Realism and Contemporary Chinese Art

 Wang Chunchen

It should be noted that realism exerts substantial influence on current Chinese art theories. Even those artists or their works that have acquired the reputation of avant-garde art internationally still represent a variant of China’s realism ideology, and a type of spontaneously emerged avant-garde art or “contemporary art”.

Ever since the 20th century, debates about the functions and significance of art have been non-stop. In the past hundred years or so of China’s development, these disputes have resulted in different artistic ideologies. During wartime, art was required to serve war or those regions governed by the Communist Party of China (CPC). The ideology was “art serving workers, peasants and soldiers”. With the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the government practises socialist system of collective ownership. In terms of the art field, national artists associations were established to implement art policies of the central government and the CPC, promote “socialist realism”, and coordinate, instruct or even direct the work of artists all around the country.

One cannot study Chinese art history of the 20th century without encountering the origination and evolution of this kind of realist theory in China. The significance of such a theoretical background and the meaning of hence-generated ideological discourse are especially noteworthy in contemporary Chinese art since the 1980s. Only by doing so can one thoroughly understand the significance of other types of art in China and the reasons behind their emergence. Therefore, this paper focuses on studying how the discourse expressed itself, its correctness as an official political discourse, and, from a critical perspective, what kind of new realism should China pursue. This provides the surest way to grasp the whole picture of Chinese art and get a clear idea of the diversity of Chinese art theory discourses.


“Realism” in the Chinese context

In terms of textual expression, Chairman Mao Zedong’s speech made in 1942 during the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art had the most extensive influence on China’s realism, and even became an official standard for art policies after 1949. By stressing the ideas of “literature and art for people” and “socialist realism”, the speech gave literature and art a political and authoritative definition.  Another source for China’s realism is Soviet socialist realism. These two sources interweaved with each other in China, creating for artistic creation a general guiding principle and program that has been implemented in the education of all levels of art colleges, as well as the work of all levels of art departments. Art workers in each institution have followed this principle in their creation, publication and exhibition. Major artistic forms and subjects after 1949 also originated from the practice. Though disputes and different understandings appeared in actual implementation, the principle exerted profound influence on Chinese art education, artistic creation and people’s appreciation of art. This is the background against which art underwent dramatic changes after China exercised reform and opening-up policy in 1978. These realism conceptions can also serve as an important reference framework for the study of Chinese modern art and contemporary art after the period.

In terms of artistic representation, realism before 1949 represented Anti-Japanese Aggression war and the War of Liberation, and after 1949, the movement to resist US aggression and aid Korea, “specific activities of the people of the newly-founded PRC”, as well as “production and construction”. Realism in this context was understood to be about concrete living experiences and reflections and praise of socialist development, with all types of art demanded to respond to the trend. Even traditional Chinese painting was also required to reflect real events of the time, for example, landscape painting should include scenes of war, construction sites, and chimneys. Only by doing so would it qualify as realism, otherwise it would be criticized. The traditional ink and wash painting that did not take figures as its theme had to “improve on figure painting” and represent real life. This marked the start of the campaign to reform traditional Chinese paintings. One of the objectives was to make traditional paintings represent real life. As a result, ink and wash figure painting has become an important school till now. The painting theories behind it undoubtedly came from the abovementioned understanding of “realism”.

Since realism should represent the new realities of socialist China and please the main street, realistic style of painting was much valued, even equaled with realism. A great number of Soviet artists came to China to provide teaching and training in the field, and at the same time, many Chinese students went to the Soviet Union for further study, which jointly produced the lopsided trend of artistic creation. With regard to painting technique, sketch modeling under the influence of the Soviet Union was advocated as “the base of realism modeling art”. Although it seemed that “realism was an artistic creation technique”, and “cannot be equaled with realistic representation technique”, in fact “the attitude toward real life and the common people constitutes the base of realism technique”. Therefore in the Chinese context, realism was much more about a certain kind of technique. As for the subjects of paintings, socialist realism before 1978 focused on narration. Following policies of the Communist Party and the government, those paintings represented scenes of workers, peasants and soldiers living and working, as well as the Great Leap Forward, in an effort to singe praises of the history of war led by the Communist Party. In addition, each political campaign was also reflected in art works, for example, the war to resist US aggression and aid Korea, anti-rightist movement, Cultural Revolution and criticizing Capitalism. International relations was also an important subject, for example, opposing US imperialism and supporting the independence and liberation movement of Asian, African and Latin American countries.

Therefore, Chinese realism cannot be understood according to the definition found in western art history, nor from what the name realism itself implies. Rather, it has to be analyzed in the context of China’s historical and political circumstances in a given period of time. For instance, when official ideology dominates the so-called realism, abstract art cannot avoid marginalization or even politicization. The discussion on impressionism in the 1950s represented a political attack on non-realistic paintings. In the Chinese context, politicization and ideologization refer to the attempt to magnify an issue to be a question of the artist’s political stand and attitude, i.e., his or her ideology. Slight deviations could bring criticism or discrimination, while serious ones reprimand or imprisonment, with the artist accused as “rightist” and “anti-revolutionist”. There were numerous cases in which people got incriminated for voicing their opinions, especially in the typical period of Anti-rightist Movement the Cultural Revolution. Consequently, the influence was that the authorities and those in power cannot not be subject to any criticism, and no personal opinions about social realities could be expressed. The ostensibly claimed “representing real life” was, in fact, the practice of eulogizing politicized life in line with set official policies. Realism against such a background “was always closely linked to the political struggles in modern Chinese society”, thus came the basic understanding and status of realism before Cultural Revolution.

After 1978, with the progress of reform and opening-up, people began to question and talk about a series of issues of art theory and practice related to revolutionary realism or socialist realism. Finally Chinese art began to experience diversification. The Chinese avant-garde art is exactly an escape from socialist realism. The avant-garde works were created based on the artists’ own life experience, or the art experience of studying a variety of style and genres. This explains why modernist works that are already decades-old to the west can still give the Chinese people strong visual shock in the 1980s. The “New-generation” artists in the early 1990s inherited realistic style in their creation, but their works attracted social attention because they were about the life experiences of the artists, rather than grand political narration, and thus constituted a rebellion against politicized realism. Similarly, “Cynical Realism” in the 1990s also employed realistic technique, but represented the life of these young artists and their observation of the surroundings, passing on a certain mood of life. Though this school of art does not have anything special with regard to the language of painting and avant-garde concepts, it drew social attention for distancing itself from the official realism ideology, and hence got its reputation of “avant-garde” not recognized by the authorities. It can be seen that no matter how many diversified elements they embraced or how defying they were, these schools of avant-garde art in the past three decades always had in their background a red line of official realism. For instance, “developing socialist culture and ethics” advocated in the 1980s and the “official theme” that has been promoted since the 1990s until today in fact are both new ways of expression of socialist realism. The core of the two are still praising and eulogizing politicized life, centering around official themes and positions, instead of expressing the individual social observations and life experiences of artists themselves. The only difference is that art styles nowadays are richer compared with pre-1978 socialist realism, and there is a larger variety of technologies available, which is also the result of the diversification of Chinese art in the past thirty years.


II. What kind of Realism

In the past ten years or so, contemporary Chinese art of different schools seldom used the term “realism”, but rather stressed their social, intervening and political aspect. This in fact showed that “realism” had its artistic conceptions changed in China, turning into a “realistic spirit”, “a fighting spirit that dares to confront misery in life and dribbling blood and refuses to cover ugliness with beauty (By Luxun); the spirit embraces a full range of senses: both beauty (harmony, delicacy, proportion and unity, etc.) and non-beauty, as well as ugliness (deformity, opposition, weirdness and enigma.); such a spirit belongs to the society as well as individuals. ” Their opposition to the common target of socialist realism justified their existence and the status of being avant-garde. Today we need another kind of realism, one that does not false prosperity, or affect a rural and folk flavor, or copy existing paradigms of realism. It cries for reflecting how our heart truly sees the self and the world. Such a kind of realism incorporates in it a new meaning and a new perception of the world. In today’s China, realism should go beyond the world of painting to be an all-round realism that embraces the whole world and cuts through all artistic genres. What is most important is to break away from the obsession with objects in painting that has always understood realism as merely what we see with our eyes.

Art is therefore difficult nowadays, because it is no easy job to present a reality that is not daily seen, but opens people’s eyes to another kind of art and its value, so that people may not immediately think of a painting on an easel whenever art is mentioned. Contemporary Chinese art, after over thirty years of development, has come to a new era-turning point. With China’s modern realities present, open society ready and the country’s integration into the stream of life worldwide, realism must put on a brand new look so as to represent the drastic changes happening in China, not just in the society proper, but also in art and culture in general. Today’s Chinese art must bear a striking characteristic of the self and a visual effect of self-consciousness. This also implies a strong desire for a comprehensive creation of one’s own experience, or, in other words, a self-image of cultural psychology in the new era. In the context of complex and rapid-changing realities of today’s China, it should give a visual representation of personal psychological realities, including grief, joy, loneliness, ambition, hypocrisy, helplessness, melancholy, and wisdom. Speaking of wisdom, it should also embody the Chinese people’s rational abilities of visual creation and expression. On this point, without a meticulous spirit of exploration and curiosity, art will drown itself in a narrowed understanding of “realism” and fail to inspire new ideas and spirit. Modern China demands a true spirit of realism that regards art as life and conveys emotions and conceptions, instead of the naturalist realistic painting that cannot live without models.

III. Realism that opposes opportunism

When we look at art in other countries, we expect them to be different from that of China. Similarly, the world does not expect something universal in our art. That means, the context of globalization cries out ever more for a local sense and an ability to handle the whole picture. This does not concern neo-colonial or western perceptions, because today’s China ought to have a truthful self-evaluation that is rooted in the self and impervious to any outside influence. For example, there are many Chinese artists living overseas. In their creation one can easily detect the absence of “Chineseness”. Only few preserved elements of the Chinese context and gained world recognition. Many are not valuable as part of the history of contemporary Chinese art. It is often said that, unless creating an alternative art in their living environment, a special artistic power that conquers the conventional visual habits, being away from a particular environment for too long will cause artists to lose their cultural connections with and direct perceptions of the previous environment, i.e. their artistic power. The history of contemporary Chinese art is written in this way. One cannot go against the trend by hiding one’s feelings from creation, because that would be giving up a serious spirit. This point will become much clearer with the further development of contemporary Chinese art.

Therefore, the realism of contemporary Chinese art we are discussing has to differ from its politicized version several decades ago in China, which was a group unconsciousness with the precondition of eliminating individual characteristics. Today, if we want to advocate a meaningful realism, we must carefully consider what kind of realism we need, otherwise we may easily get trapped in realistic painting and wrongly regard it as of a new type. If we narrow realism down to a concrete and honest representation of real life, for example a painting of scenes or farmers in rural areas, it will be a departure from the critical spirit and valuable position of realism and oblivious to the artist’s personal attitude. Realism cannot take a one-sided position, or it will not be a healthy contemporary art. Artists in today’s China should be staunch practitioners of a certain conception, and do not pander to the tastes of fashion at a particular time.

IV Issue-concerned realism

By proposing issue-concerned realism, we aim at retorting to those false arts in current China. Why cannot art represent and consider those worthwhile topics? When philosophy, history and sociology are making criticism in the fields of psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, deconstruction, gender, post-colonialism and mass culture, what should contemporary Chinese art do? Just paint leisurely in a studio? Or continue to make painting products following the old paradigm? Once start doing so, without persistent creation, an artist will quickly see the end of his artistic life. The numerous studios in Beijing should not exist only for the market, but serve as a new fountain for China’s cultural driving force and artistic conceptions.

Among many Chinese artists, only a small portion keep abreast with the times. If we take a purely artistic approach to a country as special as China, we can hardly draw any insightful observations. Whether an artist can look at an issue from a truly realistic perspective, i.e. look at China’s current problems with an issue-concerned realistic perspective determines the individuality of art and the quality of the artist. This is not a harsh requirement, but what real art necessitates in the Chinese context.  Therefore, the criteria for judging contemporary Chinese art are whether it changes the customary understanding of art, whether it intervenes into and is concerned with life and whether it is concerned with current issues. The new generation of Chinese artists should not pursue an obsession with the forms of art. As the variety of art is getting richer and richer, it is also making it more difficult for people to understand art. The world of diversified art now present in China is not a pretense, one that takes meaningless techniques of forms as the goal of art. What we call a realistic attitude is for artists to incorporate their understanding of the society and of art reforms into art itself. Contemporary Chinese art, especially born at the request of the times, should have such a realistic attitude to confront the problems of China.

A realistic attitude in China also implies the conscience of artists and scholars as individuals. Pragmatic opportunism is not realism. Facing the history of politicized environment, whether one has the courage to disclose truth and question the false is a realistic and concrete problem. When people look back on history with a thirst, they must adopt a realistic attitude, an independent spirit and approach so as to debate with the historical records that are incomplete, politicized and overshadowed by power. And rewrite the historical processes in the spirit of realism.

Issue-concerned realism is to shatter power and market desire bound opportunism, and let contemporary artists express their own feelings and opinions. As a serious criticism, it should have a serious realistic attitude to face real art and find out serious art.

Issue-concerned realism should treat the self in a truthful manner and give full play to the expanded functions of art. Just like some artists say that when painting cannot convey the emotions or thinking, action or comprehensive installation will take over; when painting is not enough, they will directly resort to image to demonstrate visual power; when plane is week, they will turn to solid representation to give an experience of being present. In those past decades, all types of work, such as bigger or smaller portraits, or a painting of political symbols, are not issue-concerned realism, no matter how vivid or accurate they may be. It is because, without the spirit of realism, those artists were deprived of the ability of self-reflection, let alone criticizing. To talk about Chinese realism spirit again is to encourage artists to make full use of their artistic wisdom, giving art the power of appealing to people and thinking over the deep intellectual issues.

Nowadays, artists need a comprehensive realism that focuses on realities, on the self and can make use of a variety of artistic means. Such a focus on realities in fact includes the realities of art history itself and the psychological response of the self, because contemporary art has bred many fields, such as installation art, performance art and new media art, etc. All those together form the realities of today’s art. Such a realism is not a style, nor a new subject or technique, but an artistic attitude that will finally turn into different artistic representations. Contemporary art is an idea art that explores issues. The idea will inevitably be deep down into realities. It is human being’s intellectual appeal panned out after the protracted process of art development, rather than just visual sense.

Realism in China is not entirely an academic issue. Due to the political system of China, it will remain an ideological issue, only with different forms of representation and different degrees of politicization.

2009-1-11 Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing

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