Un-invested Investments: Critical Writing and Publishing in Mainland China

My focus in this column is on the role of mass distributed publishing in mainland China – magazines, journals, and the like – in relation to critical writing, and by this I mean a form of writing, whether it be reviews or articles, that provides constructive, exploratory, and discursive analysis of current issues in contemporary Chinese art. I have purposely avoided including the word ‘objective’ in my list of qualifiers; while critical writers strive to be un-invested in addressing their subjects, they are challenged to keep the influence of subjectivity and personal beliefs at bay. My discussion may also have resonance in other regions of Asia, especially those recently entering a period of development of what might be called, in each particular context, contemporary art, and where critical discourse may be only in its infancy.

During the 1990s, critical discourse around contemporary Chinese art and its practice was most visibly active within the West (and Australia). This was largely a result of an exodus of artists, professors, critics, and curators, many of whom had made important contributions to the dynamic debates around the visual arts in the 1980s, dispersing to other parts of the world after the crackdown at Tian’anmen Square in 1989 quashed the relative freedoms of the previous decade. Those who did not leave mainland China became conspicuously quiet, or developed strategies for the discreet production and dissemination of their work. The reasons most of these individuals relocated to the West rather than other Asian countries is likely to have had something to do with the West’s already established art infrastructure and critical forums, a perceived freedom of expression, and the often generous immigration policies.  An additional factor is that the collecting of contemporary Chinese art was more prevalent outside of China than within, and Chinese artists were in large part welcomed and supported in their new places of residence. While many of those foreign collectors remain active today, an increasing number of domestic collectors are eagerly buying contemporary Chinese art, and are dominating auction house sales, in spite of the global economic downturn.

During the 1990s, art magazines and journals published outside of China and printed in English, such as Art Asia Pacific and Third Text, played a pivotal role as forums for critical texts, voices, and issues pertinent to contemporary Chinese art, as well as art from other Asian and Third World nations. During that time, in mainland China there weren’t really any art magazines as we know them now. But as Pauline J. Yao pointed out in her December 2008 edition of 'Diaaalogue', in which she candidly discussed art criticism in China from a broader context, there is now an extensive selection of art magazines generated and available in mainland China. She also notes that “ . . . they can hardly constitute venues for art criticism. Sadly, a large amount of what passes as art criticism in China is based on reviewing or reporting rather than criticism”.  However, it is important to keep in mind that most of the new magazines did not arise out of a need for critical analysis in the first place but, instead, were born hand in hand with a burgeoning art market, existed because of the art market, and their role was primarily one of promoting art that fed into that market. The strong promotional tendencies that drive these publications could, at times, be disconcertingly transparent; in some cases artists would have to pay the magazine to have their work featured or pay the writers to write about it. Many artists, especially younger ones, who do not have the financial resources to subsidize the magazine or who do not make easily marketable work, can find it difficult to obtain magazine coverage. The assumed un-invested approach that many expect in critical writing about artists and exhibitions is neither a goal, nor even a concern, in the arena of Chinese art magazines.

So, was the potential for criticality in the Chinese publishing world overcome and consumed by the market? To a large extent it was, in particular within magazine publishing and its reliance on advertisers, primarily galleries that sell art for financial viability. This dependence is exemplified in the scaling back or even demise of some magazines that became casualties of a deflated economy. Something that struck me indirectly in respect of this was a comment by artist Ken Lum in a keynote lecture for the ‘Speaking Truth to Reconciliation’ conference in Vancouver, Canada – that visual art is an industry much like any other industry. While I am certainly aware that the art market experienced massive growth during the past decade, in my perhaps misguided idealism that art held some sort of special place, a place of integrity and reflection, I had never really considered it in terms of an industry; when I think of industry, I think of enormous regulatory systems that have to be implemented in order to manage it. The art industry is now highly sophisticated and powerful, leaving critical writers to argue for aesthetic/social contemplation over crass investment. But the belief in critical un-investment is one of negotiating a delicate balance. Many artists, curators, and critics are necessarily succumbing to the pressures and protocols this industry demands in order to participate and, especially, to succeed in it.

Therefore, a few questions arise here relative to mainland China: how can critical writing insert itself into mass produced art magazines, and is that even the place for it? For those directly involved in the art world from theoretical, art historical, and curatorial perspectives, or even those who support the belief that art needs to have a place within a healthy society, I venture most would agree there is a need for criticality in the popular press, and not only magazines. But in mainland China, if the precedent has already been set that mass distributed magazines hold little promise as a forum for critical discourse, then what options present themselves?

These days, considerable critical exchange in mainland China takes place in personal or small-scale meetings, such as the Home Conversations and events at The Shop in Beijing organized by Vitamin Creative Space, or the Long March Canteen in Beijing. While these kinds of meetings rarely emerge as published texts, they provide an unburdened forum for discussion and debate. Also, numerous symposia and panel discussions take place in China and they are among the most rigorous opportunities for critical ideas and discourse to play out. While some symposia have publications that are important documents for critical writing, for the most part they receive limited distribution and remain within the circulation of those who are directly interested. Then there are exhibition catalogues, also important historical records, but they are often uneven in their un-invested criticality, and they too have limited distribution.

This begs the question, then, of who is critical writing for? Internationally, art has become a spectacle (another demand of the art industry), museums are developing ambitious public education programmes, and biennials have become celebrations that spur civic pride. The critical positions that have driven much writing in the West have not traditionally been a part of this new interest in art that circulates within a social, rather than cultural, sphere. Is critical writing for an invested art community, or can it also engage a broader public that is increasingly curious about art, complementing trends in art production itself, with many artists challenging the rarefied, at times alienating, environment of the gallery, and moving their artwork into spaces that are shared by more varied communities.

And there are, of course, websites and blogs. In many respects, the internet could become the future of critical writing and, as an editor of a journal that focuses on contemporary Chinese art, I am constantly faced with the implications the internet ultimately may have on the printed media. I have contemplated the possibility of trading in the soft, tactile, easy-on-the-eye surface of a book for the flat, glaring texts illuminated on screen. What the internet does achieve is to reach an enormous number of people, efficiently circulate information around the globe and, with blogs in particular, encourage non-professionals to enter into the discourse. This form of breaking down traditional barriers about the ways information is disseminated and shared has parallels with the desire of artists to engage with the broader public. Some sites, such as, welcome numerous disciplines and interest groups, thereby drawing an even wider audience into the realm of the visual arts. This ‘democratizing’ of art is met with ambivalence by some within the critical writing community; dissemination of information is lauded, but the intellectual and professional level of special interest study can be compromised. For some, the exclusivity of specialization is its strength.

While the internet is attractive in so many ways, it is also a seemingly bottomless pit for the collection of information, and keeping that information organized is not easy. For me, critical art writing is not only about the present, it is also about the future, as it is among the best sources for research into what has transpired in mainland China’s history of modern and contemporary art. What the web needs is a strong archival infrastructure like the Asia Art Archive has. But AAA, at its core, is an archive and so accessing history is part of its mandate. That is not the case with many other web sites, and information can be swallowed into labyrinthine filing systems. On the other hand, magazines, for the most part, tend to be consumed and then discarded.

One caveat about my text is that all of my discussion has been rooted in Western assumptions of what critical writing and publishing is and to further complicate this, I refer back to Pauline J. Yao’s December 2008 AAA 'Diaaalogue', in which she questions whether Western style criticism should even be appropriated and that “transplanting philosophies and theories from outside China may only inhibit efforts to develop and nurture home-grown methodologies.”  This is especially germane, again as Yao points out, to the differences between Chinese and English in terms of language, semantics, and the expression of thought; it’s not that Chinese artists haven’t already been brought into Western critical discourses or do not participate in an international artistic community. I would propose asking how China’s domestic voice in critical writing and publishing can be developed without having some sort of model to work with in the first place. Would it not be wise to adopt such a model, one that holds some degree of familiarity, and then develop it, perhaps even radically, to serve the home-grown community? There does not seem to be any neat answer as to where critical writing will make its impact within the Chinese publishing world, but it is, in the final analysis, the Chinese artistic community who will have to decide how, and if, they want to nurture critical writing as part of their cultural ecology. In the meantime, the English language art writing community will undoubtedly continue, from its own knowledge base, a critical discourse examining contemporary Chinese art.


Keith Wallace lives in Vancouver and has been a curator of contemporary art since 1979. He has been a strong supporter of artist run centres (ARCs) and wrote a history of Vancouver ARCs for Vancouver Anthology, edited by Stan Douglas. He was also editor of Whispered Art History, celebrating twenty years of The Western Front, Vancouver’s longest running ARC. In 2004 he organized InFest: International Artist Run Culture that brought together 250 artists and administrators from twenty five countries. Since 2004 he has been editor for Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, published by Art & Collection, Taipei.


Mon, 1 Mar 2010

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