Wu Hung charts the astonishing history of Chinese art since the 1970s, when China emerged from the near total isolation of the Cultural Revolution to become a major participant in international exhibitions and markets. The author is Director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at the University of Chicago and a historian, critic, and curator of Chinese art. His approach encompasses a broad concept of art culture which includes art schools, community art centers, public art museums, individual artists, artist collectives and groups, art publishing and criticism, and the recent phenomena of commercial galleries, art fairs, private museums and Western audiences. It is a more nuanced and complete picture of a recent art culture than any other I know.
The superb text is extremely clearly written and jargon-free, yet manages to convey the complex relationship between individuals and institutions involved in the transition. The author lived in China during the early part of the period covered and has maintained regular contact since, and the book reflects his insider’s knowledge.
Wu traces the significance of how information circulated, from artists during the Cultural Revolution who poured over any books on Western art that they could obtain, to the situation since the 1980s when China’s art press included three journals, each with a different approach, and artists had access to Western writings in translation, including arts writing by Herbert Read and Ernst Gombrich, philosophy by Kant, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein, and significant thinkers including Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin.
Art production included official, state-sponsored art, art which came out of the academies that were re-organized after the 1970s, and experimental art produced by collectives and unaffiliated artists. Officially trained artists studied either Chinese art–ink painting–or Western art, and Wu discusses the tension between contemporary Chinese art grounded in Chinese art traditions, versus that which takes a thoroughly international approach. He also discusses the tension among independent, avant-garde artists recently, once state museums began to exhibit previously banned work; some saw the move as progress while others considered exhibiting in state museums as collaboration with the state. Wu addresses the impact of larger cultural changes on the art culture, including China’s commercialization, population mobility, and increasing access to outside cultural and artistic influences. He also covers the interactions between artists’ activities and their interpretation by critics, how critics’ ideological positions shaped and defined art movements, and the significance of critics as organizers of artistic events and theorizers of art movements–hence, shapers of China’s art history.
The book is extensively illustrated–its 425 color images could stand alone as a visual survey of Chinese art of the period; but that would ignore the immense value of Wu’s text. The book is beautifully produced, and its un-credited designer did a wonderful job.