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2010.09.09 Thu, by Translated by: 徐苏静
The Double Way
Contemporary Chinese Art and the Waning of Criticality

Since the late 1980s, contemporary Chinese art has gained an increasingly high profile within the international art world. This profile has accrued for four substantive reasons: first, because of the sometimes highly innovative way in which producers of contemporary Chinese art have sought to combine/hybridize attitudes, techniques and imagery appropriated from Western Modernism and internationalized Post-Modernism with autochthonous Chinese cultural thought and practice; second, because of the equally innovative way in which certain producers of contemporary Chinese art have used the combining/hybridizing of differing cultural forms and techniques to stage what can be interpreted as a critically ‘deconstructive’ undermining of conventional social, political and cultural values both within and outside China (notable examples of which include the “Great Criticism Series” of Political Pop paintings by Wang Guangyi). Wang whose formal juxtaposition of international brand names such as Nike and Coca-Cola with highly stylized images of workers, soldiers and peasants adapted from the graphic socialist-realist poster art of China’s revolutionary period, is open to interpretation as a knowing suspension of the ideological authority of both. The single-channel video “Happiness” by Zhang Peili whose apparently endless repetition of a scene from a Chinese propaganda film of the 1960s can be read as form of citation or grafting that persistently re-contextualizes and re-motivates the scene in such a way that its significance is rendered profoundly uncertain. The third reason is because of the continuing prevalence of conventional modes of artistic production, such as painting on canvas, printmaking and cast sculpture, which readily satisfy the international art market’s continuing preference for artworks that are portable, conspicuously crafted and auratically unique. The fourth element is the large-scale displacement of Chinese artists and intellectuals which took place at the end of the 80s and the subsequent formation of an extended trans-national network of culturally informed individuals, groups and institutions supportive of the production and reception of contemporary Chinese art on an international stage.

However, despite this potent mix of formal innovation, recognizable ‘deconstructive’ critical content, market friendliness and actively supported trans-nationalism, significant doubts have been raised with regard to the continuing quality and criticality of contemporary Chinese art.

While a significant amount of the contemporary Chinese art of the 1980s and 1990s – including the Political Pop of Wang Guangyi, the Cynical Realism of Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun and the neo-Dadaism of Huang Yongping – is strongly characterized by a combination of conspicuous technical/formal accomplishment and discernible counter-authoritarian critical content (1), that is not so much the case of contemporary Chinese art produced since the turn of the millennium. While at least some (though by no means all) of that more recent art remains of a highly polished technical standard (for example, the epic cinematic installations of Yang Fudong), readily identifiable critical content is in most cases at something of a premium. Exemplary of this tendency is the work of young contemporary Chinese artists such as the Shanghai based team of photographers Birdhead (Song Tao and Ji Weiyu) and the Beijing based painter/collagist Song Kun. These artists would appear to pursue a self-conscious eschewal of any direct form of criticality in favor of more oblique/poetic forms of aesthetic expression and/or the narrowly focused representation of localized circumstances, experiences and identities. These forms of expression and representation speak to a resistance to the universalizing tendencies of Western Modernism/Orientalism, but that can also be seen to severely compromise the possibility of any readily cognizable critical significance.

The question then arises as to why this apparent waning of criticality has come about. The first thing to say, perhaps, is that waning of this sort has not been confined simply to contemporary Chinese art. In recent years, there has been increasing evidence, particularly in the context of international survey shows, that artists have, to varying degrees, become dissatisfied with the now institutionalized modes of criticality associated with internationalized post-modernist artistic production; i.e. deconstructivism and its associated variants such as post-colonialist ‘Third Space’ criticism. In the case of some contemporary artists this sense of dissatisfaction is undoubtedly symptomatic of a continuing belief in the importance of critical self-reflexivity and an associated drive to find new, non-institutionalized forms of artistic-critical expression (as witnessed in relation to the staging of the third Guangzhou Triennial, “Farewell to Post-Colonialism”).

For others, however, there appears to have been a less considered shift towards an engagement with a non-critical aesthetic all too easily arrived at by the use of modern digital/photographic technologies, especially in combination with the liminal white cube, black box and post-industrial cathedral like spaces of the contemporary art museum/exhibition space. Very much out is the virulently deconstructive counter aestheticism of the post-Duchampian conceptuality of the late twentieth century and in its place an often highly aestheticized and technologically orientated art that persistently suggests meaning but without any significant elucidation – critical or otherwise.

To ascribe the apparent waning of criticality in relation to contemporary Chinese art simply to the shifting sensibilities/formalities of a wider internationalized contemporary art world would, however, be something of a mistake. In the context of early 21st century China, other, arguably more telling, factors are very much in play. Perhaps the most significant and far-reaching of these are continuing social taboos as well as discursive and legal restrictions within China on any form of public expression that directly undermines the authority/integrity of the Chinese nation state. While there are growing signs of the emergence of a civil society within China (not least in relation to the country’s burgeoning blogosphere and nascent critical press) there is still a widespread aversion to public forms of critical enunciation; one that persists both because of the abiding authoritarianism of China’s now highly nationalistic communist-socialist government and because of a state supported return within mainstream Chinese society in recent years to a traditional Chinese Confucian belief in the importance of filial piety and deference to hierarchical order. This combination of political authoritarianism and traditional belief serves not only to stymie public criticality in general, but also specifically embodied manifestations of that criticality such as acts of resistance performed by women artists which comment on the durable patriarchalism of Chinese society .

Powerfully enmeshed with this combination of authoritarianism and tradition there are also major infrastructural/institutional blocks to artistic criticality in China. As anyone familiar with the art world in China knows, not only is official government support for contemporary art in China directed for the most part to politically conservative forms of academic history and genre painting as well as to variations on traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy otherwise known as Guohua (National Art), galleries in the private sector are also subject to specifically directed legal and quasi-legal constraints on the exhibiting of art that can be interpreted as being openly critical of the authority and/or the integrity of the Chinese nation state. What is more, while there is growing interest within China among government officials in the economic potential of creative industries – drawing heavily on the example set by New Labour in the UK during the 1990s – and while this has led to the emergence of numerous creative hubs and gallery spaces throughout China in recent years, there is an accompanying, official repudiation of any form of creative activity that might undermine mainstream Chinese cultural values.

Alongside these cultural and governmental constraints there is also the absence of any formal teaching within China’s art academies that draws attention to the critical potential of artistic production. Unlike art academies in Europe and North America, Chinese art academies have both an insufficiently supported knowledge base about the critical potential of artistic production as well as powerful institutional limits on critical thought and action – strongly enforced by the presence of party officials at departmental and school level – which in combination constrain pedagogical activity to the formalistic teaching of craft technique and art historical ‘fact.’ As a consequence, not only is the embracing of criticality left over to the development of artists after they have left the confines of the Academy, but it is also not entirely clear that once on the outside contemporary Chinese artists are always fully aware of the critical potential of the techniques that they deploy in the making of their work. Admittedly, continuing governmental constraints on freedom of critical thought and action within China make artists who live and work there highly reticent about discussing the critical function of their work in public, however the widespread failure of many of those artists to enter into such discussions is almost certainly also due to a lack of relevant professional knowledge.

The underlying reasons for these differences between the institutional landscapes of China and the West are, of course, not too far to seek. Although it would be invidious to oversimplify in this regard, China is, despite over a century of often turbulent modernization, still highly resistant to many of the basic tenets of Western secular-scientific Modernism. Western society and culture can be said to have been given definition in large part by the critical rationalism that first emerged there during the 18th century as part of the European Enlightenment. This would later underpin the progressive Western Modernism of the late 19th and 20th centuries as well as the more self-reflexive aspects of internationalized Post-Modernism. However, those attitudes – not least because of persistent indigenous fears of cultural deracination within China – tended to merge strongly as part of the Chinese experience of modernity with traditionalist/ternary thinking and practices markedly incommensurate with Western Enlightenment thought and practice. Exemplary of this is not only the aforementioned resurgence within China of a traditional Confucian deference to familial and governmental authority, but also a durable faith in tradition, rather than in science, as a basis for the establishment of lasting social structures and cultural values (viz. Chinese medicine). As a result, progressive modernization within China is now heavily tempered by structures and attitudes that work against notions of critical reflection and that have been knowingly promoted by central government in Beijing specifically to safeguard against the previous excesses of a century of revolutionary upheaval within China.

So what of the future? There has of course been a tendency in some quarters to view China as a prime candidate for political and social liberalization as a consequence of the country’s precipitous economic and social modernization in recent years. And it is demonstrably the case that ideological and social restrictions on freedom of speech and action have been greatly reduced within China over the last three decades as part of the adoption of Deng Xiaoping’s program of Reform and Opening Up – even if they have been subject to intermittent retightening not least as a result of the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns of the 1980s and the pervasive political conservatism felt within China during the early 1990s. However, it is also possible to see a recent hardening of the core limits on freedom of expression within China over the last decade not simply, as in the past, through sharp governmental action, but more tellingly through the subtle imposition of ill-defined discursive limits, such as those associated with government-supported Confucianism as well as an increasingly widespread panopticism, both of which have engendered an increasingly heightened state of self-discipline/control with the Chinese populace. As a consequence, it is possible to see the assertion of a conspicuously (as well as culturally consistent) non-rationalist double way within Chinese public life on the question of criticality; one that points, on the one hand, in the direction of an increasing liberalization of Chinese society and culture at an everyday level, and, on the other, towards the prospect of ever tighter restrictions on public criticism of the country’s officially sanctioned (inescapably ‘non-enlightened’) core values.

From a Western(ized) perspective the confirmation of this double developmental way within Chinese public life may seem both remote and ineffectual, held at a distance from the ‘safe’ European and North American homelands by a still durable post-Enlightenment desire to uphold the importance of criticality within the public sphere. However, this is almost certainly an illusion that serves to obscure the West’s own internalized historical double-standards with regard to freedom of criticality (as revealed by the critical practices of deconstruction) as well as the increasingly pervasive influence of Chinese thought and action on the world stage which has come about expressly as a consequence of China’s entry into globalization.