It’s not all about
human-rights abuses

China possesses one of the world’s hottest, most vibrant art scenes – if only Westerners could see it.

The Chinese art world is booming. But Americans are largely missing out on it, in part because of a kind of latter-day Orientalism that blinds us to some of the most exciting developments in modern art.

By 2010, China had become the world’s leading art auction marketplace, pulling in billions of dollars a year and easily overtaking the former market leaders, the UK and the US. Today, according to the market analyst group Artprice, five of the world’s 10 best-selling artists are Chinese – and Beijing is the world’s second global art capital.

New York, if Artprice is to be believed, is the world’s first global art capital. And yet New Yorkers are still woefully ignorant about Chinese art. In the whole city, there are only two major galleries specialising in Chinese contemporary art (the Eli Klein gallery and the Chambers Street gallery). Our museums are just now beginning to add more new Chinese artists to their collections.

Maxwell Hearn, the new head of the Metropolitan Museum’s Asian art department, told me that ‘there’s a wonderful groundswell of interest about China’. But for now, he added quickly, that interest is limited by a lack of familiarity with China. ‘So far, China’s impact is largely political and economic’, he said. It can be difficult for Americans to place, and relate to, Chinese art. ‘Western galleries are going to be interested in handling artists that work in global idioms’, Hearn said. ‘Westerners have only become aware of those things that have very direct Western appeal.’

What does ‘Western appeal’ mean? In the old days, Westerners were charmed by lotus flowers, ink drawings of cats and calligraphy; in those days, the ‘Orient’ meant all that was mysterious and inscrutable and alluring. Today, when we think about Chinese art, we tend to think about politics, censorship, government oppression. This is our new Orientalism: a kind of censorship chic that fetishises the imprisoned artist.

Ai Wei Wei, who has been in and out of prison for years, is by far the best-known Chinese contemporary artist. He has earned his fame: Ai’s work has brought attention to the problems of migrant workers (‘Fairytale’, 2007) and rapid industrialisation (‘Sunflower Seeds’, 2010). Ai also documented the unnecessary deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

But Ai is famous in the West because, in part, he tells us what we already think we know about China. As Herb Tam, a curator at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), told me: ‘There have been waves of interest [in Chinese art] over the last few years, and we’re hitting a peak again, especially because of Ai Wei Wei, and because China’s on the rise… Ai Wei Wei points to, and highlights, what many people suspect about the Chinese government – that it doesn’t allow for many political views.’

It’s not that this view of the government isn’t true, but there is far, far more to contemporary Chinese art than Ai Wei Wei and censorship. ‘The Chinese government has vastly loosened restrictions on contemporary art over the last few years’, Eli Klein told me. ‘You almost have to make a Mao with breasts to be censored.’ I asked Phelim Kine, a senior Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, whether this was true. ‘I broadly agree’, he said, adding that the years of ‘overt and explicit’ censorship – the kind of constant policing that many of us still imagine still takes place - are largely over. (Literature, he says, continues to face the same obstacles as ever.)

Kine was careful to stress that, in place of overt censorship, many Chinese artists have learned to self-censor – both for the sake of their own well-being and for the sake of saleability. Chinese buyers account for the bulk of the Chinese art market, and many seem to believe they favour safe, non-controversial art.

Still, many artists have also found ways to create works that combine the political and the personal. Their messages may not be as blunt, or as brutally literal, as Ai Wei Wei’s - but their subtlety often makes the artwork more universal.

Take, for example, Liu Bolin. His ‘hidden in the city’ series features a ghostlike man, almost lost against the backdrop of an urban landscape. The pictures could say a great deal about the way an oppressive government tries to ‘disappear’ free-thinking individuals. But the series also says a lot about cities, crowds, and loneliness. In other words, the series can speak to us all, independent of our national experiences. These are not one-dimensional political statements, but universal pieces of art.

Or look at Zhang Dali’s ‘Demolition’ series. The artist spray-painted the outline of his own head onto concrete walls scheduled for demolition by the government; he then used a chisel to knock big head-shaped holes into the walls. Again, the work is rich in political significance. But it also stands on its own artistic merit: these are beautiful, unsettling pieces that make you feel as knocked open as those concrete walls.

It’s time for us to get past the idea that Chinese art can be only one of two things: an exotic antique or a cry for help from an oppressed land. It’s time to open our doors to the many exciting artists working in China. If New York is, indeed, the capital of the art world, we can only stay that way by taking in as much as we can from all the many other capitals of that world.

Kate Prengel is a writer and art critic living in New York.

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