Contemporary Chinese Art: Globalization

Within an examination of contemporary China, it is important to explore the role of globalization on Chinese art and the nation as a whole. Art is a way for Chinese artists to ponder what a modern China can really be like, though this model is not necessarily one that modernizes via direct Westernization. China has historically held onto its national identity by carefully absorbing Western influences, but nonetheless uses them to create something uniquely Chinese. This even extends to the variety of capitalism now sweeping China, which still has the official goal of creating a socialist society. Western scholarship, though, still sees China as Westernizing and resisting its “old” and “communist” ways, but this is errant in some ways.

Pondering Modernity

A significant theme in contemporary Chinese avant-garde art is a search for modernity—what art means for China in a globalized, Eurocentric world. Granted, “modernization” in many East Asian countries has largely been accompanied by varying degrees of Westernization, be it the Meiji Restoration in Japan, Communists running nations on the Western ideals of Marx and Lenin, or Korea and Japan developing market economies instituted under American influence. In contemporary Chinese art, there is tremendous Western influence, though this manages to become uniquely Chinese.

Cheng notes that after 1976 (the Cultural Revolution’s end) artists began absorbing more and more Western motifs during their searches for a form of modern expression. The art of the West, here, was used as only a base. Wiseman adds to this, stating that political pop, for example, is directly based on the pop art style popularized in the West during the 1960s (109). With such a directly western base, this variety of Chinese art thus absorbed all kinds of Western characteristics.

Nevertheless, it is incorrect to say that these influences have defined Chinese art—it still strongly displays a uniquely Chinese identity. Cheung asserts, “although Western artistic styles and pop culture have influenced the productions of Chinese artists in a number of respects, many contemporary works remain deeply rooted in traditional Chinese cultural beliefs” (238). Thus, while Western influences made their way in to China, tradition was never left behind. In full, Wiseman explains,

The installations and performance art made by artists of the Chinese avant-garde, however, are marked by the Chinese present and past, and their origin in the West pales in the face of their Chinese-ness. The imported genres themselves can become so familiar as to lose their “outsider-ness” and come to be thought of as local or homegrown (110).

Statue of LibertyTherefore, China will always be China no matter how heavily influenced by Western culture. Artists and citizens make these genres their own with their own unique interpretations of them based on the complex cultural backdrops they come from. Chinese artists, through this, are surely finding many ways in which to artistically express themselves in a way they interpret as modern. The main barriers can be market forces and censorship, as we’ve seen.

Take this tiehua of the Statue of Liberty for example. There are clear elements of realism in this painting, perhaps acquired during the years of socialist realism from the West. The Western influences on this piece are very apparent, such as the Statue of Liberty presence itself, though it is still rooted in Chinese tradition. The lack of a background is more typical of bird-and-flower styling and the encryption is a distinctly Chinese characteristic as well. With a Western object being depicted in a Chinese style, there is a heightened level of richness to this painting. This has been a prime advantage of Western influence.

“Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”

“Capitalism with Chinese characteristics,” as Deng Xiaoping put it, would be China’s method of catching up to other countries; the extreme lagging of China behind the U.S. and other Western nations was unfavorable to China and the CCP. This seemed to spell out China’s entry into the global world (and capitalist influences), or that’s at least how it’s been interpreted in the West.

It’s important to note that the “East Asian Tigers,” i.e. South Korea and Taiwan, as O’Connor and Xin put it, “…pursued modernization via an authoritarian state-directed market coupled with a heavy emphasis on the centrality of family values and the respect for social hierarchy that these prefigured in the Confucian tradition” (273). Thus, even from the get-go in its more capitalistic counterparts, economic development in China is based on a different, specifically eastern model than many Western nations.

Nonetheless, with the rise of a vast private sector in recent years, many observers have hoped for China to develop a market economy akin to the West, though the government has maintained its hold on banking, land, and large enterprises (“Understanding China’s” 8). Thus, while integrating characteristics of a free market, China’s economy is still carefully regulated and planned.

Indeed the logic of China’s form of capitalism might seem unconventional to some observers, being capitalistic yet run by a Communist Party. The Chinese Marxist scholar Wei Xinghua explains the rationale behind this:

First of all, the means of production being wholly owned by society in the socialist system that the founders of Marxism talked about is to take place after socialism is born out of advanced capitalist countries…. China is still far from a mature socialist model. Second, the elimination of private ownership is a gradual process side by side with the continuous development of productivity and the corresponding development of public ownership after the victory of the proletariat revolution. (qtd. In “Understanding China’s” 8)

Therefore, in Chinese capitalism the goal is still a communist society, though somewhere far down the road. At this stage, China is focusing on developing to a level that the CCP feels could harbor a transition to socialism.

The rationale of this is further explained in “Understanding China’s Economic Reform” in Chinascape, which states that the CCP oversaw transitions to a market economy to maintain its hold on power and develop the nation; however, private ownership will eventually be phased out (10). Here, we see that China’s model differs from many Western models, which develop free markets for the sake of preserving a capitalist society. In China’s case, a form of capitalism is being used to eventually lead the nation towards a form of socialism, perhaps eventually communism.

Finding China in the West

While China has long sought to distinguish itself from the West, which first harbored “barbarians” then “capitalists,” there has also been a generally ‘westward’ search for creative energy and methods to distinguish Chinese art.

As asserted by Yü, Mao Zedong “once characterized the intellectual climate of modern China as a ‘search for truth from the West’” (133). While this was largely due to the turmoil and marginalization of China in modern times, there is some truth here: Chinese artists and thinkers have long looked to the West for Chinese ideas.

Originally, in the late Qing dynasty and early Republic, Chinese elites found ideas from the West, openly interpreting them to suit the modernization of China so long as they had also been formulated by ancient Chinese sages in some way or another (Yü 138). This coincided with the hopeful ideas that China, in its ancient days as a cultural center, had originally given birth to the West and could regain its status in the world without Westernizing by definition, though this eventually was abandoned. It’s worth noting that even Mao Zedong himself adapted Marxism-Leninism to China’s needs and, depending on one’s interpretation, could’ve even followed a discreet Confucian model despite condemning the old ideologies.

In terms of art, modernization was in some ways a conflict between guohua and xihua (Chinese painting and Western painting). According to Sullivan, this debate has never been resolved, though he asserts, “.. it is precisely the dynamic interaction of the Chinese with the Western modes of painting that has produced the extraordinary richness and range of modern Chinese art” (299). By taking in Western motifs and Sinicizing them while also formulating new styles in a specifically Chinese manner, a greater richness has been achieved in modern art.

It’s also important to acknowledge that in the practice of learning from the West, artists took “what they wanted from the West strictly on their own terms” (Sullivan 299). Thus, while learning from the West, Chinese artists still allowed their personal perspectives and styles to shine through. Western learning has enhanced Chinese art, not altered it in a hegemonic manner. An example of this is seen in the work of Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010) who went freely between oil painting and Chinese medium, combining “East and West in a totally natural lyricism” (Sullivan 299). Through gaining artistic knowledge, Wu created works that were still his own and still Chinese.
Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 2.18.44 AMNonetheless, some artists haven’t pursued any Western learning at all. As asserted by Sullivan, other artists “…were digging deep into the roots of Chinese art, finding in the ancient pictographs and the motifs of bronze, lacquer, and jade decoration an inexhaustible store of symbolic forms to reinterpret in the language of modern art” (299). Artists have looked to all places in the search for new perspective, styles, and motifs, be it the West or forgotten or obscure aspects of Chinese art itself.

This example tiehua also shows a bit of this mixing. The Titanic was immensely popular in the West, but even gained great popularity once it was allowed in China. Here there is again a mixing of styles. The human figures, depicted realistically and a major focal point of the painting are in modern, predominantly Western-like style. The same goes for the Titanic itself. This seems as though it could even act as a promotional poster for the movie, perhaps being based off of one. Nonetheless, the blank background is a characteristic unique to tiehua that generally cannot change due to the nature of the art form. Additionally, the small encryption is in traditional tiehua style. The high contrast between black and white, the iron and the background, is even typical of simpler and more traditionally Chinese art.

East-West Tension

While Chinese artists learn from the West and vice versa, there is undoubtedly international tension altering the perception of such art. China (and its East Asian peers) confronts a highly powerful and influential Western world, with each nation wanting nothing but the best for itself. The resulting tension is most often seen through relations between the United State and China, two economic giants who simultaneously compete fiercely for influence, but also rely heavily on each other. This sparks all kinds of debate on who the “big boss” of the world may be in the future, and debates as out-there as the concept of hybrid warfare between the two nations.

Nonetheless, as stated, in the “East Asian” model, modernization is generally pursued following an authoritarian-style market directed by the state emphasizing family and respect for the social system, i.e. one influenced by Confucian ideals to some level or another (O’Connor and Xin 273). Individual freedom, in these states, is often less important than collective freedom; however, nations like South Korea and Taiwan integrated a fair amount of freedoms in the past twenty years. As per a Confucian notion of society, harmony, i.e. strict adherence to one’s roles, is best.

This, on a fundamental level, conflicts with the Western model, which values a free market with more personal freedoms. Resulting conflict seems to manifest itself in a variety of ways, though an interesting example comes in the perception of the Chinese artist-dissident Ai Weiwei. While he has been imprisoned and persecuted in a variety of ways within China, he was named as the world’s “Most Powerful Artist” by the Western-based Art Review (Stevens and Larson). Here we see a value for development in free markets conflicting with oppression that is largely normalized in East Asia. This, of course, does not mean the oppression is just, but with an ongoing East-West conflict dubious factors can play in.

There’s also an element of wanting to assure Eastern nations do not grow too powerful, as Western nations understandably want to go unchallenged. As summed up by Stevens and Larson:

So what is it about Ai? What makes him, in Western eyes, the world’s “most powerful artist”? The answer lies in the West itself. Now obsessed with China, the West would surely invent Ai if he didn’t already exist. China may after all become the most powerful nation in the world. It must therefore have an artist of comparable consequence to hold up a mirror both to China’s failings and its potential.

Works Cited

Cheng, Scarlet. “China Goes Contemporary.” World & I 8.6 (1993): 140. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 4 July 2016.

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

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

Sullivan, Michael. “The Twentieth Century.” The Arts of China, 4th ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. 274- 298. Print.

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

Yü, Ying-Shih. “The Radicalization of China in the Twentieth Century.” Daedalus 122.2 (1993): 125-150. PDF.