I’ll be honest. I don’t like Korakrit Arunanondcha. He was RISD Printmaking 2009 and I was RISD Printmaking 2011. We had one of the smallest departments on campus, space-wise and population-wise. Despite running into him (read all the time) and having a pretty decent group of mutual friends he just would not talk to me. There were many times when I attempted to confront him, at first jokingly and then increasingly frustrated, that despite my attempts to be friendly on the most basic level he would quite literally not even say ‘hello.’ He would stare at me as I presented my case and when I would finish and wait for his response he would walk away. When I asked our mutual friends about it they would shrug and say that he’s actually a pretty nice guy. Yeah okay.
My first reaction then upon reading Joseph Nechvatal’s review of Korakrit’s “Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3” for Hyperallgeric, was complete agreement. Someone whom I personally remember for having a shitty attitude was getting reamed for it and I felt like that was justice. After finishing the first paragraph however I realized that not only was Joseph Nechvatal’s criticism unreasonably unfair it’s also racist and has no place in art discourse.
Good art is good art not because it follows a history of artistic pretense (a disturbingly white and western history at that) but because it accomplishes its intent. Whether or not I personally like it is irrelevant to the success of the piece, and the best art criticism acknowledges this. Art discourse should not be based around the personal opinions of a small group of pretentious (not even purely academic) critics who inject their vitriol, but should be about whether or not the piece was successful and what it means for this moment in art history and not just western art history. So when I read that this particular exhibition was representative of "a state of culture where much art has capitulated to idiocy and banality" I have to assume it has as little to do with the art and as much to do with the person talking about it.
Joseph Nechvatal then goes on to criticize the artist himself, slinging play-ground level insults cloaked in edgy diction as an attempt to say ‘I’m really not all that embittered and out of touch with contemporary art! I’m definitely not threatened by a change in the central focus of art that isn’t totally about me!” He continues by comparing Korakrit’s form of painting to the canon of traditional painting in the west, which is entirely inappropriate. The writer’s assertion that art always has been and consistently is “quiet, profound, and subtle” is totally ridiculous. All that I have learned so far from this review is that Joseph Nechvatal not only despises Korakrit as a person and an artist, but that his writing is grossly out of touch and saturated with a false sense of superiority and self-rightousness. It is clearly he, Joseph Nechvatal, that is preventing the entire decline of western civilization
What I find most disturbing though is the treatment of the conceptual context of the exhibition. He digresses that he is in fact ignorant about the topics Korakrit is addressing in his work that are unique to his cultural background and artistic perspective, but rather than do any research he simply continues that despite his ignorance the work is still bad and Korakrit’s ideas are not needed in the cultural lexicon. There is no other way to interpret this than as a white-male art critic attempting to tear apart a non-white artist for expressing something that is unfamiliar to the cultural narrative of the white-male and therefore unnecessary to art as a whole. The amount of entitlement in that passage was staggering. The fact that he then compares Korakrit’s work to that of a white male artist (Paul McCarthy) and claims the latter’s superiority is emblematic of this issue.
He then ends with a few more grade-school insults questioning the audacity of Korakrit to make art not representative of the traditional canon of western art history as the finishing touch. The idea that perhaps Korakrit isn’t making traditional European oil paintings because he’s a contemporary Thai artist is a connection that not only eludes the writer but is a persistent theme in much contemporary art criticism. I frequently read pieces championing white male artists and leaving all other groups amongst the detritus that is “cliché and outdone,” despite their diverse backgrounds and perspectives. This is not a coincidence and this is not something we can overlook. We must, as artists, reviewers, critics, and viewers learn to distinguish between the canon of art history that has misleadingly filled all of our textbooks with the superiority of white male artists and the incredible variety of voices, forms, and mediums that make up contemporary art in the unalienable present. I don’t mean to say that a white male artist can’t make great work or that a non-white male artist’s work is great by default, but that we need to look beyond the scope of the limited canon of art history we’ve been presented with and examine the present independently of that especially when it concerns an artist from a vulnerable or marginalized group. The idea that artists can create work in a vacuum that is disparate from their identity is nonsense when it should be one of the criteria that we can utilize to look at, address, and understand art.