Nice Work if You Can Get It: Asia Pacific Arts and Asian American cultural criticism
As Asia Pacific Arts gains a new home at USC, former APA editor Chi Tung and current editor Brian Hu reminisce on APA's six years at UCLA, sound off on the uncertain present, and dream up a better tomorrow.
Published: Friday, September 04, 2009
It's time to substantiate the rumors about the end of an era for Asia Pacific Arts. But now that the moment has come to officially announce that the UCLA Asia Institute will no longer be publishing APA, I can't bring myself to write the usual gracious letter from the editor: thanking our old bosses for their encouragement and our readers for their continued support, before launching into a lament about the sorry state of non-profit publishing and the effect of the California budget crisis on public school funding.
Instead, I think it's more important for a dialogue to open up, because with a forthcoming change in ownership, we're caught at a crossroads where it's important to revisit APA's history but also to ponder possible new directions. (For the record, this is APA's final issue at the UCLA Asia Institute. We will soon be published by the USC US-China Institute.) We don't want to freeze-frame at this juncture, but rather to flash back, cross cut, and foreshadow. And so, as always, I turn to you for feedback, inspiration, smack-talking, low blows, and high times.
The truth is, APA should be lucky to have had such a supportive home for so long -- over six years! During that time, we saw too many Asian American print and online publications come and go, making us feel even more fortunate to be housed in an academic setting, where we don't have to battle over ad sales and readership stats. I often joke that APA takes area studies money to fund Asian American projects, and it's absolutely true. But it was only time before even that well dried.
Taking a look at APA's history, I'm impressed by the breadth, the evolution, and often the straight-up ballsiness. I'm proud to have worked on a publication that dedicates as much space to obscure 1960s Japanese art films as 2000s Hollywood. (Actually, we don't do nearly enough of the latter). Some favorite moments for me include watching director Chen Kaige squirm at my admittedly inappropriate questions, helping to cover the Asian Excellence Awards by mocking it, and reading/viewing your landmark interview with the RZA on his Chinese influences. My inspiration for continuing to work for APA is knowing that nobody else is putting this sort of thing out -- not for any lack of talent or knowledge, but simply because there are so few venues where such a niche exists. (An exception is Giant Robot, which we bow down to six times a year.)
Broadly speaking, I'd say that APA's history can be split into three periods. The first is 2003-04, under the guidance of several editors who reared APA from nothing to a flashy, well-staffed publication which covered a surprisingly broad range of Asian and Asian American arts and entertainment. You can tell from the covers during this period that the emphasis then was on mainstream magazine aesthetics, journalism fundamentals, and long video interviews (god bless Real Player). The third period is 2006 to the present, when APA was directed by editors Ada Tseng and myself. During this time, I'd say APA grew (or is it diminished?) into a highly idiosyncratic, personality-based publication emphasizing commentary and analysis above traditional reporting.
The second period came, naturally, in between, in the two years you served faithfully, brazenly as editor. I'd say that this is the critical period during which that philosophical transition gradually occurred. The change had much to do with your own personality, as well as a tonal shift by our then-designer Craig Kirk, the hiring of our former multimedia guru Oliver Chien, and the increasing average age of our new writers -- which, for better or worse, was a result of APA's association with a bunch of rag-tag, bored, obsessed grad students, myself included.
Throughout its history, APA has tried to figure out the best way to utilize the web medium, and this transition from reporting to commentary is consistent with the web's general turn to blogging. (Cue the "death of journalism" choir.) We found too that it was a more direct method of communicating our many voices and ideals. I predict we'll continue down this path. My concern now is that we develop content that's not only relevant and smart, but that matters. Specifically, APA needs to become a portal for Asian American cultural criticism. In print and online, there are shockingly few of what we can call "public intellectuals" who consistently write on Asian and Asian American popular culture. Jeff Yang of A Magazine and now the San Francisco Chronicle has been holding it down for years as a leader on this front, as has Phil Yu of angryasianman. Increasingly, Diana Nguyen and Jen Wang of Disgrasian are becoming some of our sharpest (and funniest) critics. The folks at Hyphen and Sepia Mutiny have their moments too. Hua Hsu of The Atlantic and Junichi Semitsu and Oliver Wang of Poplicks drop some of the finest Asian American cultural criticism, but it's just a small fraction of the content they regularly produce. Most of these commentators write on their own dime, and as side gigs. Their primary genres: columns and blogs.
But Asian American cultural criticism can and should be more. It should include reviews and review essays, on the ground from film festivals, concerts, exhibitions, and theater productions. It should include interviews to bring criticism in touch with cultural production. It should allow academic perspectives to speak to real-world needs, injustices, and desires. And it should be accessible and even pleasurable to read.
In other words, there's much more we must do. And it'll likely cost money. More importantly though, it'll need a new generation of diverse voices to expand the discussion, just as the Jeff Yangs and Oliver Wangs took on the spirit of the Frank Chins, but made it relevant to a new generation of identity politics. The voices are out there, but we don't need more blogs, we need a coalition -- something akin to a Huffington Post for Asian and Asian American culture.
Now slap me in the face and tell me to wake up.
I presume that by suggesting I slap you in the face, what you actually want to hear is this: reality bites, son. We’re the first of a dying breed, you and I, who write for an audience that already seems to be shrinking despite having never actually blossomed in the first place; who rail valiantly but futilely against the New Medias and Old Medias and everything-in-betweens of the world for producing unsightly copy and committing ghastly cultural faux-pas; who love what we do, and do what we love, only we’re not even sure if what we do and what we love are the same thing; who lie awake late at night thinking about the possibilities -- oh the possibilities -- if only there were more like us, who live and breathe what it means to be Asian American, unhyphenated, uncompromising, uncertain -- above all, uncertain of what it means to be Asian American. Uncertain, too, of why we care about others caring about the godliness of Takeshi Kaneshiro, why we raise our fists every time Yao Ming rebounds from another grisly injury. or why we insist on our prose bleeding purple. (Because, really, what other kind is there?)
Uncertain but also unfazed -- unfazed by the penny-pinching publicists who think that awarding accreditation to a niche media outlet does nothing but risk ivory-tower-like ridicule; unfazed by all the realists and research-blinded academics who see a labor of love as just laborious; unfazed by the tyranny of bureaucracy and limited resources and the justifiably high turnover rate of our “employees” and levels of access that felt more like pity parties.
The thing is, I was fazed -- if not by all of it, then at least the parts that were most difficult to accept -- even as someone who’s long accepted that it’ll never, ever, ever be about the money. Looking back, I now know that what I truly lacked was a different kind of conviction -- the will to somehow, someway make it be about the money, so that livelihoods could be created, and cultural bridges could be built. And so you, me, Ada, Oliver, and the many, many others could have our place in the sun -- even if eventually, it were to come all crumbling down.
Well, that’s the relief -- it hasn’t all come crumbling down. Thanks to your dogged determination to be not only a scholar, and one of the best cultural critics we have, but one also unafraid of pursuing elusive truths. Thanks to Ada, who even during my stint as your “faithful, brazen editor” was the real captain of the ship, indulging and shaping my senseless whims even while making sure the nuts-and-bolts of the operation wouldn’t be run aground by said senseless whims. Thanks to Craig and Oliver -- the former for providing the original visual template that all later incarnations would spring from, the latter for his endlessly inventive mind and total mastery of whatever audio-visual form I’d never heard of at the time. And thanks to, of course, the endless flock of contributors, correspondents, interns, and otherwise rabble-rousers, who whether or not are still with the publication, remain as impassioned and willing to push boundaries (not to mention the buttons of their “employers”) as ever.
This is starting to read more like a bloated thank you card and less like a state-of-the-Asian-American-media-address, so I’ll start to dive into something resembling a point. You’re absolutely right about the need for criticism that sharpens perspectives rather than just playing to the crowd (and it's not a very big crowd at that), and for all our bloggy delusions of grandeur (this one included) to coalesce into a more united front -- in form, if not content. I don’t think I need to tell you that the model you suggested -- the Huffington Post -- is an incredibly flawed one. Trying to navigate their website is like stumbling into a room full of drunk, ornery I-bankers who all want to talk about how the world is going up in flames, and boy oh boy, don’t they know it. (Full disclosure: from time to time, I too am one of those drunk, ornery I-bankers.) But crude and huffy (ha!) as it may be, the Huffpo is also as close to a vision of critical utopia as we have right now. Where else can the likes of Jermaine Dupri rub shoulders with Madeline Albright without there being a serious case of cognitive dissonance -- and have a relatively illuminating discussion transpire? (And please don’t say Real Time with Bill Maher.)
Of course, it helps to have someone with as much clout and cash as Arianna Huffington backing the whole enterprise -- and as far as I know, there aren’t too many Asian American media moguls clamoring to give voice to notions about race, culture, sex, class, taste that deliberately challenge the (mostly) white-ruled zeitgeist. (It seems that for any publication, heterogeneity is the kiss of death, at least if you’re talking ad sales and readership stats.) Could there be in the not-so-distant future? I’m not holding my breath, and I get the feeling neither are you.
All of which circles back to something you said in your opening salvo: developing content that matters. Telling others that they should care about Takeshi Kaneshiro’s godliness because we care isn’t enough. Being preachy or single-mindedly indignant about it won’t shake any branches either. People talk politics and talk about talking politics because it’s easy to agree that everyone gets riled up about it -- it’s built into the fabric of being a dyed-in-the-wool American idiot. We need that same dogged sense of purpose when it comes to talking about Asian America. Our desires, our likes, dislikes, pet peeves, traditions, screw-ups, hang-ups -- and yes, our art -- need to be communicated not through some carefully calibrated critical consensus (example: support So Yong Kim by watching her latest movie!), but by being mindful of what happens once you leave the cineplex, or the concert hall, or the computer you just wrote your latest bloggy manifesto on. The real world: where consensus exists purely as confabulation.
No one disputes that great art, or at least, controversial art, doesn’t provoke discussion in some meaningful way. But we should know by now that, conversely, middling art doesn’t have to result in middling commentary; in fact, rising to the challenge as a critic is what helps transcend the mediocrity. The canard that Asian American arts criticism is underdeveloped because Asian American arts is underdeveloped has to be done away with once and for all. Those who want a platform for their voice -- no matter how wobbly or garbled -- need to be bolder about finding one that speaks to all their down-and-dirty issues.
Then, they should use it to start slapping people in the face.
What I take from your simultaneous disillusionment and inspiration is that, simply, we as cultural critics need to chill out. Which doesn't mean resigning to the status quo or the mediocrity that you write of, but to never push an agenda ahead of pushing the criticism. And on that note, perhaps, I should qualify the statements in my previous letter by doing what any level-headed Asian American critic would do. Talk about Ang Lee.
I saw Taking Woodstock last opening weekend, and like most critics, I found the film to be enjoyable, though clearly a minor work compared to the rest of Lee's illustrious filmography. Given that I share the same opinion of most American critics, regardless of race, I wonder, what do I have to add, as a writer for Asia Pacific Arts? Do I force race into it? For instance: how does Taking Woodstock express a minority subject position, as some have claimed of Ride with the Devil and The Hulk? How does Taking Woodstock reveal a Confucian-like set of patriarchal structures, as some have argued of The Ice Storm? Those articles would be easy to write, and frankly don't really speak to my actual take on the film. Or do I intentionally evade race and talk the same talk as countless other critics, regardless of where they fall on the Tomatometer? Or do I attempt classical auteurist criticism, comparing the film's narrative and formal components to Lee's other films, since the auteur (and his race) is the only real justification we have for publishing such a review? Or do we do an analysis of how the film is received in Lee's native Taiwan or his semi-native China? Or... do we just ignore the film?
We could do any of the above, and in fact, we've taken similar approaches in the past when dealing with a non-Asian (American)-themed film by an Asian (American) director. Instead, we decided to do an innocuous top 10 list, simply because it's fun and because our readers might enjoy it. Aside from that though, I think Taking Woodstock provides an appropriate context for taking stock (har har) on our responsibilities, challenges, experiences, and interest as Asian American cultural critics. Perhaps what I got most of out of the film was the appreciation of an Asian American director who stares down the pundits and the scholars and the homeys in Taiwan, and simply... chills out. With a comedy that involves issues of family, homosexuality, ethnicity, and drug culture. But succeeds not because of the complex expression of those issues, but simply because it's funny.
Ang Lee will be back with more Brokeback Mountains, Wedding Banquets, Crouching Tigers, and Lust, Cautions -- films that move us, entertain us, and teach us about the fissures and anguish of the world we live in. But I sometimes think that what gives Ang Lee credibility is that he makes films like The Hulk and Taking Woodstock. Not because a serious director needs to make commercial films (the thought!), or because there needs to be mediocre films to propel the masterpieces (that would be stupid). But because it shows that though Ang Lee is an "important director" in every sense of the honor, he is always up to no good, daring Cannes to take Woodstock, daring Hollywood to let him try a Marvel franchise, daring xenophobic Anglophones to admit that he was the best director to tackle a Jane Austen adaptation. And effortlessly he shows how he was right every time.
Taking a cue from Ang Lee, maybe we need to stop waving flags and to start defying affiliations, playing the marketplace, testing our financiers (whoever they may be), and mixing the cerebral with the irrational, the important and the ridiculous. Because the Wu Tang Clan is one of the most articulate expressions of Chineseness in the world, and because Takeshi Kaneshiro's hotness must not go unnoticed by mainstream America. Because Dim Sum Funeral is crap, and maybe it's Amy Tan's fault. Because Dragon Wars can be seen as an Asian American film and therefore critiqued as one. Did I mention Takeshi? Just making sure. We need to be critics because it’s fun to do what we can’t imagine not doing.