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.