That contemporary art in China has developed in response to the cultural, political, intellectual, economic, and social conditions of its particular (and highly transformative) environment is beyond doubt. Yet to what extent we view art as merely reflective, illustrative, or representative of its specific cultural context, rather than endowed with the capacity to transcend difference and engage critically to change, readapt, redesign, or push against these contested frameworks, has nearly always been in question. It is this contradiction—between art’s capacity to reveal certain social determinants and its ability or willingness to effect change upon them—that underlies much of contemporary art production today. The tendency to go against prescribed systems and institutional structures in the art world, cross the boundaries of art, or question how we define art in the first place, has become accepted shorthand for closing the gap between art and everyday life, itself a gesture widely interpreted as promoting positive values and contributing to the betterment of society at large. How such transgressions might come to be envisioned, realized, and recognized, in a place like contemporary China—with its underdeveloped art infrastructure and overdeveloped sense of control—still remains to be seen.
China finds itself today in a peculiar position vis-à-vis the global art world. While international art centers struggle to define the role of art institutions, and countless artists and curators appear eager to jettison their modernist frameworks and container aesthetics, China is eagerly adopting the very institutional systems and structures that the Western art world is ready to abandon. The overarching narrative of contemporary art in China, starting with the late 1970s, has been largely predicated on acknowledgement, acceptance, and recognition by the “official” system, even as Chinese artists struggled with its ideologies and prescribed stylistic conventions. The debates and discussions which followed centered on the exclusion of certain art forms from the official ranks, without calling into question the inequalities and injustices of the system itself. Today, ongoing efforts are similarly so mired in the rush to professionalize, to establish boundaries and structures of governance for the sphere of contemporary art to the extent that experiments performed outside or against these efforts have become scarce and of indeterminable gain. The legacy of anti-institutional practices that we most readily associate with contemporary art in the West barely exists in the Chinese context; if anything, it represents a conundrum for artists who strive to maintain a critical stance while supporting the aim of mainstream acceptance. The process of reconciling these two goals—of gaining entry into hitherto closed institutions locally while at the same time maintaining an “outsider” or “anti-establishment” aesthetic or political position in the eyes of the global community—produces a tension that underlies artistic production in China, just as it does in many other developing art centers.
The ongoing conundrum around art’s autonomy—the degree to which art should be responsible to itself alone or to its own particular context and society—is a global issue left largely unresolved. As the world faces a shrinking global economy and the collapse of world financial markets, questions surrounding art’s sovereignty have become all the more pressing. We are all well aware of the ineffectiveness of art criticism in the face of the market, and of the superficialities that have accompanied the art world’s recent bout of lavish overspending and self-aggrandizement. But statements that demonize the market or advocate a turn towards sobriety, a “return to substance,” or going back to “art making as it should be,” not only suggest an air of non-complicity, but imply that there is some clear consensus on what it is we should be returning to. By now we are well aware that art has never only been about the market or business-end strategies. The presence of commerce is not anathema to creativity, nor does its absence immediately restore art to a state of purity and innocence. Indeed, the insistence that art production should remain totally free from the market runs dangerously close to one that confines those same aesthetic practices to a space of meaningless insignificance, independent of the social and political conditions that inform and ensure its own very existence.
Rather than look to the market as culprit, we might turn instead to factors that sustain rather than misappropriate artistic production. If we recognize the art market as a subset of concerns contained within a larger entity we know as the art world, then what can be said of the concerns of the art world itself? In order to meet the demands of the market, contemporary art in China has witnessed an unprecedented ramping up of production, and this tendency has threatened outlets for critical reflection and thinking, which in turn thwarts long-term sustainability. Moreover, if the imported aesthetics that inform contemporary Chinese art—installation art, video, and new media—on the one hand trigger suspicion in official institutions and academies raised on a diet of traditional painting and socialist realism, they provide on the other hand a much-needed image of progress and modernization to cover for the government’s totalitarian attitudes. Assessing art’s relationship to autonomy, sovereignty, and independence in the midst of China’s pronounced lack of autonomy in other spheres of life—namely, certain political and social freedoms and values we associate with civil society—becomes entangled not only in social and political concerns, but in increasingly present economic ones. On the surface it would appear that support for contemporary art in China has reached new heights, proven by the influx of art fairs, exhibitions in state-run institutions, and even new forms of government funding. But the spirit that underlies these ventures remains solidly aimed at capital gain, market interests, and the business end of art production, with little, if any evidence of support for activities outside this sphere. Whatever subversive tendencies that might remain from earlier periods is quietly tolerated, but more often commercially packaged or even neutralized by the government’s apparently open stance on contemporary art—a position only leveraged by certain individuals when it is deemed convenient (read profitable) or when it follows the prevailing political wind.
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