On June 18, 2014, I was invited to deliver a lecture at Hangzhou’s China Academy of Art, one of China’s two premier national art schools. After my lecture I had a wide-ranging conversation with Gao Shiming, an internationally renowned art critic and curator (Guangzhou Triennale, 2008, and Shanghai Biennale, 2014) and the director of CAA’s school of Intermedia Art. In the ancient city of Hangzhou, I felt, at times, we were like two Song dynasty literati scholars sipping tea and conversing about art, philosophy, and life. Wu Jialuo and Lin Kaichen graciously translated our conversation.
I am interested in talking about the state of art in China, particularly in light of the international prestige of Chinese artists and the recent increase in Chinese students studying art in the United States.
Let me show you a picture first. Our academy, CAA, was founded in 1928 by Cai Yuanpei, a significant educator in Chinese history. At that time he was the president of the Education Department, and he established two institutes: the National Research Center, and the National Academy of Art. This photo shows the amount of students when CAA first opened to application after reconstruction: 50,000 in total at that time. Now we have 90,000 students apply for our school each year, and we only enroll 1,400 of them. The enrollment system is completely different from when I was a student of CAA. We only had seven students in the calligraphy class, and among them five were already members of the National Calligraphy Institution.
With that background, why did they come to school?
Partly because of their family tradition and reputation. The entrance exam was so hard at that time that it demanded five to eight years for students to get into school. They received fame and recognition during this long time period. The system now is entirely different. Students move directly into the production chain of special art education. It has changed radically.
How has it changed? Did the government want to make the study of art more available to people? To expand the number of art students?
Yes, but most of the students come here to study design. This is another significant difference over time. During my time as a student, people felt inferior as design majors, but now they can live better than those who study fine arts.
It is the same in the United States.
This is not the major problem. The school of Intermedia Art is supposed to be the first organization to teach contemporary art in China, but the term “contemporary art” is controversial itself, as it has been debated a lot in the last ten years. Actually, people seek to overcome the regime of “contemporary art” in many aspects.
We have a similar experience at SFAI (San Francisco Art Institute) where I teach. We have a department called New Genres that has succeeded so well that in many ways it has outlived its usefulness. Now students in every department, whether photography, painting, sculpture, or printmaking employ whatever material and medium best conveys what they want to say. So how do you define intermedia or contemporary art?
Actually, I do not care about the title of contemporary art. In China, the so-called first generation contemporary artists came from the ‘85 New Wave, which had its center in Hangzhou. Avant-garde artists of that wave include Gu Wenda, Huang Yong Ping, Geng Jianyi, Wu Shanzhuan, and Wang Guangyi—all from Hangzhou. They were the first group of artists that got international recognition. When I decided to found this intermedia department, I went to Paris and asked Huang Yong Ping for his opinion. He just told me two phrases: first, contemporary artists like us all received traditional Chinese art educations. Like Yang Fudong, from the oil painting department here at the China Academy of Art. Therefore, contemporary artists do not necessarily need to receive an education named “contemporary art.” Second, truly good artists are not good teachers. You know, the first reader when I came into college was Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation published in the 1980s.
So let me go back to that first generation of Chinese artists at the Academy. They received traditional, classical art educations. How did they make the shift? Did they have access to art magazines and journals? How did they view the Western art world?
They struggled. Actually they had already become famous artists and curators. The motivation of their struggles couldn’t be viewed as inspiration from the West. The internal energy of first-generation avant-garde artists was rooted in their experience of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until 1976.
What is their logic? Was the Cultural Revolution, for example, something to react against?
In the 1980s they first struggled for non-expressionistic art, not what was being taught in the art education system at that time. They wanted to change the conventional definition of painting as a representation of objects, and to emphasize the act of painting. Second, they struggled to destroy any form of regime, authority, and spectatorship in the art world. Then a new art circle appeared, but it didn’t replace the previous one. Now we have three art circles coexisting in China.
What are the three art circles?
First is traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, which has its own art market that is far more complete and larger than the market for contemporary art. People from kindergarten kids to presidents all study calligraphy and can appreciate traditional Chinese paintings. Last week I curated an exhibition of calligraphy at the National Museum. Six officials from the central government and three generals from the Chinese military came to the opening. This popular situation is impossible for contemporary art. The second is an official art world led by institutions and associations. And the third one is contemporary art. We can view the first art circle as legacy from pre-modern China. The second as the remains of socialism like works from the Cultural Revolution and political propaganda, although they now serve as promotion. It’s important to point out that these three art worlds coexist in China now, so the problem is to define what contemporary Chinese art is.
That’s interesting. I’m beginning to understand why contemporary is such a difficult term because all these groups are contemporary.
In January I organized a conference at the Hong Kong Arts Center called “Three Art Worlds.” We wanted to unpack the configuration of time and space. We invited artists from all over the world, like Eugene Yuejin Wang from Harvard.
So what about the third group? If you want to designate that group, what will you call it?
In China the term contemporary art appeared at the beginning of 1990s. People preferred to call themselves contemporary artists instead of avant-garde artists. Actually I feel the avant-garde artists first appeared in China in the 1930s, starting with the New Woodcut Movement led by Lu Xun. All avant-garde artists at that time went to Yan’an [at the time a communist prefecture where Lu Xun founded the Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts], so probably “propaganda” is a very contemporary conception.
They were more like Russian Constructivists, making art for utopian purposes.
It’s very complicated historically and politically. Chinese modern artists are largely influenced by Russian history.
This is heading into deeper waters. It is a fascinating conversation I’d like to continue, but I want to circle back to the question of schooling. How do you teach students now?
Officially to say our school has three levels: first, the media lab; second, the studio; and third, the institution. Undergraduate students learn fundamental techniques from media lab in the first year, and experience elective courses in different studios with special field research the second year. Later they decide their direction and create their own art in studios and institutions in the third and fourth years. BFAs need four years, and MFAs need three years, which are project based. This is our education system, but honestly I think art can only be learned, not taught. So the academy is a place for students to learn, not for teachers to instill knowledge through a spectacle system.
Well we have a very similar attitude at SFAI. We don’t teach students techniques that can be learned or mutually learned among students. Earlier you talked about five different areas in your school—can you explain them more?
There is the embodied media studio, which is about interactive relations like mechanical installations and performance art; the open media studio including social media and sound art; the experimental art studio; the studio of narrative environment and spacial art; and the total art studio, which is basically about cultural studies and social interactions.
You said earlier that a lot of MA students choose to be teachers instead of artists. Is that true?
No. Each year the majority of MA students want to be artists.
Which is the most popular major in the study of fine art at CAA, your area or traditional Chinese painting?
Things are changing a lot here at CAA. All those three artistic worlds I just mentioned have their own characteristics to attract students. For SIMA (School of Intermedia Art), contemporary art education is the most radical mission.
Here’s the question that leads to a large question: because they are young, are the students who come to SIMA aware of contemporary art? I feel our younger students don’t really know what contemporary art is.
So the first year of education is important.
How many fine arts students in total?
Each year we have 50 students in SIMA. There are 200 in another traditional art education area.
That’s a pretty high percentage. Are the students in your area influenced by the success of Chinese artists globally, like Yang Fudong? Another question a lot of people have: what’s the relationship of artists to the state? Besides Ai Weiwei. Even with all the success of Chinese artists globally, they sometimes do controversial work, so how does the government negotiate with them?
This question is important. Why in the Western art world do people just know Ai Weiwei and Cai Guo-Qiang?
I guess Ai Weiwei is easy because he is a critical, controversial artist that represents Western values, someone standing for free speech, etc. But there are those who feel that Ai Weiwei is problematic; his artwork is predictable.
It’s very complicated. People hold different opinions, but in some important situations, they behave the same. For example, I was in an Asian art conference at the Guggenheim museum in 2001 about human liberty. The panel was divided over Ai Weiwei. Some disagreed with Ai Weiwei’s democracy of freedom and believed that he’s a formalist. His art is predicable.
Can you tell me, from your perspective, why Ai Weiwei is seemingly the only Chinese artist accepted by the West?
Again, some critics see his political thoughts as old fashioned. Or, although he uses social media in the simplest way, like Facebook and Twitter, he doesn’t think about it deeply at all, about democracy and freedom. Last semester I invited a philosopher here to give a lecture, called “Equality as Method.” I talked to him before the lecture, like what I did with you today, in the same cafe. Did you recognize the text on the interior wall? It’s from the first chatper of Zhuangzi’s Xiao Yao You, which is about freedom. Xiao Yao You is based on Qi Wu Lun, so for Zhuangzi, freedom is equality. I told him that we had different routes toward freedom, including equality. This is a crucial problem, whether art is for equality or freedom. I’m interested in emancipated art.
Returning to my original question, it’s very radical to teach students this philosophy of art, right? Your students are going to be artists, but in China many artists are forbidden to show their work by the government because of their radical thoughts.
You mean censorship?
Well, it is a conundrum. On the one hand the government allows them to work, and on the other hand it doesn’t allow them to show. Do you think the Chinese government allows them to exist because China gains from their international prestige, making a lot of money and getting attention despite the content?
I think the real reason for censorship is not about politics, but policy. The difference between politics and policy is that policy is about regulation and control, but politics is about struggle and discussion. Policy is the technique of management and power, while politics struggles for emancipation.
So the government allows them to work because of some particular policy? How do radical Chinese artists make a living?
China has a large potential art market, but because of the regime of spectatorship, some artists touch the bottom line of censorship. Actually, I don’t think we need to fight for freedom. It’s not the only reason for us to do art. My friend Martin Ross attended the opening exhibition of the National Museum in Tiananmen Square called The Art of the Enlightenment. It was criticized harshly in China. People wondered why we need Western art for enlightenment. Should we let European artists enlighten us? And it received a bad reputation in Germany as well, because right at that time Ai Weiwei was put in jail by the Chinese Government. Martin was criticized because he didn’t pay attention to Ai Weiwei. He said, “I spent ten times in China per year in the last three years. China has lots of artists, not only Ai Weiwei. I know much better about the Chinese art world, and actually Ai Weiwei is not so popular there.” Then he lost his job, but fortunately he moved to London and got a better position.
A more interesting phenomenon is Cai Guo-Qiang, who works for the government in a way.
Yeah, that’s a good comparison. There are two poles, one is Ai Weiwei, who is against every policy of the government, and the other is Cai Guo-Qiang, who cooperates with the government completely.
What is interesting, ironically, is that Ai Weiwei needs the government as much as the government needs him. All the successful artists finally become part of the system and lose their original radicalism.
Absolutely. When he becomes part of the system, we can’t accept him because he represents the regime now.
Why is Beijing such a center for art? Because artists want to be near the power? I mean, I can’t imagine in America artists wanting to move to Washington, DC.
It relies on the political logic of China. Everyone hates Beijing, but they want to move to Beijing. Same situation as New York City. You want to realize yourself there, but you lose yourself in the city.
So your undergraduate students in SIMA—most of them want to be artists, but how can young artists survive in China?
It’s getting harder and harder. Ten years ago we were confident. Young artists used to have lots of chances to be accepted by a gallery and to hold exhibitions. Now it’s impossible. This is because of the overall environment of the art market.
The market is booming in China, right?
The situation is not as good as it was in the past.
So what attracts the 90,000 students who apply each year to the China Academy of Art?
As art students, CAA is the best option, but after they graduate, they will recognize the problem. That’s the gap between dream and reality.
As I told my students, you need passion to make art, because otherwise it’s just so hard to make a living. I don’t want them to be too romantic.
Romantically, art demands talents, but I partially disagree with this. I believe in emancipated art, which means it is meaningful to everyone. I view artwork as art plus work. Art is not the object hung in the museum. Art should be the energy to open our hearts to everyone. I have the theory of “forthcoming artists” and the art moment. We are temporary artists. I appreciate the moment more than the products of art.
The artists I admire most embody this.