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Big Business, Selling Shrimps: The Market as Imaginary in Post-Mao China


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For decades critics have written disapprovingly about the relationship between the market and art. In the 1970s proponents of institutional critique wrote in Artforum about the degrading effects of money on art, and in the 1980s Robert Hughes (author of Shock of the New and director of The Mona Lisa Curse) compared the deleterious effect of the market on art to that of strip-mining on nature. More recently, Hal Foster has disparaged the work of some of the markets hottest art stars—Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst, and Jeff Koons—declaring that their pop concoctions lack tension, critical distance, and irony, offering little more than “giddy delight, weary despair, or a manic-depressive cocktail of the two.” And Walter Robinson has spoken about the ability of the market to act as a kind of necromancer, reanimating mid-century styles of abstract painting for the purposes of flipping canvas like real estate—a phenomenon he calls “zombie formalism.”

Moralistic attacks against the degrading impact of the market on art are not unique to US-based critics. Soon after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when few people think China had any art market at all, plainly worded attacks on commercialism appeared regularly in the nationally circulated art press. As early as 1979, Jiang Feng, the chair of the Chinese Artists Association, worried in writing that ink painters were churning out inferior works in pursuit of material gain. ], Meishu 12 (1979): 10–11.] In 1983, the conservative critic Hai Yuan wrote that “owing to the opportunity for high profit margins, many painters working in oil or other mediums have switched to ink painting.” And, what was worse, to maximize their gain, these artists “sought to boost their productivity by acting like walking photocopy machines.”], Meishu no. 1 (1983): 42. Hai Yuan is probably a pen name and may be short for Qian Haiyuan.] In the 1990s supporters of experimental oil painting also came under fire. After visiting the 1992 Guangzhou Biennial Art Fair, avant-garde art critic Li Xianting was reportedly so overcome by the potential dangers of commercialism that he wept.], ed. Wang Lin (Hong Kong: Yishu chaoliu zazhishe, 1997), 92–93.] Other visitors were so upset by the contaminating effect of commerce that they sprayed the exhibition hall with Lysol to extinguish its stench. And a few months later, still others organized a mock funeral to mourn the death of artists that had succumbed to the fatal temptations of market exchange.

But for critics in China, unlike those in the West, the foreign identity of many of the buyers of contemporary art added to the sting, and for decades, nationalism, even xenophobia have inflected the debate. When Zhu Qi complained in 1999 that Westerners do not understand Chinese art and suggested that artists who pander to their tastes not only risk compromising their personal integrity but also their creative ability, many critics in the 1980s would have agreed, as they still might agree today.

While the concerns of these important critics are certainly valid, it is also possible to argue the opposite: that in the context of China in the 1980s, the liberalization of the economy and the introduction of markets liberated artists from the strictures of the state, and created an alternative space, incipient yet real, unstable yet protean, from which emerged artistic experiments of great imagination and force. Among the artists who recognized the empowering potential of the market and its pitfalls was Wu Shanzhuan whose early work crystallizes the process I am trying to describe.

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