America’s Newest Creative Class: Asian Americans

by An Xiao on September 17, 2013

Maya Lin's "2x4 Landscape" at Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Image by chad_k on Flickr.

Maya Lin’s “2×4 Landscape” at Henry Art Gallery in Seattle; Lin may be the most visible American artist of Asian descent. (image via Flickr user chad_k on Flickr)

OAKLAND, Calif. — I’ve encountered a number of articles and statistics about Asian representation in the United States in fields such as education, technology, and medicine. A recent report in the New York Times pointed out that “Asian-Americans constitute 5.6 percent of the nation’s population but 12 to 18 percent of the student body at Ivy League schools.” Asians occupy the majority of tech jobs in the Bay Area, and there are a growing number of Asian doctors in the United States.

But one tidbit I hadn’t encountered was that Asians also occupy 6.1 percent of creative jobs in this country. That doesn’t sound like a lot (and the definition of “creative” includes science and technology), but according to a recent article in the Huffington Post about Richard Florida’s book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, that’s nearly half of the Asian American population. In the HuffPo piece, Youyoung Lee points out that industries like fashion and food have seen a rise of Asian names, like Thakoon Panichgul and David Chang of Momofuku.

But what about the fine arts? Names from mainland China have certainly been seeing considerable press lately, but except for the occasional show about identity, Asian Americans are a rarer breed on the national and international stage.

“Look at the curators, executives, and boards of major U.S. arts institutions,” noted former assistant curator at the Museum of Chinese in America and Hyperallergic contributor Ryan Wong, “they do not at all reflect the diversity of America today, especially in big cities. If these institutions want to remain relevant to a diverse America, they need leaders who can speak directly to diverse experiences. This will take years of recruitment and training, but it needs to start now.”

“Galleries and institutions should only focus on promoting intelligent art that brings a new voice and perspective,” wrote Margaret Lee in an email interview. Lee heads up 47 Canal Street, a contemporary art gallery in New York’s Chinatown. “Whether or not those voices are Asian American is not as important, though it will probably be more likely since they provide experiences shaped by contemporary and global socio/political/economic conditions.”

Minority artists in particular may not receive as much attention if they don’t address issues specific to identity.  “We should still be concerned with providing a space for Asian American creators in arts and culture institutions,” explained Wong. “Formalism shouldn’t be used as a bludgeon to silence narrative and figurative works that deal with topics like immigration, gender and sexuality, race, and cultural differences. In short, Asian Americans shouldn’t feel pressured to suppress their identities in order to have art careers.”

Fortunately, organizations like artasiaamerica and the Asian American Arts Alliance are helping bring more visibility to talented artists. And with Asian Amerians representing the largest minority groups (outside of non-resident aliens) at art and design schools like RISD and Pratt, we can expect those numbers to grow. Lee pointed to Michelle Kuo, the editor of Artforum, and to a growing number of Asian American curators in independent galleries. “As time goes on,” she said, “the differences are not as stark.”

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  • Anuradha Vikram

    Great article. I would just add that we should neither have to suppress our identities nor make them the focus of our work. As an Asian-American curator located, like you, in the Bay Area, I’ve struggled with numerous situations where I was perceived as too “niche” for a curatorial position – not by virtue of my work, but because it is assumed that a curator of color can only tackle identity or globalization as topics, and has nothing to contribute to formalist conversations or projects dealing with technology and media, for example. Meanwhile, in “ethnic” arts organizations, the overwhelming focus on identity and activism that is expected of a curator can be just as limiting if not more so. Independent institutions may be a temporary solution but that also further restricts us to a niche rather than allowing for a multiplicity of voices at all levels of institution.

  • Race has always been a very hot topic in America we had slavery, segregation, internment camps, etc.. But recently the supreme court heard an argument (Fisher vs. U of TX) and ruled that racial diversification isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, best summarized by this line: …there is no principled distinction between the University’s assertion that diversity yields educational benefits and the segregationists’ assertion that segregation yielded those same benefits.”

    So diversity for diversities sake may not be the best thing? Sounds like triple backwards double think, but okay these guys are probably smarter than me.

    I think you should support each artist/curator/gallery person based on their individual merits, not on racial, sexual, religious, or political ideologies otherwise you’re making the same mistakes. Critical analysis. Excellence will always be just that, and nowhere is excellence defined by race.

    The soctus ruling put the question of diversification back up for debate at a lower court level by remanding previous rulings.

    • All well and good, except you equate the court’s ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas as an indictment on Affirmative Action; the university’s policy in implementing it was suspect, not Affirmative Action itself.

      • I think you’re wrong, the justices are critiquing the entire system, hence the all encompassing language used. The notion that colleges need to be diverse is important but how one comes to that is random; you can’t control your applicant base. Using a percentage of the student body isn’t reflective of reality. Some schools use local populations and mirror that, others like Harvard are fortunate enough to not have to worry because the sheer volume of students that apply will likely overcome any diversity quota.

        The reason for the remand is that the UoT didn’t satisfy the supreme court in proving that race was not a deciding factor for rejection. I don’t think any school can prove that race is not a part of admissions as long as ethnicity is part of the college application process (otherwise why would it be there?). Why not have students apply, numerate the names during reviews, and then upon acceptance request racial data?

        Perhaps UoT is a low hanging fruit and perhaps that is why the two girls are suing, but if the case didn’t have merit it wouldn’t have made it that far. And I do believe it will likely have a precedent setting result.

        Anyway, my point is that if you’re a professional you are judged on a cerebral subjective level (since that’s what art is), not objectively. Asking why there aren’t more Asians represented in art is as silly, like asking if a Warhol is better than a Rembrandt because the Warhol costs more.

        Notice this largely seems to be a problem in western art institutions, I’m sure it’s wholly balanced in eastern art institutions.

        • Anuradha Vikram

          The underlying problem with your “color-blind” theory is that criteria for excellence in institutions whether Eastern or Western is based on a Eurocentric Victorian model that was established at the height of the colonial era. Things are a bit better in Eastern institutions in that post-colonial theory is admitted into the study of art history to a greater extent but also worse in that institutions in the developing world are even more hamstrung by limited funding. Even so, “objectivity” is easier said than done as it requires a comprehensive analysis of implicit biases in order to exist.

          • I won’t disagree with the premise that the model may be based on European ideals, but I would also point out that if there were a better system why hasn’t it manifested itself?

        • I think it’s laughable to quote Justice Thomas’s separate opinion as a case against racial diversity. Because he was narrowly speaking about universities’ admission policies based on race.

          To reiterate, the majority court opinion, read by Justice Kennedy, clearly states that the lower court’s decision did not apply the correct standard of analysis, and thus the vacated judgement by the court.

          More pointedly, Supreme Court Justices aren’t in the habit of making all-encompassing remarks.

          And included in the court opinion are the court precedents where admission decisions based solely on race may* be allowable under judicial review.


          • Let me cut through all this since we don’t seem to agree, which ironically is the exact same response that the ruling drew from both parties.

            Art should be judged on the content and execution. Injecting racial components into the art itself is not totally unreasonable, but should be a secondary characteristic upon which we base judgement. Realize that by doing so you limit your audience since the context of the piece is no longer universal in it’s appeal (some people may not be able to relate to the race or disagree with your POV etc.), BUT to suggest that a larger market share should be given up simply because of the ethnicity (without regard for quality) is insane.

            Furthermore this goes on everywhere, look at the NBA, look at the PGA, look at soccer! As a professional you are judged on your ability to perform nobody cares what you look like. Why are we expecting anything differently when it comes to art?

            Edit: additional point, SCOTUS does tend to speak in all encompassing remarks because their cases set precedent and they have the exceptional constitutional interpretation, which of course would have a nationwide impact. It’s hard to get much broader than that.

          • My original point of contention was that your use of the court case was a cursory argument to advance the rest of your post.
            If by all-encompassing you mean they speak for the courts of the United States, then rightly so. But if you mean to say that one Justice’s opinion in one court case narrowly working through precedent is an indictment of diversity, that’s a much harder pill to swallow.

            Some would add that art can be judged on the intent of the artist as well. But then we have to ask ourselves who determines the criteria, the method, and who these “judges” are. Is an artwork more valuable because it has a broader reception history? Is an ArtPrize winning piece better than the latest exhibiting works at MoMA?

            And exactly why should “injecting” racial components into a piece of art be relegated as secondary and not primary; or really, why should an artists racial (or any other) identity be necessarily obscured from their art? Are we not confronted with the artist’s worldview when Matisse chose to paint his white subjects?
            And how exactly is something “racialized” in art anyhow? Is a piece “ethnic” because a black photographer is photographing black subjects? Is a Caucasian painter painting Caucasian subjects not racial?
            Can an artist insert her/himself too much into a creative work? Is art any less compelling when you disagree with it — intellectually, morally, physically?

            How exactly is so-called “ethnic” art not universal anyhow? White, European masters can be cherished all over the world — all those teeming art collectors in China sure seem to think so — and not nary a peep on this whole “racial” art coming from Europe; lest we forget, white is still a classification of race.
            Also, is universality an essential criteria in the judgement of art? And what exactly makes a work of art universal? Is it a question of thematics? Aesthetics? Mastery of technique? Emotionality? Time? Space? What exactly is that rubric?

            And that’s the crux of it, because white is parenthetical in much of what is considered in art and art history, as Anuradha alludes to. As this post calls out, an Asian American artist in the United States is perceived as an “ethnic” or “racial” artist first (and not just an artist), inline with the historical treatment of Asian Americans as “perpetual outsiders”.

            The largest logical leap I think you make is in assuming any art that is deemed “racial” is somehow inferior in quality to any other art. There being a tacit agreement that the artist is not white.

            As has been carved out over the years in scientific studies (and in the business leadership self-help aisle), people do judge you on how you look. It’s a naive world a person lives in if they believe otherwise.
            So (to step out of bounds even more) if it is a question of performance, then what are we to make of the plummeting economy caused by the various financial institutions of the time (who we subsequently gave a free pass on with our tax money, if that’s the kind of real world we are talking about).

            And not that I’m one to make false divides between the arts and sports, but I don’t find an analogy of an athlete’s performance to an artist’s performance (whatever that means) at all compelling.

            So redux:
            The problem with your color-blind judging criteria is that the articulation of the current system of the valuation/validation of art and artists is biased towards white, European, traditionally male-dominated notions of what art is and isn’t. I.e Colonialism.

            I don’t necessarily think one needs to go out of their way to “inject race” (I won’t even go into that headache of a phrase) into the argument. But it’s obvious there is an imbalance of power & influence in the art world about who or what decides what good art really is.

            (I’m not going to say it’s racist, but it certainly isn’t not.)

          • I can’t continue this, there is so much ignorance and self reinforcement in your post it’s hard for me to read. I keep saying it’s about quality and you keep bringing it back to race, which is inherently wrong, we are supposed to judge/critique the artwork NOT THE ARTIST.

            Do racial quotas bring about diversity or is it a form of reverse discrimination? The scotus ruling of 7-1 ought to make it obvious that racial quotas invite reverse discrimination, otherwise it wouldn’t have looked like a layup. Just because a growing number of Asians are participating in the arts is doesn’t mean a growing number are producing brilliant works.

            Simply ‘claiming space’ (as stated in the article above) because of ones ethnicity is disingenuous and undermines the quality. History will frown.

          • Anuradha Vikram

            You still haven’t answered the question of who defines “quality” or via which criteria. Until you can examine and break that down, your case remains weak and colored by implicit bias.

          • 1) I specifically ask you questions that examine exactly why it is inherently wrong, as you say, to consider race, or even the artist for that matter, in viewing/evaluating a work of art; exactly what automatically makes a work inferior (and for that matter, inferior to what?). Not because I necessarily disagree with proliferating bad art (again, whatever that means) but I disagree with categorically denying any possibility that an artist’s race or the racial content of a piece could make it a superior work.

            Point of fact, the post points out the fact that Asian American artists are always viewed as “ethnic” artists who are only good for doing “ethnic” works. Meaning that race is automatically inserted into the judgement of Asian American artists and their works *for them* not by them.

            The argument here is for better representation of Asian American artists and their works on their own merit, like you say, because it is marred by the racially-biased underpinnings of the U.S. art world — the method is flawed, however altruistic the ideal.

            2) Admissions policies, one way or another, evaluate potential students being admitted to a university. The evaluation of a potential student and the evaluation of art are rather mutually exclusive.

            2a) Racial quotas, as it pertains to college admissions policies in public universities, *is* unconstitutional (with exception).
            That is not an argument against diversity in the least — the court opinion clearly elucidates that diversity is a compelling government interest, enough so that in very special circumstances would the Supreme Court consider upholding such a policy, again noted in the court opinion.
            Here’s the court opinion, for your edification:

            2b) Your race argument is thin when you dissolve the court case citation into what is actually said by the SCOTUS.

            3) History does not seem to frown upon colonialism and the men who were ‘claiming space’ by forcing their cultural imperatives upon the conquered, does it? And does claiming superiority by fiat automatically make it so?

  • I say, if you can’t break the bamboo ceiling, just eat it.

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