Money Matters (Part 1): Tracing the Role of the International Art Market in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art

Since the early 2000’s, prices for contemporary Chinese artworks at international auction houses have skyrocketed. Contemporary Chinese art received little attention from the international art world before 2006, the year artworks by contemporary Chinese artists achieved head-turning prices at Sotheby’s international auction in New York, Contemporary Art Asia. While prices of contemporary Chinese art at auction had begun to climb in the early 2000s, they surged after 2006. Contemporary Art Asia was the first major contemporary Asian art auction in the U.S. and sold for over US$13.2 million. This watershed event has generated robust international demand for the contemporary art of China, with artworks now regularly topping the US$1 million mark.

Following this event, contemporary Chinese art suddenly caught the attention of the international art world. Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, reminisces about the auction’s immediate impact. He explains that in the past, contemporary Chinese art had to wait for opportunities to present itself. According to Tinari, this was no longer an issue by 2006, when three tour buses containing 80-plus people from the Museum of Modern Art in New York arrived in main land China. And by 2007, five of the ten top-selling artists at international auctions were Chinese, indicating what The Independent called a “seismic shift” in an art market that had been dominated by the Western tradition for almost 500 years. Just last year, Chinese artists have eclipsed the U.S. in overall contemporary art sales with 40% of the market. If collectors are willing to pay record-breaking prices for these artworks, why have some viewers criticized contemporary Chinese art as being repetitive and kitsch?

Although market demand has brought the subject of contemporary Chinese art into the limelight of the international art world, only a small group of contemporary Chinese artists have enjoyed this attention. These artists whose names frequently appear at international auctions were all born before the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976. Because this generation lived through the Cultural Revolution, these artists experienced severe political turmoil throughout childhood. They are famous in the international art world for utilizing political motifs and symbols to express cynical views towards Chinese society. Due to China’s conservative ideological environment in the 1980s and early 1990s, many of these liberal-minded artists re-focused their attention on opportunities overseas to exhibit their artwork and establish their reputations. Thus the frequency with which the same names appear at international auction houses and in western exhibitions and scholarship threatens to reduce both the local Chinese and international art world’s exposure to contemporary Chinese art to little more than mere brand recognition.

Critics and art historians have questioned whether contemporary Chinese artists who have found success on the global market are catering to Euro-American demand or challenging artistic values and taste across the globe in a lasting and meaningful way. Although western scholarship and public exhibitions have made efforts to better understand contemporary Chinese art, these efforts continue to reveal a singular focus on artworks that depict mainstream Chinese subject matter and legible Chinese forms and motifs. An analysis of the misleading portrayals of this body of art propagated by western media reveals the limitations and consequences of these perceptions in the development of contemporary Chinese art. In doing so, this paper aims to shed light on how the commodification of contemporary Chinese art has shaped its production, circulation and reception in the international art world.

A State System of Support for the Arts

Because the majority of today’s internationally acclaimed contemporary Chinese artists were born in the 1950s and 1960s, the cultural legacy of Mao ideology has largely informed the artwork produced by these artists. Sometimes referred to as “one of the most bizarre events in history,” the Cultural Revolution aimed to eliminate old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits in order to create and construct the proletarian new idea, new culture, new customs and new habits among the masses. The violent and invasive destruction of thousands of “old” property, including dynastic calligraphy and paintings, ancient books and religious architecture, left a deep impression on those who lived through this period of political turmoil. Many people who were creating artwork after the Cultural Revolution were responding to the trauma they had experienced growing up.

Propaganda posters created during this time satisfied state expectations because they transformed high-quality painting into a popular form that could be disseminated to the masses. The propaganda posters portrayed powerful and complicated images that reminded Chinese people of both the hopes and pain of the Revolution. These posters have become iconic symbols of this period in China’s history; however, like all mass-produced objects, the widespread circulation of these images re-purposed in artwork and re-printed on bags, t-shirts, and mugs in tourist gift shops in China has obscured their original meaning and resonance.

In the post-Mao era, led by Deng Xiaoping’s reforms at the Third Plenary Session of the XI Central Committee in December 1978, the shift in focus of China’s national agenda from that of politics to economics provided new freedoms for Chinese artists. 13 Designed primarily to re-energize China’s economy after years of mismanagement during the Cultural Revolution, Deng’s economic reforms involved opening the country to foreign trade and tourism and encouraging entrepreneurs to start businesses.

Although the state never relinquished full control of the arts, Martina Köppel-yang has pointed out the state’s structural inconsistencies that created niches in which artists could develop alternative opinions and art forms. Experimental artists, including Wang Guangyi, took advantage of the unstable space developing at the intersection of state sponsorship and market reform to explore new art forms.

Even though artists had more freedom to think independently from Maoist ideology, they quickly realized once more that their hopes of exerting considerable influence on the country’s modernization would be met with disappointment. In accordance with Deng’s slogans, “Let 100 flowers bloom” (baihua qifang) and “Liberate your thinking” (jiefang xixiang), artists were encouraged to contribute to the discourse on art at a theoretical level and see themselves as representatives of a cultural movement of enlightenment. However, this cultural euphoria that characterized the cultural debates from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s lost its vigor when the coexistence of the official ideology of modernization and the artists’ and intellectuals’ utopian concepts became increasingly challenging. As China gradually opens up to the rest of the world, western media channels jump on the chance to expose the so-called “cultural burden” left by Mao on the shoulders of China’s creatives.

A seminal example of these clashing ideologies was China|Avant-Garde organized by art critic Gao Minglu. This exhibition opened on February 5, 1989 in Beijing at the National Art Museum of China and presented 297 artworks by 186 artists. Gao explained that because this was the first large-scale modern Chinese art exhibition, the Chinese government most likely wanted to utilize their support of it as a symbol of its progressively open cultural policy. Even though state authorities approved each artwork prior to the exhibition opening, the state shut down China|Avant-Garde only a few days after its opening. Despite the sudden censorship of this exhibition, the provocative artworks still left a marked impression on viewers.

Wang Guangyi’s controversial Mao Zedong AO (fig 1), an oil painting triptych that consists of three nearly identical copies of a standard portrait of Mao Zedong, was a highlight of the exhibition. Wang superimposed a black grid onto the painting and added the letters O and A in white in the corners. The standardized portrait of Mao is highly recognizable to Chinese viewers. However, when it is reproduced in gray scale and placed behind a grid, the portrait appears distant and unfamiliar. Mao’s familiar smiling face appears stiff like an expressionless mask. According to Debevoise, this painting destabilizes the customary relationship between idols and their worshippers.

Ultimately, it was not the curated content of the exhibition but rather the unauthorized performances acted out on the day of the opening that caused the downfall of China|Avant-Garde. These performances, including the infamous gunshots fired by Tang Song and Xiao Lu at their installation, clearly a condition set forth by state authorities, which was a hard restriction against performance art. As a result, the subsequent suspension of the show was immediately politicized, triggering the international media to associate Wang’s triptych with the political implications of these events. Western news reporters were immediately drawn to the drama of the gunshots and the deliberate and highly visible infringement of state orders. These events proved to be the perfect eye-catching material for western media to broadcast to viewers overseas that were itching to see all of the action of Post-Mao China.

A comparison of local and international media coverage of Mao Zedong AO and China|Avant-Garde reveals diverging interpretations of Wang’s artwork. In response to Mao Zedong AO, both public and official critique published in major Chinese newspapers reacted above all else to the symbolic distance between the viewer and Mao created by Wang’s superimposed grid. In February 1989 issues of Nongmin Ribao (Peasant’s Daily) various contributors have interpreted Wang’s grid as a “railing” or “wire netting” functioning to incentivize a more objective and sober view of Mao from a historical perspective. This interpretation demonstrates that local viewers understood Mao Zedong AO as a measured critique of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and not an express attack on Mao.

Figure 1: Wang Guangyi, Mao Zedong—Black Grid (毛澤東黑格), 1988, oil on canvas, Private Collection. Reproduced in Semiotic Warfare: the Chinese Avant-Garde, 1979-1989.

After the China|Avant-Garde exhibition, however, Wang not only cemented his position as a central figure of contemporary Chinese art but he also caught the attention of international newspapers and magazines. In contrast to views held in the Chinese newspaper, Time magazine published Wang’s gridded portrait of Mao in their March 1989 issue describing Wang’s triptych as “an allegorical reminder of communist persecution during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Wang had intended to make a social commentary; however, the artist has never indicated that he wanted to openly denunciate the Chinese Communist Party’s political practice.

Time magazine’s misunderstanding of Wang’s intentions is best explained by David Clarke’s notion of “an asymmetry of knowledge” that prevailed in the 1930s and 1940s that has continued to exist even today. Clarke explains that an Asian artist working today is far more likely to have a detailed understanding of modern and contemporary western art than their American counterpart has of modern and contemporary Asian artistic production. This “asymmetry” reveals both the resolute dominance of Western art history and the relative lack of scholarship on modern and contemporary Asian art in the west. Furthermore, Pauline J. Yao writes that the “western appetite for ‘resistance’ has a tendency to cast all art production in China as oppositional or ‘anti-regime’ while this is rarely the case.” In other words, western frameworks for interpreting Chinese art tends to be based on perfunctory and thus misleading observations of Chinese culture. Because state crackdowns have often followed periods of liberalization within recent Chinese history, China|Avant-Garde embodied both the peak and demise of experimental art in the 1980s.

In 1993, Deng Xiaoping officially ended China’s lock-down and re-launched his economic reforms with increased vigor. Although changes were slow to manifest, the Chinese economy entered a period of development that began to restructure Chinese society.

The most noteworthy of these changes for Chinese artists was the momentous shift in attention to the art market. Having lost all of their allies in the cultural bureaucracy, experimental artists saw the promise of private enterprise as an opportunity to become financially independent from China’s government controlled institutions. Artists saw the market as a nascent third space for artistic experimentation, a chance to redefine their possibilities. While undoubtedly a motivating force, the prospect of material gain was not the sole reason for what was to become an almost obsessive preoccupation with the art market. Because government-run platforms of support were essentially off limits to experimental artists, the market became a way out of a complicated political cul-de-sac. For these reasons, the emerging role of the art market in China sets the stage for contemporary Chinese art’s swift entrance into the international art world, a pivotal move in the history of this body of art.

[End of Part 1. This is part of a series written by Shauna Yuan]

Related post: Part 2 Introducing the Business of Art

About Shauna Yuan

Shauna Yuan
Shauna Yuan

Born and raised just outside of Boston, Shauna graduated with a degree in Art History and Chinese from Colby College. Starting in September 2016, she will intern at

Phillips New York

in the 20th Century and Contemporary Art Department for their Fall 2016 auctions. She studied new museum culture in Shanghai and Beijing supported by a grant from the Freeman Foundation. Beside her endeavors in the art world, Shauna is a talented swimmer who competed on the varsity team at Colby College (2012-2016).