Critical Horizons: On Art Criticism in China

The most frequently heard refrain around the proverbial water cooler of the Chinese contemporary art world (next to the lament that there are no real curators) is that there are no real art critics. This position has been widely echoed in international art circles where every year we hear the exhortation that criticism is dead and then a panel is quickly thrown together (usually at an art fair) to discuss the ‘crisis in art criticism’. But while in the West people seem to lament the relevance or efficacy of art criticism, we inside Asia seem hard-pressed to locate it in the first place. Leaving the aside the question of what constitutes ‘real’ for the time being, let us first consider what is at stake with regards to terminology. Are we talking about the lack of qualified individuals writing on art, or the lack of such writing to be sufficiently critical? Or are we lamenting the visibility of a certain kind of discursive criticality in itself? I would wager all three. Indeed there is a global feeling that art criticism is irrelevant, eclipsed by the activities of dealers, collectors, and curators. Within China where the contemporary art system is still in its nascent stages, infrastructure-wise, and ties to an over-hyped and speculative market have driven critical thinking aground, art criticism is all but nonexistent. The reasons for this are multifold, and the complaints are all well-rehearsed: the publishing industry is flawed and too market-driven; the education system antiquated; the Chinese language ill-equipped; and the dominating presence of the market breeds indifference and slack ethics. But these concerns only serve to mask deeper issues at hand, namely the absence of a localized discourse that fosters independent thinking and critical depth. 

In China, as elsewhere, the unrelenting force of the market has made the situation facing art criticism an increasingly grim one. Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York Magazine, once famously complained: ‘At no time in the last 50 years has what an art critic writes had less effect on the market than now.’ [1]  Such a statement only partially applies to a context like China where critical voices are simultaneously drowned out by the cacophony of hype and marketing and employed superficially as ‘academic packaging’ to prop-up or otherwise validate an artist’s work for commercial ends. The usefulness of art criticism may always be in question, particularly in times of economic strength, but defining it poses an even more difficult challenge. The panoply of contemporary art magazines on the newsstand today in China, with English names — Art Issue, Contemporary Art, Art China, Artmap, Contemporary Art and Investment, Art and Value, World Art, and Hi-Art — present a dizzying array of verbiage on contemporary art, but pandering to popular demand (and therefore market interests) 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. It is necessary to maintain a distinction between an art exhibition reviewer and an art critic, yet in China’s current landscape squabbling over these divisions seems a futile exercise. Add to the mix the recent invention of the curator-critic and such distinctions are soon obliterated. Few inside the contemporary Chinese art world would self-identify solely as an ‘art critic’, including myself, the recipient of a newly established art critic award. This is not only because income sources extend beyond those generated by critical writing, but because to do so implies a self-appointed position of authority and — perhaps my own bias — suggests a level of civic duty that is nearly impossible here in China. The fact that ‘art critic’ is a label more often bestowed by others rather than self-selected should immediately send up warning flags as to who is deciding and on what grounds. This is but one reason why the designation gets tacked onto the end of a list of other professions and titles whenever someone deems it convenient, itself a leading indication of the loose status it confers. 

During the 1980s, the so-called heyday of criticism in post-Mao China, it was art historians who doubled as art critics. The tightly bound community generated a vibrant discourse that not only valued independently held views and progressive thinking but carried out these discussions in largely public forums. Today, there is virtually no discourse to be found and what does manage to qualify is thin and lacking in critical depth, or in Lee Weng Choy’s words, ‘discursive density’ [2].  What’s more, the increased levels of self-interest at the heart of the contemporary art print publishing industry have effectively steered art writing in China away from any semblance of independently reasoned criticality towards a landscape of tedious journalistic reporting and weak jargon-filled ‘academic’ fluff.

Let’s be clear about this: contemporary art in China is run by the art market. Independence from it exists only in shades of grey. Some of the most widely reputed ‘art critics’ in China accept either money or artworks in exchange for their texts, or worse yet, act as brokers and dealers for artists on the side. Magazines run by art spaces or private investors feature articles and advertisements that promote their own shows and artists; and writers, in the absence of strict editorial criteria, compromise their credibility by repeatedly endorsing their own close cohort of friends, partners and associates. Moreover, the level of critical objectivity that comes from a truly independent position is not without its financial burdens, and given the value placed upon wealth in Chinese society, the situation is especially challenging for those art critics who want the authority and status that comes with money but have to compromise themselves ethically to get it. 

But again, these are just ‘levels’ we are talking about: true financial independence and true critical objectivity is a myth. Critics can only do as good as the context they work in, and in China the current environment is weak on infrastructure and strong on power-driven personal politics. Non-existent institutions and unbiased writing may be one issue but more pressing is how these obstacles hinder the capacity for independent thinking that allows a ‘discursive density’ to emerge. Chinese art criticism is encumbered further by the fact that it fundamentally lacks its own language and vocabulary. Critical traditions that exist in the west have no similar counterpart here, and transplanting philosophies and theories from outside China may only inhibit efforts to develop and nurture home-grown methodologies. 

Aside from worrying about who has power and authority in the arts scene — and I think we can agree it is certainly not art critics at the moment — I seriously wonder if anyone is worrying about the nature of art itself. Why do we make art? Is it merely a vehicle for expressing one's inner self, or to understand one's place in society? What are the ways in which we can assess or recognize its value to society? I would claim that the real dilemma facing art criticism in China today transcends the superficial lacks within the publishing industry and the market and points to something altogether deeper: responsibility. A question often levelled at artists — whether they know why they make art — can be equally applied to critical writing and the field of criticism. Just as art is not about making something pretty or fashionable, criticism is not just about words on the page sounding good. There exists a responsibility not only within one's social or political milieu, but to art itself. Criticism also requires a responsibility to its own discourse, since  the critical analysis of a work of art relies not just on descriptive analysis but an articulation of the cultural complexities that lie behind it and a sophisticated awareness of other artworks, theories and ideas that precede and follow it.

Art cannot exist in a vacuum without criticism, nor can criticism expect to survive upon art that is produced solely for commercial gain. Contemporary Chinese art has turned into spectacle, overly reliant on visual impact and style and short on ruminations that reveal critical depth and substance. Excessively mediated by the market and self-interest, it has lost its way with regard to political economy and the social context of its own creation. Following the logic of Debord, it is the passivity induced by spectacle that is the real problem, not the spectacle itself. We as viewers have become passive witness to the spectacle. But might we expect more of art critics, whose job it is to offer insights and analyze the relationship between life and art, to impart meaning and value through articulations that engage with broader, deeper beliefs about the nature of human individuals and societies? What is criticism if not a way to become aware of the political, (and by political I mean in the way our lives are organized socially, and the power relations this involves) and to take up a position on the beliefs and ideological values that surround the tension that pushes art towards ‘life’? Some young artists in China today may resolutely reject politics and ideology entering their work but such a position is nowhere more clearly ideological than in its attempt to ignore history and politics altogether. What one chooses to accept and reject theoretically or intellectually depends on what one is practically trying to do, but without a clear purpose in mind, and without forms of critical art to enlist artists in a dialogue of transformation and change, criticism can only go so far.

With the recent economic downturn in the market, everyone seems to be hailing the return of art criticism. It is time to reassess the damaging effects of the market on creativity in the Chinese art world and revisit the importance of scholarship and art criticism, so it is said. But what form this will take remains to be seen. The efforts of collector Uli Sigg and Hallam Chow who have ventured to establish awards for art criticism are noble enough, as are publications like The Critic, which in a style reminiscent of October, has eliminated all advertising in favour of a ‘text-only’ format [3].  But only truly alternative models can provide a place for criticism and for discourse to emerge and exist by and for itself. Change might be in the air, but only time will tell whether these steps will translate into a true realignment of values, or more importantly, can overcome the vast intellectual abyss facing Chinese art criticism today. These things are not easy to grasp, they take time and have to be worked at. This is in part what criticism tries to do. It is also where a fruitful and lively engagement between art and life begins.



1. Saltz, Jerry, ‘Silence of the Dealer’, Modern Painters, September 2006, p.35.
2. Lee Weng Choy, ‘In Search of Discursive Density’, Art IT, #21, Fall/Winter 2008, p. 95.
3. Uli Sigg, the founder of the CCAA (Contemporary Chinese Art Awards) established the CCAA Art Critic Award in 2007. Hallam Chow’s Central Academy of Fine Arts Young Critics Award was established in 2008. See Stacey Duff, ‘Does China have Art Critics?’, in ArtZine China online,, undated. Also, see The Critic, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, first edition August, 2008. 



Pauline J. Yao is a curator and scholar based in Beijing and San Francisco and co-founder of Arrow Factory, an alternative art space in Beijing. She was the inaugural recipient of the 2007 CCAA Art Critic Award and author of In Production Mode: Contemporary Art in China (2008).


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