Portraits of Identity

By: Kaitlin Wright

Looking at the text presented by Margo Machida in the first chapter of Unsettled Visions, it is evident that there is a varied and lengthy discourse revolving around Asian American art. Machida indicates that there is an ever-growing number of Asian artists, either foreign-born or not, and they have had a significant impact on Asian American art and in the American art world in general. Scholars, and those exclusively involved in the art community, have to embrace a conceptual realignment in regards to Asian American artists and the presence of their work in the diaspora. 

When Asian Americans create art, they are doing so as an individual of Asian heritage living in American society. Machida writes that their art is “an organic response to the world around them” (Machida 27). It is important to remember this when considering these artist’s work in the framework of the broader art community. Machida highlights the question of whether Asian American art should be defined as art created by people of Asian descent, or whether the art itself references an aspect of Asian American experience. The answer varies among people, but it again, reveals this “both/ and” association between heritage and home. 

Machida talks about the artist as a catalyst for developmental thinking. That is to say, Asian Americans artists (artists in general) can be thought of as an initiator, or motivator of reform. Using the arts as a source of historical documentation, they reflect the time and space of the artist and the community they are a part of.  Asian American artists are engaging in a sort of “communal consciousness…arising from common experience and histories as Asians in the United States” (Machida 28). Because these artists have a unique outlook on the world, Machida conjectures that they are creating culture itself. Asian Americans from various ethnicities have common associations due to their interaction with American culture and this accents the idea that “Asian American” could be looked at as a unique ethnicity (Machida 42). 

That being said, it seems necessary that artistic space be a free environment for investigation of one’s identity. When Asian American artists begin honing their craft, they “must position themselves in relation to distant Asian heritages, and to what extent they will or can claim Asianness” (Machida 48). Every day we, perhaps unconsciously, present our selves to the world in a highly individual way. The way we dress, the way we speak, who we hang out with, what school we go to, etc. all play into what makes us, us. Thus, when an artist constructs his or her identity through their art, it is inevitable that there will be a menagerie of influences. 

One such influence is what Machida defines as “victimhood.” She acknowledges that there is an apparent resentment towards art that supposedly pressures audiences into feeling sorry for the artist. There is an Asian American playwright named Lauren Yee who said, “erasing the impact of our identity on our work seems impossible, and what’s more, it seems undesirable to some extent” and I think this speaks to the fact that moments of impact shape a person’s identity and thus, they are important elements to include. Works that are “victim art” though, are then deemed “beyond criticism.” Rather than the works being “beyond criticism” though, there might just be a refusal to criticize because then there would have to be an acceptance of a mistake or an acknowledgement of an unhappy cultural history. I think that art should affect you in a visceral way. Being present in a moment of discomfort, or an emotional state of sadness for instance, is an experience. It fosters a relationship with the artist, a connection that makes the art that much more powerful. 

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