In The New Republic, Jed Perl exercises no economy of words in lambasting art from China and its growing global following. Based on a reading of “Chinese art” that does not apparently leave the island of Manhattan, Perl makes several questionable statements, often abetted by lack of knowledge, and Alan Baumler at Frog in a Well has already taken some of them to task.
I find some solace in Perl’s admission that: “This is not to say that there is nothing of value going on in China today: I do not know all there is to know about art in China. What I do know is that the work that is being promoted around the world as the cutting edge of new Chinese art is overblown and meretricious.” Fine, but this comes only after hundreds of words of under-informed negativity and no apparent experience with Chinese art that hasn’t arrived in New York or Venice.
Missing from Perl’s account is the pervasive sense of unease among many in Beijing’s art scene, both Chinese and foreign, as they have watched the transformation of spaces such as the 798 Art District into pedestrian mall commercial centers, and as they have watched some of the artists Perl criticizes grow their bank accounts with manufactured art.
That’s one of the things Angie Baecker and I tried to capture with our article in the current issue (No. 59) of Art Asia Pacific. We examined the plans and sentiments of some major art spaces and figures in Beijing leading up to the Olympics. And we found a mixture of excitement and trepidation, sometimes with both sentiments coming from the same person.
Totally unexamined by Perl, for instance, are the artists whose work rarely if ever engages political and nationalist issues. And others who openly criticize the government and the country’s history, even if with a certain care to avoid publicity that could threaten their livelihood. Then there’s Ai Weiwei, both involved with and vocally opposed to the Olympics. In the classic media formulation, his contributions to the design of the Olympic stadium are tempered by his criticism of the government. (“The Olympics are an opportunity to redefine the country, but the message is always wrong,” Ai says in our article.)
I would not discount the possibility that some of Ai’s repeated statements have been motivated by a desire for publicity. But for those who make their commentaries in private and whose art-with-message works face government scrutiny, the spotlight is neither welcomed nor sought.
Criticizing a country’s art without engaging even well-reported examples that don’t support one’s criticism is an art world example of the basic structure of [insert country]-bashing: Find some well-accepted tropes about the target country that are well-reported but unconfirmed by the critic, and then use them as the basis of an argument that makes no effort to engage the actual thoughts or facts of life of those involved.
Could it be that a critic writing in a derivative way in the milieu of China-bashing is just as guilty as artists who profit from market-friendly, easily digestible political messages?