Decoding a culture. Book review: THE DAILY ARTS by Phan Cẩm Thượng.

Review by Grant Hall, Vietnam based Cultural Diplomacy consultant


Part I. Decoding a culture through art

When I arrive at a new place I like to  get my bearings and establish some sort of mental compass from which to navigate the landscape.  A good way to do that is to get to the highest vantage point and look around. I prefer climbing a hill or a mountain to taking an elevator up to the top of a building.  When I first moved to Belfast I climbed Beann Mhadagáin (Cave Hill), the inspiration for Gulliver’s Travels.  Looking down on Belfast Castle and where the Lagan meets the Lough, I could see not only all of Belfast but much of Northern Ireland, and I think I could even make out Scotland, across the Irish Sea. Upon arriving in Montreal I walked up Mont Royal and I could see the layout of much of the city, from my hood on le Plateau to downtown Montreal, to Le Vieux-Port de Montréal and across the icy St. Lawrence River to Île Sainte-Hélène and beyond.  In Phan Thiet, Vietnam, my current town of abode, the best vantage point has ruins from the Cham civilisation and, so I’m told, unexploded landmines below your feet, which I didn’t know at the time.  More fun than staring at Google Maps on an iPad, climbing to a height is a great way to come to terms with your new physical landscape, but what about understanding the non-physical landscape of a new place?

montreal 455
The Author and friends watching the sunrise over Montreal from Mont Royal
View from Cave Hill overlooking Belfast, Northern Ireland.
View from Cave Hill overlooking Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
The Author viewing Hong Kong from Victoria Peak

When I visit somewhere new I also want to understand, as much as possible, its culture and thinking and establish some sort of mental compass from which to navigate the cultural terrain.  There are many ways to do this and talking to local people is probably the best method. But another way is to look to a country’s national art and try to see things through the artist’s eyes.  Artists are very perceptive and can communicate visually where words fail.  When I first visited Japan, I spent a day visiting all of the art museums around Ueno Park in Tokyo,  and I have fond memories of standing in awe, breathless, before Hasegawa Tōhaku’s astonishing Shōrin-zu byōbu painting, one of eighty-seven of Japan’s National Treasures held within the walls of the Tokyo National Museum.  I bought Joan Stanley-Baker’s book Japanese Art from the World of Art Series and started reading it on the subway on my way home and I immediately  felt like I had opened a door towards achieving some understanding of Japanese culture.

Ueno Park, Tokyo
Tokyo National Museum. Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan.

Upon arriving in Vietnam, where I have lived on-and-off since 2009, I quickly set about finding the highest vantage point and enquiring into Vietnamese art.  What Saigon lacks in hills or mountains it makes up for with rooftop bars and I soon found myself downing martinis in the Sofitel far above the chaos of the streets below. From here I could see the river, the airport and the Bến Thành market and get a grip on the layout of the city.  But unlike Japan, accessing the national art of Vietnam, and seeing things from the elevated view of its great artists was not so straightforward.

Some countries like Japan, present their modern culture on a platter for you to devour.  But Japan, a developed nation with a rich cultural heritage and exciting contemporary culture, has long had the capacity to do this.   Countries that are similarly rich in culture, but less well endowed with cash, can struggle to layout their modern artistry in such an accessible manner.

Visitors to Vietnam will enjoy and appreciate the superb architecture of the temples and pagodas and the exquisite artwork often contained within.  Vietnam is a country of taste and refinement, this is evidenced everywhere, from the delicious food to the beauty of the Áo dài (traditional dress).  Most of the arts that a visitor can enjoy in Vietnam are traditional, religious, nationalistic or militaristic in theme.  Whilst this provides visitors with some understandings of Vietnamese culture, when one wants to learn about what current day folk are thinking, it’s better to examine more recent art.

Pagoda in Saigon, Vietnam
Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

There are different approaches one might take to discovering a country through its arts. Some might prefer to seek out vibrant, new contemporary art or music scenes.  My preference is to look to a nations’ great painters and paintings to learn about its culture.  My country of Australia recently sent a collection of art to London that exhibited many of the best works from our most famous painters at the Royal Academy.  Although critics savaged the exhibition, I felt that the selected paintings were able to give viewers a deeper understanding of Australian culture and recent history.

In my search to find out more about Vietnam’s most noted artists and artworks, away from the traditional, religious, nationalistic or militaristic, I started with the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts.  Whilst its collection was displayed in a wonderful old French Colonial mansion, the display, with the exception of some historic sculptures and heritage artifacts had little appeal.  The twentieth century paintings displayed were of mediocre quality, in poor condition and with little information supplied. Even here, much of the exhibition was nationalistic and militaristic.  Numbers were painted onto the bottom right corner of many paintings in what appeared to be White-Out in the same manner the trees are numbered with white paint in the nearby 23/9 Park!  As a historically cash-strapped nation with pressing challenges, Vietnam’s museums have understandably been long under-resourced.  The Museum of Fine Arts might have improved since 2009, but I’ve attended other art museums in Central and South Vietnam, and with the exception of the Cham Museum in Danang, the museums were of similar quality.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

I knew there were famous Vietnamese painters and paintings, but I hadn’t found them.  I could see the artistic traditions in the Buddhist temples and pagodas and evidence of technical painting abilities in the hands of the art forgers working away on Bui Vien Street, but where could I find Vietnams great works and acclaimed original artists?  Who was Vietnam’s Picasso?  Where could I see his or her paintings?

Unenlightened by the galleries, I turned to plan B.  I thought I might find a good book about Vietnamese art, one that would introduce me to some of Vietnam’s famous artists and paintings.  Upon each visit to a bookstore in Vietnam I would keep an eye out for such a book, but for five years now I’ve left empty handed each time.

The visual arts of Vietnam have eluded me; what are its pinnacles?  What are its defining works? Who are its most revered artists?  There is much you can learn from a country if you can access its great art.

But then, just recently, when I thought I would never learn about the art of Vietnam, I came across THE DAILY ARTS (The Arts and Cultures of Việt Nam: A Journey Through History) by Vietnamese artist and essayist Phan Cẩm Thượng in a Phan Thiet bookstore.  Flipping through its pages, I found a book not only about Vietnamese art but written by a Vietnamese artist and translated into English.  I judged this book by its cover, Thượngs friendly face beaming out at me, wise, funny and engaging, and bought it right away.  Had I finally found what I was looking for?  Was the art of Vietnam finally within my grasp?

The book’s preface, by Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, declares that ‘art is the essence distilled from the daily lives of people’ and discusses how ‘by considering a handful of (a country’s) cultural elements’ one can ‘decode the society’.

Would THE DAILY ARTS help me to decode Vietnam, in the same way that say Robert Hughes helped me better understand the USA by his American Visions, or Gombrich‘s The Story of Art gave me a better comprehension of Western civilisation?

In its way, THE DAILY ARTS did decode some of these elusive aspects of Vietnamese culture, but not in the way I anticipated that it would.  Let me explain.

Part II. Book review: THE DAILY ARTS

(The Arts and Cultures of Việt Nam: A Journey Through History)
By Phan Cẩm Thượng
538 pages
Published by 
Thế Giới Publishers, Vietnam, 2014
Available from Fahasa Bookstores (Vietnam)
and Mary Martin Booksellers (online)
Online price: USD $35.00
Museum of Cham Sculpture, Danang, Vietnam
Museum of Cham Sculpture, Danang, Vietnam

THE DAILY ARTS is a collection of 105 articles published in newspapers between 2000 and 2007 by Phan Cẩm Thượng.  Thượng is a well known artist, critic and culture researcher who has published numerous books about Vietnamese art history since the eighties, and is a lecturer at the Việt Nam Academy of Fine Arts.

In THE DAILY ARTS, Thượng outlines the history of the arts in Vietnam, how the arts has interacted with broader society and vice-versa.  The essays contained within THE DAILY ARTS are ordered in loose themes rather than by the chronological history of art in Vietnam, and the book has a pleasant and wandering feel to it.

Thượng doesn’t stick to writing solely about art, covering a large swathe of topics; food, football, the scourge of plastic bags, low quality house paint, the high cost of traditional clothing for minority groups, ceramic bowls (three times!), colonialism, and the impact of French culture on the arts in Vietnam. Many an art scholar might find the breadth of topics frustrating, but I found it adds valuable context to develop understanding of Vietnamese art. Common threads also weave through THE DAILY ARTS; the loss of traditional village life, the lack and loss of art creation, the deprivation of culture and how Vietnam can rediscover its traditional impulses for creativity.

Thượng acknowledges that Vietnamese art springs from a different well to Western art, and points out that ‘Vietnamese artists had very little experience with Classicism’.  He also reminds us that ‘the flat surface of the global art market certainly ignores the unique aspects of the (world’s) various cultures’.  It’s important to keep in mind that traditional modes of Western art criticism aren’t necessarily a comfortable fit with non-Western artistic practice when interpreting the artistic traditions of a non-Western country.

Tomb of Khải Định. Near Hue, Vietnam.
Tomb of Khải Định. Near Hue, Vietnam.

With this in mind, Thượng does well to explain the artistic traditions from the ancient to the modern, and their inherent linkages.  Depending on whether he is discussing traditional or modern art, he expertly explains traditional Vietnamese artistic or cultural concepts that Western readers might not be familiar with, or, if discussing art from the twentieth century to the present day, applies standard Western art criticism techniques.

Particularly valuable is Thượng’s brief but excellent history of art in Vietnam that introduces us to some of the ‘Eastern’ concepts in Vietnamese art, such as how ‘Confucian society was made up of four classes of people’ and how ‘painters, sculptors and architects were considered craftsman and belonged to the artisan class’ who ‘did not sign their works, nor did they attain any fame’ and whose works were mostly created for places of worship.

Pagoda in Saigon, Vietnam
Pagoda in Saigon, Vietnam

In the first essay, Before the Threshold, Thượng writes about the ‘changing language of painting’ in Vietnam:

It is clear that the art of painting existed in Việt Nam before 1925.  By that time the Vietnamese folk arts, as exemplified by the paintings of the “Hàng Trống” and “Đồng Hồ” (two famous streets where folk paintings were sold in Hà Nội ) styles, were already an established part of the culture.  But both artists and audiences agree that the fledgling art of formal Vietnamese painting began and was developed at the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine… which existed from 1925 until 1945’ (p29).

He then introduces the reader to a range of twentieth century paintings, starting with The Baby Buffalo as Benefaction for the Poor Peasant (Con nghé quả thực) by Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm and Black Baby (Em bé da đen) by Nguyễn Sáng.  Interesting as each painting seems from Thượng’s writing, the book provides only black and white images of a handful of the many works discussed.  Normally when I read art history books, if a work is mentioned without an accompanying image I reach for my smartphone and find the image online.  The problem here is that for most of the works that Thượng discusses images aren’t readily found online either.

Thượng doesn’t limit himself to writing only about paintings and the book is sprinkled with discussions on video and installation art.  His discourses about Vietnamese attitudes to abstraction are particularly interesting:

During the war and the era when the state controlled the economy, abstract painting had no place in Vietnamese art.  Although some artists like abstract painting, they dared not admit it; those few who did, refrained from signing their works.  One such artist was Bùi Xuân Phái, who painted the streets in abstract structural form.  Starting in the 1990’s when many taboos where lifted, abstract painting became more popular, being introduced by a few foreign artists as well as a group of Vietnamese artists in Hồ Chí Minh City, especially the artist Nguyễn Trung.

One of Thượng’s strengths is his ability to give the reader insights into Vietnamese culture through storytelling, as he does in this humorous tale about the opposition to abstraction in Vietnam:

By 1993, Vietnamese artists themselves had organised the first exhibition of abstract painting in Hồ Chí Minh City.  Also around that time Trần Thùy Mai and I produced a documentary film entitled “Abstract Painting in Vietnam” that was broadcast on national television.  We were very surprised to learn that many people objected to this style of painting.  The majority of the opposition came from the artists in Hà Nội, and it got so serious that they were going to organise a conference to criticize both Abstract Art and the film.

Some of the more impressive essays include Rain, Shadow Cloud which provides a brief overview of the history of the arts in Vietnam while The 10 Paintings of Buffalo Herding is an excellent analysis that unpacks a painting tradition that is commonly evidenced in Vietnam’s Buddhist pagodas.  The Crazy Y describes the life of one of Hanoi’s more eccentric cult artists and Black Girl is an intriguing short story about a young woman known to Thượng who was an ‘illegitimate child of a European-African soldier and a Vietnamese woman’.  American readers might take offense at Thượng’s somewhat tactless portrayal of their homeland and compatriots in Window Shopping which, although providing some very funny insights into how many Vietnamese view America, reinforces the usual stereotypes about obesity and consumerist behavior.  Again in good humour with hilarious stories to boot, Thượng describes the ‘cumbersome planning processes required’ to get monuments approved and built in Vietnam, mentioning that ‘few countries, no matter how rich, have built as many monuments as Việt Nam’.    Perhaps the stand out essay is Lake of the Returned Sword, By Day and by Night in which Thượng observes twenty-four hours of activity surrounding Hanoi’s Hoan Kiếm Lake and describes the colourful characters and sometimes dubious happenings that occur around the lake on any given day.

Dốc Miếu Victory Monument near the 17th Parallel
Dốc Miếu Victory Monument near the 17th Parallel

Whilst the diversity of topics covered is vast, the arts, and particularly the visual arts, are at the heart of the book.  Although he doesn’t say it outright, one gets the impression that Thượng’s whole argument is that in these post-colonial, post-war days of rapid development in Vietnam, the country needs to rediscover the impulses for artistic and cultural creation that were prevalent in the days before the West started interfering in Vietnam. Describing the current age as one ‘where the positive effects of the arts and culture are badly needed’ he later laments Vietnam as being ‘deprived of culture’.

Like most countries, the creation of contemporary art tends to be more prominent in Vietnam’s major cities.  Phan Thiet, where I currently live, is a small regional city and I rarely see evidence of any contemporary art-making activities occurring outside of the traditional, religious, nationalistic or militaristic.  In every place that I have lived I have befriended artists, but not here where I simply haven’t met any.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that Phan Thiet is deprived of culture, people go to the movies and pop concerts and read books, but I’m not sure if there are many people here creating any new art.  Apart from a small hip-hop scene of talented breakers, rappers and less-talented wall scribblers, creativity here seems to be something to be observed, rather than something to be involved in. I often wonder why.

Students prepare traditional dance performances ahead of Tet. Phan Thiet, Vietnam.
Students prepare traditional dance performances ahead of Tet. Phan Thiet, Vietnam.

How today’s Vietnam became ‘deprived of culture’ is but one facet of THE DAILY ARTS and certainly not it’s central theme.  However, as someone trying to learn about Vietnamese art from the last century to now in order to help me ‘decode’ the culture, it became my central point of interest in the book.  THE DAILY ARTS gave me some explanations for why I found art in Vietnam so hard to locate.

Firstly, the country has been at war for much of the last two centuries.  As obvious as this seems, sometimes visitors to Vietnam forget this when they wonder why things aren’t like they are back home; it takes time to rebuild a society virtually from scratch.  Even before the Vietnam War (known here in Vietnam as ‘the American War’), much of Vietnam’s cultural heritage was already destroyed:

 The century between 1858 and 1958 was a time of war for Việt Nam, resulting in the loss of 70% of our country’s cultural heritage.  Of the remaining 30%, 10% is relatively intact but the other 20% is either broken, patched-up or in disrepair.

Another result of war was that copies of important paintings that were made with the best intentions were confused with the originals which were subsequently lost.  Thượng tells the story:

During the war, the Việt Nam Fine Arts Museum in Hà Nội  “evacuated” the original works of art and put them in protective storage, hiring the original artists to make duplicates to put on display for the viewing public.  Artists themselves then “innocently” made several copies of their works for their own use.  The museums also employed art restorers to create duplicates of many works.  But after 30 years of war, the genuine works came to be mixed up with the counterfeit ones.  The art critic Hải Yến remarked that the oil painting entitled “Girl” by Hoàng Lập Ngôn had “grown” a few centimeters after the wartime evacuation.  The artists Nguyễn Trọng Niết complained that the genuine copy of his painting was sold to the Soviet’s Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, while the one hanging in the Việt Nam Fine Arts Museum was a copy.

Mỹ Sơn ruins in Central Vietnam. In one week of the
Mỹ Sơn ruins in Central Vietnam. In one week of the “Vietnam” War American carpet bombing destroyed most of the site’s historic architecture.

The loss of heritage items and important paintings didn’t abate in the post-war years. ‘A Chinese curator’ writes Thượng, ‘acquired about 100 paintings for the Singapore Art Museum – perhaps the best collection of paintings done in Vietnam in the 1990s’, and laments that ‘future generations of our children will need to travel to the United States, Europe, or Singapore to learn about Vietnamese art’.

Nor did the problems caused by counterfeiting cease at the end of the wars, and Thượng details some of the self-destructive forgery activities that were, and possibly remain, common place:

Since 1996, the galleries took advantage of the sudden interest in Vietnamese art and, without researching the works, began a frenzy of acquisition.  Interested only in profits, they would hustle to acquire paintings that were popular and selling well; when they failed at this, they would hire people to create forgeries.

Taking a wider view, Thượng highlights some of the historic failures of the education system in developing creativity (which are now being addressed):

The education system eliminated music and art as a choice for vocational training and replaced them with the study of aesthetic art as a way to nurture an understanding, love and enjoyment of the subject.  Creativity is considered a gift, since not everyone is a genius, and geniuses need the freedom and appropriate environment to be creative, Children have an innate talent for drawing and are rich in emotion, so visual language develops before spoken language does.  Any attempt to “teach” them to draw would most likely interfere with their natural talent, not to mention the fact that the teachers themselves could not be considered competent artists. When the young students reach puberty, such natural talent tends to disappear, and only a few end up pursuing art as they grow older.

He doesn’t hold back in his criticism of Vietnam’s artists either, discussing the laziness of some talented artists, a number of whom laid down their easels once their government subsidies ceased, and the tendency among some to create works in haste that ‘may have certain features that show evidence of talent, but… are not likely to have lasting appeal’.

He makes some other striking statements about the state of the arts in Vietnam that provide further understanding as to why the arts in Vietnam is elusive:

We in Việt Nam may proclaim loudly that Nguyễn Sáng, Dương Bích Liên and Bùi Xuân Phái are our most famous, genius-level painters.  But does anyone know how many works of art each one of these great artists produced or the whereabouts of such works?  And what about their small studios – do they contain any relics and is anyone occupying them?

We Vietnamese have escaped the times when we were starving and lacked clothing, but the habit of being hungry and cold has held us back.  We focus on making money, a lot of it, every day in every way, and we put it in locked cabinets and remain content with being deprived of culture.

There are many topics that Thượng doesn’t directly address, such as the art and influence of artists from the Vietnamese Diaspora or the preservation of heritage buildings, including French Colonial architecture in Vietnam. But as mentioned, Thượng often tells stories rather than making statements, and leaves the reader to form their own opinions. Take this story for instance:

Recently an artist colleague of mine made a documentary film about the women of Thạch Hãn River whose husbands and children had died in the war.  They used the lyrics of popular songs to motivate each other through the difficult days when they were lonesome and destitute.  The topic was a very sensitive one.  Wanting the film to be screened, he brought it to the Vietnamese authority on films for review and approval.  The film regulators asked him a series of questions: Where was the script of the movie? Who gave him permission to make a film without an approved script? Who was he? Was he an artist? If he was an artist, they told him, he must seek approval from the authority on art.  Of course the Arts Commission never wanted to be involved in this issue. 

Destruction of a French Colonial building in Phan Thiet, Vietnam.
Destruction of a French Colonial building in Phan Thiet, Vietnam.

But Thượng is not so much criticising as providing a historical backdrop,  and he is not so negative as to criticise without making practical suggestions for improvement.  Throughout THE DAILY ARTS, Thượng offers suggestions for how the shortcomings in Vietnam’s current creative state can be addressed and how Vietnam’s artistic heritage and strengths can be built upon.  He discusses an urgent need for a dedicated museum of modern art and suggests improvements to art-prize management, proposes new arts funding models and details priority areas for arts policy development.  For any country discussing arts and cultural policy, it is important for the voice of artists to be heard, and Thượng’s considered voice is one of reason, common-sense, experience and enthusiasm.

Whilst THE DAILY ARTS is informative, funny, insightful and relaxing to read, it’s not without its flaws, for which Thượng unnecessarily and uncomfortably apologises in the last lines of his book.  THE DAILY ARTS is repetitive, with many of the same points being made or quotations used in different essays.  In some essays it’s hard to understand his point or what Thượng is talking about and I wonder if the problem lies in the translation rather than the writing.  The book contains many black and white images, including many of Thượngs own works, which are nice but rarely provide any further understanding to the text.  Ideally, THE DAILY ARTS should have colour photographs of each artwork it discusses, detailing its size, medium and location.  The book loses momentum towards the end where some twenty essays are devoted to detailed descriptions of rural Vietnamese architecture.  At 538 pages, it could do with some further editing, an index and a bibliography; it would be good know where Thượng obtained the statistics he quotes.  THE DAILY ARTS isn’t a reference book, and the reader will be rewarded by approaching it with a zen-like attitude accompanied by a lemongrass and ginger tea or a Barossa shiraz.

Pagoda in Saigon, Vietnam
Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

THE DAILY ARTS reflects the fact that artists are rarely islands to themselves and their creations are to varying degrees influenced by the socio-political environment that surrounds them.  Thượng readily quotes MarxGorky and other Soviet writers; readers from more individualistic centred countries might be irked or even intrigued by some of Thượngs statements that are more common in “collective” societies like Vietnam. Thượng, for example, suggests:

A large-scale study is needed to assess the current and future status of rural communities.  The goals of such an analysis would be to identify which cultural and spiritual values should be promoted and which practices should be discouraged.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh with children. Phan Thiet, Vietnam.
Statue of Ho Chi Minh with children. Phan Thiet, Vietnam.

Whilst THE DAILY ARTS isn’t the Oxford History of Art or World of Art type of book that I was looking for, it did give me considerable insight into Vietnamese art throughout the ages, but perhaps more importantly it gave me an understanding of why modern day Vietnamese art is so elusive, even to foreigners like me who have deliberately sought it for years.

Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars.

Part III. The future

Recently it was announced that Vietnam would be expanding its cultural diplomacy footprint internationally.  This will benefit Vietnam immensely, helping to increase tourism, build trade, attract investment and strengthen national security.  There is a richness of culture that Vietnam can use as the basis for cultural diplomacy initiatives, food, art, dance, literature; you name it, Vietnam has it all!

A great way for Vietnam to start its renewed cultural diplomacy efforts would be by celebrating and promoting their great painters and paintings.  A touring exhibition of Vietnam’s finest works, with an accompanying website and book in multiple languages would bring Vietnamese art to the world.  Such a book would detail Vietnam’s great painters and paintings with high quality images, and be written in an academic style like the Oxford series, critically evaluating the artworks and placing them in a historic and social context. Such projects would all give the world a greater insight into the beautiful land, art and people of Vietnam.

Grant Hall is a cultural diplomacy consultant and project manager.  He holds a Masters in Arts and Cultural Management from the University of South Australia and a Graduate Certificate in Art History from the University of Adelaide. His favorite artwork is K Foundation Burn a Million Quid.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    One of yr best so far!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Grant Hall says:

    Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed it!


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