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Humane Literacy and Southeast Asian Art

  • Stanley J. O'Connor (a1)


Humane literacy? An essay on undergraduate education? Isn't it a solecism to broach such concerns in this special issue of The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies where contributors are invited to take stock of the current state of scholarship in various fields of study? My response is simply if not now, then when? I am writing from North America where Southeast Asian studies has gained only a precarious beach-head in the academy and nowhere is this more evident than in the very limited undergraduate investment in our field. Despite the fact that any expansion of academic appointments for specialists on the region will be spurred by evidence of general student interest, a concern with that issue, on our occasions of collective self scrutiny, has been subordinated to questions of research direction, funding strategies, and the prevailing degree of accord between the various disciplines and area studies. But, however ancillary the general education mission of the undergraduate college may seem to professional scholars eager to get on both with their research and the training of graduate students, it is nevertheless a principal responsibility of those deans who control academic appointments. We differ from our colleagues within Southeast Asia where an interest in the region can be either assumed, or expected eventually to develop. While American universities place globalization high on their agendas today, it is not at all evident that their students will wish to study about Southeast Asia rather than, say, Africa or Latin America. So we do need to focus on how we may demonstrate the centrality of what we do to the process of self-discovery and the integration of learning that is at the heart of general education.



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1 Despite some very useful observations by Professor Frank Reynolds on the need to establish a stronger presence in general education, most of the attention at the 1990 Wingspread Conference to review the state of Southeast Asian studies in America was focused on graduate training and developing a community of researchers capable of winning the respect of peers in the various disciplines. See Southeast Asian Studies in the Balance: Reflections from America, ed. Hirschmann, C., Keyes, C.F. and Hutterer, K. (Ann Arbor: The Association for Asian Studies, 1992). Two stimulating and more recent essays on the study of Southeast Asia are Wblters, O.W., “Southeast Asia as a Southeast Asian Field of Study”, Indonesia 58 (Oct. 1994): 17, and Reynolds, Craig, “A New Look at Old Southeast Asia”, to appear in The Journal of Asian Studies (May 1995).

2 This was put succinctly some years ago by Aiken, Henry David in his excellent series of essays collected in The Predicament of the University (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), p. 155. “The study of western civilization no longer suffices for those who would understand not only the ideas but also the practices of civility and freedom that abound in the contemporary world. Into the main stream of general education must be introduced courses which answer to this want.”

3 There are many books devoted to the impact of recent theoretical issues on the writing of art history. See Moxey, Keith, The Practice of Theory: Poststructuralism, Cultural Politics and Art History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994); Minor, Venon Hyde, Art History's History (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1994).

4 This relation between thought and the actual existing things that are thought about is receiving new attention in philosophy. See the introduction to Woodfield, Andrew (ed.), Thought and Object: Essays on Intentionality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. v–xi.

5 Steiner, George, Real Presences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 152.

6 For a similar view of books standing in their shelves in a library see MacLeish, Archibald, “The Premise at the Center”, in Riders on Earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978), pp. 4047.

7 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, “Indirect Languages and the Voices of Silence”, in Signs (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 62.

8 An introduction to the Metropolitan collection is available: Lerner, Martin and Kossak, Steven, The Arts of South and Southeast Asia (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994).

9 Jessup, Helen, Court Arts of Indonesia (New York: Harry Abrams, 1990).

10 An especially illuminating discussion of collecting as a cultural institution is Pomian, Krzytof, Collectors and Curiosities: Paris and Venice, 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), pp. 843; also stimulating is the attempt by Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean to see museum practices as part of larger systems of discursive practice, in Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1992). The principles of signature and similitude are set forth in Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Random House, 1973), pp. 1734. Especially useful in grasping the manner in which this discursive logic was superseded is Reiss, Timothy J., The Discourse of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 2154.

11 See Errington, Shelly, Meaning and Power in a Southeast Asian Realm (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 63, 290–92.

12 O'Connor, Stanley J., “Art Critics, Connoisseurs, and Collectors in the Southeast Asian Rain Forest: A Study in Cross-Cultural Art Theory”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 14, 2 (Sep. 1983): 400409.

13 Caverlee Cary, “Triple Gems and Double Meanings: Contested Spaces in the National Museum of Bangkok” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, Ithaca, 1994). For a comparative perspective on the politics of culture in the shaping of a museum building and the display of its collections, see Moyano, Steven, “Quality vs. History: Schinkel's Altes Museum and Prussian Arts Policy”, Art Bulletin 72, 4 (Dec. 1990): 585608.

14 Poshyananda, Apinan, Western-Style Paintings and Sculptures in the Royal Thai Court, in two vols. (Bangkok: Bureau of the Royal Household and Amarin Printing Group, 1993).

15 In his recent book Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), Albert Borgmann says: “For heuristic purpose we can think of Bacon, Descartes, Locke as the founders of the new era, the designers of the modern project whose elements are the domination of nature, the primacy of method and the sovereignty of the individual”, p. 25.

16 There is now a considerable literature on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. Students will find useful general treatment of Indonesian and Thai art in Wright, Astri, Soul, Spirit and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1994); Fischer, Joseph (ed.), Modern Indonesian Art: Three Generations of Tradition and Change, 1945–1990 (Jakarta: Panita Pameran Kias, 1990); Poshyananda, Apinan, Modern Art in Thailand (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1992); and Phillips, Herbert P., The Integrative Art of Modern Thailand (Berkeley: Lowie Museum of Anthropology, University of California, 1992). An excellent bibliographic source is Turner, Caroline (ed.), Tradition and Change: Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific (Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1993), and a convenient guide to the perceptual and thematic diversity of contemporary Asian art is the catalogue for The First Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery, 1993).

17 The fate of the humanities is very much at issue in the United States today. In part this is a reaction to the fragmentation, professionalization and specialization of the academy, confusion about what ought to be taught linked to a waning confidence in the established canon of great works. There is a further concern that work that is narrowly conceived, or theoretically remote is obscuring the search for the common values that could integrate a diverse, multicultural society. For an introduction to the debate see Cheney, Lynne V., Humanities in America (Washington: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1988); Bennett, William J., To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education (Washington: National Endowment for the Humanities, 1984); Fabian, Bernhard, The Future of Humanistic Scholarship (Washington: Library of Congress, 1990), and Levine, Georgeet al., Speaking for the Humanities (American Council of Learned Societies, Occasional Paper No. 7, 1989).

18 Gadamer, Hans-Georg, Truth and Method (London: Shead and Ward, 1975).

19 Snodgrass, Adrian, “Asian Studies and the Fusion of Horizons”, a paper read at the Gadamer, Action and Reason Conference held at Sydney University, 30 Sep.-l Oct. 1991.

20 Heidegger, Martin, “The Origin of the Work of Art”, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans, by Hofstadter, Abert (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), pp. 45ff.

21 Rodgers, Susan (text) and Ferrazzini, Pierre-Alain (photographs), Power and Gold: Jewelry from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines (Munich: Prestal-Verlag, 1988); Maxwell, Robyn, Textiles of Southeast Asia: Tradition, Trade and Transformation (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1990); Harrisson, Barbara, Pusaka: Heirloom Jars of Borneo (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986); Hauser-Schäublin, Brigitta, Nabholz-Kartaschoff, Marie-Louise and Ramseyer, Urs, Textiles in Bali (Berkeley: Periplus Editions, 1991); Taylor, Paul and Aragon, Lorraine, Beyorid the Java Sea: Art of Indonesia's Outer Islands (Washington, DC: National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and New York: H N Abrams, 1991); Solyom, Garrett, The World of the Javanese Kris (Honolulu: East-West Center, 1978) and Waterson's, RoxanaThe Living House: An Anthropology of Architecture in South-East Asia (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1990).

22 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, The Visible and Invisible, trans. A. Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 134–35.

23 Roger Scruton describes this vital at “homeness” in the world through visual tradition as the “priority of appearance”. See “Modern Philosophy and the Neglect of Aesthetics”, Times Literary Supplement (5 Jun. 1987): 604617.

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Humane Literacy and Southeast Asian Art

  • Stanley J. O'Connor (a1)


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