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Art in China: Censorship, Secrecy, and the Struggle to be Heard

Su Shih, by Zhao Mengfu, ca. 1300. Source: Taipei Palace Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

Su Shih, by Zhao Mengfu, ca. 1300. Source: Taipei Palace Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

The great Song dynasty post Su Shih, while living in the far south of China in the 1070s, sent friends in the capital occasional metaphoric poetry. A group of them put together an anthology of these verses and showed it around town; and in the summer of 1079, Su was arrested on charges of writing poems that “denounced the imperial chariot” and demonstrated “great irreverence towards the emperor,” and the Crow Terrace Poetry Case began. While Su languished in prison, members of the Imperial Censorate reviewed the anthology and identified perfidious meanings behind Su’s writing. Censors cited particularly his use of the verbs “to mold and to smelt” in a poem about a garden; the words were about social change, they insisted. Su ultimately confessed that he had critical intentions behind some phrases (including that one), and in January of 1080, he was convicted of “Great Irreverence,” and was sentenced to have his head chopped off. He escaped the death penalty only by grace of the Emperor, who feared that beheading a popular poet would be politically unwise. Su Shih was instead given two years’ penal servitude in a small, remote river village.

The notion of artistic censorship is not new in China, and the harshness of repression imposed by the Cultural Revolution has many precedents in that country. Full artistic freedom certain does not exist there today. Artists may be imprisoned (though probably not beheaded) if they appear to be provoking discord. Such extreme treatment, however, affects only those whose work is very visible and very deliberately at the edge of provocation; the only artists I know who was actually imprisoned in the last five years was a performer who had done inflammatory street performance in Beijing, someone who was really quite close to inciting a counter-revolution. Most of the censorship, like most of the work, is subtle. The last few years have brought increasing freedom to avant-garde artists who wish to show their work abroad; but these same artists cannot show their work at home. The new vanguard art which has attracted such attention in the West will be more easily seen in New York during the Asia Society exhibition of it this year than in Beijing, where so much of it is created.

After the obliterations of the Cultural Revolution, artists began to recover their freedom during the mid-70s. In 1979, the first recognizable group emerged. They called themselves the Stars, and were closely affiliated with the Democracy Wall movement for political change. The members of the group, who could not exhibit their work in official places, hung paintings on the fence outside the National Gallery and demonstrated for individual rights. It was the beginning of a sort of golden age for the Chinese avant-garde. Though some Western critics have dismissed work from this period as “derivative” because it uses Western styles, these critics have failed to understand the particular power of Western styles within China. There was no more explicit indicator of opposition to the repressive Chinese law of the Cultural Revolution than to incorporate ideas from the West into your work. To make a “Western-looking” picture in China was completely different from making a “Western-looking” picture in the West. Every image was loaded with implications; every response to Western ideas was a version of “molding and smelting.” The artists of the Chinese avant-garde no more copies Western styles than Roy Lichtenstein copied comic books, or Jasper Johns, flags; they used Western styles cannily to accomplish artistic objectives of their own. Their work in fact springs from the complex amalgamation of three sources: the literati brushwork tradition of calligraphic Chinese art; the Socialist Realism that came to the P.R.C. from the U.S.S.R.; and the international style of Western modern art.

In 1985, five critics set up a magazine they called Fine Arts in China. It was, for four years, the voice of the avant-garde, and as long as you were not publishing explicit criticism of the government, you could write almost anything there. All of this led finally to the great event of the period, the now-famous “China/Avant Garde” show, which opened in February 1989, at the National Gallery. Ten years earlier the Stars had had to battle to hang work on the fence outside this museum; now the circle associated with Fine Arts in China were mounting in this very official location a monumental exhibition of all the most strange and interesting and radical new work in China. They knew that showing in this space would give them the appearance of official imprimatur, allowing them to reach China’s masses. The mood was ecstatic.

Ninety minutes into the opening, two performance artists fired gunshots into their installation. Shocked officials closed the exhibition immediately. Memos in government files from that time say that “No measures will be considered too extreme to prevent another event similar to the 1989 China/Avant Garde Show.” The joyful apotheosis of the new art movement in China had lasted for exactly one hour and a half.

The closing of the exhibition paralyzed the artists, and heavy depression set in. Within four months, the June 4th events in Tiananmen Square occurred, and the artists realized that their dream of progress toward freedom had never been anything more than a dream. Their optimism curdled into cynicism, and their faith in themselves and their own work soured. Though economic change marched on, the artists understood, as the population understood, that real emancipation was not on offer. They lapsed into groups whose names reflect this disillusionment: Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and so on.

For the past decade, these artists have had complete freedom to show abroad, mostly because China has so little interest in foreign countries, and because trade (work by avant-garde Chinese artists now commands high prices) is always welcome. Chinese art has been celebrated at the Venice Biennale, at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, at major galleries in London, Paris, and New York. Some of the most interesting artists have actually moved to the West. Within China, these artists have no voices. The Chinese government has neatly effaced them from public debate at home. Though there is now plenty of new money in China, local collectors are not interested in acquiring the work of new Chinese artists. The few galleries that sell the work of the avant-garde in China are mostly owned by foreigners and are located in hotels oriented toward Western markets. Recent government-sponsored international shows that include contemporary art indicate how little official acknowledgment there is of the work that interests many Western viewers. The government acknowledges only obsequious work conceived within the scope of official interests, innocent brush-painting of bamboo, and kitschy portraits of sad girls gazing into reflective pools. Work with vitality, integrity, or content is systematically excluded from all exhibitions at home and official exhibitions abroad. The pain that this causes the artists is enormous, and much of their most desperate work reflects this personal angst as much as it does any larger social agenda.

The new Chinese art, like the poems of Su Shih, is an art of exile, even if the exile does not entail geographical displacement. It leaves the context to which it alludes and is viewed by people unacquainted with the realities of modern China. The artists are aware that if they don’t accommodate foreign tastes (including the taste for the “Chinese exotic” and for “localism” and for “democratic yearning”), they will have no one to see or to buy their work. To maintain some integrity, they show work to one another, much as Su Shih sent his work to the circle of friends who could make sense of it. The work that we see in the West is a series of messages mostly obscured. We get less than half of its meaning, for we cannot know what references it hides; seeing phrases such as “to mold and to smelt,” we do now know enough to think beyond metallurgy. What was most striking about last spring’s controversy over The Peony Pavilion was not that censors blocked the production from coming to New York, but that an ordinary Westerner, watching the opera, would not have been able to find anything suspect or subversive in it. The description of it as “feudal trash” seemed comical to many outside of China; but that description blocked the production from traveling, despite the cancellation’s enormous financial and political consequences.

In the U.S., art is a decorative amusement that does not warrant much public funding, and it is displayed in museums supported by the rich for their own aesthetic pleasure. In a society in which art is repressed, it gains in urgency what it loses in visibility. Mao’s repression of literati painting gave to the people of China an understanding that such art was powerful enough to threaten one of history’s most powerful autocracies. When Chiang Kai Shek fled mainland China in 1949, he went to extraordinary lengths to take one thing with him: the imperial art collection. This accessory of power had passed from one emperor on to the next; possessing it, he held onto a symbol as powerful as crown and scepter. The Chinese leadership is longing to have it back – not because it will be popular with tourists, not because it’s lovely to look at, but because it legitimizes the power of whoever holds it.

If we can read the new work that comes out of China, we will see how the insistence on individual imagination is still the most radical thing in China: an idea, fundamental to art, time out of mind, that contains the seeds of the great explosion. We will see that this art is full of molding and smelting. The Chinese officials have rejected it, but what is the power in it, now let loose in the West?