85 New Wave: An Experimental Art System in China
How to Approach the Official Art Institution: an Introduction
The Chinese official art institution refers to the party and state oriented dynamics of the cultural policies that have been implemented in communist China. This institution monopolizes the majority of available resources and holds absolute leadership in every aspect of the arts, transplanting political ideals into the cultural field. Its policy system is a part of the propaganda mechanism of the Communist Party, and consists of the Party’s conferences, political movements, and an enormous bureaucracy that is interpreting, conveying and implementing relevant policies.
This paper is an excerpt from the thesis “The Values and Policy System- An Investigation of the Chinese Official Art Institution”, which explores the mechanics of this official institution in two parts. In the first part, I discussed the Talks at the Yan’an Forum of Literature and Art of 1942 and The First National Congress of Literature and Art Workers that took place in 1949 in Beijing. At the former, the party delineated its cultural values, declaring that “literature and art serve the masses of people,” by which it legitimized the Party’s leadership of art. The latter event marked the establishment of the Party’s cultural policy system, by which it would maintain its leadership. The second part of the thesis focused on the period from 1979 to 1989, which has been called “the first reforming procedure in China during the last thirty years” by Zhu Xueqin (1). During this decade, the party changed its previous cultural values as expressed in the slogan: “literature and art serve modernization,” which brought radical social change along with an upsurge in the study of western thought and culture. In the paper presented here, I discuss the dilemma of the official art institution, which has appeared since then, and also investigate the experimental art movement of that time known as 85 New Wave, looking mainly at its institutional significance.
Problems of Cultural Policy Studies in the Chinese Context
I consider the art institution as a major component of cultural policy, which is defined by Toby Miller as, “…the institutional supports that channel both aesthetic creativity and collective ways of life.”(2) For Miller, “aesthetic creativity” and the “collective ways of life” constitute the twofold nature of the concept of culture. The cultural policy and the art institution referenced in this definition are not limited to specific projects, organizations, or governmental legislation and policies, but rather used to maintain and justify its political power, and also include the mechanisms of the government’s self-legitimatization in the context of Foucault’s “governmentality” with its intense political signification.
At present, most cases of cultural policy studies are based on the model of western democratic politics, which implies that, theoretically, cultural policies are the results of negotiations in specific communities. Miller emphasizes the “channeling” function of the cultural policy in his definition. I believe that the “creativity” and the “way of life” that are channeled also respectively refer to the ideal values of individuals and the social reality of the collective life; ultimately the cultural policy is the “channel,” the way of negotiation, to solve the conflicts between these two factors. In this situation, the subjects of cultural policy studies are normally the nonconformities between the result of negotiations and democratic ideals, such as how to solve the problem of mainstream values oppressing the expression of minority groups. However, in the case of China’s one party dictatorship, cultural policies are directly provided by the unchangeable authority, and oriented to its given values. The values are exclusive and protected by the cultural policies and the state apparatus, whose purposes are to assimilate or eliminate the values of nonconforming groups, big or small. Therefore, it is meaningless to adopt the idea of “solving the problem of mainstream values oppressing the expression of minority groups” when we investigate the Chinese cases. Assimilation and elimination are embedded in the very nature of the Chinese art institution, and to address issues of oppression is contrary to the original motivation of Chinese policy.
The usual mode in cultural policy studies is “to compare the results of implementation to the original intentions” and to find the problem of the implementing mechanism, which connects the intention and the result. The premise of this idea is that the implementing mechanism is negotiable. But in contemporary Chinese regimes, both the intention and the implementing mechanism are established by the government, so there is little possibility for negotiation, discussion, or question. If we continue to focus on the implementing mechanism, we will easily get into debates over political ethics, and the real cultural complex beneath the given institution will be neglected. Therefore, in this study I have attempted to remain neutral and avoided applying categories such as good/bad or right/wrong to the Chinese government’s approach of instituting a monolithic ideology of art (in contrast to the western ideology of cultural diversity).
Furthermore, in taking a neutral stance toward the centralized Chinese official art institution, I have looked for the values which orient it, and compared those to the values it espouses. I believe that the given values within the centralized institution do not always conform to the policy system. The case study of the 85 New Wave generation is particularly compelling for an exploration of these dynamics.
85 New Wave and Its Institutional Significance
In May 1985, the exhibition Young Art of the Progressive China opened at the National Museum of Fine Art. Despite being officially organized, it presented artworks in free and diversified styles. Following this exhibition, there was a boom in experimental art groups and events nationwide. As then editor of Art Gao Minglu noted, 87 art groups appeared from 1985 to 1987, and more than 2,250 artists attended 150 major art activities (3), all of which culminated in the emergence of a new art movement after the post-Cultural Revolution period, known as the 85 New Wave.
The January 1986 issue of Art Trends published Gao’s famous critical article, “The End of an Epoch: a Discussion of the Sixth National Art Exhibition,”(4) which expressed the art philosophy of the 85 New Wave and came to be known as its manifesto. The epoch Gao referred to was the time of “art reflecting the social life,” including the entire period before the mid-1980s. According to Gao, in the Sixth National Art Exhibition, “the reality that the painters deliberately built up, which seemingly was against the delusive reality in the art during the Cultural Revolution, has been another kind of ‘delusive reality;’” and he thought this was because the idea of “art reflecting the social life” and the doctrine of socialist realism were still influencing the creation of art. He furthered the discourse that, “previously the meaning of ‘life’ was limited to the peasants, workers, and soldiers, without artists and intellectuals; but at the very moment of today, a new class of intelligentsia has emerged, which has broken the limits of the peasants, workers, and soldiers.” (5) He then introduced the ideas of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) expressed in The Vocation of Man, and suggested that the artists should take Fichte’s term “subjective consciousness” to resist the opinion of “art reflecting social life”, claiming that art should reflect “the spiritual world from artists’ subjective hyper-sensibility.” Finally, he concluded, “the art scenario in 1985 has manifested our decisive will and volition, a new concept of art has been on its way….” (6)
Gao explained the artistic need to break boundaries with his observation, “Proper limits have to be exceeded in order to right a wrong, or else the wrong cannot be righted. Today we must respect the individualized thinking, and enhance our subjective consciousness.”(7) Gao’s discourse presented a very typical idea of art held by young artists at the time. If “post-Cultural Revolution art” was an opposition to the dogmatic interpretation of the Cultural Revolution and its represented political messages, then young artists in the mid-1980s were pushing this process to a much deeper level — they were opposing not only the Cultural Revolution, but also the art of the post-Cultural Revolution and the pre-Cultural Revolution periods. They purported to deny all preceding artistic movements that were based on the realistic idea. As Gao pointed at the beginning of the article, “There is a widely existing ‘reversal mind’ within the painters that ‘we will oppose anything embraced by the Sixth National Art Exhibition’….”(8) (a retrospective of the post-Cultural Revolution period). They intended to bring about a new art revolution and create an “advanced” art.
The young artists of the “art revolution” studied and adopted western forms and styles dating from the modernist wave and beyond. Both Fei Dawei and Li Xianting coincidentally used the same term to describe the young artists’ pursuit of western art; they said, “during the New Wave Movement, in only a couple years, Chinese artists practiced one hundred years of the history of their western precursors.”(9) For example, in the field of painting during the post-Cultural Revolution era, realism was still the dominating mode; although some artists started to practice Impressionism, hardly any art was produced in Expressionist, Cubist or abstract styles. But in the 85 New Wave, most of the young artists’ work was abstract, Cubist or Expressionist, and some artists experimented with Pop Art in various media. More appealingly, many other artists began to work on ready made, performance, installation, and image experiments, like Xu Bing’s installation The Book from the Sky (1987-1991); Wu Shanzhuan’s installation Red Humor (1986); Huang Yongping’s Wet Method-“History of Chinese Painting” and “Concise History of Modern Painting” Washed for Two Minutes in a Washing Machine (1987) ; these extraordinary works helped launch Chinese art in the international art field. Furthermore, some artists were also exploring deeper levels of communication between art and the audiences. They brought their works and activities to public spaces with events such as Basking in the Sun in Xuanwuhu Park in Nan Jing, or the Shanghai M Group, who implemented their performance directly on a busy street.
The Art Resources of the Movement
In the above paragraphs I introduced the New Wave artists’ and critics’ establishment of their alternative knowledge structure and independent art values, and also their Enlightenment intentions, which corresponded to the debates regarding the modernization and the New Enlightenment Movement at large. However, a nationwide experimental art wave would not have happened merely based on the intentions, knowledge, and values of artists and intellectuals.
Another crucial factor in the scale of the New Wave was the support from exhibition spaces, media, and the other academic activities. Accompanying the New Wave artists’ independence from mainstream art values, these support structures enabled their independence from institutional resources as well. It was a break from the official institution’s monopoly that for thirty years forced artists to work and live within the institution, without any other option. Next, I will focus on these spaces and media supports in order to investigate the occupation of art resources by the New Wave artists.
The most influential exhibition space was the National Museum of Fine Art. Established in 1963, it belonged to the Cultural Ministry, and was administered by the Chinese Artists Association. Before 1978, its collections and exhibitions focused on revolutionary art and posters, traditional Chinese paintings, folk art, and modern Chinese picture books.
Beginning with the “Exhibition of the Nineteenth Century French Rural Landscape Paintings” in March 1978, the represented genres became more diverse. Western modernist art and some non-official contemporary Chinese works were accepted. During the post-Cultural Revolution period, some important exhibitions were mounted including the “Second Exhibition of Star Group” (February 1980), the “Exhibition of the French Modern Painter Jean Helion” (October 1980), the “Exhibition of Oil Painting from Sichuan Academy of Fine Art” (January 1981), “Famous Works in the Last Five Hundred Years: Works from the Hammer Galleries from the United States” (March 1982), the “Exhibition of French Painter Pablo Picasso” (May 1983), and the “Exhibition of Norwegian Painter Edvard Munch” (October 1983) among others.
Following these exhibitions, the museum showed a more open stance toward the experimental art wave of the time. In May 1985, the museum opened “Young Art of Progressive China,” the starting point of 85 New Wave. This exhibition publicly challenged the conservative stance of the official institution. In November of the same year, the museum held the “International Tour Exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg,” the first American Pop Art show in China. As Li Xianting said, although the artists confused Pop with Dada at that time, the Rauschenberg exhibition did inspire artists to experiment much further, particularly on the adoption of art media while creating the works (10). In October 1988, two solo installations opened at the same time at the museum: an exhibition of Xu Bing’s prints, The Book from the Sky, and an exhibition of Lu Shengzhong’s paper cut works; these were the first exhibitions of contemporary experimental artists to be shown in a national museum in China.
In December, the museum created a sensation when it opened an exhibition of nude oil paintings, the first ever in China. The works were in the style of pure aestheticism, and attracted more than 200,000 visitors to the exhibition over its 20-day run. This trend did not stop until February 1989, with the “China Avant-Garde Exhibition” and its provocative black and white posters with the No-U Turn traffic symbol. This exhibition consisted of experimental paintings and installations created over the past years, including provocative performances involving a gun-shooting incident; this marked the conclusion of the 85 New Wave.
Whatever its intentions in mounting these exhibitions, the National Museum of Fine Art had provided great support and encouragement to the New Wave Movement. The exceptional significance of this support obviously lay in the symbolic importance of the museum as the highest-level exhibition space of the official institution. Its program would certainly be seen as a reflection of the authority’s attitude toward art experiments and the movement, which was crucial for artistic activities both inside and outside of the institution.
In addition to the National Museum of Fine Art, New Wave exhibitions and activities were also seen at other venues throughout the country. These can be categorized as the following types: firstly, exhibitions and activities held at provincial and municipal-level art museums such as the “Modern Art Exhibition of Xiamen Dada” at Fujian Art Museum (September 1986), the “First Shanghai Young Art Exhibition” at Shanghai Art Museum (April 1986), and the “Jiangsu Young Art Week—Modern Art Exhibition” at Jiangsu Art Museum (October 1986). Secondly, those at galleries owned by local artists associations, such as the “Exhibition of Shengsheng Painting” at the gallery of the Xi’an Artists Association. Thirdly, exhibitions at urban cultural spaces, such as libraries, workers’ cultural palaces, and workers’ clubs like “Yunnan & Shanghai – Exhibition of the New Realistic Painting” at the Jingan District Workers’ Cultural Palace (June 1985), the performance of M Art Group at the Hongkou District Workers’ Cultural Palace (December 1986), and the “Third Exhibition of the New Realistic Painting” at Yunnan Provincial Library (October 1986). Finally, those at schools, such as the Central Academy of Fine Art, the China Academy of Fine Art, Beijing University, Fudan University, Zhongshan University, and Changchun Art School, such as “Modern Painting Exhibition of Six Artists” at the Student Club of Fudan University (March 1985) and the “Exhibition of Red70%, Black25%, White5%” at the China Academy of Fine Art (May 1986).
In addition to these “formal” exhibition spaces, experimental art also spread into the parks, streets, open air theaters, and other public spaces. Notable examples include the Pool Society’s performance of Environment Works No.1 – Series Yang Taiji on the street (1986), and Work No. 2 – Strollers in the Green Space in the Grove (1986), Shanghai M Art Group’s performance at Wusong Pier (1985), and the Nanjing artists’ collective event, Bringing to Light at Xuanwuhu Park (1986). These spaces where the New Wave artists presented their experimental work were an intrinsic component of the movement. Previously, I mentioned the extremely strict and complicated process of censorship artists were required to submit to for national art exhibitions in the 1970s. During that time, when the institution controlled all the spaces and organizations, the New Wave certainly could not have existed.
In addition to exhibition spaces, the New Wave was also supported and encouraged by art publications, of which Art, the only official publication of the Chinese Artists Association, was one of the most important. Art’s support of new art activities and ideas began in the post-Cultural Revolution period, when the rehabilitated rightist He Rong was assigned as new chief editor in the late 1970s, with Li Xianting as editor. Under the efforts of He and Li, the magazine published Wu Guanzhong’s series of controversial articles questioning traditional revolutionary aesthetics, introduced the exhibitions of Star Art Group, and strongly advocated for the Native Soil Art and Scar Art styles. At the end of 1983, Li organized a special feature on contemporary abstract art, which led to his suspension during the campaign to Clean Up the Spiritual Pollution and consequently to his leaving the magazine. The new chief editor, Shao Dazhen, and editor Gao Minglu were open minded toward the new art phenomena, and it was not long before Art devoted itself to the upheaval known as 85 New Wave. However, this support resulted in a different outcome.
Post-Cultural Revolution art was basically a reflection of the Party’s political ideals, but the New Wave movement manifested the alternative ideas and independent attitudes of artists and critics. The art experiments were also much more radical than before. Secondly, the magazine engaged at a deeper level with New Wave art. From the special feature on the “Exhibition of Young Art of Progressive China” in 1985, to the report and discussion on the “China Avant-Garde Exhibition” in 1989—both articles consuming more than half the total content of the issues—Art gave proportionately more space to the work and criticism of New Wave art. Its authors included most of the key names in the movement, like Shu Qun, Wang Guangyi, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Lu Shengzhong, Huang Yongping, Yi Ying, Shui Tianzhong, Lang Shaojun, and others. The content consisted not only of the usual introduction of the art works, reports on important activities, and theoretical discussions, but also special features on a range of topics, such as contemporary painting, Chinese traditional painting, the relationship between art and philosophy, and western modernism and post-modernism. Thirdly, Art had established an extensive cooperation with other art publications and organizations like Fine Arts in China, Art Trends, Painter, and the Visual Art Research Institute of the Chinese Arts Research Academy. During the New Wave, it was common for editors from one magazine to write for others, and a
stable group of writers was thus formed who could share each others’ platforms. Moreover editors from Art, like Gao Minglu, Tang Qingnian, and Yin Shuangxi, also frequently cooperated with other critics and artists to organize symposiums and exhibitions. Some of these joint ventures included the Zhuhai Symposium, the Huangshan Symposium, and the China Avant-Garde Exhibition. All these events played a critical role in furthering the New Wave Movement. Therefore, we could even say that Art actually had become more than merely the official magazine of the institution; rather, I would like to say that it was an active force in the New Enlightenment as it affected the entire field of art and culture.
Beginning in late 1989, the institution organized activities intensely critical to the New Wave. Li Qi, the vice chairman of the Chinese Artists Association, once said, “…in the last few years, Marxism and Mao Zedong’s Thoughts [sic] were unfairly treated. In the art field, the articles that were written by Cai Ruohong, Gu Yuan, Liu Kaiqu, and the other prestigious vice chairmen of the association to review and study the Talks at the Yan’an Forum of Literature and Art, were surprisingly rejected by Art …”(11). Certainly, it was a reasonable request to ask the association’s official magazine to publish articles by the association’s leaders; Li Qi’s speech proved that the association was no longer able to control its own resources, and Art was much more aligned with the New Wave Movement. However, the New Wave artists could also justify their position as they were “Chinese artists” too, and thus deserved significant representation in the Chinese Artists Association’s magazine.
Besides Art, the New Wave had other new media resources, as the period saw the emergence of many new art magazines and newspapers that strongly advocated for the new art movements. The most famous group of media was branded “Two Magazines and One Newspaper” and consisted of Fine Arts in China, a weekly newspaper founded by the Visual Arts Research Institute of the Chinese Arts Research Academy in July 1985 in Beijing; the Jiangsu Pictorial, founded by the Jiangsu Fine Art Press in January 1985 in Nanjing; and Art Trends, founded by Hubei Fine Art Press in January 1985 in Wuhan. These three publications became famous for their aggressive support of the movement. Some other important magazines included Painter, published by the Hunan Fine Art Press; Fine Art Research, published by the Central Academy of Fine Art; and the Compilations of Translation in Art, published by the China Academy of Fine Art. Although the latter two, particularly the Compilations of Translation in Art, didn’t have direct coverage of New Wave activities, they introduced many important western art theories and works throughout the 1980s, which were very influential for artists and critics; and their composed and independent attitude during the art upheaval even reminded some artists to reconsider the movement in time. Being out of the direct supervision of the association,
these new publications were much freer to make autonomous decisions regarding content. For instance, of Fine Arts in China, Li Xianting (12) recalled that “at the beginning it was tough, they required us ‘to suit both refined and popular tastes.’ When winter came, the other editors were busy in the other stuff, only I and another visual editor were on the positions; and then I completely changed style and content….” (13)
Following this change, Li and chief editor Liu Xiaochun led the newspaper to be totally on the side of the movement. Under their leadership, the magazine would become the most provocative art publication of the time, systematically introducing young artists one by one, devoting a full page to each. In 1987, it published an article titled “Rewarding or Redistribution?” as the headline on the cover page. Its question referred to the result of the First Urban Sculpture Competition, in which the best nine pieces of works were all by jury members, and certainly among the most established of artists and officials in the Chinese Artists Association. This case, which brought the newspaper into a lawsuit in 1988, showed that Fine Arts in China was not only sympathetic to the New Wave, but also willing to challenge the authority of the institution, and particularly the institution’s occupation of the art resources.
In addition to the occupation of spaces and media, the New Wave also developed art resources by way of other formats. For example, the symposium was adopted as a frequent vehicle for young artists and critics. Previous academic activities had typically been organized by institutional organizations, which were also dominated by prominent official artists and critics. In contrast, the symposia of the New Wave were implemented by the younger generation. Through periodic meetings, as a way of integrating the various forces of the movement, they provided a forum for artists and critics to meet, discuss the latest works and trends, communicate information, and plan other activities. Some important symposia included the “Oil Painting Art Symposium” at Jing County in April 1985, the “85 Young Art Thoughts Symposium and Slide Show” at Zhuhai in August 1986, and the “China Modern Art Creation Symposium” at Huangshan Mountain in November 1988. Furthermore, as part of the New Enlightenment Movement, the Art New Wave also received support from other cultural fields. For instance, the organizers of the “China Avant-Garde Exhibition,” in addition to Art magazine and Fine Arts in China, included Culture – China and the World, one of the leading publishing studios of the Enlightenment; Dushu magazine; and Free Talking of Literature magazine. This kind of outside support not only provided academic support for the activities, but also brought the New Wave into a larger cultural context.
The Limitation of the New Wave
I have argued that 85 New Wave gained its independence from the institutional control and monopoly of art values and resources beginning in the mid-1980s. However, this independence did not mean that the New Wave became a new art institution in China, nor did it integrate with the official institution. The New Wave is only a name referring to the upheaval in art at the time; no formal organizations or policies were formed to consistently support the alternative ideas being expressed, to say nothing of the artists and critics involved.
The New Wave Movement represented an unprecedented break from the Party’s ideological control and monopoly of art resources. At the same time, this movement followed the premise of the Party’s “limited opening” process, which created a paradoxical situation for the New Wave. However, if the movement’s reliance on the institution’s “openness” was merely an objective reality or the tactic of the art “revolution,” paradoxically, during the movement, the artists’ and critics’ reliance on the institution was also a choice that they actively made. This “active reliance” displayed real limitations in the movement corresponding to the Party’s “limited openness,” and I would thus call the movement a “limited revolution.”
Limitation can first of all be seen in the identity of the New Wave artists and critics, as I have pointed out, most of whom were serving in official art organizations. They would not utilize or develop their own art resources outside the institution, and their experiments would not be realized without utilizing a certain part of official resources. Admittedly in the 1980s, the institution still controlled most of the art organizations and other resources, but alternatives to the institution or ways of life for artists did begin to emerge. In the mid-1980s the domestic art market was thriving. At the same time, a few artists had left their institutional jobs and begun to move into the “Yuanmingyuan Art Village” and support themselves through the sale of their works (14).
However, for most of the New Wave artists, they had either neglected the possibilities of real independence that could be achieved by adopting these alternative means of livelihood, or held a hostile attitude toward the commercialization of art. The only path to “revolution” for the New Wave artists was in a contradictory relationship to the institution, with a dependence on it that conflicted with their ideological opposition to it.
Secondly, even as the “revolution” occurred from inside of the institution, it was also a struggle against a false target. Continuing to evaluate the institution by its values and policy system separately, I call the New Wave the “revolution from inside the institution.” The members of the movement were from the policy system in the official art institution; but in terms of values, they kept an independent stance and aggressively questioned the official ideologies. For the New Wave, this defined anti-institution. To understand the framework of the “inside revolution,” we can borrow again from the ideas of Xu Jilin. “The only possibility for the intellectuals was to get around the sensitive topics of institutional reform, and to create a new thinking space through the cultural debates.” (15) However, I have also suggested that the Party had already given up the debate on ideologies and values in the 1980s, retaining only the monopoly of art resources and the policy system. In these terms, the New Wave’s radical ideological appeals were also “gotten around” by the Party’s institutional reform. The New Wave Movement was targeting values that were ultimately no longer essential to the institution.
Thirdly, in spite of being deeply influenced by western art theories and modern philosophies in the 1980s, the New Wave artists and critics still constituted a generation fed by Party education, as they came of age in the 50s, 60s and 70s. Their thinking was shaped by a mixture of long held historical dreams of national modernization and revolutionary consciousness; the former was an unquestionable ideal and the responsibility of every Chinese person, while the latter was believed to be the sole and necessary way to realize that ideal. “Westernized” artists and critics had deep roots in the Party’s ideologies. For instance, in the 1980s, it was popularly believed that the New Enlightenment was to accomplish the “unfinished process of cultural modernization started with the May Fourth Movement;” Gao Minglu moved this idea to the art fields, and took the New Wave as a part of the “new cultural transformation that emerged in China since the May Fourth Movement.” (16) But interestingly, the May Fourth Movement was used by the Party to give cultural legitimacy to its ideology. Mao praised Lu Xun, saying “the road he took was the very road of China’s new national culture,” (17) referring directly to the May Fourth spirit.
Taking the New Wave as an ideological revolution in the art fields, I am not questioning the completeness of the revolution; it is more important to note that the consciousness of “modernization” and “revolution,” rooted in young artists’ thinking had seemingly predetermined the “failure” of the movement. In the art field, the problem of the official art institution was not whether it was correct or not in terms of the values of “literature and art serve masses of people” or “literature and art serve modernization,” but rather in the Party’s monopoly of the art resources and its strict control of the policy system, which forced artists to serve a single ideology, and oppressed those who didn’t. The political significance of the problem was that it denied people’s rights to make decisions about their own aesthetics and culture, and ultimately about their lives. Whereas, in the New Wave Movement, the artists’ new “revolution” in values simply replaced the Party’s ideologies with their own alternatives, offering another new “advanced” culture or life. Again, in the “revolution,” the people—seen as the “herd”—were easily represented by the artists who called themselves the “supermen.” The social reality, the people’s lives, and their “retrogressive” aesthetics were neglected or even despised during the process of modernization. In fact, within the expression of New Wave artists and critics, we can hardly find any realistic thinking about the status quo of the society that had emerged in the post-Cultural Revolution period. Rather, we find only an idealized, abstract future and their own revolutionary fervor.
I would rather believe that no matter what the terms of the politics or ethics, that ideal that “literature and art serve masses of people” is much more reasonable than the New Wave elitist appeals of art. Accordingly, what could we expect of the New Wave Movement leading the art revolution? Zhu Xueqing once said, at the end of 1970s, that the Chinese revolution had moved from the square to the kitchen, meaning that the Party and intellectuals had started to explore ways of optimizing reality through political changes, instead of being limited to ideological struggles. However, the New Wave artists seemingly brought the revolution back to the square from the kitchen. Of course, artists aren’t obligated to be politically oriented, and I find little value in discussing “success” or “failure” in terms of an art movement. But, since the New Wave represents a moment of attempting to determine how to express and further national modernization, would the modernization that was constructed upon those personal inspirations really be the one for the Chinese people? When and how would the people’s lives be considered as essential to the art and culture of China? When and how would the masses of people start to determine their own aesthetics and cultural life, and finally dominate the ongoing transformation of today’s Chinese culture?
I introduced the 85 New Wave as an unprecedented break from the Party’s ideologies and policy system—a movement expected to further national modernization by appealing to alternative ideologies that could be easily suppressed when the pragmatic official institution thought necessary. At the same time, we could see the limitations of the New Wave artists that were fundamentally rooted in the education they had received from the Party. The New Wave aggressively explored national modernization based on the revolutions of culture, within which, however, the essential meaning of the culture and the people’s ordinary lives were substantially neglected. The movement saw the artists and intellectuals sharing art resources with the official institution, excluding any participation by the people.
From 1989 to 1993, Chinese people might have experienced the most paradoxical time in their history. On June 4, 1989, in the name of “anticapitalist liberalism” and to avoid “running the risk of undermining our Party and our country,” the Communist government overwhelmingly suppressed the student protests in Tiananmen Square, shooting students and others. But since the end of 1992, when Deng gave the Southern Tour Speech, the largest Communist government in the world led China through a most radical capitalist transformation (18); these conflicting approaches were both referred to as the ‘dream of modernization.’ This contradiction stripped all legitimacy from the ideologies, and brought the Chinese people back to the “kitchen” from the “square.” Since then, the question of how to realize “modernization” through an optimized policy system remained one of the most significant questions for this society. However, in the art field, neither metaphysical theories nor the improvement of the official institution were addressed further.
Suddenly, however, an international art mechanism consisting of the market and scholarship appeared, offering Chinese artists an unprecedented opportunity to develop new work. This soon became the new institution, through which contemporary artists are expected to approach their modernized life. It is hard to say whether it was fortunate or not to be provided with this institution. On one had, the market created enormous art resources and opportunities for the artists in the form of funding, exhibitions, spaces and even social positions; it was, in effect, the first time Chinese artists had the means to survive outside the control of the official art institution. On the other hand, although the new art institution provided the means for making a living, the problems that had existed since the 1980s had actually never been solved. Moreover, the official institution began to merge indissolubly with the market, forming a new and much stronger art industry than had previously existed.
Whether this was the authorization of the market or the commercialization of the official institution is not significant; what matters is that art had never been so far removed from the common Chinese people, and so close to the money. A new elite, consisting of artists, critics, curators, dealers, gallery owners, museum professionals, as well as officials, now dominated this new combined institution, and all the loftiness of the 1980s and the people’s ordinary lives were consumed in a new round of art upheavals. Chinese contemporary art after 1989 and its institutional significance will be another large and revealing theme to be explored. The question that must be asked is: When and how will the masses of Chinese people be invited to engage in the endless revolutions and transformations of their culture?
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