in it. Personally, I would like to see Westerners go beyond this fear, and share their thoughts about the East even if they are not specialists. Depth should not be assumed as superior to breadth. Generalists can offer something specialists cannot. I believe that calling specializing the only legitimate form of authority is a type of prejudice.

In his book The Geography of Thought, Richard E. Nisbett describes an experiment that shows how deeply ingrained this prejudice is:

The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus “creativity” test and then gave the students “feedback” indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how long the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they had succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed. The Japanese weren’t being masochistic. They simply saw an opportunity for self-improvement and took it. The study has intriguing implications for the skill development in both the East and the West. Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades. [p.56]

The traditional Eastern art is a tool for “self-improvement” as well. The significance of Eastern art lies not in the objects you create, but in how you improve yourself through creating them. To Easterners, art is a ladder you throw away after you have climbed up on it. Mandala sand paintings illustrate this philosophy very well.

In the West, art is used to define one’s own identity, uniqueness, and existence. In the East, art does the opposite; it is a method of eradicating one’s own ego. In many ways, it is a ritual to eventually realize that the self is an illusion. For this reason, originality or newness in art is not a concern for the traditional Eastern artist. Ultimately they see any kind of distinction as merely a mental construct. This is roughly what is meant by the Zen proverb: “All is one.”

In the above-mentioned book, Richard Nisbett writes:

When North Americans are surveyed about their attributes and preferences, they characteristically overestimate their distinctiveness. On question after question, North Americans report themselves to be more unique than they really are, whereas Asians are much less likely to make this error. [p.54]

In the West, the self is defined primarily by thoughts. (This is the reason why many people describe themselves as being trapped in their bodies.) The feeling of existence, therefore, is derived primarily from symbolic differences. This overestimation is an expression of a desire to exist. The more different a Westerner feels themselves to be, the stronger his sense of existence becomes. This is what motivates many people in the West to pursue art, and this is why they become preoccupied with originality, newness, and uniqueness. But, to be realistic, what you truly are may not actually be so unique, which means there is a tension between being true to who you are and yielding to something original or new. Unfortunately the Western art world systematically rewards originality over truthfulness. Many Western artists, therefore, alienate themselves by pursuing originality. History (time) and the art world (space), the dimensions required to define differences, are the great alienating forces in Western art.

The Western art world tends to see modern art in the East as lagging behind their own. This is probably due to the fact that most Westerners see life (and history) as a linear progression. Easterners tend to see life as a cycle, or a series of ups and downs. Their objective in art, therefore, is not to make linear advancement. Instead, they are concerned with being true to themselves. In many cases, what may appear as a shameless imitation of Western culture is itself an honest expression of who they are. After all, in today’s world, who could remain unaffected by the influences from either the West or the East? In this sense, between the East and the West, we are much more alike than we think we are.

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