My Fellow Asian-Americans, Dare to Be Avant-Garde (Part 1)

An Essay on Art, Science, Literature, Philosophy, and the Psychopathology of Asian America

(14 min read)


“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”
— Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


“Conquer yourself rather than the world.”
— Descartes

The earliest memories of my life are from the graduate student apartments for the Rackham School near the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.  Both my parents were PhD candidates in Comparative Politics and International Politics, although only my mother ever completed her dissertation. She’s a professor at Yonsei University these days¹, my parents’ alma mater for both their Bachelor and Master’s, teaching courses on “Cultures, Institutions and Development Policy” and “Environment, Sustainability, and International Cooperation.”  Yonsei is part of the elite triad of SKY universities² in South Korea, a finishing grounds largely for the members of the landlord-capitalist class, with a 1% acceptance rate. The student reviews for my mom are pretty funny, ranging from comments like “Thank you for such a nice class” and “I learned absolutely nothing in her class, would not recommend.” I can relate.

In my early 30s, both my parents and their personal histories still remain much of a mystery to me, like many other adults I know.  What I know is scant; both my parents apparently came from at least a modicum of wealth and fortune. Apparently, my mother’s side lost it all after her father passed away and her mother squandered it (she used to get into screaming arguments about it on the phone with her when I was growing up).  When we shuttled back and forth to South Korea in my youth, it was mostly to my father’s family’s house in Seoul.

Visiting South Korea growing up was a trip.  As a young second-generation Korean American living in student housing, I was used to being fairly nondescript and unimportant in wider American society.  But as soon as our flight landed in Seoul, the world would change. A black car would come to pick us up with our family chauffeur, whisking us past dark alleyways and sidewalk-less streets to a grand estate in the Gangnam District in Seoul, with a lush forest out back and a crew of Korean live-in maids and a nurse for my disabled uncle.  My father’s family had apparently fled North Korea during the consolidation of power by Kim Il Sung and the communists, which always made me wonder whether they were part of the petty bourgeois that had gone over to Imperial Japan and the U.S. during colonial rule.

My father was a rebel in his youth, one who had run away from his home at one point to join a Buddhist temple for a year, before his family tracked him down and dragged him out.  He still tells me to this day that this was one of the happiest times of his life and he self-identifies as Buddhist (my mother was Christian). He was friends with one of the student leaders from the Gwangju Riots at the University of Michigan and had left South Korea partially as a silent protest against the repressive, U.S.-backed military regimes and their corrupt governments.  He was also the only male member of his family to choose not to become a doctor, instead pursuing a career in political science after chafing under the corporate structure of Daewoo when he worked there.

We weren’t lavish, but we lived comfortably throughout my childhood.  Despite giving up his inheritance due to his refusal to be embroiled in family politics, my father still had a few properties in South Korea that generated enough money for us to live in a McMansion in a predominantly white suburb after we left student housing.  However, poor investment choices and lack of direction led to family friction, and by the time I entered eighth grade, all our money was tied up in a Café Beanery location in Plymouth, a small franchise retail coffee chain that hemorrhaged money due to the predatory practices of the family that ran the franchise, enough to result in lawsuits and a barrage of complaints that ended up with my mother being quoted in Forbes magazine³:

“Last September, the Maryland Attorney General’s Office found the Coffee Beanery in violation of Maryland franchise law for “making material misrepresentations” regarding its franchise offering. In accordance with the attorney general’s order, the company agreed to release all Maryland franchisees, including Rick and Deborah, from their obligations under their franchise agreement. This meant returning the initial franchise fee and payments for all products bought from the Coffee Beanery, but not lost wages, operating loses, lease obligations or store build-outs. Rick and Deborah refused—choosing instead to fight to recoup all their losses in arbitration.

Kay Hur, of Ann Arbor, Mich., sunk $600,000 into her café store and is facing bankruptcy; she promised not to sue the Coffee Beanery if they would help her sell her café store.  Says Hur about the business model: “It defies economics 101.”

By high school, we were flat out broke and in dire straits, selling our house and moving around from apartment to apartment.  My father had contracted what the doctors said was a terminal case of liver cirrhosis, and my mother was losing her mind over frustrated ambitions and economic hardship.  I was failing out of school, despite test scores qualifying me as a National Merit Semi-Finalist. Fortunately, I managed to get into Michigan State University, and my younger sister, who was always the harder worker, managed to get into University of Chicago on a full-ride scholarship due to our family financial situation.  Midway through my freshman year, around the holidays, my mother called me to tell me “Be good, Joon-Ho”. I hung up, irritable. The next day, my dad told me my mom had simply walked out of the house and never returned. That was the last time I ever spoke to her for several years, until we later re-established contact in my late 20s and early 30s over the phone and through e-mail.

After I graduated from college, I ended up taking my first job as an Associate HR Manager at P&G.  My first year at work, I took my father on a vacation to Italy, since he had missed out on going in his youth when his family was touring Europe.  It was nice to have some money after living destitute for so long, and we both had a deep appreciation for the history and art of Florence and Rome (he badgered our Vatican tour guide during the whole time to admit that Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel was a replica, and not the original).  It was only upon returning to the States, after having spent time immersed among the historical structures and works of art that surrounded my favorite Renaissance thinkers and authors like Machiavelli and Dante Alighieri, that I realized something. The United States of America has no Culture. Or rather, it has a Culture, but it’s shallow, superficial, anti-intellectual, McDonaldized⁴, explicitly white supremacist and not one that I have ever been a part of.  I grew up surrounded by European and continental philosophy, but there was nothing in the U.S. that had ever called out to me, chiefly because I saw zero Yellow faces or even names like mine. It was then that I began my quest for “Asian American Culture.”

2016: Started from the bottom, now we here.

What is Culture?  Culture can be broadly defined by three primary disciplines — the Arts, the Sciences (physical, linguistic, and social), and the Pseudo-Sciences (Philosophy and Religion), often referred to as the Humanities, and which seek to explain the entirety of the human condition for a particular set of people through world-images and corresponding paradigms in thought and art.  After my study of these fields, I am gravely disappointed by what meager contributions have been made to creating and establishing a culture by Asian Americans. They are largely derivative, highly commoditized, and almost never challenge existing social norms and traditional power structures, save in the safest, most toothless way possible that lets generations of white supremacist American imperialists and free-market fundamentalists off the hook for the catastrophic psychological, physical, and material damages they have caused to our community since its inception, as well as our own self-destructive complicity and collaboration.

How do we combat a Eurocentric Culture in America that is so self-congratulatory and masturbatory in its imagined fictional superiority over the vast, undefined, geographic morass known as “Asia”?  How can we also combat the weak, stilted, philosophically vacant, intellectually colonized, and spiritually void “Asian American Culture” pioneered post-1965 by a bunch of desperate assimilationist Yellow lapdogs⁵ doing their best to dissolve Yellowness through interracial marriage with only Whites⁶ (much like LatinX folks⁷) while kowtowing to celebrities anointed and appointed by the racist European-American power structure?

What we need here is not just a political, but also a social revolution, to address those central hubs of social power outside the formal regime of the U.S. government that continue to perpetuate and instigate anti-Asian racism.  We need what Frantz Fanon called “Combat Literature”⁸ – works of art designed to incite, agitate, and stir men and women to take action against the crushingly oppressive regime of the Anglo-American Order globally, in order to prevent and reverse the propagation of the morally blasphemous “Open Door Policy”⁹ that led to the racist “Scramble for East Asia”¹⁰ throughout the entire 20th and 21st century, and which continues to shape our white supremacist foreign doctrine abroad as well as cultural sensitivities, literature, and arts production here at home.  We need to close the doors of our mind to these pernicious and persistent colonizer paradigms, and instead establish our own Arts, interpret our own Sciences, and fundamentally, change the way we look at and interact with the World.

We need a Counter-Culture.


“Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priests of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican Party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality.  These standard advertised wares – toothpastes, socks, tires, cameras, instantaneous hot-water heaters – were his symbols and proofs of excellence; at first sight the signs, then the substitutes, for joy and passion and wisdom.”
Babbitt, 1922, Sinclair Lewis

“The power of the arts is indeed the immediate and fastest way to social, political, and economic reform.”
— Olinde Rodrigues

Avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp’s “The Fountain”: I piss on all the revolutionary vanguards of the planet

The term avant-garde¹¹, literally “vanguard” in French, refers to people or works that are heterodox, countercultural, subversive, and that violently strike at the collective psychological consciousness of the public with grotesque, discomfiting, and phantasmagoric language, imagery, and actions in order to tear down the elaborate pretensions of the wealthy and aristocratic oppressors and formal oppressive structures and strictures.  They also simultaneously attack the advent of the commoditized, self-absorbed, vain, and shallowly hedonistic “mass” man that’s been produced under the expansionist system of the White Man’s racist imperialism and his doctrine of terroristic “Shock and Awe” capitalism.

Today, in 2018, there are more human beings alive in China (approximately 1.3 billion) than there were on this entire planet in 1800 (1 billion), largely due to the giant human explosion that followed in the cataclysmic contact between European nations, America, and the rest of the World during the Age of Neo-Imperialism.  This warmongering aggression by the White Man was accompanied by the full array and instruments of industrial and mass technology, which also produced a “mass” type of man and woman, alienated from the full range of human experience, shoehorned into regimented and rigid binary social roles meant to rob them of all individual personality other than conformist urges, and divorced from the cultural and political franchise of Society, which is now increasingly an Elysium-like playground for the fabulously wealthy and racist, with everyone else toiling in subterranean psychological and physical conditions underneath like Metropolis.¹² Talk about a Global North-South Divide!¹³


Things That Make You Go Hmm: The Socio-Economic North-South Divide (Top); 2018 UN Resolution to Combat Nazism and Institutional Racism (Bottom)

The artistic history of the 20th-century avant-garde movement can be traced through Dadaists, the Surrealists, and American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock.  It later bloomed into the Situationist movement in France, which ultimately culminated in the events of the May 1968 Insurrection¹⁴, a popular revolt that ground the entire nation’s economy to a halt over issues of capitalism, consumerism, American imperialism, and oppressive tradition, and forced President Charles de Gaulle to flee the country.  It was the largest general strike ever attempted in France, reaching upwards of 22% of the whole French population, and the first nationwide, spontaneously self-organized, “wildcat” (de-centralized) general strike. This historical progression perfectly encapsulates the older, more formal definition of “avant-garde”: a small unit of specially skilled soldiers who march ahead of the army and plot its course.

Dada, the colloquial French word for “hobby horse”, was an art movement that began in the early 20th century, with early centers in Switzerland and at the Cabaret Voltaire, New York, and Paris.  It was a reaction to World War I and consisted of artists who rejected things such as European nationalism, as well as the logic, reason, and aesthetic style of a modern capitalist society.  Instead, Dadaists practiced direct psychological action on their audiences through a combination of nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest, largely through art forms, expressions, and mediums that revolted against traditional definitions of art.  The precursor to Dada was “anti-art”, a term coined by Marcel Duchamp¹⁵ in 1913 before the War, the “art” in question here being the tastes, proclivities, and inclinations of the social elite and the insufferable gatekeepers of artistic tradition, who stifle living art with suffocating Eurocentric academicism and its mummified, white supremacist dogmas.  These anti-establishmentarian “anti-art” artists were explicitly allied to radical leftist political movements and actors, who also made up the boots on the ground — living art and sculptures.

Dadaism was succeeded by the Surrealist movement in the early 1920s, when went even further in attacking convention.  Surrealism¹⁶ focused on the use of moving, haunting, unnerving images, and often strange juxtapositions and non-sequiturs, which were supposed to focus on melding the world of the conscious and Freud’s Unconscious.  Its leader, André Breton, was explicit in his assertion that Surrealism was, above all, a revolutionary movement.  It developed as both an artistic and political force around the world, spreading from Europe to North America, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and throughout Asia.  It was also, like Dadaism, explicitly leftist, anti-bourgeois, and anti-capitalist – Surrealists were all Trotskyite, communist, or anarchist. Breton, who was a member of the Communist Party, and his followers’ mission statement was to work towards the “liberation of man”.

The Persistence of Memory by Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali, a masterpiece demonstrating that the Left absolutely CAN meme

Surrealism as a movement is what inspired Jackson Pollock here in the States, who intuited the psychological concept of flow¹⁷ and added a robust American action-orientation in a unique style of Expressionism¹⁸.  In order to bring forth the structures of the psychological unconscious, one must lose oneself in one’s work — physically.  Pollock’s art is like tribal art — full of romantic exaggeration and hyperbole. Violently emotional, Pollock splashed his paint onto canvases in a wild frenzy, elevating the raw passion of instinct over the cool, turgid intellect.  The rational constructions of the Cubists were drowned out in splotches, uneven effects, and free calligraphy, in a wild outpouring of energy. As Pollock himself said: “The source of my painting is the Unconscious. I approach painting the same way I approach drawing, that is, directly, with no preliminary studies.  When I am painting, I am not much aware of what is taking place; it is only after that I see what I have done.”

Art as a Crime of Passion, how stereotypically American.

“Convergence” by Jackson Pollock: Painting in Action

Eventually, all this unleashed creative energy resulted in the explosion of Situationism¹⁹ in France post-World War 2.  The Situationist International (SI) was an international organization of social revolutionaries made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists, that operated in Europe from 1957 to 1972 during the War of Criminal American Imperialist Aggression, otherwise known as the Cold War in Asia.

The intellectual foundations of the Situationist International were derived from the Marxist and avant-garde art movements of Dadaism and Surrealism.  Situationists recognized that the advent of a terrifying new breed of weaponized modern-day colonial capitalism — the precursor to neoliberalism — was a fundamentally different parasite than anything Marx could have ever conceived.  They sought to rebel against the exploitative, Anglo-American Man-operated Machines of the Matrix by fighting to elevate the material reality of the World surrounding us and re-sensitize us to the structural violence that undergirds our everyday lives.  Commodity fetishism — chasing material belongings and clout — had created an unreal, emotionally detached hyper-reality in which individuals had sunk into a slumbering morass, needled at by pop-up ads. They heavily critiqued the Spectacles that give rise to the Glamour of the Oppressor Class, advocating for authenticity and directly lived experiences, rather than experience by proxy through celebrity worship and television.

By actively seeking to create and recreate real-life “situations”, the Situationist International stumbled upon an essential truth: all life is Art in motion.  Every situation we find ourselves in, in everyday, ordinary human life, is a set-piece, with bits and pieces that can be moved and rearranged (or at least coaxed into scooting over — anything is possible).  And our relations to, and interactions with, our surroundings and the people around us EVERY DAY, IN REAL LIFE are what is necessary to reawaken our individual and collective spirits and experience life with a sense of adventure and liberation.  In other words, Go Outside and Do Stuff.

The Situationist International reached the apex of its influence in 1967 and 1968, as the War of American Imperialist Aggression in Indochina was raging on, when the two most significant texts of its movement, The Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life were published.  Both these written documents proved highly influential in shaping the ideas and the people behind the May 1968 insurrections in France, an affair which I’ll let someone worthier than myself describe, seeing as how the only time I’ve ever been to France is during a layover at an airport in Paris en route to Italy (they lost my bags in transit, which I’ll never forgive).  Suffice it to say though, the events constituted nothing less than a popular rebellion, a social revolution that transformed the way French society viewed itself for decades after, and its relations to capitalism, authoritarianism, and rigid hierarchies, structures, and ideologies. The highest form of Art is Revolt, and the highest Medium is In Real Life.  As they say in Hollywood where I work: Lights!  Camera! ACTION!

My mad descent from Pictorial Realism into Abstract Expressionism over glasses of wine

(Part 2)
(Part 3)

Written by Albert Joon-Ho Hur

[Edited by J]


  8. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon (1961)

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