Seismic States: The Changing System of Support for Contemporary Art in China, 1978-1993

DeBevoise, Jane Boettgen
Supervisor: Prof. D.J. Clarke

The subject of this thesis is the evolving system of support for contemporary visual art made in China between 1978 and 1993. This thesis is based on contemporary publications and interviews with artists and art advocates, in addition to other archival materials, including personal records, correspondence, photographs, treatises, advertising, newspaper clippings, and exhibition documentation.

The first section of this thesis begins with an investigation of the state as the patron of the arts. This investigation includes the interlocking roles of the Chinese Artists Association, the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), and the National Art Exhibition in developing the cultural priorities that came to characterize state-sanctioned art in the 1980s. The critical debate around the painting Father by Luo Zhongli illustrates the process of cultural canon-building.

The second section focuses on the development of an overseas market for ink painting and realist oil painting in the 1980s, as well as the impact of market reform and the introduction of an economic incentive system on institutions of art, including NAMOC and other incipient art spaces, such as the Beijing International Art Palace. This section also introduces the critique of commercialism that ebbed and waned, but was a recurrent concern in the art world at the time.

The third section explores the critical debate about the state-sponsored system of cultural authority and the market, and highlights the emergence from this contested space of a series of alternative platforms of visibility and exposure. These alternative platforms include art publications such as Zhongguo meishubao, Meishu sichao, and exhibition opportunities such as the New Concrete Image exhibition, the Hubei Youth Arts Festival, the Institute Art Tapestry Varbanov, and the 1989 China Avant-Garde Exhibition at NAMOC. Within this context, the experimental artwork of artists such as Mao Xuhui, Gu Wenda, and Wu Shanzhuan is discussed.

The fourth section focuses on the 1992 Guangzhou Biennial, which was a pioneering attempt by contemporary artists and their champions, including its organizer Lu Peng, to create an alternative framework of legitimacy and support for experimental art in the wake of Tiananmen Square. Concluding this chapter is an examination of the 1993 exhibition in Hong Kong called China‘s New Art, Post-1989, which was instrumental in launching Chinese contemporary art into the international marketplace. The work of Wang Guangyi is discussed in the context of both exhibitions.

In summary, by examining the shift in the socio-economic context in which art was made, presented, promoted, and received, this study problematizes the study of contemporary Chinese art, by illuminating both continuities and changes in the development of art between the 1980s and 1990s. It also provides a historical perspective from which to consider the impact of market reform and the overseas market on the development of contemporary Chinese art today.