The Anti-ke-ai Manifesto
In Taiwan, the ‘ke-ai’ (可愛) aesthetic is everywhere. Not a day goes by without hearing ‘hao ke-ai!’ (好可愛！). It is a watchword. A watchword we must all submit to. Why talk about aesthetics while referring to 可愛? And why talk about submission? Let’s take a little detour through Kundera. He writes, for example, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
“It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with beingis a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch. "Kitsch" is a German word born in the middle of the sentimental nineteenth century, and from German it entered all Western languages.[...] kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” (Part VI, Chapter 5) Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim
That is also true for ‘ke-ai’. Cuteness, dreaminess, sweetness. This means no shit, no sex, no political thought. Anything that can disturb a peaceful conscience is discarded. Nothing troubling, nothing unhealthy. A comforting world, aseptic, safe, odourless. In a nutshell, an infantilized world. There is nonetheless a difference to kitsch. In Europe, the term kitsch has taken on a pejorative connotation. Kitschis synonymous with bad taste. It is ridiculous and can be spotted from afar. It is therefore harmless. ‘Ke-ai’ is rather unanimously supported. We could be indulgent and say “‘ke-ai’ is the counterpart to a Taiwan society that is demanding of its members, even overbearing. ‘Ke-ai’, after all, has a social function.
So why should we be cautious? Because ‘ke-ai’ describes a world that doesn’t exist. A core ambition of art is to represent reality, to show the world from every angle. Its failings are as important as its moments of beauty. Only in this way can it give meaning. ‘Ke-ai’, however, is to art what muzak is to music.
Why would this be a problem? Because ‘ke-ai’ sells. And market forces are vicious. Artists themselves, if they want to sell their work, are tempted to comply with this aesthetic. They put forward icons that flatter public taste. In fact, companies dispense easily with artists’ services. They simply call on graphic artists who copy them. They reduce their work to a product and then diffuse it on a large scale. These simulacra contaminate the public space. Art, however, is no longer there. ‘Ke-ai’ aesthetics are the enslavement of art to market demand.
In order to convince yourself, say “hao ke ai!” in front of a Rembrandt, a Goya, a Warhol, a Zao Wou-Ki (趙無極): it does not work! It is incompatible conduct.
What can we do about this situation? Etching has a marginal status. In Taiwan as anywhere else, it is the poor relative of plastic arts. On the one hand, there is no unique piece. This explains why one print is not worth the price of a canvas. On the other hand, modern printing techniques (offset, digital printing) seem to be more competitive and much less expensive. The result is that etchings do not sell well and the market disregards them. But it is precisely because etching is an art that has a weak ‘aura’ that it can remain free of compromise, speculation and sham. That is the reason why it can develop an independent system. No more art market and galleries or curators and auction rooms…. Most etchers manage ways to continue practising their art by themselves. They do so in workshops built around old presses immersed in the smell of ink and paper, following a slow and meticulous process. The truth is that the ‘aura’ lies there. They also do it by teaching here and there or by taking side jobs to put food on the table. The etching economy is spartan. There is a benefit: under these conditions, it is easier to resist the temptation of ‘ke-ai’. Etching is an antidote to ‘ke-ai’.
Hence, the Firebox（火盒子) workshop etchers propose an anti-ke-ai manifesto ensuring the quality of their etchings:
1 - no kitsch
2 - no taboos
3 - popular
4 - affordable
This anti-ke-ai manifesto is not only dedicated to etchers though. Any artist, any amateur, any art lover, any citizen can feel involved and can decide to commit to it and support it in their own way.