Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

China Modernism/Harvard Semiotics

Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art by Gao Minglu

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction No. 4, 2004–2005, reproduced in the book under review
Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction No. 4, 2004–2005, reproduced in the book under review

China has a grand artistic tradition, older than and, arguably at least as illustrious as Europe’s. But its ancient and recent history is very different. Only very belatedly, in 1911 did the ancien regime disappear. Then the development of Chinese modernism and its aftermath took place during extraordinarily tumultuous times.  Early on many modernists looked to the West. And after the communists took power in 1949, artists were influenced by Socialist Realism. Then when the Cultural Revolution ended, only just over thirty years ago, the sudden creation of a prodigiously productive capitalist economy made possible the display of a great deal of contemporary Chinese art in the West and in upscale galleries and museums in Beijing.

In Europe and the United States, artistic modernism was accompanied by the development of a public sphere. The recent history of China is very different, and so understanding how artists deal with Mao, the Cultural Revolution and the recent transformation of their still officially communist country into a capitalist marketplace is extraordinarily difficult. Gao reconstructs this recent history in terms that inevitably are highly contentions. Authors are not always responsible for their publisher’s publicity announcements. But when MIT Press proclaims,

As the first Chinese writer to articulate a distinctively Chinese avant-gardism and modernity—one not defined by Western chronology or formalism—Gao Minglu is largely responsible for the visibility of Chinese art in the global art scene today,

you are forewarned. Two recent survey histories, State Legacy: Research in the visualization of Political Theory (Manchester: Righton Press, 2009) or Wu Hung’s Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents (New York: MoMA, 2010), discuss many other art writers. Total Modernity focuses almost exclusively on Gao’s contribution to contemporary Chinese art theory.

Cover of the book under review

After leaving his native country, Gao did his PhD at Harvard with Norman Bryson, absorbing trendy semiotic theories. This book uses that theorizing to define the relationship between Chinese and Western modernism. China, Gao argues, is an essentially different culture because unlike in the West modernism “reveals the artist’s personal state and everyday life in self-imposed exile” (p. 10). His discussion of early modernism is frankly cursory. Only three brief paragraphs are devoted, for example, to the renowned painter Wu Guanzhong. But when he gets to the period in which he played a personal role, then the narrative picks up. Gao makes shrewd comments on individual artists, but although Total Modernity describes in close detail many important recent works, it isn’t an effective history. It has oddly little to say, for example, about the obvious commercial pressures, which have driven the development of contemporary Chinese art.

If Chinese artists aspire to international recognition they face a contradiction: their art must look somewhat familiar to admirers of the Western avant-garde, who are not interested in traditional formats scroll paintings; and it must express Chineseness. Thanks to the China Art Foundation, Total Modernity is lavishly illustrated. But you will learn more about its subject from Karen Smith’s Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in Hew China (Timezone) or Richard Vine’s New China New Art (Munich: Presetel, 2009). And if you want to understand the political background, then you will find Wu Hung, Remaking Beijing: Tiananmen Square and the Creation of a Political Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) more helpful.

Gao defends the uniqueness of Chinese art in terms borrowed from fashionable Western theorizing when, for example, he describes the Chinese critique of logocentricism.  As Craig Clunas noted in his Artforum review, Gao relies upon essentialism. “It is a unique character trait of the Chinese,” he writes, “to link worldly practice and metaphysics . . . “ (p. 340). But a great deal of German art also does that.  “Chinese people are known,” he argues, for their fetishism” (p. 342). But many Americans also are fetishists. Sometimes his discussion is frankly difficult to follow:

Chinese maximalism is opposed to logocentricism, a European and American tradition which seeks essence, oneness, truth and clear-cut consciousness. In contrast . . . Chinese tradition puts more emphasis on the changes in and contextualization of meaning” (p. 326).

Traditionally, Gao says, the West was concerned with representation, while the Chinese had a different concept of truth, and so “had no desire to let art mimic the real.” (p. 354). This claim requires more defense than it gets; James Cahill has assembled a great deal of evidence arguing that in traditional Chinese art, as in the West, the pursuit of naturalism was important.

Nowadays, Gao argues, the Chinese artists are concerned with “an embodiment of the relational structure between man, things, and the world” (p. 357).  That claim, which alludes to Bryson’s semiotic theories, is not easy to comprehend. Gao raises a very challenging question: How different could Chinese artists be from their Western counterparts? China’s history and religions are highly distinctive. And its traditional art looks unlike European painting. But when we get to the present, which is Gao’s primary concern, then he doesn’t really demonstrate that contemporary Chinese art is essentially distinctive. Andy Warhol came from a very different culture, but Chinese artists have no difficulty appropriating his ways of thinking. A great deal of recent Chinese art looks familiar to a Western critic because many artists are playing to the West.

Gao Minglu: Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011)ISBN-10: 0262014947 424 pages $39.95