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Contemporary Chinese art research

Troughout much of China’s pre-twentieth-century history, visual art, in the form of ink-and-brush painting and calligraphy, was closely associated with values supposedly embodied by the imperial Chinese state’s scholar-gentry class. Visual art in its highest cultural forms was inextricably and durably enmeshed as a form of cultural-linguistic signification with the workings of power and state in imperial China. Since its beginnings at the end of the 1970s, contemporary art produced by artists from the prc has been characterized by an often conspicuous combining of images, attitudes and techniques appropriated from Western modernist and international postmodernist art with aspects of indigenous Chinese cultural thought and practice. In the context of an English-language-dominated international art world contemporary art from the prc is widely considered to be a localized variant of international postmodernism.


Art and politics in China are closely linked. During the Maoist period, public art in the prc was not only required to reflect the position of the masses but also to serve the revolutionary aims of the ccp, often as part of organized political movements or campaigns referred to commonly in Mandarin Chinese as yundong. The relationship between public discourse and artistic practice in the prc may be described as a fundamentally interactive though highly context-dependent one. The latter is (in much the same way as the scholar-gentry art that preceded it) simultaneously complicit with, and a recognized site of largely oblique moralcritical resistance to, established political authority. Contemporary art in the prc can thus be interpreted as one capable of divergences from authority conducted very much at a ‘microlevel below politics and ideology’.


The significance of the term ‘contemporary Chinese art’ is seen as both heavily contested and problematic. At its extremes, that significance is subject to two mutually resistant points of view. The first upholds a belief in the existence of an essential, spatially bounded Chinese national cultural identity, and in the potential manifestation of that identity through indigenous cultural practices. The other suspends belief in the existence of essential states of being, caused by the unsettling vision of linguistic signification opened up by poststructuralist discourse, as well as the material effects of globalization. Any searching discussion of contemporary Chinese art consequently raises serious ethical-political questions that, on the face of it, press us to make a choice between essentialist and counter-essentialist perspectives.


Reference:  Wu Hung. Contemporary Chinese Art : a History, 1970s>2000s / Wu Hung. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014. Print.

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