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Accidental Conceptualism


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In China, pragmatism has ruled society for a long time and as a consequence anything conceptual or spiritual is deemed insignificant. It fits the principle of a totalitarian state to minimize the power of individual intellectual and rational thought, while at the same time promoting a value system that measures everything according to principles of functional application. Such a view spawns a dualistic and short-termed outlook on the world by simply dividing things into two categories: the useful and the useless. Though the Communist Party has been updating its ideology in accordance with economic and technological developments and revolutions in mass media, the core of its intention to eliminate differences of opinion and positions remains unyielding. Although there was a brief flirtation with intellectual engagement in the 1980s, the attention of the general public was swiftly diverted towards economic well-being and individual advancement, which subsequently became the foremost driving force for the country at the end of the decade. In the pursuit of absolute efficiency on the basis of time and cost, the mental space and aspiration for intellectual commitments are effectively eliminated.

In the cultural arena, the same instrumentalist mindset prevails, and the same simplicity of judgment applies to both the making and reading of works and the way artists elucidate and relate to what is happening around them. There has been a tremendous amount of visual art that bases all of its strength in narrative content that represents, borrows from, mirrors, replicates, or offers superficial critiques of fragments of a rapidly changing reality that is far too complicated and profound to grasp. This type of work has almost entirely dominated the Chinese art market, which in turn stimulates more production. Collectors, foreign and Chinese, buy Chinese artworks out of fascination with either China’s revolutionary past and sensational present, or for their profit prospect. This constitutes a vast demand. On the other hand, trained in the socialist-realism system adopted by all art academies in China, curators, art historians, and critics also rely on excavating the ideological, sociological, and psychological potential of a work so as to be able to analyze and interpret it, barely touching upon its artistic and conceptual dimensions. In the writing of art histories, artworks and art movements have generally had too much emphasis placed on the examination of their social parameters.

It is not only important but necessary to take a closer look at the inner logic and alternative trajectories of artistic evolution in China, irrespective of national, sociological, ideological, or financial attachments. To do this, one needs to dispense with the multitude of baffling and deceiving forms of recognition in this system that have become so dependent on a primitive art market. As an art system that doesn’t tolerate or support the nurturing of other structural alternatives, how can the establishment of academic authority acknowledge a greater variety of practices? One particularly overlooked key to understanding Chinese contemporary art is conceptuality, which has acted as an indispensable underpinning for artistic thinking through the years.

The evolution of contemporary art in China never followed the linear logic of Western art history. Intellectual development was basically stagnant while it was held hostage by political movements throughout decades of communist rule. This situation worsened with the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 that severed not only the country’s intellectual ties to the outside world, but also the bloodline that connected it to its own history and cultural traditions. Education was suspended and an official disregard for knowledge and ideas was established. When the country reopened and resumed an interest in culture at the end of the 1970s, there was already a great discrepancy between what was going on in the heads of Chinese artists and intellectuals and what had happened in the rest of the world. Chinese artists rushed to shape their own methodology by adopting disjointed and sometimes misinterpreted information to adapt to the social, historical, and cultural specificity of the country. Modernism, post-modernism, classical philosophy, eighteenth-century European Enlightenment, liberalism, colonialism, and other intellectual movements from the Western world were all introduced to China at the same time to become simultaneous influences on artists’ practices.

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