This article on Times Online by Waldemar Januszczak is more than a little sniffy about contemporary Chinese art. Ostensibly a review for ‘The Real Thing’ at Tate Liverpool, it’s really a diatribe against the contemporary art market. In my opinion he’s kind of missing the point about a lot of the work being made by those artists educated in Communist art schools he’s so dismissive of. There’s more to these works than their aesthetic qualities, and I guess that reveals the major issue facing those of us studying political and propagandist ‘art’, and by extension, the works produced post-Mao. To many it can’t be art, design maybe, but not art. But I feel it is impossible to divorce works produced by Chinese artists from politics. Artists are, undoubtedly, pushing at the limitations the Chinese authorities are placing on them; idealistic maybe, but certainly courageous. Okay, I concede that these issues aren’t necessarily at the forefront of the minds of those snapping up contemporary Chinese art for inflated prices, but it’s still a important point to be aware of. Not least because it can offer an illuminatory perspective from which to critically analyse Chinese art.
And besides, why shouldn’t people buy what they like? Even if Januszczak’s ignorant but fabulously wealthy Japanese collectors, for example, aren’t into anything particularly avant-garde, who are we to judge…really? What does it matter? One could argue that the money would be better spent, but hey, one could say that about a lot of things. What is comes down to in the end is cultural snobbery. That Eurocentric idea that non-Europeans can’t/don’t produce great art, nor – for that matter – can recognise it. As Clunas has identified in a couple of papers, there can – from the western art canon’s perspective, itself haunted by the spectre of colonialism and imperialist attitudes – be no ‘modern’ Chinese artists. Either they are Chinese (in which case they produce what we understand as ‘traditional’ Chinese art) or ‘modern’ (wherein their nationality and ethnicity become irrelevant). Clearly this is rubbish.
To give him some credit, Januszczak does go on to question the political ramifications of the nascent Chinese art market. He believes it plays into the hands of the Chinese authorities who are actively engaged in ‘hoodwinking’ the rest of the world. To an extent I would agree; the growing reputation and visibility of contemporary Chinese art can only help to improve the image of the Chinese state, especially when one considers the position of artists in Maoist China (and the general antipathy towards art produced during that period which I hinted of at the beginning of this post). To an extent an active art scene/market equals ‘civilisation’, thereby apparently helping to rehabilitate China in western minds. However, I think this is just another example of the naivety of the Chinese cultural authorities, who are unaware perhaps of the subtexts behind many of the works being produced in China today. I am reminded of a -perhaps apocryphal – story about the flourishing installation and performance art scene in China during the 1990s, which – during a number of crackdowns against more conventional artistic genres – got away with much more simply because it didn’t confirm to the narrow concept of ‘art’ recognised by the authorities.
He’s critical of the newly wealthy artists, but fails to recognise that they’re just engaging in what all Chinese are being called upon by their government to do, i.e. get rich quick. But his comments also reveal another facet of the western idealisation of the artist as a tortured genius, an outsider rallying against the norm. For him the ‘real’ artists were those he found struggling in hovels five years ago. We mythologise artists like Van Gogh because of their unconventionality and because of their apparent compulsion to create great art against the odds, for the love of it, not for financial gain. And this becomes part of their mystique. We’re buying into failure and distress and illness, as much as the aesthetic qualities of the art he produced. Who’s to say that had Van Gogh been more stable and a tad more successful in his lifetime, the western art historical canon would still privilege his works as masterpieces?