Three Obstacles in the Evaluation of Contemporary Chinese Art in the US.
Julie Segraves ／史钰丽
Asian Art Coordinating Council Executive Director／亚洲艺术协会主席
Western trained contemporary art experts and critics and their control over the international assessment of contemporary Chinese art.
1- What would American trained Western art experts and critics think about an article written in 1950 by a Chinese art writer who traveled to the US to view and assess Jackson Pollock’s famous Drip painting series that had been featured in a 1949 issue of Life magazine?
如果一位中国艺术作家到美国去观看和评估杰克逊·波洛克(Jackson Pollock)在 1949年《生活》杂志上发表的著名点滴画系列，在美国训练的西方艺术专家和评论 家对这位中国艺术作家在1950年写的一篇文章会有什么看法呢?
2- This fictitious Chinese writer would be coming from the newly established People’s Republic of China, a country which valued Social Realist art and in the early 1950’s would use it to promote the new government’s political agenda. Let’s further assume that the Chinese writer had no other knowledge of US modern or contemporary art, Western art history or theory, and did not speak or read English. Would the Western art experts and critics deem his written perceptions of Pollock’s work accurate and interesting, or would they just dismiss his article as the opinions of a misguided and uniformed author, one who could not possibly understand the importance of Pollock and his art?
3- I ask these questions because since 2000, along with the dramatic surge of popularity and market appeal of contemporary Chinese art, there has been a striking increase in the number of Western art experts and critics reviewing contemporary Chinese art exhibits inside and outside of China, acting as exhibit curators, and as “ art expert” consultants for newly founded galleries and museums in Asia. I think it is safe to say that the majority of these Western art experts and critics have not studied Chinese art, do not know Chinese art theory, are not familiar with contemporary life in China and the history of the country, and do not read or speak Chinese. Yet for the most part it has been these very Western art experts and critics who have defined what is considered innovative, experimental or globally relevant contemporary Chinese art, using their own very narrow Western art lens in which they have chosen to view and write about contemporary Chinese art. In turn, this group has often affected what US contemporary Western art curators choose to display and collect, the auction houses’ and galleries’ perception of what artists they should promote and sell, and have had an impact on what collectors have decided to purchase.
我之所以问这些问题，是因为自2000年以来，随着中国当代艺术的人气和市场吸引力的急剧上升，西方艺术专家和评论家的数量显著增加，他们在中国国内外审查中国当代艺术展，担任展览策展人，并在亚洲新成立的画廊和艺术馆担任“艺术专家” 顾问。我认为我们可以肯定地说，这些西方艺术专家和评论家中的大多数都没有学习过中国艺术，不了解中国艺术理论，不熟悉中国当代生活和中国历史，不会读也不会说中文。然而，在很大程度上，正是这些非常西方的艺术专家和评论家，用他们自己非常狭隘的西方艺术视角来定义了被认为是创新的、实验性的或全球相关的当代中国艺术，他们选择了审阅和撰写当代中国艺术。为此，这一群体经常影响到美国当代西方艺术策展人选择展出和收藏的作品、拍卖行和画廊对应该推广和出售 哪些艺术家作品，并对收藏家决定购买什么作品产生影响。
4- The term ‘globalization’ is often bandied about by this group when discussing their preferred contemporary art, with little recognition or acknowledgement of China’s unique art history, which differs dramatically from that of the West. All too often Western art experts and critics have expressed little interest in Chinese artists using traditional Chinese art techniques and mediums, which they appear to not understand, and for the most part, relegate such art as not ‘global’
5- The few exceptions include Abstract paintings by contemporary Chinese ink artists, and work by older Chinese artists, primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan who traveled to the West during the 1950s-60s, and who were influenced by Western Abstract Expressionist art. What many Western art experts and critics often fail to realize or acknowledge is that both of these groups are also firmly indebted to historic Chinese ink art techniques and philosophies.
6- The Western art experts and critics are particularly attracted to an array of what they consider Chinese avant-garde, experimental, global, or transforming art practices, all which have been inspired by, or originated in the West, rather than adjusting their perceptions and opinions by delving into China’s rich and complicated art history to actually understand and appreciate its impact on contemporary Chinese art and its practitioners.
The question persists: Why should Western art experts and critics continue to claim cultural domination over what is considered innovative, experimental or globally relevant contemporary Chinese art? And how can it be stopped?
Chinese art curators and Western contemporary art curators at American Museums
7- At this point, I think a little information about me is relevant. I have a master’s degree in Chinese art and language and a minor in Japanese art and language. In my degree program, all of my art classes were devoted to historical Chinese and Japanese art.
8- In 1987 I was hired to be the executive director of the non-profit organization, the Asian Art Coordinating Council, (which I will refer to as the AACC). This organization’s mission was and is to generate new bonds of understanding between Asians and Americans through art exhibits and cultural programs.
Although I wrote my thesis on Chinese art from the end of the Qing dynasty through 1975, tracing the influences of Western art and Chinese folk art throughout this period, in my early years as Executive Director I continued to work on historic Chinese art exhibits for my organization as well as for other museums.
1987年，我被聘为非营利组织 -- 亚洲艺术协会(简称AACC)的执行主席。协会的使命一直是通过艺术展览和文化项目在亚洲人民和美国人民之间建立相互理解的新纽带。
9- However, there was a programming change in 1990, when the AACC developed and implemented its annual Contemporary Asian Art Exhibition series (CAAE), the only event of its kind in the US that annually features contemporary Asian art. To date, we have organized and traveled to the US exhibits from the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, and Japan. Approximately 80% of our 52 exhibits have featured contemporary Chinese art. The goal of this exhibit series is to curate and create exhibits that reflect fast changing China and Asia.
10- In addition to our exhibits, there have been a few early exhibits in America focusing on contemporary Chinese art including the 1993 exhibit China’s New Art -Post 1989, followed by the Asia Society’ s Inside Out exhibit in 1998. However, in the 1990s, America’s knowledge of contemporary Chinese art was still very limited.
Unless artists were included in the small group of young Chinese artists- whose work was promoted and sold at galleries outside of China- they received little recognition and had few international outlets to sell or display their art.
除了我们的展览外，美国一些早期的展览也以当代中国艺术为重点，其中有1993年的《1989年后中国新艺术展》，接下来是1998年亚洲协会举办的“由内向外”展览。 然而在20世纪90年代，美国对中国当代艺术的了解仍十分有限。除非艺术家被纳入了一小群年轻的中国艺术家--他们的作品在中国以外的画廊得到了宣传和销售--否则他们几乎没有得到什么认可, 也很少有国际卖场出售或展示他们的艺术。
11- This reality allowed the AACC to keep many of our exhibits’ artwork for several years after their Denver premiers, which allowed us to travel the exhibits to other US and international museums and non-profit locations. Unfortunately, for the most part US Chinese and contemporary Western art museum curators lacked both interest in and understanding of contemporary Chinese art.
Typically, after sending exhibit information to a museum ‘s Chinese art curator, we were told, since the exhibit featured contemporary Chinese art, that the materials should be sent to the Contemporary Art department. When we sent the materials to museum’s Contemporary Art department, we were told that the exhibit dealt with Chinese art, and in fact needed to be sent to back the Chinese Art department. In general, Chinese art curators and contemporary Western art curators want exhibits that reflect their interests and research areas.
12- Although larger US museums have a number of galleries to display temporary art exhibits, usually that is not the case for the majority of US museums.
The smaller museums have a limited number of temporary exhibit spaces available each year. As a result, both Chinese art curators and contemporary Western art curators have limited number of opportunities to display exhibits in their own particular areas of interest.
In addition, the preferences of US museum board and exhibit committee members’ interest was, and still today are focused on historical Chinese art, historical Western art, or contemporary Western art.
Although we continued to send exhibit information to Chinese art museum curators, we also began to focus on non- profit art centers, university museums or galleries, and city galleries, and it is these types of institutions with which we had our most success.
这些较小的博物馆每年都有有限数量的临时展览空间，导致他们的中国艺术策展人和当代西方艺术策展人在他们自己感兴趣的特定领域展示展品的机会有限。此外， 美国博物馆董事会和展览委员会成员的兴趣一向是历史上中国的艺术 、西方历史中的艺术或当代西方艺术。
13- Typically art center and city gallery curators and directors were knowledgeable about contemporary Western art, but they were not knowledgeable about contemporary Chinese art. Still they were open to displaying it.
Although these curators and gallery directors were not concerned if the art was by established well-known Chinese artists, or by artists just beginning their careers, they all had the same requirements:
The exhibit must feature outstanding art along with well-written exhibit copy, and the exhibit needed to appeal to their patrons. To make the exhibits more appealing to university museums and galleries, we linked our exhibit promotional materials to Chinese and Asian studies coursework that was offered on their campus.
14- Today US museums, their contemporary Chinese art collections and the number of exhibits displayed, continue to lag far behind their European and Asian counterparts, but there has been one very significant development since the mid 2000s.
A number of younger Chinese art curators and art historians entering the field are knowledgeable about historical and contemporary Chinese art. Of course, for the most part, they are not yet in senior curator or faculty positions, and they cannot make decisions about exhibits, collections, or coursework devoted to contemporary Chinese art.
15- Asian focus cultural institutions and museums, like the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, Asia Society, and the China Institute, continue to display contemporary Chinese or Asian art exhibits along with historical Chinese and Asian art exhibits. But typically their patrons are already interested in Asian art. It remains unclear if the members of the general public, with little knowledge of historical or contemporary Asian art, regularly visit these Asian art -focused institutions to view art.
16-A few Western contemporary art curators have begun to travel to China to organize contemporary Chinese art exhibits for their US museums. Yet it is doubtful that these contemporary Western art curators have studied Chinese art history or art theory, or can read or speak Chinese. It appears that their opinions about what is considered innovative, experimental or globally relevant contemporary Chinese art are influenced by colleagues or artists who have traveled to China, or their opinions are shaped by the Western art experts and critics who write about the topic in Western art publications
17- Fortunately, some US museums with general collections have displayed one person or group exhibits of contemporary Chinese art. Such as
The 2002 Xu Bing, exhibit at the Freer Sackler Museum
The 2005 group exhibit featuring work by Zhang Huan,and others at Stanford University
The 2006 Liu Xiaodong, exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum
The 2010 Fresh Ink exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Art
The 2010 Wang Huaqing exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum
And in 2018 Jerry Yang’s, Ink World exhibit at Stanford University, to name a few.
18- In addition to the AACC exhibits, there have also been a number of contemporary Chinese art exhibits displayed at smaller museums, city galleries and university museums throughout the US. However, the number of contemporary Chinese art exhibits is an insignificant portion of the total number of exhibits displayed in US museums and non profit galleries each year.
There are also a small but growing number of US contemporary Chinese art collectors who are beginning to donate pieces. In the late 2000s Kent and Vicki Logan gave donations of contemporary Chinese art to San Francisco MOMA and to the Denver Art Museum. The trend continues at smaller museums. An example is the recent donation of 122 pieces of contemporary Chinese art dating from the late 1970s- through 2015 from Charles Townley to the University of Southern California's Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. Then too, 2018 LA County Museum of Art received a large and very impressive Global Contemporary Art Collection ,with a number of contemporary Chinese ink paintings donated by Gerard and Dora Cognie. All this points to some positive movement in appreciating, displaying and collecting contemporary Chinese art, but the movement remains in a developmental stage.
The issue of winning over Chinese art curators and Western contemporary art curators to appreciate, regularly display and convince their museums to collect contemporary Chinese art persists as a problem, and it is one that needs to be addressed.
也有少数美国当代中国艺术收藏家开始捐赠艺术品，并且这些收藏家越来越多。在20世纪晚期， Kent和Vicki Logan夫妇将当代中国艺术品捐赠给旧金山现代艺术馆和丹佛艺术馆。这种趋势在小型博物馆还在延续。如，近期查尔斯·汤利(Charles Townley)向位于帕萨迪纳的南加州大学太平洋亚洲博物馆捐赠了122件中国当代艺术作品，这些作品可追溯到20世纪70年代末至2015年。此外，2018年洛杉矶县艺术馆也收到了大量有价值的全球当代艺术藏品，其中包括杰拉德和多拉·科涅(Gerard and Dora Cognie)夫妇捐赠的一些当代中国水墨画。这一切都显示中国当代艺术欣赏、展示和收藏正向着好的方向发展，但仍处于发展阶段。
The predicament facing contemporary Chinese artists
19- Today Chinese artists are faced with a major dilemma: in which direction do they go when creating art? There appears be three options open to them: Option One is to create art that is a derivative of Western avant-garde, experimental, global, or transforming art practices.
This choice enhances the opportunity to have their work reviewed by Western art critics and purchased by Western art collectors. Option Two is to create art that remains within the confines of traditional Chinese art and which appeals primarily to the Chinese market and museums. Option Three, which I think is the best option, is for Chinese artists to incorporate selected Western art techniques and ideas into their own personal Chinese art styles, creating work that is contemporary, but still Chinese.
20- Chinese artists do have a history of incorporating Western art elements and ideas into their art, resulting in work that still is distinctively Chinese. In the late 17th century Jesuit missionary artists began to serve the Qing court and during the reign of three emperors they taught selected Western art techniques and ideas to court artists who featured them in their Chinese paintings. In the first part of the 20th century Xu Beihong combined Western art techniques and modeling with his Chinese ink painting. German Expressionist art techniques and ideas impacted Chinese print artists in the 1930s, and Socialist Realist art from Russia had a major influence on Chinese art in China.
21- Today, some Chinese artists are drawing inspiration from a variety of Western materials and media, including the electronic technologies, such as digital imaging and the Internet, as well as traditional Chinese techniques, creating work that has been influenced by West, but that is still distinctively Chinese.
But why should contemporary Chinese artists work be judged using the Western art system, allowing the West to determine which art is relevant to China, and to the international art arena?
22- It was American’s unprecedented rise to economic and military power after WWII that resulted in a time of prosperity, its confidence as a nation, and the unfettered optimism of its citizens believing that anything was possible in life and art in post World War II. Would it have been possible for Jackson Pollock to create his Drip art in England in the aftermath of World War II? I think not. Pollock and his fellow artists were products of a superpower county, one that exercised financial and military power throughout the world.
From the 19th century to mid 20th century, this power resided in Europe which became the major hub of Western artistic activity and where great art movements flourished like Romanticism, Impressionism, Post- Impressionism, Cubism, and Dadaism, to name a few.
But after WWII, the international art power base shifted to America, where new art movements developed such as, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Photorealism, among others. But nowhere on the numerous lists of international art movements is a contemporary Chinese art movement listed.
23- In America we have a well-known saying. There are two things in life that one cannot avoid: death and taxes, I would like to add a third: change. At some point during the 21st century, Western contemporary art experts, critics and curators, as well as Chinese art experts, critics and curators will be faced with change, for the reality is the world’s economic and military power base is shifting from the US; soon it will be in Asia, especially China and India.
24- I believe Chinese art critics, curators and art historians, who have studied both Chinese and Western art history and theory, and who are conversant in both English and Chinese, will play an essential role. They will become the major arbitrators of what is considered innovative, experimental or globally relevant contemporary Chinese, and perhaps even contemporary Western art.
They, unlike their Western predecessors, will not view contemporary Chinese art from a single Western lens, but by what I call a bifocal lens, one that reflects their knowledge of Chinese art history and theory ,as well as Western art history and theory. It is here, within this bifocal lens, that contemporary Chinese art’s universal success can finally be realized.