essay by Caroline F. Ward, London
© Caroline F. Ward, 2011
all images provided under fair use provisions
In this essay, I would like to examine the concept of ‘modern Chinese art’, how it has been constructed, and its place within an art historical timeline. I shall begin by examining the parameters of ‘modern’ when applied to a culture outside our own, and look at how others have constructed an academic definition of modernity in Chinese art. Secondly, I shall question whether Chinese modern art deserves to be part of a global modernity, and look at the relevance and limitations of geographical boundaries applied to an area-specific art history, asking whether the idea of a ‘Chinese’ modernity is valid in a world where art historical scholarship has been created and developed in a Western world with Western terms, timelines and definitions. Finally, I shall look at the ‘art’ of modern Chinese art, and examine the idea of a modern Chinese art ‘canon’ as well as looking at ways in which it has been both constructed and arranged, to see what extent this has influenced the development of modern Chinese art as an academic discipline, and whether it can be altered.
In defining modernity from a Western perspective, and particularly the definition of ‘modern’ in relation to the study of art, it is generally accepted as defining a set of cultural tendencies resulting from changes to Western society at the end of the 19th century. Modernity in the West is a conscious shift from the ideas of ‘traditional’ art, predominantly due to social and political developments that arose from a post-Industrial Revolution world. Charles Taylor, in his essay ‘Two Theories of Modernity’, outlines this as a way of seeing ‘development’ as the ‘demise of a ‘traditional’ society and the rise of the modern’.1 However, this is not a strictly Western term that can only be applied to Western history: Taylor cites his definition as being ‘acultural’; that is, a theory that ‘describes these transformations in terms of some culture-neutral operation. By this I mean an operation that is not defined in terms of the specific cultures [...] it is seen as of a type that any traditional culture could undergo.’2
Having clarified the ‘modern’, it is now time to look at the ‘Chinese-ness’ of modern Chinese art. Is it relevant to define modern art geographically, and should we still be using geographical boundaries to define art in the face of a growing globalization? As a subject, Chinese modern art sits within the structure of a Chinese art history, but are we able to discuss it and categorize it in a broader and more global context? More specifically: if we are inevitability using Western terms and Western concepts to describe and categorize Chinese art, does this suggest that the entire creation of a Chinese art history may be uncompromisingly Western endeavour, and it is at an automatic disadvantage?
John Clark, in his book ‘Modern Chinese Art’, uses the term ‘Euramerican’ to define the Western European and North American land masses that are primarily responsible for the birth of art history as a subject; broadly speaking, because ‘Euramerica’ is economically further advanced and developed than other areas, it can afford itself the luxury of pursuing the study of subjects such as art history for their own ends, rather than just ‘vital’ disciplines, such as medicine and physics, that are necessary for the furthering of civilization. James Elkins, in his book ‘Is Art History Global?’ declares that ‘Art history, as a named discipline and a department in universities, is principally known in North American and Western Europe’3, and has collected statistics to demonstrate his point, as seen in the graphs below4:
Therefore, is this a word that we can usefully apply to 20th century Chinese art? Or does the meaning of the word ‘modern’ change when used in conjunction with a different society and set of cultural and political norms? Ralph Croizier argues that ‘the term ‘modern’ is particularly hard to define’.5 Is it unarguable that China had its own technological and sociological upheaval at the beginning of the 20th century, and so it would seem to make sense to agree that ‘modern Chinese art should begin after the imperial period, in the twentieth century, with the fall of imperial China in 1911.’6 However, opinions differ: for example Melissa Chiu believes that the Chinese art modernity begins with the contemporary artists in 1979, due to Deng Xiaoping’s open door policy to the West,7 while Jonathan Hay believes that Chinese modernity begins with Shitao at the end of the seventeenth century. Here I shall tentatively align myself with Croizier, who uses the term ‘modern’ to define artists who specifically ‘considered themselves modernists, bringing to China a new style and philosophy of art foreign in origin, although most tried very hard to make it Chinese in style or spirit as well as content.’8 Essentially this can be defined as artists of the 20th century who took inspiration from the West in the way they responded to the ‘modern experience’; many intellectuals believed that Chinese culture and society was suffering and that the solution would be found in Western influence; Xu Beihong and Liu Haisu proactively went abroad and sought out new methods and styles in order to bring them back to China. Artists such as Xu Beihong and Kang Youwei believed that the interaction with the more ‘reality-oriented art’ of Europe would give Chinese painting a much-needed renaissance, implying that all Chinese art that had come before was still very much ‘traditional’, and that in order to modernise one needed new artistic styles and techniques, in order to suitably respond to the complete upheaval of society in terms of urbanisation and industrialisation. Bearing this definition of ‘modern’ in mind, when discussing ‘modern’ Chinese art I shall be referring to art created between 1911 and the present day.
Because of the nature of art history and its fundamental attachment to Euramerica in the formation, terminology and teaching, Jennifer Purtle believes that Elkins’ hypotheses ‘make clear the implicit colonial and imperialist assumptions present in Western academic disciplines and area studies, namely, the formatting of knowledge in Western terms.’9 This Western/Euramerican formatting is the reason why Elkins wrote his book ‘Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History’, in which he ‘questions the narratives of the field established in the twentieth century’10 and declares that his book is an attempt to see how Chinese painting ‘appears through the lens of art history, a discipline that [he] will claim is party, but finally and decisively, Western.’11
Elkins confesses his confusion at the way art historians choose to discuss Chinese painting, and believes that the very act of writing an art history of ‘some country or region’ is inherently Western, even if it is written by a Chinese writer in China. We discuss modern Chinese art using Western terms, we compare Chinese paintings to Western artists and techniques, and this defines our ‘conditions of understanding and representation.’12 Although it is understandable that Euramericans would use familiar terms and comparisons to ‘make sense’13 of Chinese painting, Elkins states that ‘the motivation for the comparison of historical perspectives is thoroughly Western’14, and that ‘the search for optimal comparisons is itself part of the project of art history – it is a modern, Western interest – and that art history is itself Western in several identifiable senses.’15 In this context, we need to ask ourselves whether art history is still a singular Western discipline, or if there are now plural art histories that coexist in different parts of the world. If the latter is the case, Elkins questions whether ‘terms like space and form – not to mention Renaissance or Baroque – should be its leading concepts’16 and is concerned that ‘the majority of its structures, from its institutions to its theories, are identifiably Western.’17
But what is the solution? John Clark believes that it is ‘too simplistic to construct modern Asian art as an antithesis to Euramerican art,’18 particularly when we take the Chinese Diaspora into consideration: are ethnically Chinese artists who are born and raised outside China still able to be categorised as Chinese; more importantly, is their art still ‘Chinese’? If we encounter Chinese artists living and practising art in the West, how are we to classify them, and should we be even be classifying them at all? Wen C. Fong has said to Jerome Silbergeld of his research that ‘several colleagues encouraged him not to make East-West comparisons,’19 for fear of Orientalist undertones.
Yet art history is made up of comparisons, classifications and categorisations. Bearing this in mind, and if we accept that the nature of art history and its fundamental attachment to Euramerica in its formation, terminology and teaching, it appears inevitable that boundaries will continue to be identified and drawn by Western hands. Clark is concerned that because the West is still the ‘centre of discourse’ for art history, it wields a skewed amount of power when it comes to the construction of art histories elsewhere, and wonders if it is ever possible to see a ‘move away from Euramerican typifications of modern art discourse.’20
Liu Qingping takes this even further and cites Asian scholars to be just as guilty as Western scholars in the study of Asian art history, saying that even in the twentieth century, ‘many Asian scholars often discussed various aesthetic questions according to the model of Western aesthetic tradition because the latter had been generally thought of as the birthplace and nursery of aesthetics as "a science".’ In his article ‘The Worldwide Significance of Chinese Aesthetics in the 21st Century’, he states that the differences between the histories of Chinese and Western aesthetics are so vast, that the transplanting of Western terminology and understanding onto Chinese art and visual culture will inevitably lead to ‘misinterpretations or even fatal distortions’21; in attempting to translate a foreign aesthetic into a language we understand, we risk losing meaning and ignoring context. Liu believes that the differences in Chinese and Western aesthetic traditions are represented by ‘two kinds of philosophical spirit’22, that the Chinese intention is ‘a philosophy of beautiful life’ as oppose to the Western ‘science of perceptual knowledge’.23 How can Westerners form categories for an art history that is so fundamentally philosophically different, and are Chinese art historians able to do this without being influenced by the Western nature of their discipline?
This brings me on to the idea of a Chinese art history ‘canon’, and the question of how Chinese modernity has been constructed so far. It only makes sense to begin a discussion of a modern Chinese art canon with Michael Sullivan, who was the first man to collect modern Chinese art and whose choices have unintentionally influenced the formation of a modern Chinese art canon. Despite his collection’s personal nature, it has helped him to ‘formulate a narrative of modern Chinese art history that is influential in both China and the West,’24 predominantly in his text ‘Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China’, which he offers as the ‘personal view of an observer over fifty years’25, and believed (writing in 1996) that soon the need for a general survey of modern Chinese art will be obsolete, as it would not do justice to the expanding amount of works. Yet Josh Yiu believes that Sullivan’s book, along with Lu Peng’s ‘A History of Art in Twentieth Century China’ are ‘to date the two most influential narratives on modern Chinese art’, due to Sullivan’s friendship with artists who have endured and overcome ‘the challenges of western art, the confines of tradition, the restraint of political authority, and the onslaught of commercialism.’26
However, the unforeseen importance of Sullivan’s personal collection is not entirely positive. Having acknowledged that he had no intention of building a ‘comprehensive collection of modern Chinese art’, there are downsides to his personal approach. Because of its nature as a record of interactions, artists have become more or less referenced depending on their relationship with the author, resulting in a narrative where ‘people and anecdotes form the core’.27 Lu’s text also focuses on individual artists, but limited to when the artist was creating the most ‘impact’ in their career, so that ‘artistic merit was subordinate to an artist’s historical impact’.28 If we are to accept Yiu’s opinion that these two texts are still modern Chinese art’s most influential narratives, then we must acknowledge that the current Chinese modern art canon is based predominantly on specific artists.
There have, however, been more attempts by Chinese authors to try and construct Chinese language histories of Chinese art to give a more balanced canon, specifically Pan Tinshou, Zheng Wuchang and Teng Gu, the latter of whom published ‘A Short History of Chinese Art’ in 1926 which was not only the first history of Chinese art actually written in China, but it was written with attempts at using ‘new historiographical frameworks and cultural concepts to interpret the origins and evolution of Chinese art’29; giving later study of modern Chinese art a more relevant contextual framework, particularly as this was the period when Chinese art history was beginning to be constructed as an academic discipline in its own right; the latter half of the 1920s was vital to the creation of Chinese modernism as Chinese artists not only sought inspiration from western art and culture, but saw it almost as a threat to their culture, resulting in a collective effort to ‘revive and preserve their art by institutionalising’30 it in a modern form, including a ‘modern curriculum of art education, the construction of a modern form of Chinese art history’.31 This is a vital springboard for the study of modern Chinese art, in order for scholars to be able to look back at a Chinese art history canon through a Chinese perspective rather than a Western one; even if we must admit that the format and structure of this learning is similar to the way in which Western painting has been studied. Huang Binhong believes that it is necessary for modern Chinese scholars and artists to look critically at China’s art history, as ‘if they do not study their own tradition earnestly, they will not maintain the honour of their tradition’.32
It is the honouring of tradition that led to a symposium at Seattle Art Museum in 2007, to discuss the legacy of Sullivan’s work and the ‘issues and periodization and categorization in modern Chinese painting’33, a ‘pressing issue’ in modern Chinese art due to ‘unprecedented interest in recent years.’34 In the resultant text, ‘Writing Modern Chinese Art – Historiographic Explainations’, Liu questions how works of art are chosen to represent the last century in China, particularly when the art chosen will represent only a tiny fraction of the total output. He also questions the problematic canon, asking ‘which works of art are chosen for discussion, and why? Are they chosen because of their canonical status, or do they become canonical because they are chosen for discussion? To what extent to they represent their ‘period’, however the period is to be defined?’35 There will always be scholars who differ in opinion over the importance of various works and artists, particularly in the field of modern Chinese art, which is still a relatively young discipline and as such is more malleable when it comes to new formation and structure. There is also the question of a ‘specialist’ canon, bearing in mind the names I have mentioned; authors such as James Elkins are not specialists in Chinese art history unlike those such as Jerome Silbergeld and Ralph Croizier. Will his discourses continue to be discussed in future studies of modern Chinese art, or is there an elitist structure of academics at work within the formation of the discipline?
Within the discussion of a modern Chinese art canon, there is also the question of boundaries. How is the canon structured, and what categories are used? Are scholars using the same methodologies when studying modern Chinese art, or is it possible to look at the subject from different perspectives? John Hay, in the introduction to his book ‘Boundaries in China’, states that ‘categories collect similarities, but always as a similarity defined by difference. The difference is a boundary. ‘Same as’ and ‘different from’ are not symmetrical.’36 By inviting comparison we proclaim difference, particularly when using historical and geographical comparisons. Hay believes that ‘in the culture of contemporary scholarship, contemporaneity is a value that is often used to exclude the past,’ to the detriment of modern Chinese art,’ while Clark refuses to provide any specific definition of ‘what constitutes a singular ‘modern Asian art’’37 in fear of creating unnecessary boundaries with definitive specifications. Instead he chooses to write his book methodologically, firmly stating his belief in an open discourse, and refers to his discussion of Western contact being a key base for Asian modernism as an ‘ideological belief’ and ‘neither imitative, uncreative, nor a cultural treason’38; his comments are meant to encourage questions and debate rather that determine specific boundaries. Yiu is also anxious that art historians do not tackle modern Chinese art with the ‘conventional’ approach of identifying key works within major phases of development; instead, ‘the notion of change that is implied in development needs to be critically examined, because different interpretations of such changes may have serious social and political repercussions.’39 Thus we need to tread carefully when establishing trends, as for every piece of modern Chinese art we consider ‘canonical’, there are hundreds more yet to be properly researched and absorbed into the still-evolving canon. This may be why Purtle is bemused at the ‘strangeness of the narrative that the field constructed for itself’40; Chinese modernity is yet to settle into a recognisable form. Yet for every limiting boundary that is drawn, there is the possibility of a comparison. Elkins believes that ‘comparisons are parallels, bridges between cultures.’41
Unfortunately, the inherent structure of art history does nothing to help the cause of modern Chinese art. Since the invention of the discipline, there have been boundaries created in order to form ‘specialized’ areas; boundaries that are historiographical, geographical, stylistic, even theological. However, as mentioned in Elkins’ statistics, art history is a Western subject created by people with Western perspectives on time and space; as a result, even the most basic of art historical categories struggle to make sense on a global term. Nelson, in his article ‘The Map of Art History’, believes this is partly to do with a categorizing system, and cites Art Bulletin’s 1995 annual list of dissertations, ‘classed according to traditional categories: Egyptian, Ancient Near Eastern, and Classical Art; Early Christian, Byzantine, and Medieval Art; The Renaissance; Baroque and 18th-Century Europe; 19th- and 20th- Century Europe; Photography and Film; Art of the United States and Canada; Native American, Pre-Columbian, and Latin American Art; Asian Art; Islamic Art; African Art; African Diaspora; Art Criticism and Theory.’ This listing is not only completely nonsensical, but it is quite clearly written from a rigidly Western point of view; terms such as ‘Near East’ only make geographical sense to people who are situated in Western Europe.
This is not the only problematic system of classification in art history. Nelson cites the Library of Congress classification system42 as another failure to meet a global art history’s needs, with the following categories: ‘Visual Arts, Architecture, Sculpture, Drawing, Design, Illustration, Painting, Print Media, Decorative Arts, Applied Arts, Decoration and Ornament, Arts in General.’ White this might at first seem like a ‘fairer’ system of classification in that it discriminates stylistically rather than geographically, this is again a predominantly Western-based selection of criteria, as for example there is no mention of calligraphy as a genre, nor performance art. Yet these classifications have still not been universally examined and updated, and most Western library collections on art bear no mention of an Asian modernity. An example close to hand would be UCL library’s art collection, which contains the following categories: ‘Art generally, Philosophy/psychology of art, Art history generally, Prehistoric/primitive art, Ancient orient/oriental art, Classical art, Medieval art, Renaissance/baroque art, Modern art, Performing arts, Film/television, Photography, and Techniques.’ Here is a combination of historiographical, geographical and stylistic boundaries used to separate and categorize. The problem here is that, as Nelson says, ‘the choice of one category, of course, precludes another, and one classification system denies the existence of another, except through cross-referencing.’43
With these classification structures firmly in place, how are we able to introduce Chinese modern art into a global art historical canon? Until the organisation of art history as whole is addressed, it may be that Chinese modern art remains a relatively obscure and unusual field of study, or perhaps categories such as ‘Modern’ will simply expand to include a global modernity. The problem with categorization systems is that we have to decide whether to consider modern Chinese art as predominantly ‘modern’ art, or predominantly ‘Chinese’ or ‘Asian’; do we define it by its era or its geography? And does this decision apply to all modern Chinese art as a default, or is modern Chinese art produced by the Chinese Diaspora automatically organised as ‘modern’ but no longer ‘Chinese’? Will geographical classifications of non-Euramerican art result in it being viewed as an ‘other’, or is the umbrella term of ‘modern’ able to encompass a global spectrum of art due to its broad definition of ‘those who consider themselves modernists’?
For those who choose to study the field of modern Chinese art, there are categories within the subject that appear to make more sense, predominantly due to the fact that most exhibitions and books follow the development of Chinese modernity chronologically. However, these are often still based on the idea of ‘movements’, so that Chinese modernity is formed into three main categories: beginning with the growing influences of the West on artists in the 1920s, when Xiu Beihong etc were returning from Paris and introducing western techniques onto Chinese subject matter, we then have the Communist and ‘social realist’ art of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, followed by ‘contemporary Chinese art’, best defined by Melissa Chiu in her book ‘Chinese Contemporary Art: 7 Things You Should Know’, which broadly manages to encompass everything from the first tentative mockings of Mao in Wang Keping’s ‘Idol’ to present-day conceptual art. Sometime the category ‘contemporary’ is actually used to specify the ‘following on’ (as it were) from modern Chinese art, yet there appears to be no specific literature that writes about the ‘death’ of modern Chinese art after the cultural revolution. If we broadly accept that ‘modern’ can still be a term applied to contemporary Chinese artwork, then within these three categories mentioned we have vital and unprecedented developments in techniques such as calligraphy and Chinese ink-wash painting, and the introduction of conceptual structures, film, video and photography. These stylistic developments, however, tend to be addressed by technique, artist, or movement, rather than being encompassed into a larger Chinese modernity. While there is much scholarship on the development of contemporary, or ‘avant-garde’ Chinese art, as it is sometimes called, it will be interesting to see how 21st century texts choose to look back on the overall development of Chinese art in the last century.
To conclude, it will always be problematic when trying to make sense of an ‘other’, which is why the West is so good at creating categories and boundaries, as it believes this will help to simplify the learning and understanding. I believe Elkins and Hay are right, and that while we may mislead ourselves into believing we understand Chinese modern art by defining and categorizing it, we can only truly make sense of it when encompassing Chinese modernity into the study of a larger and more global modernity, and invite open comparisons such as Clark in ‘Modern Asian Art’. Moreover, we need to acknowledge Chinese texts on Chinese art and incorporate these into our Chinese art history canon, if we are to encourage a less Euramerican-influenced discipline.
We can also consider the possibility that ‘Chinese’ artists are also part of a global modernity due to the advances in technology, but does this mean that artists have to sacrifice their cultural identity to be part of something bigger, or can they be both Chinese and global? Yiu believes that ‘recently some critics consider only works that allow for cross-cultural comparisons to be worthy of discussion and appreciation.’44 With the expanding globalization of the 21st century, this would seem to be ‘fair’ criteria, yet such art may find global success while remaining relatively unknown or unappreciated in China. Because modern Chinese art has been adopted as a worldwide market trend, there is always the demand for works that will ‘make sense’ or still seem ‘relevant’ without being seen with the contextual backdrop of China. Within the construction of modern Chinese art, this is a quietly acknowledged theme; it is still the West that drives the trends of the art market, and that has brought Chinese modernity this far.
Either way, Lin Xiaoping believes that the initial breaking down of cultural barriers at the beginning of the twentieth century was vital for the development of modern Chinese art, as ‘both in style and content, contemporary Chinese painting results from modern art education.’45
© Caroline F. Ward, 2011