Article archive- the end of China’s reform era

Part of the purpose of this blog is to republish some of my previously published articles which may no longer be widely available.

This one notes the Chinese president’s comments on art & culture (2016)

China’s President Xi Jinping has broken his silence on the topic of arts and culture with a widely reported speech in Beijing, to various notables such as recent Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan. In a wide ranging talk Xi shared his thoughts including his dislike of modern architecture, his Maoist belief that art should ‘serve the people like an ox,’ promote Chinese values and how artists should not be commercial or market oriented.

Shanghai based filmmaker Michael Ouyang said: “I also find it interesting that Xi seemingly ascribes to a prescriptive theory of art, much like Confucius’ attitude towards music- where ritually “correct” music strengthens morality in the listener. This theory values social values and morality over individual expression. Of course there is a place for both of these things in art, but I feel like there needs to be balance. If an artwork trumpets social values but has no real individual expression, it lacks the power to inspire and influence society. If an artwork has strong individual expression, I think it cannot help but to inspire and influence others.” 

In the context of the massive anti-corruption campaign and political turmoil in Hong Kong, combined with a new wave of artist arrests in China for crimes such as ‘holding an umbrella,’ this speech from the usually reticent Chinese leader is been interpreted as a shift to the conservative right. China watchers believe there is a massive purge of the followers of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin underway.

Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia, Gary Sigeley, said: “China is in the midst of a major party rectification and societal moral crusade the scale of which we haven’t seen since reform began in 1978. This entails, amongst other things, the party-state taking a firm hold of the cultural realm, which obviously includes attempting to monitor, police and censor the work of artists. Most recently President Xi’s speech.. calling upon artists to follow the party line, to be patriotic, and to be morally virtuous, is not new… it is the direct descendant of Chairman Mao’s landmark lecture on  arts and literature given in Yan’an in 1942. In this lecture, which was also part of a major party rectification movement, it made the famous statement that there is ‘no art for arts sake.’ Mao called upon artists and writers to serve the party and its vision of class struggle. In the 1980s, under President Deng Xiaoping’s direction, the party upheld most of what Mao had said, but dismissed the notion that art should be subordinate to politics……though of course there was a clear political boundary.”

When Mao made his comments in 1942 there was a much smaller Chinese art market, while in current day China there arguably exists  one of the world’s largest art markets. It seems incongruous that artists in cities like Beijing and Shanghai can function successfully, with large studios and successful practices under such political conditions. Many observers claim that successful artists, even those thought of as anti-establishment, are to some degree compromised by the political situation in China, which for instance maintains a far larger and more complex citizen surveillance system than East Germany’s Stasi maintained in its heyday.

Michael Ouyang commented: “there’s a lot of state-sponsored art and overt state action with regard to art but the even more prevalent phenomenon is self-censorship. Or, if you prefer, self-restraint. That’s always the most insidious thing….where part of the reason you have people making art for the money is that they figure, ‘if I can’t have free expression and I have to fulfill conditions that I don’t necessarily agree with using methods I don’t necessarily agree with, I might as well get paid for it.’ The artists who are expressing themselves sometimes do great things, but they aren’t getting exposure, approval, recognition…from their home country. It is also pretty tough to be appreciated only by people who aren’t from your home…”

For some working in China’s art institutions Xi’s words have not met with enthusiasm. Tina Zhang Ting, a professor at Shanghai Fine Arts University, and recent curator of a German neo-expressionism exhibition at Shanghai’s Art Museum, said: “Xi said art should focus on public education for citizens, not only for commercial profit, this is of course right, but how can we balance budgets with the shortages and reductions of governmental service…. As the service leader of a public state, (Xi) should be more focused on how to make people learn more about art from the public non-profit angle. Xi should give his methodology, not only guide the general direction, everyone knows the direction, but from my personal viewpoint, I think a good leader or politician should give the argument and then offer his strategy, the plan that  shows how to reach the final goal he advocates.”

 Following Mao’s 1942 statements on art numerous artists were suppressed and persecuted, from those who had studied in the salons of Paris to traditional Chinese painting masters.

In related news, since late September, various media have reported around a dozen artists and poets have been arrested in Beijing for activities relating to support of the Hong Kong democracy protests.

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