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About 100 years ago, Pablo Picasso set off to the Musée du Trocadéro in Paris to study some plaster casts of Romanesque sculpture. Legend has it that, once inside the museum, he took a wrong turn. He ended up in a room of African masks. Picasso’s false move changed the way he looked at the world. He went back to his studio and made some changes to a painting he had been working on.
It was a group portrait of five prostitutes, looking defiantly at the viewer. Picasso changed three of the women’s faces into something that resembled the masks he had just seen. And with those few brush strokes, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” upset the course of 20th-century art. It was painting’s “African moment”, when artists turned their back on the academic strictures and barren themes of western art history, and re-found the energy and simplicity that had been lost over the centuries.
In the changed world of the 21st century, that story already sounds ridiculous. Globalisation has shrunk the cultural and business worlds, while the rapid dissemination of material unleashed by new technologies means there are no wrong turnings any more, just the frenetic and relentless criss-crossings of more and more information superhighways.
There are ever fewer discoveries to be made by the established cultural superpowers as they ransack the rest of the world’s artistic traditions. In London alone, there is art, theatre and cinema on offer from all over the world on a weekly basis. Divergent literary forms cross-fertilise to form new hybrids: you find magical realism set in the suburbs of Paris, satirical haikus bouncing around the internet, the taut prose of the great mid-century American authors used to describe village life in central Asia.
The countries that constitute the emerging markets of the world — defined for these purposes by the World Bank Atlas categorisation of a gross national income per capita of less than $12,746 — are, in many cases, already leading players on the world’s arts scene.
Their economies may be playing catch-up with the world’s most developed nations, but their cultural offerings are already there. It is inconceivable to think of a global cultural discussion without reference to African literature, Asian cinema or the visual art scene of the Americas.
The reasons for this self-confident blooming over the course of the past century are manifold. Some are related to Picasso’s “African moment”. Artists are always in need of formal refreshment, if only to react against their own traditions. As they began to travel, they encountered alien cultures, which in turn influenced their own work. The new mass media helped to spread the word.
Each country, too, has developed its own popular culture tradition. For years, India has been the biggest film-producing country in the world, with roughly double the output of US movies. Bollywood blockbusters traditionally have been treated with disdain as “bad girl, good girl, bad guy, good guy, romance (with no kisses), tears, guffaws, fights, chases, melodrama”.
But that very quote comes not from a patronising westerner, but from India’s own Satyajit Ray, the country’s most distinguished director, who helped to form a “parallel cinema” movement in the 1950s that produced beautifully crafted works that found respect all over the globe.
Each nation has mirrored this bifurcation between a vigorous, accessible and profitable cultural sector, and one, often subsidised by governments, that champions more difficult and ambitious work. The best of these offerings find cultish box office success far outside the country of their origin: the small gems of Iranian cinema, the visually sumptuous movies of the Chinese new wave, the melancholic masterpieces of eastern Europe — all are avidly followed by an international audience.
The art market, that shrewd and volatile performance indicator of cultural preferences, has not been slow to cast its voracious eye over emerging nations. A couples of decades ago, examples of the best Chinese contemporary art could be purchased for between $20,000 and $30,000 a piece. Those prices increased spectacularly in the intervening period, reaching respectable, if not quite Picasso-esque, levels: an oil on paper landscape by Wu Guanzhong sold for a record $23.5m in November 2011.
The growing market for Chinese contemporary art is a good indicator of what the developed world looks for in the arts of the emerging nations: not only novelty value, but also a feeling that the art is helping to define those countries’ sense of nationhood. Often the artists have to work on forbidden themes and in defiance of repressive governments.
Much of that sense of danger and existential heft has disappeared from the art of the developed world, which becomes tied down in ever more internal formal dialogues. The art and literature of those countries that are still finding their way towards greater economic prosperity and civic maturity feel like it matters. There is no greater allure for any art-lover than that.