HU FANG. Illustration by Sungyoon Choi.

Untitled: China’s Post-Utopian Contemporary Art Criticism


There are numerous practical reasons why people write about art. These include the need to make a living, the need to satisfy one’s employer, the struggle for power, the desire for education, as part of curating an exhibition or simply for personal reasons. In China today, all these reasons come into play. Generally speaking, however, as one observes how art served political ends in China in the recent past and how it has come to serve the market today, the notion of art criticism in the Chinese-speaking world most often refers to a kind of service-—or subservience—an act that is entirely dependent upon the power structure in society. Art criticism is a response to a specific need and produces certain benefits. Independent art criticism is something quite different from what is being practiced in China today.

Responding to the explosive birth of the 1985 New Wave movement, art criticism in China didn’t follow the Western model of evolving critical paradigms based on tracing a continuous path of historical development. Rather, to satisfy the craving for knowledge shared by the generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution, China’s art critics in the late 1980s and the 1990s experimented with a whole range of mainstream art-critical viewpoints imported from the West including phenomenology, hermeneutics, structuralism, feminism and New Historicism. Thinkers experimented with critical methodologies based on East-West syntheses such as Zen and phenomenology or structuralism, Taoism and existentialism, European Marxism, Confucianism and New Historicism. Given these critics’ limited creativity and obsessive respect for the printed word, text became the critical form embraced most avidly by the artists and critics of the day. A number of outstanding texts, namely the notebooks and writings of such artists as Wu Shanzhuan, Huang Yong Ping and Xu Bing served as the best criticism of their own works. Not only did these writings reveal the depth of these artists’ introspection, they also provided a prophetic, general critique of the culture.

Under the guidance of art critics, publications like Jiangsu Pictorial and China Fine Arts Newspaper became the main forums for writing on avant-garde art and stimulating many critical debates. These critiques often alluded to idealistic utopian reforms in the greater society and in their own way anticipated the demise of these ideals in the succeeding decade. Furthermore, there were a number of foreign patrons of the arts, researchers and theorists, such as Hans van Dijk, Robert Bernell and Uli Sigg, whose long-term commitment and support of the avant-garde scene in China gave them a more consistent and objective view of the evolution of contemporary art in China than that of many of their counterparts.

As China’s art world today looks back on the art scene of 1985, it is evident that the honeymoon of Chinese avant-garde criticism is coming to an end, leaving behind a number of valuable texts. Yet there remains a sense of disappointment that discussions about art are inseparable from the pursuit of the power to engage in discourse. Only those powerful enough to participate in the history of avant-garde art can write about “the history of avant-garde art,” a situation that signals the end of the utopian dream. It is then discovered, with some embarrassment, that even after a period of raucous debate, there is no tradition of critical thinking whatsoever with which to respond to the consumerist ideology of the art world and to the artistic practices of the rest of the world. In fact, the complexity of the Chinese situation cannot be explained by any Western theory. Yet at the same time, Chinese art criticism today is devoid of any deep-rooted thinking. Its practitioners merely flit about the ideological garden, appropriating this and grafting that. 

The true spirit of criticism thrives in living artists who are at the peak of their careers. For example, Qiu Zhijie’s writings are a major critical contribution documenting one’s individual practice. And among the younger generation, Yang Fudong, Xu Zhen, Cao Fei and Pak Sheung-chuen, for example, write powerfully about their own works and about the art world. Their published and unpublished interviews, fiction, drama and diaries, as well as their blogs, reveal their distinctive points of view and their life experiences. Interestingly, the internet and the blogosphere have had a positive effect in making these texts widely known. Even the most casual notes and jottings can serve as catalysts for new ways of thinking, as well as raise questions about the very meaning of existence, for artists and non-artists alike.

Criticism, like creation, is an outcome of the need for survival. At the same time, art criticism today must go hand in hand with art creation. Its vitality lies in the practice of criticism itself, its energy and creativity. To survive, art criticism can no longer treat art works as objects of consumption; otherwise criticism itself risks being consumed.