Sunday, August 10, 2008

Uli Sigg debate

by Barbara Pollack

To the Editor:

In his most recent rant in Artnet Magazine, your correspondent
Charlie Finch extends his call for a boycott of Chinese artists to
include an attack the art collector Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador
to China, North Korea and Mongolia [see "A Sigg Joke," July 23,
2008], who took issue with Finch in the pages of this month's Art
Asia Pacific Magazine. Finch suggests that Chinese artists serve the
propaganda interests of the Chinese government, and that Ulli Sigg
has an interest in furthering these goals.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Uli Sigg has never been an
apologist for the Chinese government. In his diplomatic capacity and
before that in his business dealings in China, Sigg has been a
pioneer in negotiating with Chinese officials to bring their
attitudes towards business and the arts more in line with
international practices. I know for a fact that Sigg has often
operated behind the scenes to rescue artists from the threat of
censorship. He also has invested his own money in the Chinese
Contemporary Art Awards, the only such prize in China to pay
recognition to developments in contemporary art.

Finch's suggestion that Sigg may have done all this to protect the
value of his art holdings is ludicrous. Sigg has been assembling his
collection of over 2,000 works of Chinese contemporary art since the
late-1980s, traveling to China and supporting artists at a time when
most were threatened and many were jailed by the Chinese government.
He has never sold a single work and, as far as I know, has no plans
to sell his collection. Instead, he plans to donate his art holdings
to an institution in China -- though he himself admits that the
government would have to change substantially in its attitude towards
contemporary art to accept many of the works tht he owns.

Finch suggests that the Chinese art world is somehow an extension of
the Chinese government, but in fact censorship still exists in
Chinese art circles and Chinese museums are still vastly underfunded.
I have been engaged in research on this issue for a decade and have
visited China numerous times and have seen no evidence that
contemporary art is used as a propaganda tool for the government in
China. Although Poly Group, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate and
the privatized wing of the People's Liberation Army, invests $100
million in art each year, these funds are primarily used for
repatriating antiquities -- a fact that Sotheby's or Christie's can
confirm -- not for buying or promoting contemporary art.

In point of fact, U.S. artists receive far greater funding from the
U.S. government than Chinese artists receive at home. Notably, U.S.
tax structure allows for donations to the arts, a situation that does
not exist in China.

Finch and I may agree on the politics of China or the problems facing
this rapidly growing nation (though I would never compare China to
Nazi Germany). But Chinese artists represent a pocket of resistance
within China, as can be seen in the many artworks by Chinese artists
that document the country's problems. If this critique is less
visible in the Chinese art now selling for millions of dollars at
auction -- well, that may have more to do with the "new Orientalism"
of western collectors, whose taste hardly reflects the full spectrum
of the Chinese art scene.

Finch is entitled to call for a boycott of the Beijing Games. But
when he throws Chinese contemporary art into his argument, he is
going after the wrong segment of Chinese society. That contemporary
art has been able to flourish in China may show that that country is
far more complex and more forward-thinking than Finch would like to

-- Barbara Pollack

Charlie Finch replies: Polycorp's role in the Chinese contemporary
art market is well known to insiders, and has been reported by
Bloomberg. As for Chinese government censorship, Bloomberg reported
late last week that the Chinese government had postponed two shows,
one of 35 Warhol portraits of athletes and another of paintings of
Chinese Communist leaders, as being "inappropriate for the Olympics."

Apologists for China art and its central controllers have been the
beneficiaries of perquisites and other incentives from the Chinese
government precisely because they can be used as propaganda tools.
One can only think of the journalists like Walter Duranty of the New
York Times and others who toured Stalin's Potemkin villages during
the 1930s and returned with glowing reports of paradise on earth.

BARBARA POLLACK received the Andy Warhol Creative Capital arts
writers grant to research the issue of censorship of the visual arts
in China. She is writing a book about the development of the art
scene in China.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula
(Smart Art Press).

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