China’s art

If we consider China’s art history, and where it would fall in within the history of Western art, China is as an example of a country considered by the West as the ‘other’. It was a generation of artists that emerged in the mid-1990s, uring the time China was still mostly a rural nation, under Mao Zedong, and experienced the decade-long Cultural Revolution that started in 1966.

Art was prolifically propaganda-oriented paintings, prints or portraits reflecting not only conditions at the time, but also a Chinese identity formed when the country was isolated from the rest of the world and its influences. Leng Lin, an art critic and curator from Beijing, thinks China in the 21th Century is now luckier: “for this younger generation, Chinese identity is not the most important thing, because the artists exist in a globalized world”. There is a surmountable difference that has slowly evolved from artists in that generation, to the current generation. Chinese artists might have an innate need to be within their own, but their work is still very Chinese-culture oriented, despite Western exposure through education.

“They [artists under Mao] experienced the Cultural Revolution and the expression after such suppression. But for our generation, our reaction would be more concrete, more prosperous, more various, and more heterogeneous. The reality we are facing is not a post-revolution situation. We are more connected to a materialistic world. We have different actions, more subtle” is how Li Qing, one of China’s most successful artist sums it up.

China has reportedly been the biggest art market in terms of art revenue. Sotheby’s Institute launched an Auction House in China and the auction earners’ revenue has far surpassed some of the West’s greatest artists like Andy Warhol and Picasso.

The auction house is for timeless, provenance-rich pieces that guarantee an investment turnover a good 10 years later. If Chinese artists are producing pieces that sell at auction for over $100 million, yes, $100 million, then why is there a significant decline in investor interest?

Authenticity has long been a debate within the discourse of art; what is authentic, who creates what idea, did Warhol ever have any of his own ideas or did he simply just create a commodity out of already existing consumer products? When it comes to Fine Art, and the multi-billion dollar market that is High Art, counterfeits is an act of forgery. China’s forgery of art dates from at least the Sung Dynasty (960-1280) when the wealthy began to collect art. Forged paintings were mostly made by students seeking to imitate the masters, and those who can’t buy the originals, will settle to buy the imitated ones by the students. And this created the market for fakes.

Picasso highlighted the notion that the name of the artist would become more of a commodity than the art he produced. By the time Picasso reached his popularity, this is exactly what happened – the artists name on an art work can increase the value tenfold, and Picasso inspired this notion to carry on into Modern Art today. But this also saw the breeding of counterfeits, because people want to see the name on the painting and pay less for it than an original. This is why the market for ‘genuine fakes’ is rapidly growing.

China’s work ethic to create mass production in the cheapest, fastest way is directly reflected into the art market. But these counterfeits of high-end pieces are becoming a major problem. When these get exported and sold in other countries, a huge collection of counterfeits are globalized. And this is a problem for foreign investors interested in innovative and creative pieces not seen yet. This is not only happening in China though. All over the world there are people looking to buy great art works, but don’t have the six digit bank account to do it. So they settle for fakes. It’s why people buy the ‘Made in China’ copy. They buy for the name. Not the quality. Catering for the domestic market.

The world’s art market is in dire search for new artists’ work that can topple the Old Masters. The art market now sees itself wanting a change, an injection of new movements and artistic minds. It’s a risk that has already paid off. Chinese artists have created works of art that sold for triple that of a Warhol or a Picasso. The world is interested in China, and more so, in Chinese Art. Art could become the front runner in the Chinese economy.

Chi Peng, a Chinese artist, says that “China has the attention of the world on it, so you think it is lucky. But China is really naked in front of the world, so it actually is unlucky.”

Although the smaller art market sees some success in the selling of counterfeit artwork, it is not a sustainable practice. It is only a matter of time that it blows up and those creating and buying fakes are exploited. The smaller market of selling counterfeits is slowly affecting the larger, global art market. These works need to be eradicated so that the Fine Art market, which is dominated by galleries and auction houses, can claim back the reign of being spaces where art as a commodity is respected and appreciated for the skill and intelligent matter it is.

If China continues the production and distribution of counterfeit art, over that of producing authentic Chinese art, foreign investors are going to develop a sense of ‘Caveat Emptor’; a Latin phrase for “let the buyer beware”. If China can turn this practice through adversity, the growth of their economy means continuum prosperity in the economy for the rest of the world. The wealthy sees the art market a solid investment as a result of the works selling for well over the $100 million mark. There is a melt-up in the art market; meaning a tremendous surplus of capital. Todd Levin explains that high-net-worth individuals are investing their surplus capital in assets that will appreciate. And these assets are authentic, high end works that include some of China’s new-generation artist’s. In China, any art work over 50 years old is ‘ripe for the copy’. China’s wealthy commission Chinese artists to create copies of Western masterpieces. This takes away from them reaching their own artistic excellence. An archeologist would agree that art is fundamental to understanding generations and civilization. Each artist of its generation should represent the generation and its changes they find themselves in. China must let their artists create more of their own art pieces. It’s imitation versus imagination.


a Brief history of Art

In prehistoric times, humans had no sense of what art as we know it today really meant. Drawings and sculpture were used as a means of recording the surplus commodities during times of trade in ancient civilization. The Near East, Egypt, Rome and Greece were amongst the first city-states that began creating forms of art through architecture, ceramics, sculpture and mosaics. The purposes of these forms of art were to show the opulence and splendor of these cities in the greatest times of antiquity and to reassure a timeless continuity; which as a result later brought along the birth of ‘art for art’s sake’. The term ‘art for art’s sake’ means art that is created for the means of what Milan Kundera coins ‘the disposition of sensible or intelligent matter for an aesthetic end’.

During the early Renaissance, with discourses such as philosophy, medicine, science and theology sprouting, artists idealized and romanticized biblical or mythological scenes and figures through the fine mastery of the art of painting. Sculpture was mainly reserved for biblical figures, and made for churches. What was happening in society in relation to art during that time was that the Royal families reigning would commission to have their own portraits painted. The vastly epic works by Michelangelo and Da Vinci were mostly depicting religious figures, so for Royal families’ portraits to hang along the likes of paintings portraying Jesus and other biblical figures symbolized many hidden meanings of power and riches. These portraits were also the beginning of artists mimicking actual human forms and faces which lead to paintings such as the Mona Lisa and various other self-portraits to follow.

I am not excluding many other art genres that were going on around Europe such as the sculptures of the 17th Century, Baroque architecture, all leading up to Neoclassicism. I am simply omitting them on basis of what is relevant to my writing, henceforth I forward a century of art not particularly relevant to my discussion.

The creation of art works by Caravaggio, Goya, Delacroix and Turner were artists whose works turned a new leave depicting everyday people, landscapes and events. Later on in the 1800’s Schools of Art started sprouting around Europe. These schools developed a new kind of artist. An artist that now had the possibility to draw inspiration from the world around them, and no longer a world that existed only in a biblical or mythological sense. It was highly controversial, because up until then art was reserved for a certain class, and depicted only a certain subject. But it lead to the creation of Realism around 1850. Industrialization saw radical changes and growth for other cities and classes, and art had a new subject: man – the everyday man. Artists portrayed the everyday mundane social and working activities of the middle class. Manet and Courbet painted reality, that which was relevant to the peasant worker and plebe.

Because the Royal families still held power and money, when the first Salons were opened, they were the sole choosers of which paintings would be showcased. But with the revolution happening, art became for the people. And with the middle class now having access to art, it was a major breakthrough for what art as a commodity meant. The middle class attend café’s, races, and Salons. In the 1860’s – 1890’s in Paris especially, artists wanted to depict these pleasurable leisure’s of the modern world, and no longer the mundane activities as been done before.

So Impressionism meant exactly what it alludes to: the artist taking its impression of how he or she saw something and exactly depicting it so. Late-Impressionism and Postimpressionism further broke the molds of what and how objects and subjects within art should represent. Because art is ever-evolving, discourses started to exist rapidly and resulted in various movements in art to form.

In the 20th Century, the art world saw the minds of Matisse, Andy Warhol, and arguably the greatest artist of all time, Picasso. Art had come a long way since Neolithic times, and it was through the minds of these artists that all preconceived notions of art was further pushed in a whole new direction. The Impressionist gave artist the freedom to draw inspiration from how light fell on an object, and how the eye would then see it. Nabis, Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism drew inspiration from colour. The aims of these movements is as Maurice Denis sums it up “to remember that a picture, before being a horse, a nude or some kind of story, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours arranged in a certain order”.

Cubist and Futurist artists’, who found themselves in the midst of a technological revolution, embraced the commercial concepts such as mass media and commodities and reflected it in their work. Inebriated by modern life, these artists translated that ideology into manifestos for their art movements. The result? Art, no longer with the notion of plain impression or imitation; but a debunking and demolishment of traditional art representation resulting in an iconoclastic appeal that evoked public reaction and inspired a new world of Avant-Garde thinking that is Modern Art. Because now, art can mean a photograph, a video game, an illustration, graffiti, heck even a shark in a glass display (thanks Damien Hirst): anything that is visceral, confrontational and enigmatic. Art is no longer for arts sake, and so it was introduced to the global economic market of the 21th Century.


an essay on the visual culture of ethnographic framing

Is a photograph only as relevant as the narration that accompanies it to stipulate and invite the desired reaction or aesthetic response? Can an image, regardless of its context and/or political/anthropological connotation, simply be visually enjoyed for its aesthetic quality? Or will there ever remain an intractable ‘punctum’[1] that reaches out and makes a viewer question its purpose?


What is the significance of photographs? For me, the answer to this question makes it easier to grasp the concept of how ‘primitivism’ was brought into ethnographic framing. When photography started to develop, scientists had one primary use for it; documentation for categorization and classification. It was only after artists gave their hands to the technology of photography that true aesthetic features were becoming consistent with photographs. In Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin’s case, we see definite hindering towards the conscious setting-up or staging of various scenes to enhance the photographs’ aesthetic appeal.


Deducing then that historical, original purposes of photographs fall away – and art, rather than anthropological/political discourse becomes the means through which these images are understood. And this becomes problematic. Because then, as my former question posed, the significance of these photographs and the subjects’ exposure in them become a double sided coin, as I will explain following.


On the one side of this coin we have the subjects; those being represented, or to some extent, even exposed.  Their side of the coin is minted for them; I argue that even the response from the viewer is carefully constructed to have the photographer’s desired outcome – especially in the case of A.M Duggan-Cronin; he proves as a solidifier in my proposed theory. Which makes the other side of the coin those very viewers; those who visually get to inspect the images. But the minter of this coin, the one who picks the brass metal and hones the mint into its shape: is the photographer. He chooses the desired outcome. In the paragraphs to follow I will go into how I suggest it is done, and how all these three above mentioned parties play a role in creating an aesthetic response to the images. I will use photographic examples and relevant quotes to substantiate my views.


My view, and core motivation for this essay is that these historical photographs have an ethos to reveal, but that it is inevitable for the viewer to escape an aesthetic response. I want to start my suggestions by introducing the term ‘adversarial discursion’, which can be defined as a simultaneous digression from a norm, and an embracement of a controversial and purposefully provocative view. It can even be said that some photographs have developed an adversarial aesthetic. Geary’s statement that we were put forward to critically reflect on clearly pertains to this notion that these photographs hold a view over us, even if its original purpose was to just be the documentation and creation of classification and categorization for anthropological and political reasons. As with most visual aspects, an aesthetic response is inevitable. But because race and ethnography is involved, the aesthetic becomes adversarial to its original purpose.

“The very ambiguities which characterize the photographic medium are in tune with the crisis of representational confidence which has assailed anthropology itself” (Edwards, 1995). This above statement is an example of the adversarial concerns that arise through photographs taken in an anthropological aspect. To explore this statement, and relate it to my own views on the discussion at hand, I will make use of a select few of A.M Duggan-Cronin’s photographs. My own observations will be included, but responses will remain academic.


In The Bavenda, Duggan-Cronin’s Venda water-carriers at Sibasa, 1923 (Fig. 1) is the first example to be explored. My first glance at this image and I am met with an electrifying aesthetic attraction. It is indeed a beautiful photograph. The composition, the softness of focus in contrast to the landscape background, the two subjects in their respective poses…


Figure 1


This is the thing with viewing: we will only see what we want to see, and the image (constructed by its taker) will make us see what he wants us to see – and the only way they do so is through the use of an image caption. We reach this fork in the road when viewing ethnographically framed photograph’s, we are faced with a caption telling us the historical and anthropological aspects to it, while at the same time we just view it for its aesthetic appeal. Geary’s statement seems ambiguous then. Is the significance of an image based on what is portrayed, or by what its response to the portrayal is?


I suggest then, that it is only by being put into context that the ethos of the photographs can be revealed, otherwise they are just pictures of some women in grasslands, carrying baskets. The caption provides us the needed historical background to understanding the setting and needed approach to take upon viewing. It far too much seems, in most readings I have come across, that the issues behind these photographs are the way the subjects are being portrayed, and how the historical and political relations might be jeopardized or inaccurately portrayed. “Anthropology’s contribution to the contemplation of photography in theoretical terms has been precisely to collapse those very boundaries and ways of looking at people and places to which it has contributed so forcefully” (Edwards, 1995). There are worries that romanticized notions are created to develop a myth about these subjects. As in this very photograph we see the staging of a seemingly every day, mundane chore that the women in these tribes do – here portrayed as this idealized caption of native beauty and customs.


Also in The Bavenda, Duggan-Cronin’s Venda hut at Mbilwe, date (Fig. 2) 1923, is another strikingly beautiful photograph to me. The composition within the frame and use of constructed poses create a perfect image. Just upon viewing, the context falls away, and the aesthetic evocation reaches out to you. Until, of course, the caption is read. And we are forced to consider this picture in an anthropologically set-up manner. Because the caption consists of prospects about Venda Hut construction, and its relation to other tribes’ huts.



Figure 2


A completely different feeling is felt after reading the caption, and the more one looks, and the more one reads in context, the more it becomes clear that the photograph’s historical context in relation to it  just being an image, exceeds the limit of its own context. There is no way that these photographs’ by Duggan-Cronin were not carefully constructed to create an aesthetic response. “Cronin’s contemporaries appear to have seen no contradiction between the artistic and scientific aspects of his project and therefore they had no sense that the beauty of the photographs has been in any way constructed” (Godby, 2010). But, as laid out in the previous paragraph, I detested the latter comment. And this construction by Duggan-Cronin is what makes the image become meaningful in another way, and makes it move away from its original purpose.

Photographs learn, they teach and they question. Ethnography methods are ways of observing and as a result give us quality data in return. Ethnographic framing has itself had a very adversarial reputation.

Reflecting then on the nature of what I have discussed throughout this essay, there is enough evidence for me to comprehend such criticism against ethnographic framing. A.M Duggan-Cronin is the front-runner in being criticized for his photographs. His critics seem to think his approach is biased, and images staged. And as I have explored with two of his examples, this has seen to be the case.

In an anthropological sense it is problematic to an extent, because if the reason for ethnographic studies is data collection for historical classification, the images should be taken as happened, they should be captions captured while the situation represented is actually taking place in order to assure correct and unbiased documentation. The reason I mention all of this is significant. Because let’s for a moment consider why Duggan-Cronin chose to stage or enhance some features in his photo’s? If his adventure took him to these tribes and he was to document exactly the scenarios he had encountered, and he was to replicate, almost in an impressionistic way the day-to-day activities and customs of these tribes, these images would most certainly not have strong aesthetic responses. So this creation of idealized or romanticized scenes is to assure an aesthetic response, and evoke a hold over its viewers. As a result, the images do exceed the limit of their context, and become, as Geary states, “meaningful in another way”.


I think this is the beauty that is ethnographic framing, and why it is relevant to a discourse in art. Because as all art does, it wants to stimulate more question not provide answers. These photographs by A.M Duggan-Cronin are catalysts in making us question our own opinions and our own reference to humanity. The discourse of art has helped ethnographically-related images to be considered again, looked at again and have had them taken out of their own context to exceed the very context of what they wanted to portray. And then as a bonus, they make beautiful displays of rich and intricate cultures to grace the walls of places where they can evoke aesthetic responses, and maybe even a few more questions…


[1]Punctum is ‘the rare detail that attracts you to an image, Barthes says ‘its mere presence changes my reading,that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value’ (George Powell Photography, 2008)