This is the second part of an interview with Paul Gladston, one of the leading experts on contemporary Chinese art who has just been appointed as the director of the conference platform for Warsaw Asia Contemporary Art Week 2017.
Contemporary Chinese Art: A Critical History is perhaps your best-known book. How critical is Chinese contemporary Chinese art?
As I’ve already indicated, the significance of contemporary Chinese art as a site of critical resistance to and/or negotiation with authority is very much a matter of one’s relative cultural positioning. While international audiences and commentators continue to judge contemporary Chinese art for the most part by the established standards of western(ized) post-Enlightenment culture as a potential focus for critical opposition to authority, in China the situation is rather less clear-cut. Political conditions in the PRC continue to place significant authoritarian limits on art as a site of open public dissent. Moreover, since the late 1990s, contemporary art has been co-opted to support the Chinese government’s desire to promote creative industries at home and project soft power abroad. For many, though, contemporary art nevertheless continues to act – because and not in spite of its lack of outright autonomy - as a civilization-specific embodiment of high-cultural values; values that run contrary to the exercising of excessive instrumentalism within China as well as the pervasive relativism of western(ized) liberal democracy.
As part of traditional Chinese Confucian culture, scholar-gentry poetry, painting and calligraphy were seen as high-cultural expressions of moral-critical detachment from overweening imperial-political authority. The Yimin, or scholar that retreats into nature as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the political direction of the Chinese imperial state is a well-known one in China. The Chinese scholar-artist remains committed to the continuity of the imperial state, that is to say complicit with the state, while taking an oblique, non-oppositional critical stance towards authority. This traditional outlook persists to a large extent among progressive artists in contemporary China. What may seem critically bland from a western(ized) cultural perspective is within Chinese cultural contexts open to interpretation as more or less the opposite. For sure, contemporary art has to negotiate its critical position with authority in the PRC. That makes it seem complicit with power from a western(ized) post-Enlightenment perspective, which in some sense it is. Equally, I don’t think we should see contemporary art in western(ized) cultural contexts as being all that critical. The ascribing of supposed critical value to contemporary artworks is part of their assimilation by the contemporary globalized neo-liberal spectacle. The contemporary art world and its cultural economies – of production, exhibition/dissemination, and reception – are geared up to this spectacle and place concomitant disciplining demands on artists, curators and critics wishing to participate. The art historian Julian Stallbrass has referred to this state of affairs as ‘Art inc.’. I’ve labelled it the ‘cultural-economic complex’. All artists have to negotiate critically with prevailing circumstances. I’m not sure we can ever refer to those negotiations as outright resistances per se.
Yu Youhan is widely considered to be a ‘father’ of contemporary abstract painting and Political Pop in China. Another book of yours focuses on the work of this artist. What about this book? Which aspects of the artistic practice of Yu Youhan have you found most interesting and innovative?
If you’ll forgive me, I’d like to sidestep the question of innovation here. I don’t want to reinforce western(ized) modernism’s fetishization of innovation or postmodernism’s questioning of modernist attitudes in addressing Yu’s work. That would involve partial, culturally loaded abstractions of thought which tend to occlude the significance of Yu’s work in relation to the immediate localized conditions of its making and reception. Instead, let me say something about Yu’s desire to uphold the practice of painting within the particular context of the PRC. Yu saw reproductions of western early modernist painting as a boy during the 1950s. As a student in Beijing in the 1960s - during the Cultural Revolution - he repressed his interest in western painting in the face of prevailing political criticism of western cultural influences.
Yu was also subject to denunciation for much of the 1960s as someone from a bourgeois background – his father had been a bank official until the founding of communist New China in 1949. In the early 1970s Yu was allocated a teaching job at an arts and crafts college near Shanghai. He began to produce a series of ‘post-impressionist’ style paintings at odds with what was then state supported socialist realism. From the early 1980s Yu developed a series of non-figurative paintings, arriving at the circular ‘yuan’ motif which has characterized his mature abstract painting style by the middle of that decade. These non-figurative paintings drew on the work of western early modernist painters, including Mondrian and Kandinsky, as well as techniques derived from traditional Chinese ink and brush painting. Although a more liberal attitude to artistic production had arisen in the PRC in the mid-1980s in accordance with Deng Xiaoping’s so-called policy of Opening and Reform, Yu’s non-figurative paintings were nevertheless made against the grain of prevailing cultural values in China where socialist realist and academic styles of painting still held sway.
From the late 1980s Yu began to develop his so-called ‘Political Pop’ paintings which are characterized by appropriations of imagery and colour symbolism from the time of the Cultural Revolution, including official photographs of Mao Zedong, rendered in ‘pop’ styles translated from the work of Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton among others. Yu made this shift in an attempt to engage with rapidly changing socio-political and economic circumstances within and outside the PRC that he felt could not be addressed by his non-figurative paintings. Yu’s Political Pop paintings were and continue to be challenging within the PRC not only because of their apparently critical treatment of iconic political subjects, but also conspicuous use of western stylistic tropes. The rest of Yu’s career has been characterized by shifts between figurative and non-figurative styles. One might view Yu’s paintings from a modernist perspective as a series of copies of existing western models. Or one might view them from a post-modernist point of view as a series of deconstructive appropriations – after the manner of Gerhard Richter.
Neither interpretation is, I think, definitive, In each case Yu’s stylistic shifts have been at odds with prevailing localized cultural attitudes. They are the results of a felt imperative on the part of the artist to maintain the vitality of painting against its institutionalization as a prescribed practice. In support of his own practice, Yu upholds Daoist notions of the importance of spontaneity in harmonious accordance with the ‘way’ of nature. Given the graftings of differing cultural outlooks involved, it’s not possible to describe Yu’s painting definitively as innovative. Nor, given his espousal of the harmonizing tendencies of Daoism, can we see Yu’s intentions as definitively deconstructive. Nevertheless, his has been a constant critical negotiation of the possibility of painting in the face of prevailing cultural and political restrictions; one that can be easily overlooked from western(ized) critical perspectives.
Do you find in Chinese cultural and economic history the same possibilities that allowed the United States since the early 1950s to become an international art and cultural reference point?
No I don’t think so. The circumstances which enabled American modernist and postmodernist art to become globally dominant during the C20th are not mirrored precisely in relation to China. The development of American modernism and its part in the projection of US soft power after WWII took place in the context of the ideological divisions of the Cold War. Under those circumstances American art was produced and disseminated as a manifestation of a progressive modernism predicated on values of individual freedom and self-expression. Of course this stress on freedom and individualism was heavily enmeshed with capitalist notions of free enterprise even though modernist artists often sought to position themselves critically in relation to capitalist institutions and systems.
Modernism and post-modernism both uphold the post-Enlightenment notion of critical culture as a staple of modernity. Being American was coextensive with being modern. The coincidence of artistic and political value as part of modernism support the projection of American art as a defined foil diametrically opposed to socialist realism. It made an imperialist projection of capitalist culture possible. The position of post-modernist and contemporary art is less clear-cut. A critique of the hegemony of western culture is a principal tenet of post-modernism and contemporaneity. Contemporary Chinese art is party to this critique. On the one hand contemporary Chinese art draws conspicuously on western(ized) modernism, post-modernism and contemporaneity. But it also asserts the persistence of a civilization-specific Chineseness against western cultural dominance. As such, it is enmeshed with localized socio-economic and political circumstances in the PRC which have embraced aspects of western(ized) capitalism while retaining an authoritarian politics which carries significant traces of China’s imperial past as well as pre-communist republican and Maoist era anti-imperialism.
Artists in the PRC now have to negotiate a desire to remain relevant in global terms and to project a critically ‘resistant’ Chineseness. That can seem rather muddled and contradictory compared to the apparently strong identification of American art with modernism and capitalist democracy during the C20th. So despite the PRC’s growing international economic and political power its simply not possible to project contemporary Chinese art as a definitive alternative to a dominant westernized contemporaneity. That said, aspects of Asian culture are significant additions to contemporaneity. Translations of Asian culture were part of western modernism, but always secondary to the myth of a specifically european and western modernity. Which are, of course, because of their culturally mixed character always-already myths.
Read also the First Part