From Propaganda to Profit
by Rebecca Catching and Anurag Viswanath
This spring at Moganshan Lu, Shanghai's main art district, Beijing Art
Now Shanghai christened their gallery opening with a rather
unconventional exhibition, "Shanghai Now." Viewers entered the
cavernous warehouse and stared blankly at canvases sheathed in money.
Gallery founders Huang Liaoyuan and Zhang Haoming had wrapped each
painting in shiny wrapping paper printed with faces of various
different currencies. In doing so, they sought to remind viewers to
look beyond the commercial value of art and contemplate its intrinsic
Xu Beihong's 1939 work Put Down Your Whip sold at a recent auction in
Hong Kong for a record $9.2 million.
It's a relevant point in the context of the Chinese art market, which
some claim has begun to spin out of control. Last year, Sotheby's and
Christie's sold $190 million worth of Asian contemporary art—most of
it Chinese. Prices reached unprecedented heights, with 43-year-old
artist Liu Xiaodong dropping canvases for a whopping $2.7 million, and
Xu Beihong's The Slave and Lion smashing the record for a Chinese oil
painting at $6.9 million.
Twenty years ago Chinese artists would have had trouble obtaining a
passport, but now they are globetrotters. They have studios at home
and abroad, showcase their art around the world, and are getting very
rich in the process. Why this boom? According to Simon Groom, head of
exhibitions at the Tate Liverpool, the Chinese art explosion "reflects
the interest in China, driven by the growth of its economy, the
emergence of Chinese collectors and an eagerness in the West for new
Tate Liverpool's current exhibition "The Real Thing: Contemporary Art
from China" features 26 works by 18 leading Chinese artists, including
Ai Weiwei, Gu Dexin, Zhou Tiehai and the Yangjiang group. The exhibit
has been billed as the "show of the year" and is evidence of the
growing influence of Chinese artists abroad. Indeed, many of China's
most exciting artists are now based abroad—for example Xu Bing and Cai
Guoqiang—which puts them in close proximity to their collectors, 90%
of whom are foreign.
Yet mainland Chinese collectors are starting to get into the Chinese
art game, too. Catering to their needs are hundreds of mainland
galleries and auction houses which are springing up, as well as
foreign institutions that are in the process of opening branches in
China, such as the Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim.
Auction houses, both foreign and local, have begun to deal directly
with the top-tier Chinese artists, snatching up works while the paint
is still wet, rather than going through collectors and galleries. Some
artists have responded to the demand by using teams of assistants to
churn out paintings. For example, Shanghai-based artist Zhang Huan
employs close to 100 workers in a massive studio that would make Andy
Warhol's factory look like a cottage industry.
A Long March
Under Mao, art was meant to "serve the people," i.e., workers,
peasants and soldiers—social groups not known for their inclination
toward the arts. And the bureaucratic controls designed to oversee
Mao's utopian social-engineering projects quickly made art subservient
Artists were disseminators of propaganda, celebrating revolutionary
zeal and socialist euphoria through patriotic paintings. Icons of this
era include Dong Xiwen's oil The Founding of the Nation (1953), Jin
Shangyi's painting Mao Zedong at the December Conference (1961), and
Wu Hufan's Atom Bomb (1965), which marked China's coming of age as a
Woodblock prints and oils done in the Soviet socialist realism style
featured square-jawed men leading China's industrialization, and
robust women harvesting bumper crops of plump rockmelons, while folk
paintings known as nianhua, or New Year's paintings, depicted bouncing
baby boys riding atop golden fish adorned with communist slogans.
Under the oppressive Cultural Revolution, a new genre, a variation on
socialist realism described as "red, bright and luminous" (hong,
guang, liang), celebrated the accomplishments of the Cultural
Revolution with the use of theatrical illumination and garish colors.
The fall of the Gang of Four in 1976 brought new beginnings, as both
artists and art schools were rehabilitated.
Deng Xiaoping's "opening and reform" in 1978 and the preoccupation of
the state with economics allowed for expanded realm of individual
freedom and space. The officially sponsored "New Spring" art
exhibition in February 1979, followed by an exhibition by the Stars,
paved the way for the rise of the Contemporaries, which included
artists such as Wang Huaqing, Sun Weiman and Zhang Hongtu. The
establishment of Fine Arts in China (Zhongguo Meishu Bao) in 1985, a
Bejing-based weekly arts newspaper; the formalization of official
channels for sale of art by the New York-based Hefner Gallery in
1987-89; and the Chinese Nude Oils exhibition in 1989 were important
milestones which led to the culmination of what some consider the
Tiananmen of the art world: the highly controversial, socially
critical "China/Avant Garde" exhibition at the Chinese National Art
Gallery in February 1989.
Following Tiananmen, the art scene limped back to normalcy after a
brief hiatus. In the following decade, the first art galleries, such
as Red Gate Gallery and Courtyard Gallery in Bejing, and Shanghart and
Eastlink in Shanghai, began to pop up, with clients including
influential foreign collectors such as Uli Sigg and Pierre Huber.
In the years that followed art was no longer used to further the aims
of communism, rather communist imagery was used further the aims of
individual artists who made a fortune off of genres such as political
Artists such as Wang Guangyi and Xue Song, produced technicolor images
of Mao and graphic paintings of workers. While cynical realists such
as Liu Xiaodong, Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang employed both
hysterical and forlorn human figures in everyday scenes, giving visual
expression to the moral vacuum left behind by communism.
Towards the late 90s, artists began really test the limits of their
freedom with exhibitions such as the "Fuck Off" biennale satellite
exhibition curated by Ai Weiwei at Eastlink in 2000, and Cang Xin's
performance piece To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain, where he
piled the summit of a mountain with the bodies of his friends—an
oblique reference to the terror induced by the Cultural Revolution.
Though artists experienced a palpable growth in artistic freedom
through out the 90s and onwards, plainclothes spies from the cultural
bureaus made their presence felt, asking to speak to artists, removing
works, shutting down exhibitions and occasionally holding artists in
In 2006, the Hei Shehui collective—literally "hey, society" and also a
pun on the Chinese word for mafia—organized the controversial "38 Solo
Exhibitions" in a former army barracks in Shanghai. The exhibition
featured Jin Feng's provocative performance piece An Appeal Without
Words, which comprised a group of actual peasants covered head to toe
in a layer of gold paint, brandishing empty placards—a reference to
their compromised status in appealing land disputes. Such incendiary
work caused the show's closure and landed two of the artists in jail.
New-art observer Geremie Barmé likens the situation to Miklos
Haraszti's Velvet Prison. In such an environment, the majority of
artists choose not to test the limits, and social critique often takes
a back seat to profit.
In some ways, profit poses a more pernicious threat to creativity than
government censorship, as galleries pressure artists to create works
to feed the market. "Now that [the art world] has become
commercialized, these commercial forces inform artists if something
has commercial value," opines controversial conceptual artist Xu Zhen.
Mr. Xu, who spends much of his time working at nonprofit experimental
art center BizArt, pays little attention to the market. Rather he
chooses to raise questions about transparency and China's growing
military ambitions—filming videos of himself driving remote control
tanks into China's neighboring countries and staging mockumentaries of
engineers lopping off the top of Mount Everest.
While the success stories, such as Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun,
dominate the business pages of the Western press, many critics see
them as examples of how Chinese art has failed to innovate. Outside of
the works of a small group of exceptional conceptual artists, much of
what lines gallery walls is uninspiring and derivative. Pia Camilla
Copper, a Chinese contemporary art specialist at the Paris auction
house Artcurial, says, "The painters, sculptors and conceptual artists
from [China's top academies] are technically skilled, they only lack
imagination. A sort of Turner Prize should be created for Chinese art
to encourage young artists to break free from academic rules, the
scourge of the Chinese art academy, and innovate."
At the same time, experimental art is stifled by the lack of
institutional resources. Museums are underfunded, as are nonprofit art
centers such as Shanghai's BizArt and Yunnan's Lijiang Studio. Serious
art criticism is also compromised by corruption amongst journalists
and critics who offer coverage and praise for a fee.
Ms. Catching is the arts and entertainment editor of that's Shanghai,
and the Shanghai correspondent for Art Asia Pacific. Ms. Viswanath is
a free-lance journalist based in Bangalore.