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Facts About Asian Art

Mandala image by Marco Braun from Fotolia.com

Art in Asia has a rich, extensive history. Interest in art from the eastern half of the world has been the subject of much curiosity and scrutiny in recent years, owing to recent buying trends in the art market. As Asian art is often misunderstood in the West, it can only be hoped that these trends will contribute to an expansion of intercultural dialogue and exhibitions between the two cultures.


The term “Asian art” can apply to works made in Azerbaijan, Burma, China, India, Iran, Japan, the Koreas, Laos, Thailand, Tibet, Turkey, Vietnam and Cambodia, and is thus as diverse as the cultures, chief religious movements and histories of these countries.


While the development of Asian art tends to mirror developments in the West, it is generally agreed by historians that art in the Eastern Hemisphere began to evolve a few centuries earlier. Some of the earliest extant works are pieces of Buddhist art, which originated on the Indian subcontinent in the centuries following the life of Siddhartha Gautama (in the sixth to fifth centuries B.C.) The mandala, a representation of the universe used in meditation, is emblematic of early Buddhist art.

Expert Insight

Art critic Holland Cotter has argued that art history, as it is practiced in the West, is ill equipped to deal with the intricacies and significance of Asian art. Given that art history is a discipline that was developed in Europe in the 19th century, it reflects the values and worldview of the West. Trying to apply those principles to the East—whose own principles and worldview are in some ways diametrically opposed to those of the West—leads, at best, to misunderstandings, and at worse, to complete ignorance.

In the global art market, there has been increasing interest in the art of China. This reflects a fairly recent trend that came to a height during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2006, the auction house Sotheby’s reportedly sold more than $60 million in work by contemporary Chinese artists.

Famous Asian Artists

While she might be better known as the wife of John Lennon, Japanese artist Yoko Ono has made significant contributions to art in both the East and the West with her collages, art books and performances. Chinese-Canadian artist Terence Koh’s sculptures, performances, drawings and photography reflect subversive themes relating to sexuality and punk subcultures. Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang is known for his portraits set during his country’s Cultural Revolution. Zhang Huan is a renowned Chinese conceptual artist. Zarina Bhimji, a Ugandan-Asian photographer, was nominated for the English Turner Prize for her work in 2007.

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