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The Missing Front Line

In the past five years, Chinese art has become triply deficient: lacking a questioning approach, lacking a sense of history, and lacking a view of values. The majority of artworks, art projects, and exhibitions are in a vacuous state. When they are not infinitely magnifying certain everyday experiences, individual trivialities, and emotions, they are nihilistically discussing abstract concepts, life, and Zen, casually elevating these concepts to the level of “resistance.” There is aversion to discussing the commercialization and commodification of art, and the artistic creator as entrepreneur. Many artists divide their work evenly between time in the studio and time spent interacting with the society of collectors, financiers, and social elites. The value of art is directly equated with its commercial value and its social reception.

Concealing the triple deficiency of artistic practice are the words “contemporary art.” Though “contemporary art” is a term of temporal relativity, it has given many artistic practitioners a form of “atemporal” legitimacy. This “atemporality” is unmoored, feeling no need to explain its origins, care for the past, or to touch on larger problems. As long as something takes place in the time and space of “contemporary art,” it is as though it can be self-evidently affixed with the label “contemporary art.” I am not here to roll up my sleeves and get to the bottom of who qualifies as “contemporary,” nor do I have any intention of treating “contemporary art” as a faction. What is important is to ask: How did we get to this understanding of the contemporary? Where did we come from to arrive here? The presence and development of the contemporary art system encourages us to avoid answering or asking these questions.

The more craftily written art writing and criticism is, the more vapid and powerless the dressed-up art appears to be. Most artistic practitioners lack curiosity about their surroundings, and have no interest in engaging audiences in dialogue. Artists are merely concerned that their artworks be placed within this system, consumed and circulated for their own benefit. The critical ecosystem surrounding exhibitions and artworks has become a production line. A glance at the constantly updating exhibition reviews on popular art websites shows a consistent formula: short reviews, between four hundred and a thousand words in length, either praising the artist or casting out a line of criticism to show the writer’s independence by simply listing the works in the exhibition. Reading a dozen exhibition reviews is like reading the same one over and over, no matter how much the exhibition content differs. Not that it often does: many exhibitions are much the same, minus a few changes in artists’ names, a few changes in the way Zen thought is expressed, a change of abstract form, or a change of internet “totems.” Is it art that leaves me so disappointed? Are my expectations of artistic practice too high? Is it too much to ask that art possesses ideas, speak, and even do something?

Young artists, novel and appealing, are quickly drawn into the art system. Frequently they enjoy an extended honeymoon period of being viewed, supported, consumed, discussed, and described. Meanwhile, artists who have been working since the 1970s and ’80s are highlighted as part of a particular art movement, even being lauded as the movement’s leading or representative figures, gaining the affirmation of the art system. These older artists have been brought into international exhibitions that focus on presenting Chinese art, and have been the center of attention for collectors and the art market. However, after so many years, their work remains undescribed in terms of its art-historical relevance. They circulate without being critically examined, considered, or analyzed. A widespread anxiety remains among these artists, born in the 1950s and ’60s, about whether the attention placed on them will shift, with the passage of time, to their body of work. As it is, their practice is reduced to a few representative achievements before the discussion moves on to focus on their market value. Very little transcends the topics of supply and demand. We could say that in over thirty years of the progression of Chinese contemporary art, much work and thinking has yet to be described or contextualized art historically.

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