A young lady was sent from the Propaganda Bureau

The New Cultural Revolution

2012

Shanghai and Beijing

A young lady was dispatched by the Propaganda Bureau, to tell me word for word, what had been said on the podiums of China’s political  meetings over the past few weeks, As I’ m China’s only resident foreign correspondent focused on the arts I was considered not important enough to meet the leader- but the secretary explained she had been briefed on what she was to say. In English, even though we had negotiated the interview in Chinese.

Following China’s recent top party plenum and the 60th anniversary celebrations for the founding of the people’s republic, cultural policy has been given some new impetus in the country. But while promising to open up, in speeches by the central leadership, a new measure was brought in this August to restrict the import and export of artworks. There has also been a major reshuffle in recent months within the Ministry of Culture (MOC), initiated by newly appointed minister Mr. Cai Wu.

The arts fall under China’s ‘cultural industry’ category for legislation, alongside the media, and related bodies. The arts are governed by a complicated mix of ministries, who fight turf wars over legislative power over the various sectors, but overall ‘cultural industries’ are still predominately the domain of the MOC. Being mixed in with media the arts have been given new guidelines from the central government. The Chinese government is on a drive to grow its ‘cultural industry base’ – a recent highlight was the visit by various world media moguls to Beijing for a summit with China’s leaders. The central government also promised to further open up its media sector, and ‘eliminate parasites’ in the sector. Whilst on the other hand, there has been a new interim measure to control the import and export of artworks into and leaving the country- the censorship of artworks leaving the country has caused some anxiety amongst galleries working in China.

Angeline Shen, an official with Shanghai Publicity Dept. (formerly known as the Propaganda Bureau) said:

“The Central government wants to promote and encourage the cultural industry. There are still some restrictive policies- such as on media and broadcasting, which are very tightly controlled by the government, but the overall environment is now more open.”

Commenting on new guidelines for the arts Ms Shen said : “Art itself is an abstract concept, we should make art relate to products… embed cultural value, be affordable. This is an emerging industry…this kind of field is very important, and there is a lot of impetus for development, for art we should be more down to earth, and practical. If art can be related to practical objects, if it can become related to the economy, the government encourages this. We should not just create art for individuals- it should be more mass market. The government also encourages healthy foreign investment and cooperation.”

Ms. Shen further said: “Shanghai is poised to be the financial center of China, within 15 years. How do we relate this financial investment, to embed it into the progress of cultural development? You can say culture is not related to products- but this does not mean we need only physical objects for the public- performance art for instance can become a successful product in itself. Also in China we are working on ways traditional art can be further innovated and marketed. Some regulations are still very restrictive, important channels are still controlled, but it is a good phenomenon that some are opening up.”

A declaration from China’s Ministry of Culture (MOC), in conjunction with the State Council and China Customs, was released early August, called the “Interim Provisions for Import and Export Management of Fine Art works.” Though the declaration was not noticed initially, galleries began to report to the Art Newspaper that export of certain artworks was now impossible without a special approval from the MOC. The wording of the declaration in Chinese language makes the announcement sound temporary, or provisionary, leading to the understanding it is under review. But long term gallerists in China fear that the measure is a new long term measure going forward for contemporary art.

Commenting on the new policy to control art work exports Ms Shen said: “In my personal view, some policies are delayed within the field of cultural development. If you are smart you can see some flexible margins within these rules. You can still follow the rules and do what you want. Galleries, for instance, can find some very smart ways to deal with this and be pragmatic.”

After extensive interviews with numerous galleries it appears the results of the new rules for artwork exports are mixed. Numerous galleries reported the ruling does not affect their business at all, as shipping is not their concern. Many others, a mixture of foreign and local galleries, all reported this new regulation has caused many issues, and especially increased the cost of business. No gallery would talk about their reaction or experiences on the record, but different galleries said certain kinds of work have become very difficult to export, from sculpture to Chairman Mao portraits. Different galleries have formulated different strategies to deal with this new ruling.

A spokesperson for the MOC, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the ruling is not new, but a more “convenient application of earlier rules that have not been implemented properly in the past.”

“Customs did not pay proper attention to the rules before, now they must pay more attention. The intention of the new guidelines are to make artwork imports and exports more convenient, as local MOC departments must now implement this approval process at the point of entry or exit, unlike before when all approvals were supposed to go through Beijing. The approval process involves the submission of a form stating the works content and a photograph. Price does not need to be mentioned, this is not related to price,” the official said.

Ms Lin from Art Beijing art fair said:  “Regarding exports, the rules in China have to be obeyed, of course. However, in China, the rules might concern those art works which have an important meaning for China’s culture, being exported overseas. Thus, they have to control and avoid these things happening.”

The detailed 11 point guidelines were posted online by the MOC. According the rules affected artworks are “works of creative aesthetic significance…(including) paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, photography, installations and other work.” 

In relation to foreign artworks it further states: “No unit or individual may sell, exhibit, display or transmit imported artworks without approval.” For foreign art exhibitions in China a long exhaustive list of documentation must be provided 45 days prior.  The approval process for Chinese artworks must be made within 15 days.

  China has implemented a new method of censorship of artwork exiting and entering the country, with a focus on preventing controversial artworks leaving the Peoples Republic. This new layer of bureaucracy is causing issues for galleries, especially those exporting challenging art works.  The new situation does not affect taxes, or artwork value, it is purely an assessment of content.

Predominately the new ruling is having effect on artworks sold for export- imported works already undergo strict scrutiny, until now the government has mostly let works out the country with little comment. A noticeable exception was the work “A Day to Remember 2005,” sent to the Taipei Biennale in 2008 commenting on the Tiananmen Massacre, which had to be smuggled out of the country. 

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A declaration from China’s Ministry of Culture (MOC), in conjunction with the State Council and China Customs, was released early August, called the “Interim Provisions for Import and Export Management of Fine Art works.” Though the declaration was not noticed initially, galleries began to report to the Art Newspaper that export of certain artworks was now impossible without a special approval from the MOC. The wording of the declaration in Chinese language makes the announcement sound temporary, or provisionary, leading to the understanding it is under review. But long term gallerists in China fear that the measure is a new long term measure going forward for contemporary art.

As China heads towards the 60th anniversary of the People’s republic, with a planned large scale military parade, media, including the internet, have been put under very strict controls. This has been exacerbated by unrest in remote areas. The Communist Party Central Committee also held its annual meeting mid September, with most China watchers expecting a shakeup within the hierarchy as President Hu Jintao nears his 2012 retirement date.  Speculation surrounds whether more reformist factions will increase in power, or more hardline conservatives will hold sway. Which sections of the party win out will have an impact on cultural policies as the politicians horse trade policies to create a concensus.

After extensive interviews with numerous galleries it appears the results of the new rules for artwork exports are mixed. Numerous galleries reported the ruling does not affect their business at all, as shipping is not their concern. Many others, a mixture of foreign and local galleries, all reported this new regulation has caused many issues, and especially increased the cost of business. No gallery would talk about their reaction or experiences on the record, but different galleries said certain kinds of work have become very difficult to export, from sculpture to Chairman Mao portraits. Different galleries have formulated different strategies to deal with this new ruling.

A spokesperson for the MOC, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the ruling is not new, but a more “convenient application of earlier rules that have not been implemented properly in the past.”

“Customs did not pay proper attention to the rules before, now they must pay more attention. The intention of the new guidelines are to make artwork imports and exports more convenient, as local MOC departments must now implement this approval process at the point of entry or exit, unlike before when all approvals were supposed to go through Beijing. The approval process involves the submission of a form stating the works content and a photograph. Price does not need to be mentioned, this is not related to price,” the official said.

According to the official, to her knowledge, no artworks have yet been rejected under the new rules, despite numerous reports from gallerists to the contrary.

The detailed 11 point guidelines were posted online by the MOC. According the rules affected artworks are “works of creative aesthetic significance…(including) paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, photography, installations and other work.” 

In relation to foreign artworks it further states: “No unit or individual may sell, exhibit, display or transmit imported artworks without approval.” For foreign art exhibitions in China a long exhaustive list of documentation must be provided 45 days prior.  The approval process for Chinese artworks must be made within 15 days.

A foreign cultural official, who also asked to remain anonymous, said “Of course this is censorship, as it has no relation to price. Those with good relations will still be able to do what they want, and the local cultural departments will not make any censorship decision without getting approval from Beijing.”

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