Contemporary Chinese Art: Government & Artistry

In all societies, the governing body presiding over the people has an inherent influence on artwork, both direct and indirect. Unfortunately, modern China does not have a strong history of artistic freedom, though resistance has persisted in some ways. During the earlier decades of the CCP’s rule, the government had absolute power over art that met the public eye; however, in private, some still used it as a medium of subjective expression.

Moreover, there was a period between 1976 and 1989 in which artists saw more and more freedom, but this has been curbed for the sake of stability of the CCP’s governance. Nowadays, the government seeks to display (internationally and nationally) only ideologically friendly work—though policies are prone to confusing and inconsistent shifts. Artists nonetheless have prevailed and have managed to resist even amid the toughest circumstances and government control.

Communist Era Resistance

While the CCP took a very pervasive grip on mass culture and public records, many individuals still managed to engage in resistant artistic expression in private time. Wang Aihe, who lived in China throughout the Cultural Revolution, provides a personal example: Wuming. According to Wang, members of said group were painted together in private as early as 1962, with twelve younger painters joining in the mix in 1973—Wang states that this group “met regularly to paint, read, listen to music, and discuss literature and philosophy, producing several thousand oil paintings and holding three major underground or unofficial art exhibitions (1974, 1979, 1981)” (27). Clearly, this group gained a sense of identity and free expression even during one of the most ideologically sensitive times in China’s history.

Nonetheless, during such challenging times, reflections on the political and social situations were inevitable. Wang elaborated on this, stating, “these paintings provide visual memories of an ultra-political era, telling an unknown story of the subjective experiences of that revolution and the silent change brought by private artistic activities” (27). In resistance to the myth cultivated by the government during this era, these pieces show the struggles of the average Chinese citizen. On the group’s influences, Wang further shows how resistant this group was to the state: “In a conscious revolt against official art doctrines, the artists embraced the twin enemies of official art: literati aesthetics and Western modernism. The artists thus created a form of Chinese modernist art” (27). By embracing western influences and even modernism, the group strayed from the state-supported socialist realism and communist-minded narratives.

This unique situation thus created a rare place in China during such a politicized era—subjective art rather than elaborate socialist-realist pieces meant to drive an ideal narrative of the People’s Republic of China. Wang remarks that the Wuming art moved “from representation towards subjective experience – unique individual sensations, emotions, and perception – Wuming art developed an alternative modern identity and subjectivity for both painter and viewer, formulating a self-conscious and self-reflective individual subjectivity” (27). With the ability to be based on individual subjectivity, this art was far from the highly moderated art attempting to drive a communist narrative—truly a resistant art group that formed during an ultra-political time.

The Great Post-Tiananmen Shift

In the late 1980s, China saw its own wave of pro-democracy protests. During this period, most of the world’s communist parties collapses due to mass unrest, but China uniquely used its military to suppress the major Tiananmen Square protest, among others. This also brought a wave of restrictions from a shaken-up communist party seeking to maintain control.

During the 1980s, there was a relative sense of artistic freedom. Minglu states, “throughout the 1980s, artistic experimentation within China focused on the rationale and logic of self-modernization” (211). This type of deep, public expression beyond political uses was heavily divergent from the days of the Cultural Revolution and beyond. Moreover, Minglu asserts, “during the 1980s we constantly heard appeals for artistic freedom and artistic democracy coming from within the Chinese art world” (215). Thus, the 1980s was a time that artistic resistance took the public eye.

This freedom, however, reached a peak in 1989. During this year, the China Art Gallery in Beijing held an exhibition of avant-garde artwork, with a wide range of art independent from the state’s propaganda; however, it was ended early after two artists, in an act of alleged performance art, fired gunshots into their pieces (Cheng). This certainly changed the government’s position on such art: it was a political threat, which was intensely strengthened after the consequent Tiananmen Square protests. According to Cheng, “with the brutal crushing of the student democratic movement at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, a chill set in, in all forms of public expression.” At this stage, these freedoms largely went down the drain.

On this shift, Minglu states, “we are now living in a different time from that of the 1980s. We not only need a standpoint, a voice, a way of writing and a way of making art, but also a personality and an ideological way of thinking” (216). Among artists, freedom has not been quite up to a level necessary for free expression independent of state-supported ideology.

Nonetheless, artists’ resistance persisted. After this shift, art began to develop a very different voice. Minglu explains this, asserting, “there was also a move away from the thematic seriousness of Chinese contemporary art of the 1980s to a more sarcastic tone after the events of 4 June 1989” (210). As stated in “Artistry in a Market Economy,” artists grew more critical and ironic during this time. This materialized as political pop and cynical realism art, which take an ironic, critical stance on China’s situation. Cheng adds to this discussion, stating, “the deliberate juxtaposition of the ‘sacred,’ or what was formerly held sacred, and the consumerist, or what is now suddenly sacred, is both cynical and humorous.” A defining characteristic of this art is to combine old socialist imagery with new, capitalist imagery.

Minglu explains the genres of political pop and cynical realism: “these two genres are very similar in approach and tone to the Sots Art that appeared during the 1980s before the fall of the Soviet Union. Both are examples of ironic uses of socialist imagery combined with American Pop Art styling” (211). This is manifested, for example, with the merging of logos like that for Coca Cola and old socialist-realist art in single paintings. In describing Ai Weiwei, a specific, highly popularized artist-resistor, Stevens and Larson assert, “Ai responded to the new China with scabrous satire, challenging its puritanical and conformist character by regularly showcasing a rude and boisterous individuality.” These ideas are far from what the CCP has historically favored and show a clear instance of resistance.

Conflicting Governmental Practice, Artists, & Exhibitions

Despite China’s high place in the world, personal rights and freedom of expression have not been a prime priority. Adding to this, it can be confusing what is considered “acceptable” and what is not, even among government officials. Rodner and Preece present some of their research findings on this:

…cultural policies remain unclear and fluid. The artists interviewed complained of finding themselves in a constant state of ambiguity, never knowing whether their work will be acceptable or not as what is deemed official and non-official is in constant flux. Proof of this inconsistency in policy is found in the fact that despite the event being sanctioned and organized by the Cultural Ministry, Beijing’s cyber police blocked the Biennale’s website across China (135).

To clarify, the Biennale mentioned here is the very popular Venice Biennale, which has become a major exhibition for nations to showcase their citizen’s best artwork. Obviously, China only sends more traditional, CCP-friendly works; however, even those not seeking entrance into the exhibition struggle to know what the government will condemn and what it will not, with contradictions even within the government’s attitude on the Biennale.

Surely, these unsteady policies create a tough situation for artists. Rodner and Preece state, “such erratic cultural policies simply complicate an artist’s brand development on the cultural horizon, hindering their position on the local and international art market” (137-138). Thus, not only does this limit expression among artists, but also limits their chances of financial success, discouraging participation in the profession altogether.

Museum Expansionism

In another display of government inconsistency, it has been also working very hard to display as much art as possible—domestically and internationally—despite discouraging freely expressive art. Many new museums and international exhibitions are occupied by more traditional and realist pieces, certainly not cynical realism and political pop, etc.

Understandably, the government only gives support to art styles that do not defame its image. According to Cheng, one way is imposing the state-supported genre of realism “…via control of art academies and gallery spaces….” Obviously, where there is funding, there is the power to control. The state also has great influence over which pieces make their way to the Venice Biennale, which is a prime method of branding artists and their countries in an international market (Rodner and Preece 134). This situation, along with a state still running on a heavily planned economy, results in support for pieces that align well to the government’s agenda.

And it is apparent that China is using exhibitions like the Biennale as a method of further integrating itself into the world economy. O’Connor and Xin assert, “the rush of the large cities to promote themselves as modern and cosmopolitan is now inextricably linked to their ability to present contemporary art – without a biennial you’re nothing!” (278). Thus, cities will be prone to presenting a specific image of themselves in such exhibitions in even their own exhibitions.

Again, though, there is an incentive to present the exact image the government wants. At the Venice Biennale, for example: as asserted by Rodner and Preece, “since its first representation at Venice in 2005, China has been careful to show relatively conservative work, tending to portray traditional subject matters” (134). Clearly, China wants a more traditional image in order to seek acceptance in international markets. The government will not assist artists who do not conform to this, generally speaking.

The need to showcase art in museums, however, also occurs internally: as asserted by Cotter, in 2013 there were 390 brand new art museums opened in various places across China (qtd. In Rodner and Preece 136). With such a high rate of new museums, the government clearly seeks to display the many examples of art in the nation. Why is this? Well, O’Connor and Xin state,

This mushrooming of institutions comes as a consequence of the country’s acceptance that cultural industries are in fact desirable (if not necessary) for the next stage of economic and social development, thanks in part to the success of Chinese contemporary art as an export product (qtd. In Rodner and Preece 136-137).

Thus, in its fight to be known as a creator and not just a manufacturer, China is strongly pushing creative industries, like art, in order to progress in economic development.

Nevertheless, trying to carve a slice out of the art market large enough to sustain oneself can be tricky and risky, which not all Chinese artists are willing to do. In this scenario, individuals rely on state acceptance, which, according to Rodner and Preece, includes, “…national museum acceptance or national representation at an international art event” (134). In order to do this, as we have seen, artists will have to conform to the government’s criteria for what’s acceptable even more than just being limited by censorship.

Another problem, however, arises within China’s growing cohort of art museums—many are not adequately maintained after their debuts. Due to randomly shifting policies, say Rodner and Preece, many artists and officials running museums have trouble creating new exhibitions and accumulating connections out of fear of an end to their fragile careers (137). With rapidly shifting policies, many are concerned about being involved in “inappropriate” artwork, thus art is not coming into these museums and officials are concerned about displaying it. This results in empty or badly maintained museums.

The Decline of Apartment Art

Chinese artists, like those in all other countries, of course engage in the creation of art in private, even in contemporary times; though one outlet of this, Apartment Art, has declined. This art deliberately maintained a low profile: Minglu asserts, “The low-key nature of Apartment Art was partly a response to the suppressed art ecology in China after 4 June 1989, and partly a self-questioning and criticizing of the purity of modernism itself” (212). With personal themes and a backdrop of political suppression, this private art was largely kept private though had clear elements of resistance beyond state-promoted genres.

This art is not to be confused with cynical realism and political pop—they fulfill similar purposes of resistance, but do so in different ways. Minglu elaborates this on in detail:

Political pop/cynical realism engaged with local topics (mainly politics) within an internationally successful format (that of postmodern painting), while Apartment Art was produced according to the typical local art ecology of China: low-key, forced to retreat back to home space and limited in its communication with avant-garde peers. At the same time, Apartment Art looked towards international contemporary artistic practice (212)

Here, it is seen that Apartment Art uniquely sought retreat from the market within a local stylistic frame, not concerned with success in the market. Interestingly, this type of retreat carries some parallels to the retreat culture conveyed in a lot of classical Chinese artwork amid political hardships and an increasingly complicated societal situation.

Unfortunately, Apartment Art’s defining characteristics also brought its downfall. The artists associated with this movement desired neither fame nor collaboration with capital, thus they retreated in the late 1990s—Wang Jing (an artist associated with the movement), for example, executed a complete retreat (Minglu 212). Due to their stern resistance, Apartment Art creators would not, under any circumstances, collaborate with forces they did not like, leading to the genre’s decline.

Impact on Tiehua

Some tiehua examples demonstrate just how the artistic situation might have fallen on this art form:

27548368610_726f4bb030_o This example of tiehua shows the mixing of the realism brought to China by socialist realism and various Western influences. Old tiehua almost invariably depicted nature, but the inclusion of frogs was uncommon. Also unusual in the traditional sense is such focus on an individual human being—generally nature was emphasized over individuals. Interestingly, the realistic nature of the man’s depiction also shows realism influences—this type of individual focus was popularized during the years of socialist realism. The man, however, is dressed in more traditional wears, perhaps being a Confucian scholar. The inclusion of calligraphy is also an old practice that has regain popularity.


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This piece also shows a merging of the new and old. There is a clear integration of nature, but the way of doing so is more modern. Traditionally, distant mountains would be visible or pieces would be bird-and-flower style—this piece appears to have elements of both, showing the mixing that has happened in modern Chinese art. Additionally, it traditionally would have been unusual to include a rooster’s figure in such realistic detail, showing the influence of realism. The detail of the bamboo could also support this assertion. Again, traditional calligraphy is integrated.


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This piece is certainly more traditional than the other examples. In fact, it closely resembles traditional Song landscapes. Take note of the abundance and perceived power of nature over human dwellings and activity. Also traditional is the use of empty white space between different elements of the painting, this traditionally has signified a place between the worldly matters and cosmic matters. The mountains seen could be directly influenced by Mount Lu. The contemporary significance of this piece comes from the fact that many tiehua artists have relied on government support, thus rather than making statements, they may stick to more traditional methods; however, this also shows that realism could not be alone in the state’s promotion.


Artistry in China, while encouraged by the government, is a difficult profession to be involved with. Unfortunately, this “support” only extends to art that aligns with the government’s goals, which is very difficult for both artists and officials to establish. This leads to struggling, yet expanding public museums and the decline of some art. Nonetheless, resistance in one form or another has persisted all throughout the CCP’s rule, be it private art clubs during the Cultural Revolution, pro-democracy art, cynical and ironic art, and individual art made in private. While many are forced to give in to the government’s influence for the sake of success, resistance can never seem to be weeded out.

Works Cited

Cheng, Scarlet. “China Goes Contemporary.” World & I 8.6 (1993): 140. MasterFILE Premier. 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.

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.

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

Wang, Aihe. “Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China’s Cultural Revolution.” China Perspectives 4 (2014): 27-36. Print.