China’s creativity

Sanne van Oosten

Many people complain of China’s lack of artistic creativity. Some people say the Chinese art scene lacks creativity because of the Chinese education system that emphasizes memorization of facts instead of emphasizing creativity and free thoughts. They say it has everything to do with the difficultness of Chinese characters, since so much of education’s efforts are put into learning to memorize characters not much time is left for anything else. The fact remains that Chinese art is in a phase of a lot of copying from successful others, but is that really all that strange?

Of course there is a lot of Chinese contemporary art. The city of Nanjing has the district 1865, Shenzhen has OCAT, Beijing has 798. These districts are set up by the Chinese government and are meant to stimulate creativity. However, the most heard criticism of Chinese contemporary art is that it is lacking renewal and is remaining extremely focused on money making. 1865 is mostly inhabited by commercial businesses. OCAT has more expensive café’s than anything else. And lastly, 798 has more gift shops with spoofs on communist propaganda than anything else. Every shop seems to be selling the same things. How is that real creativity?

We talked about this with our Couchsurfing host in Chengdu. He is going to start a PhD in Chinese contemporary art soon and is a real expert on the subject. He explains the short history of Chinese contemporary art to us. Until 1976 contemporary art is all quenched by the Cultural Revolution. Artists are not done and subjected to torture. After Mao’s death this slowly begins to change. The middle of the 80’s there is really a avant garde movement to be spoken of and the newfound embrace of Chinese contemporary art came to its peak. Artists were trying new things and coming up with innovative new art, they found they could speak their mind relatively openly and were enjoying it more and more. People were getting more freedom and people wanted even more freedom.

In sociology and history we call this phenomena a revolution of rising expectations. People are getting more and are therefore wanting more. In the end this development culminates in the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. Which left us with famous images of tanks rolling over Tiananmen Square in Beijing, cleaning every protester out of its way. Needless to say, after the Tiananmen massacre there was a period of relative silence in the art scene. No more open art, but many artists came into a productive depression. While being inhibited in their artistic expression they turned to themselves and made some impressive pieces of art. Mostly criticizing Mao and communism. In 1993 the first “Red Art” is being sold by the millions. It is very much appreciated by Western buyers. It showed them a side of China they wanted to see, a country recovering from Communism.

After the initial boom of sales in Red Art many people are witnessing how popular Red Art is with by buyers and how much money can be earned with it. So they do what the Chinese do best: copy. Now Red Art is no longer considered to be Avant Garde, but it is just a reproduction of something that used to be seen as successful. Now too many artists in China are doing their work to get rich. Some Chinese artists are filthy rich and they want the same. A lot of hob nobbing with rich potential clients seems to be the way to sales. Only making what the clients would want to see, only copying what worked for others. This is seen as a lack of creativity, but I wonder, is it really all that bad for the development of the Chinese art scene?

For the last 20 years China’s economy has been growing at a speed never witnessed in the history before. Youngsters feel that if they miss out they will be lagging behind the rest forever, that there will be no way to catch up. Therefore most Chinese youngsters are still making safe choices, choosing careers that are an insurance of wealth, and even when they choose to become artists, their art is a safe artistic expression meant to ensure putting food on the table.

In retrospect art always shows a lot about what is going on in the society at the time of production. And I think the current state that Chinese art is finding itself in says a lot about the society it is now. People are getting rich fast and even artists are lured into the glamorous world of art, a typically financially instable profession, so they can become rich.

The status of China’s art scene reminds me of an art scene I happen to know a lot about: that of 17th century Dutch art. And the art scene of then is not all that different from the mentality surrounding the art scene in contemporary China. Back then, the Dutch economy was booming, the sky was the limit and artists acted accordingly. Their main goal was to get rich from their art and they did all the hobnobbing with rich merchants they had to to making that happen.

But do we doubt if art from that era is really art? Would it ever be conceivable to say that Rembrandt could never be considered full-grown artistically speaking because he was painting to get rich and because he was copying what had turned out to be successful by other artists such as Carravaggio? Most of his works were on commission and he did a lot to ensure his image remained intact. Why is it so strange that the Chinese are doing the same now?

Art is visual philosophy. Sometimes it is criticism on the current elite. Sometimes it is criticism on the social constellation. But a visual philosophy can also be: I want to make money fast.

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