Post Avant-garde: An Issue About the Stance of Chinese Contemporary Art

Wang Lin


The rapidly developing economy of China with its population of 1.3 billion has fueled not just economy , but also the growth of an important cultural industry, contemporary art Since the debut of Chinese artists on the international art stage in 1993 at the 45th Venice Biennale, Chinese participation has become a regular feature in all major international exhibitions.

However, in sharp contrast to the success of artists,Chinese curators,collectors,art media and art institutions are still not truly engaged with the international art system. On the occasions when they do get involved,they mostly play minor roles,or at worst serve as“spicing”for diversification. No matter how many international exhibitions have been held in China,and how many overseas artists invited,Chinese contemporary art remains primarily a target for western curators,collectors,art media and art institutions Something can be said about such kind of integration with the world:it benefits the opening up of Chinese culture and society, and provides opportunities for artists;however, other serious problems have risen:it encourages opportunism and fosters a type of post—colonial mentality. Furthermore,due to the restrictive selection of the cultural Other, and the institutionalized role of international exchange,this also obscures serious local cultural problems. With the establishment of the official China Pavilion at the Venice Biennale,the presence of Chinese contemporary art in the becomes increasingly the sounding board of official tome.

Under such a“conspiracy”,what Chinese contemporary art lacks is critical thinking,a thinking based on local context and indigenous issues. Without a freely critical thinking supported by academic knowledge,there is no way to precisely interpret and understand Chinese contemporary art. The collective muteness of Chinese critics leaves our art defenseless on the international stage.

In 1993 when Achille Bonito Oliva invited 14 Chinese contemporary artists to the Venice Biennale in the name of Wandering in Orient Land,I published one article titled Oliva Is No Saviour of Chinese Art. Why not? The reason is:Oliva’s selection did not reflect the real dilemma in the life of Chinese people. China’s main dilemma is the widening economic gap caused by the collusion of market economy and bureaucratic power, which has fundamentally shaken the traditionally accepted ideological premise of equality. Faced with the collapse of traditional values,what can China do to regain its footing? How should it revive its culture in this new age? This is a critical issue for contemporary Chinese art,and an issue shared by every nation regardless of historical cultural differences,whether East or West .

In today’s world,dominant modes of production still allow Capital to claim unfair majority of surplus value created by Labour. In China,such  capital is further strengthened by the power of institutionalized bureaucracy. In my understanding,the“cultural nomadism”promoted by Oliva is not a sort of cultural tourism taking pleasure in spectacles of nomadic shepherds grazing their herds along the streets of Paris or New York,but a sharing of artistic creations from various cultural backgrounds. We must realize that there is no ‘internationalization’ that can transcend regionalism. Even the Trans—avant-garde Movement promoted by Olivia himself originated from the regional art of Italy.Hence,Chinese artists only have a true presence,and significance as artists,when they return to current social and cultural problems in their own society.

Due to the volatile political system and the abnormal development of consumer culture in China today, the entire society is pervaded by commercialism and utilitarianism. In art this can be evidenced by artists‘ evasion of social issues,avoidance of historical memories,and lack of humanitarian concern for those abandoned by the current social system. Their concern is catering to the needs of domestic and overseas art markets and pandering to communication media. In fact,since the 1980s,there has been no fundamental change in the historical context of Chinese contemporary art .While we deal with modernist issues about individualism and formalism,and post modern theme of cultural identification, the pre-modern theme of enlightenment has still not been resolved. Under such circumstance,official recognition of contemporary art is more like a form of baiting,luring with personal benefits,with the aim of enticing avant-garde art to give up its critical stance.

A key problem here is the attack on Chinese avant-garde art by post-modern scholars as they wage war against modernism‘s universal principles. In fact,when post-modern scholars like Foucault or Lyotard reflected on the principle of equity of Enlightenment philosophy, they did not challenge the basis of modernity, namely, the primacy of individual freedom and a related legal system for establishing a sound society and new national culture. What they condemn is precisely the regressive absolutism in society, and the application of the power of knowledge,cultural industry and ideology to manipulate individual minds .The importance of China’s avant-garde art movement since the 1980s lies precisely in its persistent pursuit of individual values.

There are at least four reasons that justify the assertion of individual values: firstly,we can note the inherent difference of each individual,based on his physical and psychological make-up; secondly, the special personality and temperament resulting from individual experience;thirdly, factors natural and social that combine to make an infinite diversity of people;fourthly, different expectations and inclinations affecting every person’s growth and development.

The importance of art rests upon the foundation of individual values.

Regional diversity should always be accounted for in the discussion of individual consciousness and individual values. Cultural heritage also plays an important role. For this reason Chinese artists should not ignore indigenous roots for the sake of‘internationalization’,neither should they discard history for the sake of being ‘contemporary’. Regional characteristics are integral to individuality. Therefore,individuality,‘regionality’ and internationality should constitute the three different levels of discussion about contemporary art. ‘Regionality’ is the embodiment of internationality and a deepening of individuality.In this sense,our emphasis on individuality is not only a critique of collectivism within China,but also a critique of the international structure of collective power.For this reason the pursuit of individual values by Chinese avant-garde artists does not fundamentally change with the new context of post-modernism. However, today the ideals of avant-garde art a re facing challenges from two sides. On the one hand there is the seduction of fame and acceptance when entering the circuit of international art. On the other there is the similar seduction when it is accepted by the Chinese official cultural institution.

The novel situation facing contemporary art today is the increasing necessity for art to open up to social reality and mass culture,this means it is necessary for artists to depart from the modernist ideal of formal,individual pursuit,and emphasis instead the need for interaction,both with people and with society as a whole. Through interaction each artist brings forth their individuality and special character.Interactivity is not just a call for art to step outside its boundaries,but also a call to change its artistic character. This means artists must not look at themselves as omniscient cultural revolutionaries who enforce their wisdom on society. Instead,they must open up to other people and to society so as to experience social reality,history and existence,so that they may realize their own potentials and contribute to the history of contemporary culture. Contemporary art should not simply pay lip service to social reality, but must seek to expose all hidden impediments to spiritual growth as it engages the social world Comparing‘modern’art and. ‘contemporary’art: while both point toward the depth of social and spiritual experience, the only difference is the angle each takes;contemporary art aims to be open and interactive,rather than closed and solitary.

For artists, reflections on real life and popular culture should embody their engagements with and critique of social reality and history.  This constitutes the heterodoxy and heterogeneity(namely the avant-garde nature)of art. Contemporary art is not the self—righteous prophet described in Kandinsky’s Spiritual Triangle,who takes upon himself the mission of directing the spirit of the age. A contemporary artist is one who is immersed in social reality, yet maintains alertness against the alienating forces of totalitarianism,cultural industry and ideologically induced habits. His mission is to expose the methods of these alienating powers,and to critique accepted cultural methods so as to pave the way for new cultural practices .If the Hong Kong exhibition‘China’s New Art Post 1989’of1993 was a pioneering event in showing the achievements of new art since the 1980s New Wave Movement, which was then announced to the world through the platforms of Sao Paulo Biennial and Venice Biennial,then the most important things to look for today,10 more years later, are related but alternative post avant-garde artworks. By the‘post avant-garde’is not meant a difference in temporal period;it refers to a creativity that embodies a different creative consciousness and involving alternative artistic alligances. When the ‘post avant-garde’comes to maturity and is ready to display its achievements,that is the time when international exchange and historical manifestation are ready to unfold. On the one hand this will be an international exchange based on individual expressions of the Chinese situation;on the other hand it will be a manifestation of contemporary China through a fresh ‘historicism’.

Likewise for critics,if their ambition is independent artistic and critical insight,their mission would be the research and promotion of the‘post avant-garde’,an art that grows out of the historical situation of contemporary China. What should be done mainly are the followings:

1. For Whom Does History unfold

The global economy has brought about the globalization of consumer culture, and under the overwhelming dynamism of mass culture intellectuals can only but step aside to the fringe. This is not necessarily a bad thing for them, as it allows them to think and ponder the social, cultural, spiritual and individual ethical issues facing their time. They are made to history from within. History is the last stand that cannot be robbed from intellectuals. It is to them that falls the privilege of inspecting history and analyzing the root cause of things. It is to them that is given the opportunity to write history, preserve the memory of its experience as a nation and a people; then finally to create history and within the resigned determinism of current reality, to ponder the possibilities for humanity. Just as artists and art can only hope to seek solace in art history, the enquiries of intellectuals can only be historical; and because of this, these enquiries must be directed at present realities.

2. Living  Within Problems

We call the young art movement of the 1980’s ‘avant-garde’ because the participants identified themselves under this banner. They challenged the dominant official artistic tradition, and made their marks as pioneers of diversity in contemporary art. The ‘self’, as a heroic personality supported by the general principles of Enlightenment, was regarded as self-evident and true. But, into the 1990’s after Chinese society entered a market economy, we discovered that we are all living within problems; we are all part of the problems. So heroes turn into dwarfs, dwarfed by financial capital and privilege capital, and this is the sadness of intellectuals and avant-garde art. The problem is not just that we live within problems, but that we must reflect on ourselves before we can face these problems, especially reflections about the responsibilities and conscience of ourselves as ones who have benefited, and consider the relation of our existence to those still on the fringe of society, at the dredge and in the wilds. A true artist is one who would definitely defend awareness of the self, and not a selfish individualist desperate for gains.

3. Enquiry From an Alternative Position

Market economy, cultural industry, dominant ideology and their public media not only attempt to control our needs, they even try to control us by making us willingly want what they want. Individual rights and spiritual liberty is today more seriously challenged, in more intense and more complex ways, than any period since the Enlightenment. Chinese society has not stepped into a ‘post-industrial’ era with the arrival of global economy and information revolution, we are in fact caught within a cultural matrix of pre-modern era, problems about personality and formalism from the modern era and issues of cultural identity have not been resolved. Therefore Chinese contemporary art should not simply take at face value the looks of post-modern art, and get unduly excited about ideological cross-over and iconographic interpretation. Art must enquire from an alternative position: choosing to remain non-mainstream when culture is officially controlled, become an anarchist when the spirit is restricted, and stand for the negation of negation when life is alienated. Art’s enquiries should adopt an alternative way, an anarchistic and non-mainstream way, to confront raw life, cultural context and spiritual pursuit.

4. Difference Within Interaction

If we say the human spirit needs to constantly enrich, deepen and transcend, that it needs a rounded development, then we would have full reason to argue for cultural diversity. The principle of difference in contemporary art is built precisely upon such a basis. In contrast to the general principle of modernism, this does not imply negation; instead this is built upon the modern individual’s principle of liberated thinking that came about from the Enlightenment. Difference is not simply the distance between cultures; it is also the distance between social groups within the same culture. In a manner of speaking, the individual’s specificity is the result of crossing different social groups and diverse cultures. Therefore a person’s cultural identity is determined by his social group belonging and cultural belonging. What we call ‘individuality’ is the accident, and the possibility, of such belonging. There is no such thing as a pure individual, there is only a responsible individual within human relationships. Therefore the individual is always interactive, and his counterpart can either be other social groups or ethnic groups, or historical memory and cultural reality. Interactivity is the unavoidable outcome of difference, and this truth is evidence of the wisdom of dialectics: true specificity arises from the crossing of generality; true individuality comes out of the richness of specificity. Specificity, as the mediator of generality and individuality, is that which we most treasure in art.


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