What Makes Art Foreign?

by Sara Clarke

Shi Le Seeking The Way, Fu Baoshi ca. 1945.

I was combing the internet looking for ideas for a quick post. Provençal street art? Indo-Caribbean miniature painting? Some ridiculous band? I thought I’d found an idea — apparently the Metropolitan Museum has a retrospective on modernist Chinese lanscape painter Fu Baoshi. The work is haunting, seeming to exist in the space between tradition and innovation, classicism and globalist fusion. Fu painted during the Maoist era, which is obviously fascinating.

I clicked over to the the Met’s website to see what else is going on there that might be worth a look-see. Except for a revonated American Wing, all the current exihibitions feature art from far-flung locales. There are shows about Renaissance portraiture and the notion of the heroic in African art. The Persian and Central Asian collections have been revitalized. And yet the only show that screams EXOTIC PLACES to me is the one about China. (There’s also an exhibition on narrative forces in Japanese art which seems equally exotic, but I saw the Fu Baoshi retrospective first.)

Portrait of a Young Woman, Lorenzi di Credi ca. 1490

Why is that? Why is European art “home” to me, and Persia and Africa not really worth a mention? Why do I mentally go to Asia if I want a post for my blog about art and travel? Frankly, very little of the art in the Metropolitan Museum is of New York. Museums like this were opened as great curiosity cabinets, windows on foreign lands so far away they were inconceivable.  Nowadays I’m not sure we see them that way. European art is “ours” — we learn about it in school and put posters of it up on our college dorm room walls.  Egypt, Greece and Rome are part of the same mythological continuum.  For an American it goes something like Egypt -> Greece -> Rome -> Charlemagne -> Renaissance Italy -> Shakespeare -> British Empire -> USA. We don’t think about how foreign all of that is. I was born in Louisiana.  My genetic ancestors are from the French-German border and Sweden by way of Scotland and Ireland. Why do I feel like anything Chinese is worthy of a travel blog post, whereas Renaissance Italy is not?