The Wall Street Journal‘s front-page story on Chinese Contemporary Art provides an interesting history of the movement and a valuable explanation for the relative freedom painters and sculptors were allowed over the last decade. What’s most interesting about this story–when you bracket the issue of prices–is the way that art could fulfill a role that no other medium would be allowed:
Even now, though, few artists actually produce works that reflect the issues of the day or can compete on the international stage. And most are still limited by censorship. Every movie studio, theater, music house, publisher and publication in China is either directly owned by the state or subject to state guidelines.
Contemporary art — paintings, installations and other works produced in the present day — is a bright exception. The sector has thrived in part because it almost by definition reaches only an elite few. Yet its success is also due to the persistence of a handful of artists — and to the party’s willingness to let at least some flowers bloom.
That says a lot about the skittishness of the Communist Party at 60. As it strives to build a modern, flourishing country — including vibrant creative industries — the party is hamstrung by a desire to limit the populace’s access to free expression. […]
Unlike other creative types, contemporary artists were relatively immune from government pressure. They lived on the margins of society — many in villages outside Beijing that were occasionally raided by police. But they didn’t have to rely on China’s government-controlled publishing houses, cinemas or theaters to reach their audience. Few in China knew who they were, but they could create and were beginning to attract international attention. Art exhibitions began to invite them, and foreign galleries gave them solo shows.
The turning point inside China occurred in 2001, when the government began warming to independent artists. The exact reason isn’t known; Chinese cultural officials declined to discuss the policy switch. But a general consensus among artists is that China was applying to host the 2008 Olympics and wanted to make a good impression. Contemporary art was popular with foreigners and, even if edgy, was only seen by a handful of Chinese.
In 2001, the government asked Ms. Weng, the gallery owner and curator, to stage an exhibition of contemporary artists. She gathered 80 paintings and sent them on tour of four Chinese cities. It was the first full-blown exhibition of contemporary art in the People’s Republic and was a success, with curious visitors packing the museums.
But the show was a commercial flop. Ms. Weng says she had been asked to sell the works in the exhibition, but not one piece sold. “No one was interested,” she said.
In 2003, art prices were still in the doldrums even as the movement was picking up pace and visibility. That was the year the 798 art district in Beijing opened, followed by similar zones in most major Chinese cities.
City planners wanted to close the district several times, but artists astutely used visits by high-profile foreign dignitaries and photo spreads in domestic media to show it was popular. Chinese leaders also began to speak of the need for creative industries, and art seemed to fit right in.
Then came the bubble. Mirroring a wave of foreign fascination with China’s seemingly unstoppable economy, Chinese art suddenly took off.
Artists Test Limits as China Lets (a few) Flowers Bloom (Wall Street Journal)