Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Critical Horizons – On art criticism in China

Pauline J. Yao

Pauline J. Yao is a curator and scholar based in Beijing and San
Francisco and co-founder of Arrow Factory, an alternative art space
in Beijing. She was the inaugural recipient of the 2007 CCAA Art
Critic Award and author of In Production Mode: Contemporary Art in
China (2008).

The most frequently heard refrain around the proverbial water cooler
of the Chinese contemporary art world (next to the lament that there
are no real curators) is that there are no real art critics. This
position has been widely echoed in international art circles where
every year we hear the exhortation that criticism is dead and then a
panel is quickly thrown together (usually at an art fair) to discuss
the 'crisis in art criticism'. But while in the West people seem to
lament the relevance or efficacy of art criticism, we inside Asia
seem hard-pressed to locate it in the first place. Leaving the aside
the question of what constitutes 'real' for the time being, let us
first consider what is at stake with regards to terminology. Are we
talking about the lack of qualified individuals writing on art, or
the lack of such writing to be sufficiently critical? Or are we
lamenting the visibility of a certain kind of discursive criticality
in itself? I would wager all three. Indeed there is a global feeling
that art criticism is irrelevant, eclipsed by the activities of
dealers, collectors, and curators. Within China where the
contemporary art system is still in its nascent stages,
infrastructure-wise, and ties to an over-hyped and speculative market
have driven critical thinking aground, art criticism is all but
nonexistent. The reasons for this are multifold, and the complaints
are all well-rehearsed: the publishing industry is flawed and too
market-driven; the education system antiquated; the Chinese language
ill-equipped; and the dominating presence of the market breeds
indifference and slack ethics. But these concerns only serve to mask
deeper issues at hand, namely the absence of a localized discourse
that fosters independent thinking and critical depth.

In China, as elsewhere, the unrelenting force of the market has made
the situation facing art criticism an increasingly grim one. Jerry
Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, once famously complained:
'At no time in the last 50 years has what an art critic writes had
less effect on the market than now.' [1] Such a statement only
partially applies to a context like China where critical voices are
simultaneously drowned out by the cacophony of hype and marketing and
employed superficially as 'academic packaging' to prop-up or
otherwise validate an artist's work for commercial ends. The
usefulness of art criticism may always be in question, particularly
in times of economic strength, but defining it poses an even more
difficult challenge. The panoply of contemporary art magazines on the
newsstand today in China, with English names — Art Issue,
Contemporary Art, Art China, Artmap, Contemporary Art and Investment,
Art and Value, World Art, and Hi-Art — present a dizzying array of
verbiage on contemporary art, but pandering to popular demand (and
therefore market interests) they can hardly constitute venues for art
criticism. Sadly, a large amount of what passes as art criticism in
China is based on reviewing or reporting rather than criticism. It is
necessary to maintain a distinction between an art exhibition
reviewer and an art critic, yet in China's current landscape
squabbling over these divisions seems a futile exercise. Add to the
mix the recent invention of the curator-critic and such distinctions
are soon obliterated. Few inside the contemporary Chinese art world
would self-identify solely as an 'art critic', including myself, the
recipient of a newly established art critic award. This is not only
because income sources extend beyond those generated by critical
writing, but because to do so implies a self-appointed position of
authority and — perhaps my own bias — suggests a level of civic duty
that is nearly impossible here in China. The fact that 'art critic'
is a label more often bestowed by others rather than self-selected
should immediately send up warning flags as to who is deciding and on
what grounds. This is but one reason why the designation gets tacked
onto the end of a list of other professions and titles whenever
someone deems it convenient, itself a leading indication of the loose
status it confers.

During the 1980s, the so-called heyday of criticism in post-Mao
China, it was art historians who doubled as art critics. The tightly
bound community generated a vibrant discourse that not only valued
independently held views and progressive thinking but carried out
these discussions in largely public forums. Today, there is virtually
no discourse to be found and what does manage to qualify is thin and
lacking in critical depth, or in Lee Weng Choy's words, 'discursive
density' [2]. What's more, the increased levels of self-interest at
the heart of the contemporary art print publishing industry have
effectively steered art writing in China away from any semblance of
independently reasoned criticality towards a landscape of tedious
journalistic reporting and weak jargon-filled 'academic' fluff.

Let's be clear about this: contemporary art in China is run by the
art market. Independence from it exists only in shades of grey. Some
of the most widely reputed 'art critics' in China accept either money
or artworks in exchange for their texts, or worse yet, act as brokers
and dealers for artists on the side. Magazines run by art spaces or
private investors feature articles and advertisements that promote
their own shows and artists; and writers, in the absence of strict
editorial criteria, compromise their credibility by repeatedly
endorsing their own close cohort of friends, partners and associates.
Moreover, the level of critical objectivity that comes from a truly
independent position is not without its financial burdens, and given
the value placed upon wealth in Chinese society, the situation is
especially challenging for those art critics who want the authority
and status that comes with money but have to compromise themselves
ethically to get it.

But again, these are just 'levels' we are talking about: true
financial independence and true critical objectivity is a myth.
Critics can only do as good as the context they work in, and in China
the current environment is weak on infrastructure and strong on power-
driven personal politics. Non-existent institutions and unbiased
writing may be one issue but more pressing is how these obstacles
hinder the capacity for independent thinking that allows a
'discursive density' to emerge. Chinese art criticism is encumbered
further by the fact that it fundamentally lacks its own language and
vocabulary. Critical traditions that exist in the west have no
similar counterpart here, and transplanting philosophies and theories
from outside China may only inhibit efforts to develop and nurture
home-grown methodologies.

Aside from worrying about who has power and authority in the arts
scene — and I think we can agree it is certainly not art critics at
the moment — I seriously wonder if anyone is worrying about the
nature of art itself. Why do we make art? Is it merely a vehicle for
expressing one's inner self, or to understand one's place in society?
What are the ways in which we can assess or recognize its value to
society? I would claim that the real dilemma facing art criticism in
China today transcends the superficial lacks within the publishing
industry and the market and points to something altogether deeper:
responsibility. A question often levelled at artists — whether they
know why they make art — can be equally applied to critical writing
and the field of criticism. Just as art is not about making something
pretty or fashionable, criticism is not just about words on the page
sounding good. There exists a responsibility not only within one's
social or political milieu, but to art itself. Criticism also
requires a responsibility to its own discourse, since the critical
analysis of a work of art relies not just on descriptive analysis but
an articulation of the cultural complexities that lie behind it and a
sophisticated awareness of other artworks, theories and ideas that
precede and follow it.

Art cannot exist in a vacuum without criticism, nor can criticism
expect to survive upon art that is produced solely for commercial
gain. Contemporary Chinese art has turned into spectacle, overly
reliant on visual impact and style and short on ruminations that
reveal critical depth and substance. Excessively mediated by the
market and self-interest, it has lost its way with regard to
political economy and the social context of its own creation.
Following the logic of Debord, it is the passivity induced by
spectacle that is the real problem, not the spectacle itself. We as
viewers have become passive witness to the spectacle. But might we
expect more of art critics, whose job it is to offer insights and
analyze the relationship between life and art, to impart meaning and
value through articulations that engage with broader, deeper beliefs
about the nature of human individuals and societies? What is
criticism if not a way to become aware of the political, (and by
political I mean in the way our lives are organized socially, and the
power relations this involves) and to take up a position on the
beliefs and ideological values that surround the tension that pushes
art towards 'life'? Some young artists in China today may resolutely
reject politics and ideology entering their work but such a position
is nowhere more clearly ideological than in its attempt to ignore
history and politics altogether. What one chooses to accept and
reject theoretically or intellectually depends on what one is
practically trying to do, but without a clear purpose in mind, and
without forms of critical art to enlist artists in a dialogue of
transformation and change, criticism can only go so far.

With the recent economic downturn in the market, everyone seems to be
hailing the return of art criticism. It is time to reassess the
damaging effects of the market on creativity in the Chinese art world
and revisit the importance of scholarship and art criticism, so it is
said. But what form this will take remains to be seen. The efforts of
collector Uli Sigg and Hallam Chow who have ventured to establish
awards for art criticism are noble enough, as are publications like
The Critic, which in a style reminiscent of October, has eliminated
all advertising in favour of a 'text-only' format [3]. But only
truly alternative models can provide a place for criticism and for
discourse to emerge and exist by and for itself. Change might be in
the air, but only time will tell whether these steps will translate
into a true realignment of values, or more importantly, can overcome
the vast intellectual abyss facing Chinese art criticism today. These
things are not easy to grasp, they take time and have to be worked
at. This is in part what criticism tries to do. It is also where a
fruitful and lively engagement between art and life begins.

1. Saltz, Jerry, 'Silence of the Dealer', Modern Painters, September
2006, p.35.
2. Lee Weng Choy, 'In Search of Discursive Density', Art IT, #21,
Fall/Winter 2008, p. 95.
3. Uli Sigg, the founder of the CCAA (Contemporary Chinese Art
Awards) established the CCAA Art Critic Award in 2007. Hallam Chow's
Central Academy of Fine Arts Young Critics Award was established in
2008. See Stacey Duff, 'Does China have Art Critics?', in ArtZine
China online,, undated. Also, see The
Critic, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, first edition August, 2008.

1 comment:

lee said...

a lengthy and thought provoking response was left to this same article in the link below. Very worth reading for anyone interested in the topic.