In his essay “The general state of theory and criticism for Chinese contemporary art,” Qigu Jiang notes that many Chinese scholars believe that “contemporary art theory and criticism is in a stage of crisis.” 1  He suggests a numbers of reasons for this. One is that, while tradition remains essential to genuinely Chinese art, a modern Chinese art theory is also necessary, but it has not been conceived. He believes that Chinese artists and writers depend on Western models too much, and fail to recognize the real cultural differences between the two cultures. As well, there are practical problems, such as inadequate translations of potentially useful texts, and an excessive commercialization of what should be an independent practice.  His colleague, James Elkins, argues that “In terms of Western scholarship, contemporary Chinese art is growing in a vacuum: there is very little serious, historically informed, philosophic or critical writing about contemporary Chinese art by Western scholars. By contrast, the most successful Western contemporary artists have attracted the attention of serious historians and critics as well as those who report on the market, or write texts for exhibition catalogs.” 2  The implication here is that Chinese art would benefit from “serious, historically informed, philosophic or critical writing” of the kind that has become normal in the West, and that Western critics and art theorists would benefit from paying closer attention to contemporary Chinese art. If we put these two statements together, it is obvious that they are parts of a larger whole into which they do not fit as an equitable pairing. They picture aspects of an exchange that neither side feels is occurring between equals.

In this essay, I will examine the presumptions behind statements such as these, and then place them within a broader picture of recent thinking by art historians about modern art, and about contemporary art by critics and by historians. I will argue that, while old models shaped by divisions of the world into geopolitical formations (“the West,” “the East,” “First, Second, Third, Fourth Worlds”) still persist, the experience of decolonization, globalization, transnationality and now planetarity is irrecoverably changing these perspectives, for China as for every other country. I will offer some suggestions about how we might think in broad terms about the major currents of modern and contemporary art in the world at large and in China in particular.

The three ages of art history and criticism: traditional, modern, contemporary

While there certainly is, in Europe and North America, an enormous and continuous output of writing about contemporary art, most of it (in my view) is not genuinely and independently critical in character. It is reporting and reviewing, or market-driven publicity, that treats contemporary art as a spectacle and works of art as events to be quickly consumed and soon forgotten. 3  Independent criticism––“partial, passionate and political” in Charles Baudelaire’s still striking dictum about what drives a writer to engage with art––remains rare indeed, despite the huge growth in art education. Too few people have the skills necessary to make their critical commitment count: they lack deep immersion in art historical precedent, command of appropriate theory, and informed awareness of relevant cultural factors and social forces. Even fewer find in themselves the temerity to deploy this armory in close, acute, original and compelling interpretations of art as it is made, and the tenacity to keep on doing so against incessant opposition and frequent temptation. As a result, the example of “The West” is not necessarily a good one. Genuine independence of thought, always difficult, seems foreign to the “anything goes” insouciance of postmodern stylistics and the “what else is there?” conformity typical of more recent attitudes. But independence is not impossible, and the thirst for it is evident among many young––and some older––writers, academics and artists, everywhere.

A similar situation can be seen when we look at the discipline of the history of art as it evolved in Europe and North America, in their cultural colonies and other regions of influence. In particular, orthodox accounts of the historical evolution of modern art––which prioritize developments in the major metropolitan centers (Paris, then New York, mostly) and treat art elsewhere as derivative or ignorant or failed––are undergoing rapid revision, in the name of “alternative” or “vernacular” modernities. Yet this eagerness to revise the history of modern art through recognition of its multiplicity is not matched by a willingness to approach contemporary art from historical perspectives, to see the diachronic flows moving through the synchronicities of the present. To many, such a quest is oxymoronic if not plain silly. To me, it is the most urgent of tasks, the only one with a chance to break the inclination towards excitable, distracted, unreflective consumption that pervades contemporary life, the artworld especially.

How does the scholarship devoted to modern and contemporary Chinese art look when we compare it to this, much less idealized reading of “Western art history and criticism”?  I cannot offer a useful general answer to this question, as I do not read Chinese. Chinese scholars publishing in English, and other scholars of Chinese art writing in English, seem agreed that there were identifiable major currents in art in modern China during the twentieth century, and that contemporary Chinese art has passed through four distinct phases since 1976. I will return to these frameworks in detail below, but the fact of their being so strongly posited suggests an interesting contrast. Arguably, contemporary Chinese art has been more thoroughly subject to historical analysis than its Euroamerican counterpart. Chinese art commentators have found it natural to periodize, and to identify genres and trends. But is this all there is to art history? Few writers anywhere, but perhaps a few everywhere, have risen to the challenge of the kind of synthetic art history required by their times.

It was obvious from many papers given at the conference, and from statements made in recent years by other scholars, that “China” and “the West” remain terms that continue to shape current discourse, often as opposites. Despite awareness on all sides that they are cultural constructions, overly generalized and nearly always misleading, they constantly appear in debate. In the questions posed by the conference conveners there is an implicit pairing between recognition of the achievement of modern Euroamerican art history and art criticism and the expectation that contemporary Chinese art might become part of the national project of modernizing China, that it should contribute towards the great effort to “catch up with the West.”

On the face of it, this juxtaposition mismatches second-order interpretation (art history and criticism) and first-order creativity (art making). And it seems to confuse chronologies, taking “modern” and “contemporary” as occurring together, at the same time. Yet it does so, perhaps, for a purpose. It recognizes that Euroamerican art history (more accurately, the discipline of art history as practiced since the late nineteenth century in Europe, especially in German universities, and then subsequently elsewhere around the world, notably after World War II) became a highly accomplished academic discourse because its historical scholarship––empirically exacting, objective in spirit yet self-critical as to method––was devoted not only to the national artistic traditions native to each scholar but also to the art of cultures distant in space as well as time, even as it tended to conceive them within familiar societal units such as civilizations, empires or nations. 4  China was, of course, included in this purview.

In a similar spirit, many Chinese critics and artists––like their contemporaries elsewhere in the world––appreciate the writings of certain European commentators on art, especially the poets and artists active in the early decades of the twentieth century. They value highly the writings of certain American art critics, especially those active since the 1950s, for the acuity of their responses to the innovative art being made in the critics’ own metropolitan centers. These powerful and influential articulations of what was at stake in contemporary art are believed to have inspired artists, educated the ever-expanding audiences for art, helped fill museums, guided collectors, stimulated markets, etc. The conveners of the conference are not alone in taking this configuration as the standard––or, at least, as the most developed and desirable model––for writing about art as it is being made. Their overall implication is clear: for the sake of Chinese art, for the improvement of their own disciplines and practices, and for Chinese culture itself, Chinese scholars and critics should closely examine this model, and pursue it as far as possible in their writings on both traditional and contemporary Chinese art.

As I have suggested above, there is much that is problematic about these presumptions. Despite the worldwide scope of Euroamerican history of art as a discipline, Euroamerican art criticism as a practice rarely paid attention to art that was being produced, contemporaneously, outside the major centers. This goes beyond the pragmatic fact that critics usually address art presented to them in their locality of operation. It is a question of attitude and outlook, one that becomes pressing when contemporary art becomes historical (that is, when current artists are taken to be not only shaping the present possibilities for art but also contributing to the development of art as such). The recent textbook Art since 1900 is an outstanding example of contemporary critical scholarship applied to the history of modern art throughout the twentieth century, but many commentators have noted that this book confines itself almost entirely to art produced in Europe and the United States. 5  This matters only if it is expected that such volumes should be inclusive (they are textbooks, and their titles tend to invite that presumption, then disappoint).

If we look at this question from a historical perspective we can see that, for many centuries, art criticism has been practiced throughout the world, and various kinds of local art histories have been written in many art-producing centers, although it is true that they have rarely achieved the public prominence, institutional density and academic entrenchment found in Europe and the US in recent decades. Nevertheless, this situation is changing fast. It is a response to the liberation movements unleashed by decolonization, and to the attempts (in the name of “globalization”) to impose a hegemonic world economic and political order. The ongoing struggle between both has precipitated what Okwui Enwezor has named “the postcolonial constellation.” 6  I characterize these changes even more broadly as the contemporaneity of multiple, different ways of being-in-time now. I have traced their impact on art practice, art discourse, and on museums and markets for art in a number of recent publications. 7

Alongside traditional and modern art historical scholarship (led by European scholars) and modern and contemporary art criticism (led by American critics) there has recently emerged a postcolonial art history and a transnational art criticism (led by curators, critics and historians from the former colonies, and now becoming prominent in art discourse everywhere). 8  All three approaches are resources available to those who would interpret art in China. They do not constitute a remote and monolithic “western art theory.”  Indeed, as I will show, contemporary Chinese art and its languages, informed to some degree by the first two approaches, are already, and most vitally, part of the third. At the same time, Chinese art writers have ready to hand a wide-ranging, centuries-long cultural repertoire upon which to draw. The challenge is how to do so, appropriately and effectively, within the broader picture I have been outlining.

I am arguing that a worldly art criticism and art historical scholarship is coming into existence, one that exceeds its precedents in European and American art history and criticism because it has––in a conflicted, resistant but nonetheless irresistible manner–– been obliged to assimilate perspectives from decolonizing, postcolonial and indigenous interpretive practices. In the names of both embedded locality and critical cosmopolitanism, a worldly approach to art defines itself against parochialism, jingoistic nationalism and universalizing, “globalized” art discourse. 9  Rather, we need a variety of kinds of critical practice, each of them alert to the demands, limits and potentialities of both local worlds and distant worlds, as well as to the actual and possible connections between locality and distance. In practice, this amounts to a focus on local artistic manifestations, and on actually existing connections between them and art and ideas elsewhere, while remaining alert to the possibilities suggested by other, distant arts, ideas and artwriting practices that could have local or regional relevance. Placemaking, world picturing and connectivity are the most common concerns of artists these days because they are the substance of contemporary being. Increasingly, they override residual distinctions based on style, mode, medium and ideology. They are present in all art that is truly contemporary. Distinguishing, precisely, this presence in each artwork is the most important task for an art criticism that would be adequate to the demands of contemporaneity. Tracing the place of each artwork within the larger flows that are shaping this present is the task of contemporary art history.

Translocal theory

How might issues such as these look when posed from within a Chinese context? The official conference booklet shows that the organizers were well aware of the broader parameters. The “Forum Profile” presented them as follows:

Against the background of an ever-changing international economic and cultural landscape, the forum works to facilitate high-level exchanges and cooperation between Chinese and western scholars and institutions on cultural studies, with the hope of exploring modes of communication in the 21st century between Chinese and western art circles, which are on different tracks of development. These efforts are expected to enhance mutual recognition and understanding between China and the outside world in terms of art and culture at large, promote the development of contemporary Chinese art, raise the voice of Chinese art in the international area, build up the soft power of contemporary Chinese art, increase its importance in the new world order of art, strengthen its coordinating role in this new order and export China’s cultural values. 10

This is obviously written within the rhetoric of international trade discourse, not in any recognizable art language. Yet it is of interest to us because it advances beyond earlier formulations of “learning from the West” and “taking the best from the West.” It casts aside recent assumptions that modernization necessarily means to follow Western models as thoroughly as possible. It frankly asserts that “Chinese and western art circles” are on “different tracks of development.” It does not specify the character of either, but does list a set of domains of cultural practice and exchange, treating them as processes that––in the case of China at least (diplomacy would prevent any such comment about the west)––are deemed capable of intensification and improvement. This would, the document hopes, place Chinese art in a leading role worldwide, and enable the “export” of “China’s cultural values.”

These formulations remain within a China-versus-the West framework, although they locate China in a more “advanced” position than in the 1980s and 1990s. They presume that the competition will be won when China overtakes “the west” and “China’s cultural values” are universal. Or, more modestly, they suggest a desirable future in which Chinese art and society matches “western” achievement, and Chinese values are in unfettered circulation, openly available for others who may be interested in them. We can, however, view this situation from a less either/or perspective. Recognizing China’s long history, the ancientness of its discourse on art and the paramodern nature of its experiments with modernity since the sixteenth century (discussed below), leads me to suggest that, in contemporary conditions, thinking about art in China today might usefully acknowledge its location within in the “third” discursive space noted above, that of transnational art theory and criticism. It is part of the rethinking––originating in Africa, South America, India, South Asia and elsewhere, and refined in the mobility of intellectuals and artists from those regions as well as in their impact on certain thinkers in the metropolitan centers––that has shifted Euroamerican discourses from the worldwide dominance that they enjoyed within modernity.

This is not to say that older conceptions of modernity have ceased to have an impact in China and elsewhere outside Euroamerica. Or that Chinese thought has become indebted to postcolonial theory (which does not strictly speaking fit the situation in China). Or that purely “Chinese” thinking has replaced all comers in Chinese debates. It is to say that conceptions of transnationality are at the heart of thinking about what it is to be in China today, as they are everywhere else. “Transnationality” is not simply about the trafficking between nations, each conceived as a relatively stable unit. Rather, it conceives each “nation” (an always-combustible combination of “imagined community,” state power, economic interaction and cultural self-interrogation) as a nation-in-transition-in-the-context-of-all-other-nations-also-in-transition, and thus presumes that these transitions will occur in distinctive yet related ways––not as variant instances of a greater whole, but as independent elements whose internal dynamics, and volatile interaction, constitute the world’s always incomplete becoming.

How are ideas of nationality in transition being understood in China today? How is the idea of the Chinese nation changing? What are the competing conceptions of Chinese nationality? I do not have the expertise to answer these questions in any depth or detail. I can offer a provisional evaluation of some recent art historical and art critical interpretations of modern and contemporary Chinese art. This evaluation will constitute the substance of this essay. It seems to me that our understanding of both modern and contemporary art in China might benefit from a more complex theorization of the concepts of “modern” and “contemporary,” and of their resonance in social policy and everyday life. 11  The concept of the “Postmodern” captures perhaps some of the strategies and styles of these changes, but not their deeper character. My suggestion is that what is at stake is, precisely, China’s recent arrival at its particular condition of contemporaneity. The crisis that erupted in the years around 1990 suddenly shifted a vast national discourse and social praxis from a modernizing, indeed utopian, teleology of modernization into one that, while pronouncing its allegiance to an apparently updated and globally resonant modernity, in fact is a bewildering diversity of proliferating, antinomic cotemporalities. Despite China’s extraordinary economic growth and international prominence since then, this condition remains fundamental. It became starkly evident at the end of 2008, as the global economic crisis began to expose the dream of perpetual expansion as a costly illusion.

What is contemporaneity?

When I say that China arrived at its particular contemporaneity in the years around 1900, what is meant by the term “contemporaneity”? 12  To me, this idea should replace terms such as “modernity” and “postmodernity” as the key to understanding the major forces shaping the world today. These forces, I believe, cluster into three currents, each formed around an internal tension, a driving contradiction that is both enabling and energizing yet can also lead to self-destruction and precipitate conflict. Simultaneously, each cluster moves in a different direction, which creates dynamic traction between them, but also friction and, often, conflict. The three sets of forces are these. 1. Globalizing drives for hegemony in the face of increasing cultural differentiation, for control of time in the face of the proliferation of distinct, conflicting temporalities, and for continuing exploitation of diminishing natural and virtual resources. 2. Accelerated inequity between peoples, classes and individuals that threatens both the desires for domination entertained by states, ideologies and religions and the dreams of liberation that continue to inspire individuals and peoples.  3. Immersion in an infoscape (a spectacle society, an image economy––an “iconomy”––or a regime of representation) that is capable of the instant and thoroughly mediated communication of all information and any image anywhere. It is, at the same time, fissured by the uneasy coexistence of highly specialist, closed-knowledge communities, rampant popular fundamentalisms, and open, volatile subjects.

Each individual, every relationship, all social formations, any institution, every existent alive today––all are embroiled in this condition. Elements of it have, of course, been present for centuries, some have been around forever: it is the mix, the intensity, the acceleration, the unstoppable spread, and above all the sense that there is no over-arching framework, no shared direction, no singular purpose however contested that is guiding human destiny––this, I suggest, is what distinguishes our current situation from modernity and from any prior condition of human being. All of these elements, and their overall configuration, are present in the descriptions of China’s recent and current situation given above. China is shifting––partly by intention, partly involuntarily––from a self-propelled, if belated, modernity to the condition of contemporaneity, one in which control is out of everyone’s hands.

The theory of contemporaneity being proposed here is a historical one. The antinomic frictions described above are social forces. Their traction moves things, people, relationships, images and ideas through time. These forces can be displayed as in Chart 1, that shows them as three dynamic, contiguous strands moving through the present, across our framing vision, as great flows across an unrolling scroll, yet which configure internally into scenes, one gradually replacing the other.


Continuing modernities                      Globalization, Post-Cold War Hyperpower; Clash of Civilizations, Spectacularity, Neo-conservatism, neoliberal economics, Posthistory, Invented Heritage, Remodernisms

(between these, oppositionality but no longer dialectical resolution)

Transnationality                                  Decolonization, Anti-Orientalist and Postcolonial critique, movement of movements, anti-globalization; Postmodern pastiche, new realisms/reverse modernisms (e.g. China)

(between these, antinomic frictions)

Contemporaneities                              Immediation and self-fashioning; cosmopolitanism/planetarity, ranging from world citizenship (modern) to as-needed affiliative connectivity (contemporary).

Despite the present power and future anticipation that inheres in each of these formations, my suggestion is that the continuing modernities are in decline and will recede from prominence, that transnationality is the de facto dominant of the current world order, while the contemporaneities are emergent and will eventually fill the future.

These changes have, I believe, shaped contemporary art all over the world in connected, broadly similar ways. These manifest themselves differently within each region, city, artworld. I have outlined this argument in detail in some recent publications, and can offer only a summary now. 13  I propose that the bewildering array of art produced all over the world today actually can be understood as configuring into three powerful currents, each with it own energies, values, modes and organizational forms. These may be pictured as in Chart 2.



Contemporary Art                           Postmodernism

(styles/practices)                        Retro-sensationalism


Spectacular Art

Transnational transitions                 1. Decolonization, Nationalism

(ideologies/issues)                           2. Globalization, Internationalism

3. Cosmopolitanism, Translation


In contemporaneity                            World Picturing/Placemaking/Planetarity/

(concerns/strategies)                  Connectivity

Places––location & dislocation

Times ­­–– dysynchronic temporalities

Media –– mediation & difference

Moods –– affect vis-à-vis effect


The first current is the aesthetic of globalization, serving it through both a relentless remodernizing, and a sporadic contemporizing, of art. Prominent in publicity, museums and markets, it is what counts as “Contemporary Art” in most public contexts. Examined more closely, two aspects become apparent, each of which are perhaps styles in the traditional sense of being a marked change in the continuing practice of art in some significant place that emerges, takes a shape that attracts others to work within its terms and to elaborate them, prevails for a time, and seems to be coming to an end. One group of artists––who we might label “Retro-sensationalists”––embraces the rewards and downsides of neoliberal economics, globalizing capital, and neoconservative politics, pursued during the 1980s and since through repeats of earlier twentieth century avant-garde strategies, yet lacking their political utopianism and their theoretic radicalism. Prominent among these are the yBas (Young British Artists) but the group includes Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons and many others in the US, and Takashi Murakami and his followers in Japan. This inclination has burgeoned alongside the constant efforts of the institutions of Modern Art (now usually designated Contemporary Art) to reign in the impacts of contemporaneity on art, to revive earlier initiatives, to cleave new art to the old modernist impulses and imperatives, to renovate them. The work of Richard Serra, Gerhard Richter and Jeff Wall powerfully exemplifies different aspects of this tendency. If it must be labeled,  “Remodernism” would do. In the work of certain artists, such as Matthew Barney and Cai Guo-Qiang, both currents come together in a conspicuous consummation, generating an aesthetic of excess that might be tagged the Art of the Spectacle, or “Spectacularism.” In contemporary architecture, similar impulses shape the buildings, especially those for the culture industry, of Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava and Daniel Libeskind, among others.

The second current emerges from the processes of decolonization within what were the Third, Fourth, and Second Worlds, including its impacts in what was the First World. It has not coalesced into an overall art movement, or two or three broad ones. Rather, the transnational turn has generated a plethora of art shaped by local, national, anti-colonial, postcolonial, independent values (diversity, identity, critique). It has enormous international currency through travelers, expatriates, new markets but especially biennales. Local and internationalist values are in constant dialog in this current––sometimes they are enabling, at others disabling, but they are ubiquitous. With this situation as their raw material, artists such as Cildo Meireles, Jean-Michel Bruyère, Shirin Neshat, Isaac Julien, Georges Adéagbo, William Kentridge, John Mawurndjul and many others are producing work that matches the strongest art of the first current. Postcolonial critique, along with a rejection of spectacle capitalism, also informs the work of a number of artists based in the Euroamerican centers.  Mark Lombardi, Allan Sekula, Zoe Leonard, Steve McQueen, Aernout Mik and Emily Jacir, among many others, have developed practices that critically trace and strikingly display the global movements of the new world disorder between the advanced economies and those connected in multiple ways with them. Other artists, from Andy Goldsworthy to Olafur Eliasson, base their practice around exploring sustainable relationships with specific environments, both social and natural, within the framework of ecological values. Still others, too many to name, work with electronic communicative media, examining its conceptual, social and material structures: in the context of struggles between free, constrained and commercial access to this media, and its massive colonization by the entertainment industry, artists’ responses have developed from towards immersive environments and explorations of avatar-viuser (visual information user) interactivity.

The third current is different in kind yet again, being the outcome, largely, of a generational change and the sheer quantity of young people recently attracted to active participation in the image economy.  As art, it tends toward quite personal, small scale and modest offerings, in marked contrast to the generality of statement and monumentality of scale that has increasingly come to characterize remodernizing and sensationalist art, and the conflicted witnessing that continues to be the goal of most art consequent on the postcolonial turn. Artists of this kind certainly draw on elements of the first two tendencies, but do so with less and less regard for their fading power structures and styles of struggle, with more concern for the interactive potentialities of various material media, virtual communicative networks and open-ended modes of tangible connectivity. Working collectively, in small groups, in loose associations or individually, these artists seek to arrest the immediate, to grasp the changing nature of time, place, media and mood today. They make visible our sense that these fundamental, familiar constituents of being are becoming steadily stranger. They raise questions as to the nature of temporality these days, the possibilities of place-making vis-à-vis dislocation, about what it is to be immersed in mediated interactivity and about the fraught exchanges between affect and effect. Within the world’s turnings, and life’s frictions, they seek sustainable flows of survival, cooperation and growth.

As in Chart 1, these three broad currents are to be imagined as flowing through the present alongside each other, each with powerful claims upon us. Like the global currents, they do not flow with equal force: the first is residual, the second dominant, while the third is emergent. Contemporaneity, I have proposed, might become the entire field, one that will no longer dispose itself dialectically, as it did during modernity, or in terms of circular oppositions, as it did during postmodernity. Rather, its disposition is towards never-ending deconstruction, anachronistic stasis and the spinning off of unpredictable supplements.

How might these theoretical considerations be relevant to art historical and art critical understandings of first modern then contemporary Chinese art?  I will try to answer this question, schematically, in what follows, beginning with a discussion of what “modern” has meant in Euroamerican art discourse.

Modern Art

There is a strong consensus among textbook writers in Euroamerica and elsewhere that art became modern during the mid-nineteenth century when artists, banding together in mutually-reinforcing creative and exhibiting groups (avant-gardes), broke away from the hierarchies of subject matter, taste and métier imposed by the aristocratic Academies, in order to express their individual experience of the vitality of modern life, a value they shared with their patrons, the bourgeoisie, protogenitors of the broad-scale transformation known as “modernity.” 14  Art styles clash, each new one destined to succeed its predecessor. Artists everywhere eagerly participate in this on-rushing narrative, which occurs primarily in Paris, but then in connected cultural centers such as Moscow or Rome, until, after World War II, it is revived in New York, where it flourished, with interruptions, until recent years. This is the standard narrative, now undergoing radical revisions.

Postmodernism is now seen as having been mainly a phenomenon in architecture during the 1970s, in the visual arts especially painting and some photography during the 1980s, as well as in “theory” and some fashion during those decades. While many of its techniques (quotation, appropriation, irony) remain in widespread use, its vitality as an explanation of how art relates to its broader cultural and social setting has evaporated. Nonetheless, for some, certain explanations of the broader situation in terms such as “postmodernity” remain powerful. 15  As I suggest in other essays, while there have been a few ideas––such as “relational aesthetics”––advanced as characterizations of the art that most significantly embodies the spirit of postmodernity, none of them match the force of those that were deployed during modernity. And while “Contemporary Art” is everywhere used as the general descriptor of the art of today, there is very little consensus as to its character, or as to how it is related to its time. Indeed, there seems to be an instinct against conceiving of the contemporary in a parallel manner, or on the same level, as conceptions of modernity and/or postmodernity.

3. MODERN TO CONTEMPORARY ART  (Orthodox Western schema)

Modernity                  Modern Art


Modernisms (including alternative and vernacular)

Avant-garde art

Late modern (Pop, Minimalism, Conceptual Art, etc.)


Postmodernity                   Postmodernism

Remix, relational aesthetics


?                          Contemporary Art


Revisionist histories of modern art

For much of the twentieth century, most artists and writers on art throughout the world understood artistic developments in Europe and then the USA to be definitive of art in general, and thus “universal” in significance. Art produced in the European settler colonies and in non-European cultures in Asia, South America, Africa and Oceania, was widely viewed as reflecting the impact of the movements in European art, and as being subject to similar social developments, although at one or two removes.  If local art was noticeably influenced, it was characterized as “modern,” or, sometimes, “contemporary” art. In contrast, “traditional” art was understood to be that produced by the indigenous inhabitants, or, in some cases, by colonists who had failed to keep up with changes at metropolitan center. Those who actively resisted the Modern Art mainstream and the modernist avant-garde were labeled “antimodernist.”

Although these views became predominant by mid-century, and persisted until the 1990s, they were not, in fact, universal. Nationalist art historians in many countries emphasized the distinctive qualities of art made within their homelands (“national modernisms”), while others looked for qualities that they believed distinguished their region (for example, “Asian values”) or the pervasiveness of a belief system in their area (such as “Islamic art” or “Stalin style”). More recently, in the wake of decolonization and in rejection of globalization, and often under the banner of postmodern theory, art historians all over the world have begun to identify certain art practices in the former colonies (especially in South America) and in the non-Western world as “vernacular modernisms,” “alternative modernisms,” or “cosmopolitan modernisms” that, while being aware of Euroamerican tendencies, responded to local conditions of modernization and therefore achieved distinctive, local forms of modern art. The process here was often one of “adopt, adapt, and transform” the external model, creating a local tradition of self-modifying modern art, one that also activated earlier local models of artistic innovation. John Clark’s Modern Asian Art is the most comprehensive treatment of this topic to date for Asian art, and a number of more specialized studies are underway. 16  Modernizing forces in non-Western cultures are sometimes characterized, by Western authors, as self-conscious alterities (“modernisms of the others”). 17

Art created as a result of interaction between native or indigenous cultures and those of Western settlers can be interpreted as a kind of “indigenous modernism” (for example, Contemporary Australian Aboriginal Art). In some cases, art production may be “pseudomodern” in that it deploys traditional forms that have been “modernized”––that is, made to look like Western artists’ responses to “primitive” art (“primitivized” would be the more accurate term). In some circumstances, especially those associated with surviving indigenous cultures, some interpreters seek terms exclusive to that culture, believing everything modern to be inevitably associated with Euroamerican modernity.

Jonathan Hay is among a group of scholars who argue that modernizing tendencies (as well, of course, as many others) are evident in China from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, such that “in the seventeenth century world the encounter between Chinese and Euro-American modernities was an encounter of equals, developmentally speaking.” 18 While the industrial revolution in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century accelerated growth and precipitated large-scale cultural transformation there, China’s technological development was slower in comparison but its social and cultural formations did not cease to modernize. Not even, arguably, when Euroamerican influence in the late nineteenth century included the adoption of the view, by a number of Chinese intellectuals, that everything Oriental was static and tradition-bound, while innovation originated only in Europe or the US. Updating this outlook in 1949, the Communist state announced the emergence of a new, tradition-busting, revolutionary modernity. 19  This transformation would, again, connect China to the world (within the framework of “world revolution” and solidarity with an international proletariat), yet it was shaped according to circumstances on the ground, most notably in its concentration on developing the peasantry and workers as “revolutionary classes.”

This perspective resonates with the framework recently articulated by Pan Gongkai and other students of tendencies in modern Chinese art. 20   Taking both views together, it is possible to view developments in art in China during the twentieth century as elements within four major currents as set out in Chart 4.


4. CURRENTS OF MODERN CHINESE ART  (Zhongguo xiandai yishu) during C20th

“Western-style painting” (xiyanghua, xihua or yanghua) from 1904 onwards

“National painting” (guohua), a medieval tradition revived during the 1920s

Romantic Revolutionary Idealism (Chinese Socialist Realism up to and including the Cultural Revolution) from the 1930s, but especially from 1949

Popular art, including peasant painting, and crafts throughout the period


Scholars with deep expertise in the art of these tendencies have offered nuanced accounts of the specifics of these developments, and of interactions between them. These tendencies are noted here as important components of the artworld within which contemporary Chinese art emerged during the 1980s. As I will argue, they do not instantly fade into the background when contemporary art appears. Instead, they continue to be present in important senses today, to be part of Chinese art’s contemporaneity. Just how they do so, however, is a matter of ongoing debate.

Phases of Contemporary Chinese Art

Among scholars writing in English, notably Gao Minglu and Wu Hung, there is considerable agreement on the main outlines of the development of art in China since the mid-1970s, although they differ as to details of emphasis and specifics of interpretation. 21   Four phases are usually distinguished as shown in Chart 5.

5. PHASES OF CHINESE CONTEMPORARY ART (Zhongguo dangdai yishu) or experimental art (shiyan meishu)

1.1976-1984: the post-Cultural Revolution period, marked by uncertainty, and historical reflection;

2. 1985-1989: the New Wave (xinchao) or avant-garde (xianfeng or qianwei) moment;

3. 1989-mid-1990s: a time of repression, exile and protest through performance;

4.  Late 1990s to 2008: internationalist attitudes, large-scale exhibitions overseas and in China, a burgeoning art market, renewed search for “Chinese characteristics.”

From summaries available in English, certain authors writing in Chinese would seem to have used similar frameworks when outlining developments during the same period. 22

As narratives, these accounts are structured as if they are describing a succession of changes within the same kind of art that had been made in China during the modern period. Is this impression of sequential historical development accurate? Is Chinese contemporary art just the latest phase of modern Chinese art, itself a period in the general history of Chinese art? Or is at least some contemporary art made in China distinctly different in kind from previous Chinese art?

Very few writers examine contemporaneity (dangdaixing) in an explicit way, as itself a key theoretical problem. Wu Hung and Gao Minglu are exceptions. In his 2008 essay “A Case of Being ‘Contemporary’: Conditions, Spheres and Narratives of Contemporary Chinese Art,” Wu Hung suggests that “instead of assuming that this type of contemporary art is linked with Modern (and Postmodern) art in a linear, temporal fashion and within a self-sustaining cultural system,” we should instead pay attention to the “heterogeneity and multiplicity in art production, as well as the creativity of a new kind of artist, who creates contemporary art through simultaneously constructing his or her local identity and serving a global audience.” 23  He notes a symptomatic shift from the 1980s to the 1990s in the language used by Chinese artists and critics to characterize their art in general terms: a change from xiandai yishu to dangdai yishu. Throughout the 1980s, he observes, “Chinese avant-garde artists and art critics envisioned themselves as participants in a delayed modernization movement, which aimed to reintroduce humanism and the ideal of social progress into the nation’s political consciousness.” 24  These values, they believed, had been derailed during the Mao era, so they attempted to fast-track Western-style modernist development, with a disregard of chronological determinism that paralleled postmodern strategies elsewhere: “It was as if a century-long development of Modern art was simultaneously restaged in China.” 25  Their utopian efforts to reinstate and build on these values were, however, set back by the official reaction to the Tiananmen uprising, which created another “sharp historical gap,” and by the subsequent embrace of globalization under the aegis of Deng Xiaoping Thought. 26

During the 1990s, Wu Hung shows, much leading Chinese art became “contemporary” in three senses. Many artists turned away from traditional mediums towards installations, performances and site-specific art that focused on the direct, contemporaneous experience of the participant. Often, in a paradox typical of contemporary art around the world, participants were invited to imagine a suspension of everyday life, a temporal “black hole,” as in performances staged in city ruins or renovation sites. Secondly, a number of Chinese artists learned to create works within the international art language then emerging within the biennale circuit. This language, in another typical paradox, deploys local and national imagery, but as a highly mobile set of signifiers of nationalities-in-transformation. In reaction, some Chinese artists emphasized local problems and situations, the “Chinese” side of this double equation, their art making most sense as a contrast to work that they regard as too concerned with presenting “Chinese symbols” for external consumption. 27  In sum, “this art not only responds to China’s startling transformation over the past ten to fifteen years, but further enhances the feeling of speed, anxiety, and theatricality inherent in this external transformation through artistic representation.” Wu Hung concludes with an important reflection: the intensity of both China’s extraordinary economic surge, and its burgeoning contemporary art, will, in time, diminish. Contemporaneity, he correctly observes, “inevitably involves the condensation of time.” 28

Wu Hung seems to see the “modern art” of the 1980s as a continuous with modern Chinese art of the twentieth century, however externally-inspired its avant-gardism might have been (indeed, its eclectic adoption of multiple western modes is treated as itself typically modernist).  “Contemporary art” of the 1990s and since, however, he seems to see as a different kind of art, a real rupture in the history of Chinese art and a genuine contribution to the history of world art. It has been successfully if contentiously created by a strong, innovative and celebrated cluster of contemporary artists who continue to work in China as well as abroad. In a sense, they are obliging their cultural milieu to accept their work, however unprecedented, paradoxical and internationalist in character, as Chinese.

To Gao Minglu, Chinese art has always been concerned with contemporaneity in the general sense that Chinese artists have always been alert as to how art might relate to the time in which it is being made. In a 2008 essay, he argues that the concept of modernity in China during the twentieth-century was spatial and political rather than temporal, because it emphasized the construction of a new kind of nation, rather than the need to conform to a more global or western idea of the modern as an epoch in general human development. In this context, contemporaneity understood as a “permanent condition” of continuous, differential transformation has become “a fundamental characteristic” of Chinese modernity. Yet while modernity in the west is understood to proceed by dialectical struggle between absolutes, in China it seeks a more pragmatic, yet nonetheless totalizing (even, arguably, Confucian) path, following, in the words of Hu Shi, a leading figure in the early twentieth century New Cultural Movement, “not absolute principle and reason, but rather particular time, specific space, my truth.” 29

Later modern and contemporary Chinese art has been created in contexts substantially different from those enjoyed by Euroamerican artists. Gao notes that “both socialist and capitalist forces are influential” simultaneously, and have, since 1990, been expected to work together, harmoniously. As well, “there remain in Chinese society clear markers of cultural and political boundaries,” thus when Chinese artists during the 1980s created some extremely violent works, they “did so not to attack the public, but rather to resist authority while trying to stimulate thought among the public.” 30  Artists also use actions at historical sites to provoke reflection on official ideologies, performances at new constructions or demolished areas to question the uncritical acceptance of globalization, or exaggerated representations to critique consumerism. 31

From Modern to Contemporary Art in China

What happens when we apply the ideas discussed so far to art produced in China since 1979? What kind of historical picture of contemporary Chinese art do they suggest?

Let us turn first try to understand how the worldwide shift from modern to contemporary art during the later twentieth century occurred in China. Chart 6 shows a set of currents apparent to observers of art during the 1980s. Like the earlier charts, it displays diachronic developments synchronically: a snapshot of a decade. Some of the currents are continuations of those that constituted modern Chinese art during the main part of the twentieth century. All of them were conscious of the others, and were busy adapting in order to survive. Often, they incorporated techniques, artistic ideas or aesthetic strategies from another of the currents. Traditional and national painting remained important elements within Chinese art, although they ceased to dominate it. What I have named “Romantic Revolutionary Idealism” (usually known as Chinese Socialist Realism) declined in importance during the 1980s, although thousands of artists throughout the country continued to produce art for official purposes and events, and some still do so in the new century. 32  Avant-garde art emerges to become a very strong current, and Chinese artists in exile make important contributions to international contemporary art. These currents, taken together, constitute what I would call “Late Modern Chinese Art.” All of them are responses to aspects of twentieth century Chinese modernity. Each of them builds on precedents in modernized traditional Chinese art, modernized European academic art or Euroamerican avant-garde art.


6. CHINA: LATE MODERN CURRENTS: 1980s to now, on-going

Western style painting (mostly by overseas Chinese) continues

(Maximalism within China)

National painting (including minorities art) continues, becoming naturalistic scene and portrait painting

Romantic Revolutionary Idealism ceases, except as propaganda, and as a source of recyclable imagery

Peasant painting reverts to folk art; crafts continue their traditions

1980s China Avant-garde echoes both early C20th Western “historical” avant-garde and late modern Western neo-avant-gardes practices simultaneously (“Political Pop”, “Cynical Realists”)

Exiled Chinese internationalists (Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Guan Wei) important as cosmopolitan translators


This chart combines the currents identified by Chinese scholars in charts 4 and 5, but modifies their usual description. These currents continue through into the twenty-first century, undergoing incessant transformation. How long they will last remains an open question. In so far as they remain late modern, they may be fading…their future depends on their capacity for transformation, not their capacity for repetition and entrenchment.

If we look at the art produced in China during the 1990s in the same synchronic/diachronic way, we see a further set of developments bursting into prominence. They are the leading edges of art in China today, but they exist alongside the currents identified in chart 6. Despite their disjunctive character––indeed, on my interpretation of contemporaneity, because of it––all of these currents, including the late modern ones, constitute contemporary Chinese art. It might seem contradictory to include late modern developments among the contemporary, but my interpretation of world contemporary art highlights the contemporaneousness of different, temporally distinct currents.

7. CHINA: CONTEMPORARY ART, 1990s-2000s, continuing currents

Contemporary artists inspired by Western retro-sensationalists (Zhu Yu, He Yunchang)

Post-Revolutionary critical realism (Zhang Dali, Song Dong, Zhou Xianhou, Wang Youshen)

Post-Revolutionary critical romanticism (Long March Project, The Revolution Continues! exhibition)

Internationalist spectacular art (Cai Guo-qiang, Zhan Wang, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu)

Cosmopolitan translators come home, keep traveling

Olympics 2008: overtly Chinese nationalist imagery, globalized and renovated traditional

Chinese art produced by artists of the diaspora, sometimes second and third generation, not national but civilizational in orientation

This chart is offered as a very provisional picture. It seeks to build on the profile outlined in chart 5––the now standard view of the main currents in contemporary Chinese art since 1980––by describing some of those currents in a different way, and by highlighting currents that are noted in China but not widely discussed. The artists named exemplify the currents within which they have made important, definitive works; many other names could be cited. I will conclude by offering some further, even more provisional remarks about the present situation and possible future developments. First, some specific ones that underscore how these interpretations challenge those common in China and shared amongst overseas scholars. Then, some remarks about how recent Chinese art looks when compared to worldwide tendencies in the ongoing shift from modern to contemporary art.

The opening out of Chinese art during the 1980s meant that artists became aware, simultaneously, of the three enormously powerful models: the stunning array of artistic achievement throughout the world during the twentieth century, especially that of Euroamerican avant-gardism; the postmodern presumption that all past art was available to the present, singly or in any imaginable combination, and without the need to work through art’s own historical development; and the rewards offered by the international market to those artists, such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, who followed the late Andy Warhol model of holding up to their cultures easily understandable mirror images of their own consumerist distraction.  Many artists in China chose the retro-sensationalist model, which became prominent in the 1990s. Others undertook postmodern repeats of late modernism, presenting them as interrogations of Chinese modernity (Maoist style). In my view, the name “Cynical Realism” is inaccurate: “cynical” mistranslates an ironic orientation on the part of these artists. If “Realism” refers to their use of a range of figurative rather than abstract styles, it, too, is inaccurate. Yet it is accurate about their underlying intention: like the Sots Artists in Russia during the last years of the Soviet Empire, these artists present ironic restatements of official imagery, obliquely displaying its hollow duplicity. This is, in the circumstances, a realist approach. Collectors in Hong Kong, overseas Chinese, Euroamerican collectors, and the new Chinese bourgeoisie have warmly welcomed this art. Since then, the work of leading artists such as Fan Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun has become locked into increasingly inflated repetition. By staying with their signature styles, and repeating them at an ever-larger scale, these artists cement their location within late modernism, but risk becoming less and less contemporary as time goes on.

Given the strength and pervasiveness of Deng Xiaoping Thought, and China’s evident commitment to rapid internal modernization and embrace of globalizing capitalism while maintaining static conceptions of state power, we are obliged to characterize the period since 1979 as “post-Revolutionary.” Nevertheless, a number of artists, including those mentioned in the chart, remain committed to a resistant realism. To me, this is the most important tendency in contemporary Chinese art, the one with the inner strength to secure its future as art. It can be pursued in any style or medium, from the most traditional to the newest.

Sometimes critique may take the form of a resigned nostalgia for Maoist modernity, at others it exposes the shortcomings of official attempts to control public media while showing the people active in creating their own welfare. Well-known for his 1993 covering of a section of the Great Wall in newspaper advertisements, Wang Youshen’s recent work exemplifies both responses. The first is evident in his installations Announcement Board 1991-2006, based on photographs of popular exhortations chalked up on blackboards in hutong neighborhoods during the Mao years. Three tomb-like, white plaster monuments show, in turn, a mounted photograph from the Cultural Revolution, the same image occluded by clouds of forgetting, and finally the image now entirely devoid of color, a barely-visible set of lines on the pale surface of the slab. The second is apparent in his mural-sized display of over a hundred Polaroid photographs that record details of the response to the SARS epidemic of 2003. We see here the budding seeds of civil society in China.

Cao Fei’s 2006 video Whose Utopia is presented as a three-part study of the Siemens Company OSRAM light bulb factory in Foshan, Guangdong province. In the first, the camera follows the manufacturing processes in the spirit of Fernand Léger’s famous film of 1926  1924? Ballet mécanique; in the second, certain of the factory workers enact their fantasy lives as an angel, a rock guitarist and, in the case of a middle-aged supervisor, a Michael Jackson-style break dancer; while in the third a number of workers pose for the camera in their work places while the musical voice over suggests that utopia is not for them, whatever their dreams. Cao Fei also has created a virtual avatar, China Tracy, who exists in a dystopic version of the new China on the site Second Life. 33

In apparent contrast, Sha Yeya uses what looks like a meticulous literati style to paint what seems to be traditional hanging scroll landscapes, yet the brush marks record the text of important contemporary statements, such as his 2002 work Powell denies the possibility of war declaration on Iraq, saying that America will not take action without consulting its allies, but do so using illegible characters. Along with Gu Wenda, Xu Bing is a long-time master of using such techniques to suggest the deceptive nature of official discourse. When he was commissioned to create a large public sculpture for the foyer of a major Beijing office and hotel building, he chose two phoenixes––traditional symbols of spiritual growth through the conjunction of the sexes (and also the logo of the commissioning company)––as resplendent, suspended forms. But he insisted on composing them entirely from the leftover materials from the building site, and highlighted the tools of the farm workers who had migrated to the city to serve as laborers in the building of the Chinese “economic miracle.” In Xu Bing’s studio the huge, colorful sculptures were covered with the fine, chalky dust that settles upon everything at every building site in Beijing, and which often spreads throughout the city. The dust is essential to the realism of this work, as it was to his 2004 installation, Where Does the Dust Itself Collect?, a poignant memorial to 9/11, 2001. Cleaned up, shining brightly in a well-lit, air-conditioned foyer, the phoenixes would lose their meaning. It should not surprise us that recently the company backed away from the commission.

These examples tell us that post-Revolutionary critical realism is not a matter of artistic style––thus the absence of capital letters on my naming of it: it is not Post-Revolutionary Critical Realism, despite the temptation of the acronym PCR. Rather, it is an attitude that manifests itself as an implied critique of a society that keeps on falling short of its own ideals.

The most obvious fact about Chinese art since 2000 has been the acceleration of the commercial gallery system in Beijing, Shanghai, and in other cities. In Euroamerican settings and in Latin America since the 1960s, however, artist-run collectives and non-profit contemporary art spaces have offset the commercialization of art by providing young artists with supportive and challenging settings in which to find their ways as artists. Unfortunately, these environments are still rare in China. Without them, the recent growth in artistic achievement will not be sustainable. Exceptions such as the Ullens Center at 798 actually fulfill another absence in most if not all major Chinese cities: a not-for-profit museum of contemporary art. The Today Art Museum does not fill this bill, as it is a space for hire and is associated with an adjacent private venture. The privatization of contemporary art infrastructure is a striking feature of Chinese developments: it reflects the fact that they were mostly conceived in the 1980s and came on stream in the 1990s, when neoliberalist economics, conservative politics and spectacularist values dominated public spheres throughout the world, and the visual arts fell under the spell of a burgeoning market for contemporary art. Thus many artist’s studios have a commercial gallery orientation (their own shop-front galleries, with the factory at back); single-artist museums are being built in cities throughout the country as potential tourist sites; and small to quite large exhibition venues are run on a for-profit basis even when they are under the sponsorship of a governmental agency (a school, a district, a suburb, a city, a state, the nation). Some not-for-profit institutions, such as BizArt in Shanghai and The Long March Project in Beijing, are obliged to run side businesses to sustain themselves. For similar reasons, philanthropy is difficult in this setting. The failure of the state to recognize it by granting tax exemptions and the like has obliged the Ullens Center, for example, to become a for-profit organization within the next few years. 34  In early 2009, the Center, including the Ullens collection of contemporary Chinese art, was offered for sale with preference to a local buyer.

Infrastructural support for the education, training, encouragement and recognition of independent critical writing about art has been conspicuously absent throughout the boom years. Recently, a Chinese Contemporary Art Award for art criticism was given to Pauline J. Yao, an independent curator and critic living in San Francisco and Beijing. Collector Ulli Sigg added this award to those given to artists in response to his perception that China’s network of independent art critics was being depleted as writers moved to curatorial, gallery, dealer and other more lucrative positions within the Chinese art system. Yao has written an honest essay on the problems facing genuinely critical voices in China today. Noting that “Art cannot exist in a vacuum without criticism, nor can criticism expect to survive upon art that is produced solely for commercial gain,” she despairs that “The panoply of contemporary art magazines on the newsstand today in China, with English names––Art Issue, Contemporary Art, Art China, Artmap, Contemporary Art and Investment, Art and Value, World Art and Hi-Art––represent a dizzying array of verbiage on contemporary art, but pandering to popular demand (and therefore market interests) they can hardly constitute venues for art criticism.” 35 Her implication is that both artists and critics have a shared responsibility to commit themselves to criticality in their respective practices. Then, and only then, will a “discursive density” adequate to contemporary Chinese art come into existence. 36

Some external journals that cover Chinese art, such as Yishu and Art Asia-Pacific, and online sites such as that of the Asia Art Archive, do include articles that achieve independent critical standards. Much more needs to be done by educational institutions, government departments and private individuals in China itself if the essentials of “intellectual infrastructure” are to fall into place. Without the challenge coming from a fully resourced, independent criticism, contemporary Chinese art will struggle to move beyond its present stage. While the market itself has clearly been the major factor in the contemporary art boom in China since 2000 especially, the recent downturn will expose the fact that it is, after all, a distribution system that is essentially dependent on the creativity and productivity of artists, the ideas and interpretations supplied by critics, the exhibitions organized by curators, the informed audiences trained by educators, etc.

Some unresolved questions remain. One is the idea that, however dramatic they may seem, the changes constituting contemporary Chinese art may simply be minor variations in the centuries-long evolution of “Chinese art”––a diverse yet essentially coherent output of fine art and craft that is distinctively Chinese in character. “China,” here, is understood less as a nation than a civilization. One version of this is the concept of “Cultural China” theorized by Tu Weiming in the 1980s. If this perspective is combined with extreme nationalism, such that only certain Chinese––those with the correct understanding of the essence of “Chineseness”––can determine which art shares this quality, then the diametrically opposite view is also possible: “contemporary art” is a foreign, anti-Chinese imposition that should be rejected with the same vigor that finally threw out the opium importers. ???

A civilizational perspective also logically entails the recognition that any artist anywhere who creates works in a distinctively Chinese spirit or manner is also a contributor to its culture. The exhibition OutsideIn: Chinese x American x Contemporary Art, held at the University of Princeton Art Gallery in 2009, featured a second-generation Chinese-American, Arnold Chang, who paints entirely within the Chinese literati tradition; Zhang Hongtu, a “Political Pop” artist long exiled in the US who now repaints famous traditional paintings in the style of masters such as Monet and van Gogh; Zhi Lin and Liu Dan, academic realists who picture Chinese subjects, among others, in exacting detail; Vanessa Tran, a Vietnamese painter of Buddhist-inspired abstractions, who has never visited China; and Michael Cherney, a Brooklyn-born photographer and artist’s book-maker now resident in Beijing who has developed a very subtle and evocative Chinese imaginary. Curator Jerome Silbergeld, a professor of Chinese art history at Princeton, asserts:

The question put by this exhibition is nothing less than “What is the ‘Chinese’ in today’s Chinese art?” At stake, then, is the question of authenticity in our present era of rapid global assimilation. Since all of the artists represented in this exhibition are now American citizens, the corollary question “What is American about American art” is also unavoidable. 37

Silbergeld politely disagrees with the presumption of Wu Hung and Gao Minglu that the “contemporaneity” in contemporary Chinese art is a quality to be found in the work of a particular group: the avant-garde or experimental artists. He cites local critics who characterize such art as marginal, and others who say that it is barely taught in the academies so is unlikely to come to prominence. Instead, he claims, all art being made today is “contemporary.” 38   This opens the category of contemporary Chinese art to whatever and whoever wants to fill it.  It reduces the contemporary to a meaningless cipher for whatever is happening now.

Can such a viewpoint be historically justified? It is the case that, except perhaps for the period 1949-1965, China had not for some centuries been a national project in the sense of a coherent, centralized, ideologically homogenous state, but was, rather, the accumulation of many, diverse yet contingent developments across its vast territory. Given that, how can we expect one sort of art to be properly representative? Yet this also throws into question the claim that revived traditionalism is the only truly Chinese art, unless “tradition” is redefined to mean all of the kinds of art commonly made before 1949, or 1904, or whatever date is given for the inauguration of modernity in China. This is neo-traditionalist metaphysics. Furthermore, it is a modernist conception that defines tradition as that which is prior to or not modern. Despite its apparent openness to a vast civilizational sweep, it is actually a reductive reading of that history.

The portal page of invites users who wish to enter the site to choose between “Chinese Traditional Art” and “Chinese Contemporary Art.” More nuanced approaches are needed. For example, Melissa Chiu and others dealt with the issues raised in the Princeton exhibition in a more engaged and pertinent way in the 2006 Asia Society, New York, exhibition, Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China. 39  Among artists a similar attitude may be seen in works such as Xu Bing’s Background Story series: installations in which he recreates, across a large backlit screen, the illusion of famous ancient scroll paintings. But he uses actual plant material of the kind depicted, plus others, such as straw and refuse. While the tradition itself is respectfully evoked, it is also shown to be a construction, something the viewer may experience quite directly by looking behind the screen, as he or she is invited to do. (At the Beijing Forum, Jennifer Purtle discussed Background Story 4 of 2008 brilliantly.)

In recent years, the tendency known during the twentieth century as “National painting” is reappearing. It does not present in the high arts the bland, brand name imagery that typifies globalization, but is precisely a reworking of traditional styles and techniques in traditional mediums. A notable example is the ink paintings of Xu Long Sen. Entirely and painstakingly brushed by the artist and assistants, their distinctive feature is their massive size. They are of the spectacular scale of Richard Serra’s museum-filling sculptures or Gerhard Richter’s painting commissions for public places. The effect is uncanny: gestures that one is used to seeing at the human scale of a hand-held brush loom over the spectator like huge billboards. Their size is entirely appropriate to the facades of buildings or motorway overpasses. Are we witnessing the emergence of a post-globalized national imagery?

A more subtle, universalizing appeal to “national thought” might be motivating the recent efforts of historians such as Gao Minglu and theorists such as Peng Feng to draw on ideas proposed by their predecessors, especially concepts that seek a middle way between Chinese and Western aesthetics, art theories and art practices. Gao has just published a theory that presents yi pai as such a pathway, claiming that Western aesthetic theories are fatally limited by their presumption that art is always a representational practice, whereas the conjunction of li, shi and xing (“principle, concept, and likeness”) identified during the Tang Dynasty in the 9th century, offers a historical, and pluralistic conceptualization of art more suited to the present. 40  Peng has suggested a return to the concept of xiang, the state of becoming into being between the thought (dao) and the thing (qi), as most suited to the sense of presence in contemporary art. 41  Whatever their merits or shortcomings, these ideas may be seen as gestures towards the nationalism often required of intellectuals in “rising China,” or they may be a strategy to “save” innovative and critical contemporary art from its neo-traditionalist, Mao modernizing and Deng modernizing critics. They may, of course, also be a buffer against the limitations of external interpretations of contemporary Chinese art, however well intentioned, such as that offered in this essay.

Does the revolution continue?

My main suggestion is that it might be helpful to all concerned with building a discursive density for “contemporary Chinese art” if we were to understand it as the coexistence and contiguity of all of the currents profiled in charts 6 and 7.  These are not art styles, or technical prescriptions, but rather multi-dimensional currents within art practice and theory that relate to each other in ways that are often volatile, contradictory and conflicted. Among critics, this can lead to different and sometimes mutually hostile interpretations of which kinds of art are important, on the side of history or genuinely “Chinese.”  Yet the most interesting and ambitious artists working within each of these currents are also, usually, engaged in a careful and imaginative inspection of the work of their rivals, to see what may be useful. So are the most astute critics. Behind the noisy clash of seeming incommensurability, one can dimly discern a background story: a mutually beneficial exchange is going on, quietly but with increasing insistence.

Taken altogether, as an ensemble of seemingly diverse but actually convergent practices, contemporary Chinese art seems tenacious, likely to outlast the inevitable decline in its recently inflated market. A number of its strands continue to respond to changes in world art, to engage with global contemporaneity, while at the same time they are beginning to respond again to local expectations that artists contribute in some way––supportively, critically, or from positions in between––to the national project, itself a contested domain, as we have seen.

There are, however, some possible weaknesses that threaten this positive picture. Compared with the overall tendency of the world currents of contemporary art argued for in Chart 2, the main direction of recent art in China seems, paradoxically, to be moving in a modernizing direction, not towards the contemporary concerns highlighted in the third current described there. As we have seen, a number of artists are inclined to repeat late modern strategies, such as retro-sensationalism, while others are locked into repeating inflated, quasi-ironic parodies of their own signature breakthroughs. Some neo-traditionalists are too defensive, some contemporary artists too dismissive; many others are too quick to compromise. Concern with matters of time, place, mediation and affect––the current that I have characterized as emergent in world art, especially among younger artists––appears in China mostly in the work of women artists, such as Lin Tianmao, Cui Xiuwen, Cao Fei, Bingyi, Chen Lingyang and Jing Yuan Huang, each of whom is concerned in different ways with the fragility of selfhood in worlds dominated by ideologies, brands and patriarchal power.

Another potential weakness is the China versus the West dichotomy that remains so persistent in art discourse. Are not dichotomies such as these typical of European thought, mirror images of Eurocentrism, and their use a kind of reverse Orientalism? Reviewing the ways politicians and writers were revising elements of both Western Marxist thought and traditional Chinese ideas during the post-Mao moment, scholar Chen Xiao-mei drew attention to a “Chinese Occidentalism.”

Orientalism has been accompanied by instances of what might be termed Occidentalism, a discursive practice that, by constructing its Western Other, has allowed the Orient to participate actively and with indigenous creativity in the process of self-appropriation, even after being appropriated and constructed by Western Others. As a result of constantly revising and manipulating imperialistically imposed Western theories and practices, the Chinese Orient has produced a new discourse, marked by a particular combination of the Western construction of China with the Chinese construction of the West, with both of these components interacting and interpenetrating each other…Orientalism, in Said’s account, is a strategy of Western world domination, whereas…Chinese Occidentalism is primarily a discourse that has been evoked by various and competing groups within Chinese society for a variety of different ends, largely, though not exclusively, within domestic Chinese politics. As such, it has been both a discourse of oppression and a discourse of liberation.  42

Fifteen years later, these tensions are still playing themselves out in art practice and discourse. To regard the West as the Europeans once did the Orient––as a domain of irredeemable otherness, peopled with simplistic or, worse still, complex and all-powerful stereotypes––is to condemn oneself ultimately to becoming a similarly banal representative of the opposite. Such reactions may be the inevitable result of the increasing tensions of the contemporary situation, particularly as China asserts itself as a major world power, but it cannot be the whole story or even an adequate framework. 43  “Chinese Orientalism,” however appropriate it may have been for late modern, post-Mao China, may not translate into the conditions of postmodern contemporaneity.

The ever-present pressure toward social “unification” exercised by the central government has, more often than not in recent decades, been modernizing in character. Thus the demands of Deng Xiaoping Thought, the “One China, One Dream, One World” cosmology promoted during the Olympics, and the mixed response to the global economic crisis in 2008-9 that seems to be well-managed at the economic level but less so socially. On the other hand, nostalgia among many artists for a continuation of the “rebellious spirit” of the Mao period is also a reversion to a particular version of Chinese modernity. The title of the 2008 exhibition The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art implies that while Chinese society may no longer be revolutionary, a spirit of rebellion is still evident in at least some contemporary art. But when presented at the Saatchi Gallery, London­­––which is the international artworld citadel of globalized spectacularity, and therefore a museum of the years around the turn of the millennium––is not this “spirit” evacuated of revolutionary meaning? 44  In London, that may be so. In China, perhaps not.

Many of the tensions, contradictions and confusions as well as the hopes and inspirations that I have been reviewing in this essay are evident in the following comments made at the Forum by Jiang Jiehong, originator and curator of the Revolution Continues exhibition. They will serve as a fitting conclusion to the tentative suggestions offered in this article.

‘Contemporary art’ ought not to be interpreted in a chronological way in the first place––each era has its own art distinctively marked by its own contemporaneity. The contemporary and criticizing aspects of visual works should be the top, essential and pertinent issues for intellectuals engaged in the practice of contemporary art. Without such considerations as a foundation, one may still be an artist, but not a ‘contemporary’ artist in any sense. If the practice of contemporaneity could be seen as the mission of contemporary artists, the so-called Chineseness that probably exists can be regarded as an instinct of rising to the occasion, an inherent quality, and a kind of wisdom to achieve success one way or another, for better or worse…When silence goes beyond the limits of being bearable, it begins to change and rebellion ensues. In the context of contemporary Chinese art, it is exactly this hidden spirit of rebellion that prompted challenging changes in visual practice. 45

For artists and critics, in China as everywhere else, the main challenge is not whether to be  “contemporary,” “modern” or “traditional.” Rather, the task is to adopt a critical yet responsible attitude in order to engage the world’s contemporaneity and one’s own immersion within it.


Note: I thank James Elkins and Qigu Jiang, conveners of the First “China Contemporary Art Forum” – 2009 Beijing International Conference on Art Theory and Criticism, held in Beijing, May 26-30, 2009, all the staff associated with the conference, and its sponsors. I also thank Gao Minglu, Judith Farquhar and Thomas Berghuis for their comments.


1. Qigu Jiang, “The general state of theory and criticism for Chinese contemporary art,” at

2. James Elkins, “What is Chinese Contemporary Art?” at

3. For discussion of some of the issues involved see James Elkins, Whatever Happened to Art Criticism? (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), and James Elkins and Michael Newman eds., The State of Art Criticism (London: Routledge, 2007). Perhaps the most prescient recent analysis is Peter Osborne, “Art Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Criticism, Art History and Contemporary Art,” Art History, vol. 27, no. 4 (September 2004): 651-670.

4. See, for example, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Towards a Geography of Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

5. Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Anti-Modernism, Postmodernism (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005).

6. Okwui Enwezor, “The Postcolonial Constellation,” in Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee eds., Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

7. See for example Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

8. While trained in the first of these, and having practiced the second for many years, I have for some decades devoted myself to the third approach. See, for example, “World Picturing in Contemporary Art; Iconogeographic Turning,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, vol. 6, no. 2 (2005) and vol.7, no. 1 (2006): 24-46. John Clark is the practitioner of a similar approach most relevant to this discussion; he pursues comparative, regional studies of contemporary artworlds throughout Asia, with rich results for our understanding. See his publications listed at

9. To James Elkins, who begins from the presumption that the history of art as a discipline is ipso facto “western,” any art writing that does not conform to established Euroamerican academic practice is not art history. At best, he believes, it may convey interesting literary ideas or amount to a vernacular art criticism. Asking “is art history global?” from these presumptions is a circularity that guarantees a negative answer. See the introduction to his Is Art History Global? (London: Routledge, 2006).  Other contributions to the volume, and the discussion sections, expand and deepen the question.

10. First “China Contemporary Art Forum” – 2009 Beijing International Conference on Art Theory and Criticism (Beijing: China Contemporary Art Forum, 2009), 2. In fairness, it should be noted that comparative organizations everywhere use similar language to describe their policy goals. For example, the International Activities section of the US government’s National Endowment for the Arts describes its mission thus: “Through cooperative initiatives with other funders, the National Endowment for the Arts brings the benefit of international exchange to arts organizations, artists, and audiences nationwide. NEA’s international activities increase recognition of the excellence of U.S. arts around the world and broaden the scope of experience of American artists, thereby enriching the art they create. Through partnerships with other government agencies and the private sector, the NEA fosters international creative collaboration by strengthening residency programs of foreign artists in communities across the country. Local citizens as well as the arts community benefit from the lasting international ties that result.” See The partnerships are mostly small, non-government organizations similar to CCAF. The most active prior agency, the United States Information Service, founded in 1953 in a Cold War context, ceased operations in 1999, passing some of its programs to the office of The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, see

11. A number of English-language texts offer acute insights into recent epochal changes in China. These include Liu Kang, Globalization and Cultural Trends in China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004) and Wang Xiaoming, One China, Many Paths (London: Verso, 2003), both of which I have found exceptionally useful. I thank Judith Farquhar for drawing them to my attention.

12. These ideas are presented in more detail in “Introduction: The Contemporaneity Question,” in Smith, Enwezor, Condee eds., Antinomies of Art and Culture.

13. See What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), and “Dark Nights, Antinomic Frictions: The Contemporary Art Question,” October, no. 130 (Fall 2009). Chinese translation of the latter may be found in Artmap (July 2009).

14. For definitions of these terms, see Terry Smith, “Modernism” and “Modernity,” Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner (London: Macmillan, 1996), 777-78.

15. For example, David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991) and Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).

16. John Clark, Modern Asian Art (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998); see, for example, Iftikhar Dadi, “Translation and Contemporary Art,” in Salam M. Hassan and Iftikhar Dadi eds., Tarjama/Translation: Contemporary Art from the Middle East, Central Asia and Its Diaspora (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2010).

17. Nicolas Bourriaud has proposed “altermodernism” as a general term for the modernism appropriate to the twenty-first century. See Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodern (London: Tate Publishing, 2009).

18. Jonathan Hay, “Double Modernity, Para-Modernity,” in Smith, Enwezor and Condee eds., Antinomies of Art and Culture, 115.

19. Ibid., 115-6.

20. Pan Gongkai ed., Reflections: Chinese Modernities as Self-Conscious Cultural Ventures  (Beijing: Oxford University Press, 2007).

21. See, for example, Gao Minglu ed., Inside Out: New Chinese Art (Berkeley; University of California Press, 1998) and The Wall: Reshaping Chinese Contemporary Art (Beijing: China Millennium Museum of Art, and Buffalo: Albright Knox Gallery of Art, 2005); Wu Hung ed., The First Guangzhou Triennial: Reinterpretation: A Decade of Experimental Chinese Art, 1990-2000 (Guangzhou: Guangzhou Museum of Art, 2002).

22. For example, Lü Peng, and Yi Dan, Zhongguo xiandai yishu shi, 1979-1989 (Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 1992); Li Xianting. “Major Trends in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art,” in Tsong-zung Chang ed., China’s New Art, Post-1989 (Hong Kong: Hanart T Z Gallery, 1993); Len Ling, “The China Dream,” Contemporary Art Chinese Type, online journal posted 1997 at; Lü Peng, Zhongguo dangdai yishu shi, 1990-1999 (Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 2000); Gao Minglu and Zhou Yan, History of Contemporary Chinese Art, forthcoming in English.

23. Wu Hung, “A Case of Being ‘Contemporary’: Conditions, Spheres and Narratives of Contemporary Chinese Art,” in Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee eds., Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 291.

24. Ibid., 292.

25. Ibid., 294. See also Ales Erjavec ed., Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism (Berkeley; University of California Press, 2003).

26. Ibid., 294-5.

27. Ibid., 296-303.

28. Ibid., 304-5.

29. Cited Gao Minglu, “Particular Time, Specific Space, My Truth: Total Modernity in Chinese Contemporary Art,” in Smith, Enwezor, Condee eds., Antinomies of Art and Culture, 137.

30. Gao Minglu, ibid., 141.

31. Ibid., 145-162. See Thomas Berghuis, Performance Art in China (Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2008).

32. For a description of the current visual arts infrastructure, see Wang Chunchen, “Current State of Chinese Art,” posted November 10, 2008 at

33. See

34. Relevant general perspectives by Nicholas Jose, Elaine W. Ng, Gene Sherman, Carrillo Gantner and Britta Erickson may be found in Nicholas Jose ed., Contemporary Art + Philanthropy, Private Foundations: Asia-Pacific Focus (Sydney: Power Publications for the Sherman Contemporary Art foundation, 2009.

35. Pauline J. Yao, “Critical Horizon––On Art Criticism in China,” Asia Art Archive Newsletter (December 2008) at

36. Lee Weng Choy, “In Search of Discursive Density,” Art IT, no. 21 (Fall/Winter 2008): 95.

37. Jerome Silbergeld, “Chinese Art, Made-in-America; An Encounter with Geography, Ethnicity, Contemporaneity, and Cultural Chineseness,” in Silbergeld ed., OutsideIn: Chinese x American x Contemporary Art (New Haven and London; Yale University Press, 2009), 115.

38. Ibid., 107. See Sohl Lee, “OutsideIn: Chinese x American x Contemporary Art,” Yishu, vol. 8, no.4 (July/August 2009): 88-97.

39. Melissa Chiu ed., Breakout: Chinese Art Outside China (Milan, New York: Charta, 2006).

40. Gao Minglu, Yi Pai: A Synthetic Theory Against Representation (Guangxi Normal University Press, 2009). Minglu has recently been engaged in an interesting discussion on these matters with Paul Gladston. See the latter’s “On the ‘Chineseness’ of Chinese Contemporary Art,” 2006 at, and Minglu’s reply in Yishu (Summer/June, 2007) followed by Gladston’s response in Yishu (Fall/September, 2007).

41. Peng Feng, “Paths to the Middle: A Tentative Theory for Chinese Contemporary Art,” in First “China Contemporary Art Forum” – 2009 Beijing International Conference on Art Theory and Criticism (Beijing: China Contemporary Art Forum, 2009), 170-183.

42. Chen Xia-mei, Occidentalism: A Theory of Counter-Discourse in Post-Mao China (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 5.

43. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit review a range of such viewpoints, unfortunately not including those held in China, in Occidentialism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005.)

44. For the exhibition see Jiang Jiehong ed., The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art (London: Jonathan Cape and Saatchi Gallery, 2008). A chapter of my What is Contemporary Art? is devoted to the various incarnations of the Saatchi Gallery.

45. Jiang Jiehong, “A Monologue on ‘The Revolution Continues’,” in First “China Contemporary Art Forum” – 2009 Beijing International Conference on Art Theory and Criticism (Beijing: China Contemporary Art Forum, 2009), 331 and 333.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)