How China Conquered the Art World

In the past three years, six Chinese artists have been responsible for nearly $400 million in sales. Arne Glimcher on China's continued rise in the art market in the face of the global meltdown.

Frederic J. Brown, AFP / Getty Images

China is the most resilient of nations, perhaps because of its 1.3 billion population and its monstrous physical scale. In its present incarnation one has to think of it as a Communist corporation where the politically connected executives at the top are compensated to the point of creating a millionaire class. The middle market is mobilized in the hope of joining that class and rural lower classes are only moderately aware of the radical changes that have occurred since the Cultural Revolution. But China claims that in this vast population nobody goes hungry.For a nation that destroys itself periodically, it regroups quickly because of cheap labor and a unity of purpose. Unlike the United States, China is not a melting pot—although, these days, neither is America. We are composed of multiple subcultures that prefer not to melt for the honor of becoming Americanized. Individualism was not even considered possible in China’s collective society 20 years ago, now it is the goal of millions.

The new "new" thing was Chinese contemporary art and the speculator mentality that fueled the Western market. As one Chinese collector recently said to me, “It was fun and we also made a lot of money.”

In the early 1990s we witnessed the emergence of a revitalized contemporary Chinese art world that began as a reaction against the government-approved Social Realist style. Zhang Xiaogang, Huang Yong Ping, Ai WeiWei, Yue Minjun, and Wang Guangyi were among the first group of artists to establish a movement that became known as Cynical Realism. The movement broke with Social Realism and the authoritarian regimes that ascribe political purpose to artistic styles in the service of social betterment. The artists aspired to restructure personal narrative visions in original styles.

This new art was also highly political and sometimes inflamed the government officials, but as the new Chinese painting attracted the attention of the West, the government became more tolerant as long as it didn’t humiliate Mao. An even greater tyrant than Hitler or Pol Pot, Mao is responsible for between 80 and 120 million deaths of his people. When confronted with this fact, Mao’s response was that there were too many Chinese. Yet today he remains a deity, embalmed in Red Square—the scene of another massacre.

Unlike the West, whose story has been told and retold so many times in art, the Chinese had a legitimate narrative to inspire its artists. For the first generation of postmodern artists, their freedom became a tool of purgation confronting and illuminating the heinous injustices, irretrievable losses, and brutality of the political regime. How could it be told in metaphor and presented in an international style that would allow its meaning to enter the global culture? It is the art of a subculture that propagandizes free thought and originality rather than collectivism (even if some artists employ collective processes to create their work).

During the Cultural Revolution, the Politburo directed the Red Guards to vanquish the “four olds”—old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits. In doing so they created an aesthetic vacuum waiting to be filled by foreign influence. When Nixon opened the door to China in the early 1970s, Chinese artists got their first view of the West. Suddenly five centuries of Western art lay before them as a stylistic smorgasbord. Chinese artists could reinterpret it out of admiration or try to replace it. They choose the former. It was not unlike Picasso and Braque’s discovery of African art at the turn of the 20th century. They reached across the chasm of culture and style and recognized basic elements that informed their art in the development of Cubism. Now it was China’s turn and the Chinese had a talent for adaptation.

They scavenged and shared censored Western art magazines and were especially responsive to the imagery of Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter, and Andy Warhol. These artists became stylistic touchstones for conveying the Chinese narrative. Zhang Xiaogang visited Germany and met Richter and a stylistic change occurred in his work. These essentially Chinese paintings were now being presented in Western styles. They were reminiscent of the early black and white airbrush portraits of Chuck Close, both in their scale and frontality, and the photo-derived paintings of Richter, where the brushwork has been blended into an anonymous surface. But in subtext, these Bloodlines paintings were the obsessive recreation of 1920s' black-and-white family photographs that were burned by the Red Guards when citizens were taken away for reeducation or execution. In essence, Zhang Xiaogang’s portraits compulsively restored the lost documentation of pre-Cultural Revolutionary life.

Possibly the most recognizable Chinese artist is Yue Minjun. His Pop-influenced paintings of identical smiling men cynically picture a collective society in self-portraiture. He sometimes recreates famous Western paintings such as Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, in which all of the same figures waiting to be executed are smiling, oblivious to the scene in which they have been placed—actors jesting before the “action.” They are self-portraits of disasters seen through an icy lens.

The conceptual artist Ai WeiWei illustrates the schizoid society that rapid change has produced—sometimes by reassembling Ming-style furniture into absurd and useless arrangements, or by carefully painting and antiquing a Coca-Cola logo on an ancient Chinese pot. These are but a few examples of the intention and invention permeating the Chinese art world. Are all the artists good? No. But some have the potential of greatness and take their place on the world stage. The urgency and necessity that provoked the new Chinese art is more authentic than it is currently in Western art. The Chinese story must be told and they are telling it through their art.

As with most vanguard art, it went unrecognized for 10 years. Then the international monetary boom and its immediate effects on China transformed the middle class into the nouveau riche. They began collecting. Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses opened in Hong Kong and regularly held auctions of Chinese antiquities and jewelry. As the media reported the soaring art prices in the West, the Chinese with their penchant for gambling wanted to get into the game and the auction houses welcomed them in with no limits. The Asian auctions led the way for Chinese art but London and New York were quick to follow. The new "new" thing was Chinese contemporary art and the speculator mentality that fueled the Western market. As one Chinese collector recently said to me, “It was fun and we also made a lot of money.”

Some prescient American collectors, including Vicki and Kent Logan and Mera and Donald Rubell, began collecting Chinese art before 2000 with a genuine passion, but as the auction prices exploded everyone was beating a path to the galleries and artist studios in China. It became the “China thing.” From 2006 to 2008, six of the foremost artists in China sold works at the major auction houses in Asia, London, and New York for a cumulative sum of $375,625,000. They are Wang Guangyi ($34,174,000), Zhang Xiaogang ($129,093,000), Fang Lijun ($20,975,000), Zeng Fanzhi ($80,237,000), Yue Minjun ($83,893,000) and Liu Ye ($27,253,000). These are only six examples of many more top artists. What began in Asia, by 2008 had influenced the entire international art world toward globalism. Recently I’ve heard people saying “the China thing” is over but that’s not true. If it is, the American thing, the German thing, and the British thing must also be over and global art is not over it's just beginning.

What happens now is what always happens. Fewer collector-speculators vying for each work equals less demand equals less extraordinary prices. But the bright side it that the speculators buying up the contents of artist’s studios is over and there is a chance for art to be made for art’s sake once more instead of the market—if the artists remember how to do it.

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Arne Glimcher is the founder and chairman of the PaceWildenstein art gallery. He is also a published author, and a film producer and director, whose pictures include The Mambo Kings , Gorillas in the Mist , and Picasso & Braque Go to the Movies .