Contemporary and Conforming?

The trouble with creativity, censorship and limitations in the Chinese art market

By Eleanor Runde

In 2011, Picasso and Warhol, long the reigning kings of the auction room, were dethroned as the highest-selling artists in the world. Their usurpers:Two masters of Chinese traditional modern painting, Qi Baishi and Zhang Daqian. Though Qi and Zhang are largely unknown in the West, their works command values of hundreds of millions of dollars apiece in China. These two sales helped China’s 2011 art sales surpass those of the United States for the first time in the history of modern art markets.

A 2012 article in the magazine Art + Auction read: “China will be at the head of Asia’s challenge to the historical Western dominance of the fine-art auction rooms of the world.”

Sound familiar? In more ways than one, the Chinese art market reflects the Chinese economy overall. In the last decade, it has experienced unprecedented growth but recently has slowed, leading some to doubt its long-term potential but most to believe that the market is stabilizing and will continue to grow, though more slowly.

The art market in China, like China itself, has become an investment destination: the Chinese art market quintupled in value from 2008 to 2011. But the growth turned out to be a bubble, which popped in 2012. In her annual report on global art markets, leading art economist Dr. Clare McAndrew wrote that the 24% decline in the Chinese art market in 2012 was primarily due to a decrease in speculative investment, likely caused by the government’s tightening of lending controls that year. The same volatility can be seen in the overall Chinese economy, as evidenced by the Shanghai Composite Index’s loss of 32% of its value in less than a month this July.

The pop of the art market bubble exposes unfortunate truths about art consumption in China: too many buyers value art for its investment potential, rather than for its artistic value. Some wealthy Chinese investors use fine art as a tool to evade the Chinese government’s strict currency export controls, buying and then flipping the work at public auction to collect dollars and euros instead of renminbi. The unprecedented commercialization of the Chinese art world, especially in combination with formal government censorship, has caused Chinese artists to focus primarily on the monetary rather than artistic value of their works.

Market vs. Artist

As speculative investment in Chinese art spikes and crashes, one sector—contemporary art—has managed to maintain steady growth. Contemporary art galleries and artist studios have been popping up in China’s biggest cities, taking over neighborhoods in Beijing and Shanghai, creating communities where emerging artists can experiment and build names for themselves.

The commercial side of art has taken over external discussions of Chinese contemporary art as the breakneck pace of the Chinese art market’s growth has created massive amounts of hype in the Western media. The result, wrote Meg Maggio, director of the Beijing-based art gallery Pekin Fine Arts, is that “Chinese contemporary art has become more closely linked to tourism… Contrary to popular reports, first time visitors to China may be disappointed to observe a country NOT awash in an omnipotent contemporary art scene.”

Maggio recalls her beginning as a gallery manager in China in the 1990s, when contemporary artists were still struggling to find a forum for their works. Maggio wrote: “I would never have imagined at that time that we would be talking today about an ‘art industry’ and that the ‘art market’ would unfortunately come to dominate so many contemporary art related conversations.”

Chinese collectors gravitate toward safe investments: traditional, conventional artwork void of artistic experimentation. Lee Woon Hoe, founder of the LWH Gallery in Shanghai, said that Chinese art consumers “don’t know what they want,” and in the absence of a discerning or purposeful eye, pick whatever is “pretty.” Lee understands the need for visual appeal, conceding that “you only have so much wall space.” At the same time, Lee laments the fact that more imaginative, praiseworthy artworks often fall by the wayside in favor of works that cater to conventional taste.

Gravitation towards conformity is particularly pronounced in the shrinking market of contemporary Chinese calligraphy. Businessmen and politicians used to bribe government officials with artworks, especially contemporary art, because its value was often subjective. But this was before PRC president Xi Jinping began to campaign against corruption, toppling powerful figures once thought to be immune. Since the beginning of Xi’s campaign, contemporary calligraphy sales have fallen dramatically, said Haicheng Wang, an associate professor of art history at the University of Washington and an expert on Chinese art. “Now that the government is cracking down on corruption, officials don’t want to accept any gifts,” he explained.

As market demand falls, pressure rises on calligraphers as they try to make ends meet. The Chinese Calligraphers Association holds a competition each year for emerging contemporary calligraphers to showcase their work. How an artist performs at the competition can determine the success or failure of his or her career.

“If you can get into that competition and win, you can certainly sell your pieces,” Wang said.

Calligraphers who are already in the association and whose positions are secure also enjoy a high degree of autonomy. For aspiring members of the association, however, trends in jury preference may dictate the work they produce.

Judges currently prefer the work of classical calligrapher Wang Xizhi. Aspiring members are implicitly required to imitate Wang’s classical style in order to succeed in the competition.

“The jury’s tastes more or less determines the trends… Some calligraphers would just do whatever the trend is in order to make money,” Wang said.

Along with restrictive norms, formal government censorship also deters unconventionality in art. Since 1979, when the first rebellious contemporary artists stuck their profane art on the fence outside the National Gallery in Beijing, emerging artists have been attempting to tread the fine line between contentiousness and government censorship.

LWH Gallery specializes in Buddhist art, which the government has deemed potentially subversive material. The gallery’s founder recalled multiple instances of questioning and review by government officials.

Ashley Shen, the owner of Shanghai gallery M97, said that she must submit censorship lists, titles and descriptions of all the works M97 proposes to exhibit in public, for review by the government. As a result, the photography at M97 is rarely political. One exception is the work of photographer Han Lei, whose collection of sexually explicit works were censored in the late nineties. Two decades later, M97 is still not allowed to put those photographs on display.

For many contemporary artists working in China, experimentation with media and material, rather than subject, must serve as their outlet for inventiveness. Shen said that the gallery’s artists have begun experimenting with lenticular prints and film projections, both relatively new media in fine art.

Maggio stresses that the art world should lessen its focus on the nationality or ethnicity of artists. “A good artist is first and foremost an extremely creative human being,” Maggio wrote. “His/her nationality should not overshadow his/her humanity.”

But with the pressures of the commercial market and the state, is it possible to be ‘extremely creative’ in China?

The Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei doesn’t think so. In a 2012 op-ed in The Guardian, he wrote: “The Chinese art world does not exist. In a society that restricts individual freedoms and violates human rights, anything that calls itself creative or independent is a pretence.”

However, recent observations of Shanghai art communities contradict Ai’s pessimism.

Undiminished Creativity

M50, an artistic community, is an eclectic mix of galleries and studios, housed in a maze of repurposed warehouses in an industrial complex in Shanghai.

Across the road from M50 is a unusual space simply called “the gallery.” Two floors are filled by a solo exhibition by Jiang Yu, whose paintings look like illustrations from a children’s book, somewhere between Where the Wild Things Are and Elmer’s Dragon. The gallery speakers played an instrumental version of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” plinked out on what sounded like a xylophone.

In Antenna Space, another M50 gallery, an entire wall is filled by a video in which a turtle struggles, and eventually succeeds, to get out from underneath a human foot. In M97, much of the upper floor is walled with photographs of ink paintings with a purposeful scattering of sticks and leaves over them. In traditional Chinese artworks, such as bird-and-flower paintings, artists depicted nature ideally, reverently, and at arm’s length. In contrast, contemporary Chinese artists have chosen to put man at the center of nature, directly interacting with it, sometimes torturing it, and sometimes collaborating with it.

In the Rockbund Art Museum, a three-floor retrospective features installations by the late Shanghai artist Chen Zhen. Chen used his work to reflect on Shanghai’s many layers of history, as well as the city’s recent growth and the resulting shift in cultural values. Chen’s work shows a deep discomfort with the modernity, urbanity and uniformity of the new Shanghai and the disrespect that has been shown to the Shanghai in which the artist grew up. In the past two decades, Chinese workers have transformed these megacities (Beijing, with 20 million residents; Shanghai, 23 million). The people have built them up from swampland into clone forests of skyscrapers, destroying the earth below and the air above in the process. It is no wonder that Chen’s most famous installation, “Purification Room”, is a meditation on the cleansing power of nature.

In spite of the pressures of commercialism and adversity from censors, pockets of Chinese contemporary art—and its experimental, irreverent spirit— have been able to survive.

“The tremendous historical, social and political issues in China have really become a very rich resource for artistic expression,” said Jay Xu, director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. “Contemporary art in China is surprisingly vibrant.”

Good Omens

Indubitably, being creative in China is difficult. It requires gumption and perseverance. And yet, China is full of brave, talented artists whose works should be—and, gradually, are—making waves.

China’s control on contemporary art has also been loosening, slowly but steadily. Critical and creative work by artists like Chen is now more tolerated by the government, a trend which encourages new artists to be equally daring. The government even allowed Ai Weiwei to hold three shows in China recently, which Xu believes bodes well for the future.

Maggio and Xu both expressed confidence that the future of the Chinese art market will be calmer, supported by a consumer base more appreciative of artistic merit and by artists more willing to experiment.

The media has focused on China’s growth in terms of dollar values, in the art world and otherwise. As usual, superficial statistics about bubbles do not do justice to the story. The whole picture can be seen underneath the surface, at the artistic source, in the galleries and studios of artists who are working around the constraints of their society to produce pieces that accurately reflect China’s anguished past, uncertain present and hopeful future.

Eleanor Runde is a junior EP&E major in Ezra Stiles. Contact her at