The Price of Fame

Written by Karen Smith

Of all the interesting new developments and dynamic opportunities that are unfolding in the local cultural arena, it is the subject of market forces that most pressingly demands attention. One key issue is how best to help China’s relatively young art scene understand and deal with what an art market represents. Naturally, there is the matter of financial gain (but as artists are already learning, not always their own) fuelled by an unprecedented, commercially driven demand for their works. This does not, however, constitute evidence of genuine critical acclaim. Local attitudes are complex and are exacerbated by the very real frustrations of artists whose work either fails to appear at auction or to perform well when it does. For Chinese artists, art funds, auctions and the creation and inflation of rising monetary value of artworks come with even worse side effects than is presently in evidence. Already, the force of market demand is undermining many of the best strategies upon which the foundations of contemporary Chinese art are based. It has taken artists almost two decades of hard work, with very little tangible support, to achieve its present level of potential, the most important element of which is its potential for enriching the global debate in terms of its own linguistic and aesthetic perspectives.

Yet in 2006, this achievement suddenly feels immensely fragile. Perhaps what is needed to counter the current obsession with pricing is a discussion about the nature of the market so that artists become more aware of the possible pitfalls; in short, a balanced big-picture perspective, in which the market is but one of a patchwork of elements. In the international context, such a discussion might seem an unnecessary diversion, but ignoring the situation may result in a reversal of the proliferation of individual styles, agendas, approaches and practices that emerged in the early 2000s, reducing the plurality of processes to a handful of tried and tested model products.

Until a year or so ago, contemporary Chinese art was almost entirely disregarded by the international art world. Now it is everywhere. Chinese contemporary art is not a new phenomenon, although having only taken off in the late 1980s, it is not an old institution either. As with the speed at which most things occur in contemporary (post-Mao) China, since the dawning of that modest scene in the 1980s, the art world has condensed an entire century of western artistic endeavor and evolution — ten decades of innovation from the Moderns to the contemporaries — into just two. The pace of progress, of escaping from a monolithic, sanctioned version of art, has been rapid — an achievement marked by a consistent Chinese presence at international level. Since 1993, examples of contemporary art fromChinahave been included in most major art events — the biennials atVenice,Sao Paulo, andIstanbul, triennials inAustraliaandJapan, and even Documenta. But still only a small percentage of the really great artworks created by the finest minds and the sharpest sensibilities gets seen by the general museum- or exhibition-going public abroad. The majority of surveys of Chinese art that have taken place in the West have been, by and large, located in Asia-dedicated spaces, and discussed in publications that in giving a much-needed voice to “other” agendas speak to a minority.

Having worked in the field of contemporary Chinese art for almost fifteen years, the recent volume of interest is extraordinary as well as paradoxical, the reason being that in some quarters it represents a paradigm shift in attitudes. It also has a weirdly feverish pitch to it, which presumably relates to the predominantly commercial streak at its core. For the time being at least, it is impossible to imagine the extent to which foreign collectors are purchasing Chinese artworks and the quantity of commercial galleries seeking to purvey the artists’ wares being balanced out by a commensurate interest from public and state museum and institutions, or a serious seam of critical analysis in the international press. Recent media reports make no attempt to address the work, focussing only on the prices being achieved at auction as Chinese artworks flood auction rooms fromNew York, toLondon, andHong Kong, reducing the artworks to another example of profitable, Chinese-made commodities. With such serious endorsement, it is small wonder Chinese contemporary art is as hot asSouthSeastocks were in their day.

At the same time, the plethora of prejudices amongst western critics, museum curators, collectors and the general public has yet to be dispelled. To cite a recent example, a review of Mahjong, the catalogue of Swiss national and collector of Chinese art Uli Sigg’s collection, on says what is frequently posited by skeptics: many of the pop, expressionistic, photo reality-illusion, baconesque, and conceptual artworks created by the majority of the chinese artists are nothing more than copies of western artists from the 1930's to current except that the image is chinese. just because, mao appears in coca cola sign or mao is painted like richter or bacon doesn't make many of the artworks into anything significant other than it is documenting the art situation. there are very few chinese artists (such as xu bing, cai quo qiang) that are really interesting in both ideas and conception, but there are many nice copies of western ideas. (review name: mdr, January 9, 2006).

Such simplistic, blanket commentary, drawn from a narrow glimpse of the actuality, should always be challenged. It is largely interlopers from the western arena who have, to date, dictated the type and nature of Chinese art that has been seen in the West, and who are a particularly influential force right now courtesy of their purchasing power. It is also not wrong to say that certain works and particular oeuvres of a broad, and at times surprising, range of western artists have played a part in shaping contemporary art practice in China today. Where were would-be avant-gardists to look for inspiration in the immediate post-Mao years? What emerged through the late 1980s, and in particular through the 1990s, was so much more than a simple, superficial regurgitation of a “model” artwork. With hindsight, one cannot help but conclude that where China had not yet been auditioned for the role of super-po(p)litical idol, the fabulous, reckless, challenging, exhilarating and plain mad events, experiments, and interventions that unfolded during the 1990s, simply went unacknowledged.

China’s contemporary artists have long had to contend with the erratic tide of public opinion from outside of China: that swings between far distant poles in being tentative and condemning then excited and intrigued. Ten years ago the nature of foreign responses and engagement with Chinaand the art was a source for perplexity and lament. It still would be if the basic need amongst artists for recognition and affirmation was not being met by the recent market boom and the upwardly spiraling price levels. The advent of such a benchmark against which Chinese artists can measure themselves is an altogether unexpected turn of events, and where it dovetails with the thrust of economic advance in China through the last ten years, has a typical appeal for Chinese society: the new consumer society—although this obsession with material culture is just an extreme example of the increasingly consumer-driven global climate. Perhaps most importantly of all, it is the closest Chinese artworks have come to direct comparison with those of their creators’ idols: for a Chinese artist to own a price point comparable to that of Damien Hirst, Gerhardt Richter, Jeff Koons, or Jeff  Wall is possibly the best accolade the West could bestow upon them—artists more usually resigned to being “peripheral” to the heart of the art world.

The impact of pricing numerals multiplying like viral spores rather caught everyone off guard, like pennies from heaven, a windfall that suddenly turned into a lottery bonanza. Whilst the benefits are clear in terms of financial independence to own and equip good studio space, and to purchase the quality of materials and technical equipment that are pivotal to the process by which they create their works, the dilemma for artists living and working in the China paradigm is two-fold. First, where price is the standard judgment applied, all normal criteria of artistic evaluation are abandoned and become abstruse. Markets do not represent a qualitative aesthetic appraisal. They are far too easily manipulated in pursuit of goals that have no relation to do art itself. Second is the magnitude of the pendulum swing from poverty to plenty. It occurred with unimaginable speed, and as well as taking place in the absence of sobering forces like public opinion, a critical voice, or objective alternative benchmarks and regular inclusion in non-commercially oriented art events, has turned a healthy jostling for attention and acclaim into a bitter price war. The initial wave of euphoria that ten, fifteen, years of struggling in a relative void with little recognition was finally paying off is increasingly overshadowed by the divisive dog-eat-dog competitiveness that market forces have disgorged. So much that it threatens to bring the entire game to a halt, or worse, lay much of the field to waste.

In the wake of this, China’s contemporary art scene appears to be all over the place — which is not to imply the recent global invasion, rather the bout of ataxia to which the artists have succumbed. The sense of brotherhood and unity that sustained the scene through the 1990s is giving way to fragmentation, not in the manner of partisan cliques, but in the quality of approaches, methodologies, and styles deployed. The majority of established protagonists continue to exert a reliable presence, but in the singular and not banded together in those groovy gangs which really stirred things up in the 1990s. It’s as if a hammer fell, splintering the Chinese art world.

The forces leading to this situation are ultimately embedded in the general climate in China, and the broader context of opening and reform. Cardinal here is the knock-on effect of extraordinary economic growth and expanding social freedom that extols status, privilege and self-serving financial security above all else; the mark of a society wrestling free of poverty. The latitude that the government has shown towards consumerism has created a cult of materialism that is insane. In The Rise of the Sixties, author Thomas Crow offers a description of the climate of the post-WW2 period in the UK that has extraordinary resonance with Deng Xiaoping’s new regime and the impact of his reform policy: “The economic austerity of the immediately post-war (post-Mao) years in Britain had given way to an intense development of the internal consumer market as the key to continuing electoral success for the Conservative Party government (equally the governments of Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao)…The artists’ finely balanced ambivalence towards manufactured culture was overtaken by a political aesthetics of plenty, a promise of abundance, loudly proclaimed by the state.”(1)

Mao had promised a Utopian world of plenty, but it was Deng who created the conditions in which it could begin to become a reality, for even though he had no need of appealing to an electorate, he still needed the support of the masses. Such a premise was a great way to distract the collective consciousness from dwelling on the hardships and disappointments of the past. Pragmatism is ingrained in the Chinese soul: thus commitment to the new policy was far-reaching. Not even in Americaare people so consumed by consumption, material wealth and status. China’s “internal consumer market” is like a reality TV show where contestants are given 15 minutes to go through a store and cram as much as humanly possible into a shopping trolley…This image of frenetic, self-serving activity is analogous to the pace, the anxiety, the excitement, the raging urgency of how life in the major Chinese metropolis’ is currently lived. Far out-weighing the impression promulgated abroad, China has reinvented definitions of “development”, “advance”, ploughed through concepts like “flourishing” and “burgeoning”, and is currently careening into the uncharted realms of the financier’s wet dream: i.e., the biggest consumer market in the history of mankind. For the heirs to the legacy of 1980s banking Johney’s and Wall Street firestarters, against the stasis of financial markets in the West, China holds ecstatic appeal, which is why, by analogy, the profits that the leading media broadsheet reports describe—infinitely trustworthy as these reports are believed—have generated such a frantic response. Again, this has everything to do with the market and its potential for growth, and nothing to do with the enduring value of art, which an exhibition such as China Power Station seeks to represent.

The dilemmas this engenders have little to do with art per se, yet it is increasingly hard to ignore the impact that the market is having upon the form and the production of art.China’s own increasing economic prowess, as well as the domestic rise in standards of living, the cost of living, and the astounding volume of disposable cash in the hands of those who have got rich, is responsible for encouraging a terrible urgency amongst the population to keep up with the neighbours. Never has the power of money mesmerized, hypnotized and corrupted so many individuals in such a short space of time. In this respect, artists, being human, are no different from the greater populace. Yet, in terms of the careers they elected to follow, in the framework of communistChina, they have had a hard ride. There is, therefore, ample reason to feel vindicated today in collecting their just rewards. The problem, however, is that the rewards are not entirely just. As we know, the vanguard is rarely fully understood in their day: groundbreaking art is often felt as a slap in the face of an era’s social mores.

The effect of the easy flow of cash through the art world primarily manifests itself in the ever-weaker dilution of experimental art, and the erosion of challenging or philosophical aesthetics. Increasingly, inChinathe avant-garde is actively positioning itself to be mainstream, to enjoy the kind of celebrity and voice that western counterparts are believed to possess. The essential missing link here though is the context in which artists like Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst broke new ground: the inveterate art historical discourse of which they are an inalienable part. In China, the “political aesthetics of plenty, a promise of abundance” provided the impetus for the now inimical styles of art like Cynical Realism (early 1990s), Gaudy Art (mid-1990s), and the reactive anti-aesthetics of groups like the Post-Sense Sensibility crowd, the “Corruptionists”, and the “harm” artists (those who took a direct cue from Damien Hirst’s embalmed creatures) who produced their most extreme works at the end of the millennium. All of which, despite being patchy in places, were extraordinarily exciting. In the present climate, comparable levels of creative excitement are hard to experience. Mirroring the instant interest from abroad, with equal speed the art world has evolved a veneer of slick professionalism, at the expense of the dynamic, challenging attitudes evidenced in the 1990s, and that the western world requires of aspiring leaders. Of greatest import, in the face of enormous market pressure, an increasing percentage of strong, respected artists, former conceptual leaders no less, are moving away from the hard-won individual paths they have hitherto followed, towards what can only be described as the creation of commercially viable products. If not addressed, this shift away from experimental practice could well undermine the formation of a local art historical discourse, which ought to be essential to the future of the art. Or will the artists be content to have their work discussed only in terms of nebulous international opinion. Whilst rare artist-cliques like that in Shanghai, to which revered film-maker Yang Fudong and hot new talent Xu Zhen belong, claim they regularly throw cold water on anyone of their crew who “does anything we deem too commercial”, the lure of the market is hard to resist.

Especially since art has taken its place in the multifaceted world of entertainment. Such entertainment culture is the very stuff Herbert Read railed against for conforming to the lowest common denominator of public taste, and thus inhibiting aesthetic sensibilities and innovative imaginings: in his view, the antithesis of what was in his day called “art”, and which now clearly carries quite different emphasis. Going to a museum has become like going to a cinema, a theatre, a rave even; private views like product launches: all stars, celebrities and a glittering surface that doesn’t ask people to think or to respond too much, a fact mirrored in the art. If this is the new criteria for “good” that it appears to be in the West, then if we examine those works by contemporary Chinese artists that enjoy the greatest institutional success and media coverage abroad, we might deduce entertainment as being something at which Chinese artists excel, especially in non-traditional mediums such as photography, video, performance and installation. Hence the success of works by Song Dong (edible still-lives and installations) that require audience participation, and the surreal photographic fantasies enacted by a whole seam of Chinese artist of which Wang Qingsong is representative.

Marxist theory states that great art can only be created when all men have leisure time in which to produce it. From the perspective of today, true leisure is far from being the progeny of communist regimes. It is ultimately dependent upon the support mechanisms of bourgeois systems, which not only provide financial support but also nurture the intellectual and personal dimension necessary to the attainment of leisure that Read sees as so important. Previously one might have said survival was the greatest limitation upon true creative outpouring, and yet, that struggle for survival, to exist against the odds, has been responsible for some astounding art works in China. Today, China’s artists have little need of struggle, and we might conclude that where the current generation has little opposition, and therefore no precise opponent, they are left high and dry, floundering in a world without a point. Not like the good old days when the first generations knew who their adversaries were — the authorities, officialdom, political rhetoric and constraints…and the outside world, east versus west, periphery versus center etc… If today’s artists were cut from the same cloth as those who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, then the market would have been identified and tackled as the fabulous opportunity it represents to take on all readings of culture, art, and of the values that are brought to judging art from China. However, today no one is asking why this phenomenal chunk of interest has materialized now and not ten years earlier when the work was so strong? And what of the situation in five years’ time?

Even with the thrill of being in the spotlight afforded recently, and in spite of all the apparent recent interest, most artists are still alert to the fact that Chinese contemporary art is at the moment “guest-starring” in the global art-soap opera, with no assurance that the present part will transpire into a solid long-term role. Whether that depends upon the art alone and a genuine acknowledgement of contemporary Chinese art practice in the international context, or the fickle fancies of western taste, is as yet unclear. Thomas Crow is correct is his claim: “…another narrative inescapably presents itself, one in which the lives of artists gives way to the careers of dealers and the faceless workings of markets and institutions. The eclipse of the old heroic model did not bring about a decline in the importance and appeal of art. On the contrary, the proliferation of dissent and the fragmentation of voices, propelled art to new levels of desirability for wealthy individuals, corporations and the great civic museum…”.(2) Perhaps where China is increasingly accepted as a major political player and economic powerhouse, the same individuals, corporations and civic museums will also accept Chinese art and artists as bona fide contestants. But equally, the rise of a cultural arena in China will have a significant effect upon the future directions for artists. Chinese authorities are already attempting to create “the great civic museum” nationwide. The new batch of private and public museums, corporate and private collectors, and hotchpotch of local commercial galleries in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Hangzhou, Chengdu and Wuhan, is a tangible manifestation of the nation’s broader aspirations and marketing savvy. “Catching up with America, and overtaking Britain” can not be achieved in the absence of culture, which is why, with industry and commerce doing so very well on their own now, attention — and financial support — is being showered upon the cultural sector, and strategies being formulated to reward and encourage financial support and endeavor from the private sector. This will be of huge import to Chinese artists, who understandably thrill to the burgeoning interest in contemporary art and culture on home turf — and the double prowess of having local Chinese collectors willing and able to pay extraordinary prices for the works. Of course, art does not exist by the grace of money alone. It needs a compelling core without which it can never attain much in the way of substance. The question remains whether, in a choice between pure monetary gains of catering to the enormous appetite for art products, or critical acclaim (which should surely pay better in the long term), how many artists are able to maintain an interest in constructing an alternative narrative? Or will the cost to art of these recent overnight levels of fame ultimately top all the current price points imaginable?


Karen Smith is based in Beijing and specializes in the field of contemporary Chinese art. Curatorial work includes: 2004, The Chinese - Contemporary Photography and Video from China, Kunstmuseum Wolfsberg, Germany; 2003 Living Word 2, Chinese Arts Centre, UK (Xu Bing's first solo exhibition in the UK); 1999 Revolutionary Capitals: Beijing in London, ICA; and most recently The Real Thing: Contemporary Art from China for Tate Liverpool. She is the author of Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, published by Scalo, January 2006, and is currently working on a sequel focussing on developments in Chinese art through the 1990s.


1. The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent, Thomas Crow, published by Harry N. Abrams, 1996, p.47

2. ibid. p.12

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