Contemporary Chinese Art: Artistry in a Market Economy

In its recent history, China has cultivated a colossal economy, easily rivaling that of the ever-powerful U.S. In the decades after the death of Mao Zedong, China oversaw tremendous reforms—most notably the adoption of a mixed, market-oriented economy. Within the world’s largest political system, this led to a sprawling consumer culture. All of these changes surely influenced artwork, which now has to cater to a market rather than exclusive commission by the state. With calls for China to become ever more advanced in all sectors—such as culture—art has taken a forefront. Nonetheless, artists have had a hard time: they’ve had to transition from an exclusively command economy to the risks associated with markets—and the results have not been the best for all, thus resistance has taken place.

A Shifting Economy

China’s vast economy, in part, rose thanks to rapid industrialization and a huge population to work in manufacturing. This has unfortunately led to China holding a strong connotation of just an inexpensive producer of goods, not a creator of them. O’Connor and Xin elaborate on this, stating that larger cities have gained interest in a ‘knowledge economy,’ which hopes to harness the nation’s large population to promote innovative, creative industries in order to promote the next phase of economic development (272). Indeed, China hopes to create more of its own products, not simply manufacture those designed elsewhere. This demand is even greater as many international companies are relocating manufacturing facilities to Bangladesh and other nations as the cost of Chinese labor rises.

Despite the Chinese Communist Party’s persistent control of the nation, a strongly capitalist economy prevails. On this change, Cheung remarks, “Along with the process of building a new society, the Chinese have had to leave behind the social security of life in the communist era and enter a fresh new world that may also be chaotic and full of risk” (225). Now, unlike the strongly communist past, individuals need to engage in a more risky, though profitable economic situation. When this situation comes to artists, Cheung cites the term “Chinartscapes,” referring to the “…distribution of opportunities for artists to produce and disseminate their artwork both locally and globally” (226). Certainly, there are those who benefit from this and are harmed by this, which will be covered later.

Nevertheless, the citizens of China have adapted to “the prima facie contradiction between the virtual obliteration of the idea of the individual under communism and the self-promotion of the individual under capitalism” and the opening up to foreign “bourgeoisie” investors under Deng Xiaoping’s administration (Wiseman 111). For better or worse, China has become a market-oriented, globalized society and shows no signs of reverting to the policies instituted by Mao Zedong.

Turning Art to Capital

The themes of internationalization and globalization apply very well to contemporary Chinese art: it has been internationalized like never before. Under the market economy, says Minglu, “A combination of ‘Jianghu’ (market gaming within official art circles) and individual artists conspiring with the market has brought about a capitalization of the concept of artistic value, as well as a lack of integrity in relation to the making and showing of art” (210). Art is now solidly a form of capital for purchase, sale, and display.

Minglu adds to this, stating that since the later 1990s, Chinese art has adopted increasingly internationalist practices and has been increasingly sold to international exhibitions (211). In a global economy, art as capital inherently becomes internationalized, which interestingly conflicts with the interests of China’s government in some respects (which is covered in “Government & Artistry”). Moreover, Minglu asserts, “most of these collections are based on the idea of art as capital and the treating of artworks as though they were stock” without considering its artistic value (213). Due to its monetary value, some pieces are being purchased just for what they are, hence the artwork now being capital.

It’s important to note, however, that Minglu has a critical voice on how this capitalization has altered Chinese artwork. In full, he states,

It became increasingly devoid of content, stylized and fashion driven. Chinese contemporary art entered into a world in which the rich competed savagely for reputation and where artistic spirit had been abandoned. Flexibility of political structure and the power of capital tamed the artist. Contemporary art gradually overturned itself. Modernism, the pursuit of spirit since the 1980s, died (Minglu 211)

It is true that markets alter art—its creators are ultimately limited by their own means of sustenance and what consumers and investors will want to buy. It’s fair to say that market economies are constraining in some ways; however, at the same time, in the CCP’s first decades of rule, the state took complete control over art that appeared in public and in the market, thus clear constraints existed in that era as well. Unfortunately, though, the Chinese government does still regulate art in some ways. As Minglu puts it, “…the fundamental task of art – its independence and transcendence – has been eroded, squeezed more and more by an indigenous double-sided system of politics and capital with ‘Chinese characteristics’. (210). Thus, Chinese artists encounter limitations both from government and market forces.
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Certainly some artists would resent a situation in which art is subjected to capitalization while never given free domain by the government. According to Cheung, “Some Chinese artists have responded to economic expansionism by adopting a critical, ironic rhetoric, thus creating a rupture in the wave of consumerism sweeping the country” (227). Here, we see a form of resistance that could be making an impact. Overall, though, with a consumer market as vast as China’s it is tremendously difficult to make a meaningful impact.

A contemporary tiehua depicts fish, which strays from the traditionally more common elements of landscapes and bird-and-flower style paintings. Take note of the level of detail in the fishes—this reflects more modern western, realist influences. Interestingly, this piece is essentially devoid of any political content and deep meaning. We only see the objects and encryption—nothing more. This could support many of Minglu’s arguments.

“Socialist” Versus “Capitalist” Popular Art

Surely both a market economy and command economy differ in the realm of art. A detailed analysis of Chinese art under Mao Zedong’s radical communist leadership has been done in this blog, but how do these influences on art differ? Simply put, “capitalist” art reflects what the masses desire, whereas “socialist” art reflects the ideology propagated by the state, although countless variations between these two extremes exist.

Cao Minglu makes an interesting comparison about how these two types compare: “The mass media’s overwhelming of the population with propagandist images (such as Mao’s art) or advertisement and entertainment symbols (such as Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe) apparently levels the differences between Mao’s mass culture and Hollywood.” (qtd in Wiseman 112). Essentially, Minglu is asserting that in both systems, some type of mass culture is depicted everywhere one turns, be it commissioned by the government or private investment.

An interesting, perhaps symbolic shift can be seen in the images of Lei Fang, an old persona popularized during the years of socialist realism. In contemporary China, images of Lei Fang have been converted into a “pure icon,” which Jian defines as “one that can be used readily on T-shirts, mobile phone covers, hats and notebooks and so on,” resulting in a loss of much of the icon’s original ideological implications (63).

Chegodaeva, however, offers an intriguing description showing how mass culture is inherently commercialized, particularly in market economies, but also in command economies:

It comes not from below but from above, where it is made by an entirely professional guild of cinematographers, artists, writers, and so forth, who specialize in the manufacture of a readily intelligible commercial art that is earmarked for easy success. Commercial art has indeed taken on the qualities of a commodity, and its manufacture has become as much a business as the manufacture of any other item and with equally concrete ends in view: to conquer the market, to win over the mass consumer, and to make as much money as possible as fast as possible. It is regulated and guided by those whose hands are on the levers of finance, who subsidize it, arrange its “distribution,” and are in charge of the advertising (51-52).

Thus, socialist realism, too, was subject to distribution that is commercial in nature, just with a different, more singular influence—the Chinese Communist Party in this case.

Chegodaeva adds to this argument, stating that “[communists] too, needed to throw their arms around millions of consumers and enjoy massive returns, only in a different “coin,” i.e. the propagation of a communist myth and to hide the vast struggles within the nation (52). Here, we see that art in communist systems is subject to a type of market, but seeks a very different profit than private art and the like.

Statue of Liberty
Ultimately, while many individuals might make their own private art, the widely consumed examples are subject to some type of necessary capitalization, be it money, power, creating a myth, etc. There’s no doubting that even private art promotes various ideologies, just it is more subject to what consumers can be swayed to pay for.

This contemporary tiehua, as seen, depicts the Statue of Liberty. Quite visibly, this reflects a major shift in subject: a symbol of western democracy is depicted in a traditional Chinese art form; however, contemporary pieces seldom reflect political stances and are more a reflection of globalization. There are few traditional motifs in this piece, with a lack of mountains and nature altogether. In this tiehua, however, there is still a clear element of socialist realism. Nonetheless, this piece also shows just how a market economy has altered tiehua artwork: it’s much smaller and less elaborate than those featured in the Great Hall of the People and other locations. This has a lot to do with artists’ need to make a living and to produce as many pieces as possible that everyone can afford.

Life for Chinese Artists

Unfortunately, the situation for artists pursuing styles (such as cynical realism or political pop) outside of the state-supported, ideologically friendly, and more traditional forms encounter many hardships—though nearly all artists seem to be taking a hit.

Minglu explains the full situation from his perspective, stating:

From the mid-1990s onwards, however, within China art began to move farther and farther away from the people. As the Chinese economy grew, the art market became one of a number of brutal conduits for the upgrading of social class. The ecology of art became more and more cruel. There were fewer and fewer sincere artists and artworks. Independent art creation and discovery were harder and harder to find. A process of industrialization and centralization of art districts began to take place supported by local government and real estate policy (211).

From this angle, artists are having a hard time as their creative autonomy is being curbed for the sake of the system at large. While, as stated earlier, China seeks to expand creative industries, this situation is tricky when applied to art. This concept is discussed further in “Government and Artistry.”

Essentially, China’s version of market economics restricts creativity in the artistic sphere. Both market forces and political forces even collaborate to, as said by Minglu, “significantly [reduce] the space for artistic individualism to a minimum” (214). For artists, forms of restrictions, both monetary and political keep art corrected to a cliché medium harmed even more by systemization around China.

Even at a local level, art districts have emerged in many localities in which artists are “forced… to collaborate with the industrial interests of local government” (Minglu 215). With little opportunity and concentration, artists are through a variety of factors forced into collaboration with government. Minglu goes so far to suggest that artists have replaced peasants in old China and that “only the government and a very few artists and art agents have benefited from the change” (214). Nevertheless, there have been periods of relative artistic freedom in modern China, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign and Pre-Tiananmen freedoms, though these led to threats towards the CCP and subsequent cracking down on freedoms.

The situation, however, is not all bad for artists. Rodner and Preece explain,

…while this type of art was forced underground within China due to its ideologically critical content; in the early 2000’s officials (in line with other economic liberalization policies), realizing the economic success of the art on the market, permitted its dissemination and promotion. However, the fact that this work is still not officially allowed to represent China at events such as the Biennale shows the conflicted approach the government has to this art, which although legitimized internationally, still sits uncomfortably with Chinese officials. (134).

Resistance by Artists

It would be absurd to suggest that all artists in China calmly sit by with all of the restrictions imposed on them—they have resisted in some important ways. While art in the 1980s took on more directly resistant elements, the situation changed after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 (covered in “Government & Artistry”). Additionally, it has already been stated that artists have resisted economic expansion with critical and/or ironic influences in their art.

The motifs of resistance have become more diverse, however. Cheung states, “the country’s artists are challenging the status quo and using diversified art forms and metaphors to puncture the futurity of drastic urban growth and economic transformation” (232). Thus, the resistance is much deeper than criticism, irony, and cynicism, as well as comprising ever more forms. Despite this, artists can still easily go too far in the eyes of the government. A high profile instance of this is the case of Ai Weiwei, who has long resisted the status quo through art. Stevens and Larson elaborate on the consequences, asserting, “Ai Weiwei has spent time in jail, was not allowed by the government to leave Beijing for a year and cannot travel without official permission.” As seen here, the consequences for artistic resistance are real, though Ai Weiwei has gained international power due to his popularity and symbolic nature.

Based on data collected by Rodner and Preece, artists still have permanent anxieties about censorship and therefore self-censor or must face similar consequences to Ai Weiwei (134). For many artists, the answer is simple: just self-censor and avoid persecution and conflict.

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Here, we see yet another example of contemporary tiehua. There are clearly more traditional motifs. This piece is small and not as detailed as former socialist-realist pieces. This could be related to market forces necessitating quantity over quality, among other factors. Here, this piece depicts a simple traditional countryside life. One cannot help but wonder if the presumed poverty of its subjects could in some way relate to artists in contemporary China. Also take not of the lack of distant mountains characteristic of traditional Chinese landscapes—this piece is post old and new in some ways.

While market economies are generally accepted as the freer and more profitable option, certain aspects of society (like art) are altered by such systems, just as with the switch to an authoritarian communist regime. Art in china has the unique challenge of being directly restricted by both the market and government, which does not make artistic individuality as easy as in other societies.

Tiehua artists have enjoyed some governmental support after struggles with this new economy and the failure of the tiehua factory in Wuhu in 2013. Tiehua is classified as Intangible Cultural Heritage and thus enjoys a special status protecting it from further decline. Some individuals are now able to make tiehua professionally, though reliant on government support and subject to its influences. Additionally, as we’ve seen in examples, the market economy has shrunken many tiehua pieces in comparison to many of their socialist-realist counterparts in order to be more affordable to average consumers. Being a traditional art and able to be influenced by the government, tiehua is not in great danger for the time being.

Works Cited

Cheung, Ming. “Contemporary Chinese art and the dream of glocalisation.” Social Semiotics 24.2 (2014): 225-242. Print.

Rodner, Victoria L. and Chloe Preece. “Painting the Nation: Examining the Intersection Between Politics and the Visual Arts Market in Emerging Economies.” Journal of Macromarketing 36.2 (2015): 128-148. Print.

Wiseman, Mary B. “Subversive Strategies in Chinese Avant-Garde Art.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 (2007): 109-119. Print.

Stevens, Mark and Christina Larson. “China’s Most Dangerous Man.” Smithsonian 43.5 (2012): 54-60. History Reference Center. Web. 4 July 2016.

Minglu, Gao. “Changing Motivations of Contemporary Chinese Art Since the Mid-1990s.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 11.2-3 (2012): 209-219. Print.

O’Connor, Justin and Gu Xin. “A new modernity? The arrival of ‘creative industries’ in China.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 9.3 (2006): 271-283. Print.