The Chinese Art scene has undergone a revolution with the art market being projected to surpass the United States as the world’s largest. Additionally, a lot of international museums have started showcasing Chinese art which has been selling for huge sums; with Chinese artist Zhang Xiagong garnering over $56 million in auction sales in 2007. Some of the art pieces have broken records such as The Last Supper, a populist painting that sold for $23.3 million at a 2013 auction. The success of this new form of Chinese art brings to the fore some questions which this paper will aim to answer. The paper will begin by exploring the artist Zeng Fanzhi as well as the art piece before analyzing the reasons for the success of this new breed of Chinese artists. The paper will then explore whether the evolution of Chinese art is tied to globalization and a merging of cultures. Finally, the paper will attempt to answer whether Chinese art has become so much an investment that it has lost its spiritual touch.
Zeng is the most expensive living Asian artist having amassed a fortune selling contemporary Asian art that fuses oriental and western styles to an increasingly global audience. Zeng was born in 1964 in the small town of Wuhan in Hubei province where he attended school before dropping out in secondary. He was then admitted to the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts where he schooled until 1991 after which he picked up a job at a government-backed advertising agency in Wuhan. In 1993 Zhen made a move to Beijing to focus on his professional career as a painter (Chen). During his early years he had problems selling his work but after his work was showcased in the hallways of the Shanghai Ritz Carlton by the Shanghai Art Gallery foreign expatriates and western tourists began buying his works. Over time Zeng has revolutionized his style and his art is now bought by the world’s largest collectors and galleries.
The Last Supper, his highest grossing piece to date, was purchased for $23.3 million by an undisclosed buyer during the celebrations to mark Sotheby’s 40 years of operation in Asia. The 4-meter wide painting created in 2001 is based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting by the same title. Rather than depicting the last meal between the Christ and his disciples, it depicts a bunch of young communists with red neckties. Judas, the disciple who would rather betray Jesus, is however shown wearing a western-style yellow tie indicative of the transition towards capitalism (Hunt).
Reasons for Success of Chinese Artists
Zeng Fanzhi is not the only artist to have made sales in the Sotheby auction as all in all 55 of the 61 items on sale were sold for $145.2 million. Another Chinese Artist, Zao Wou-Ki, set records that day when his work was sold for $ 11 million to an Asian buyer. Since 2004, there has been a 2,000 percent increase in the price of art by contemporary Chinese artists, with $100,000 pieces now fetching over $2 million. Many Chinese artists have also had their works exhibited in overseas galleries and institutions, and some have earned worldwide acclaim on social media platforms. The reasons for buyers preferring this new brand of artists are manifold as will be explained.
One of the reasons for the success of Chinese artists is the sudden preference for Chinese art. As Chinese art has evolved to a more subjective form, there has been increased interest especially as Chinese artists transcend the boundaries of culture. This new wave of artists has been brought up in a time when western values have been incorporated into Chinese culture. Most of these artists have had a chance to study abroad or get to interact with a foreign influence of music that broadened their perspective. Moreover, they have seen numerous transitions to their art that has led them to adopt an avant-garde art based on free expression. These emotional art pieces transcend cultures and thus they have been accepted worldwide, leading to many museums such as the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibiting Chinese contemporary art (Errera). Western galleries have started signing up Chinese artists in deals worth millions and the works of these artists are meeting a global audience.
Another reason for the success has been the lack of interference by the government. While movies, news organizations, and TV are strictly censored, the visual arts are not and critical works that address social evils such as official corruption and poverty are not restricted by the government. Additionally, numerous local governments are investing in SoHo type art galleries. The Beijing municipality, for example, spent enormous funds renovating the 798 district which has become the hottest art center with over 150 galleries. The lack of government regulation has seen the upsurge of illegal bidding at auctions not regulated by the government. The auction houses have their own rules and bidding is viewed as a social as well as abusiness activity where overbidding is common. This lack of regulatory benefits the common artists who have been accused of boosting prices and engaging in widespread speculation.
China has also become a hub for art collectors both local and foreign. Buyers from South Korea, Indonesia, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and Singapore have flocked the main market of Beijing that has also attracted international houses like Continua, Urs Meile, Tang, and Arario (Pollack). China has now become an art center and it is impossible to exclude China from international talks on art. It is now the number one market for contemporary art. The presence of local collectors is still minimal but it is comprised of young collectors who are beginning to appreciate contemporary art. As this market matures and as incomes rise, it is expected that local collectors will make a significant part of the market thus becoming a boost to Chinese artists. Local collectors are not the only ones who have witnessed a preference for Chinese artists as their incomes rise, as people from Latin America and the Middle East have begun frequenting the market scene.
Reasons for Zeng’s Success
Zeng is one of the most sought after Chinese artists having made deals with the likes of Acquavella Galleries in a $20 million deal. His ‘Mask Series’ collection also sold for $9.6 million. Five years ago, Zeng’s works sold for less than $50,000 but currently he commands a price on the primary market of over $1 million. Zeng attributes his success to numerous factors as articulated below.
Zeng is versatile and varies style depending on the situation. He was influenced by the original works of European artists which led him to adopt an expressionist technique which is exhibited in The Hospital series. The characters have an angry and pessimistic view of the world which wears off during the creation of The Mask series (Xianting). The new series is more apathetic and consists largely of symbolism. After completing this series Zeng is still undergoing constant reinventing and experimentation, joining together with the likes of Henri Loyfette, curator of the Louvre museum.
Zeng is also very creative and innovative. All the transitions in style were necessitated by intensified competition as well as shifts in public attitudes. Following the anticipated slowdown in the Chinese art market, Zeng has begun forming strategic alliances while also documenting his works in a catalog called raisonne. While common in the Western world, the practice is unheard of in China and will be a chance for Zeng to make a significant impact. Zeng is also represented by Gagosian Gallery outside of China allowing him greater exposure to connoisseurs and global collectors.
Additionally, Zeng like many other new artists makes real-life portrayals of the community around him. His works draw from personal experience which is why they are able to resonate with the audience. Zeng says that painting from personal experience provokes strong emotions that aid in the creative process. He also makes art that is indicative of societal values at the moment, for example, the Mask series portrays the political tensions of the 1990s and exudes strong feelings of solitude and alienation (Chen). Zeng is thus able to make an emotional and ideological connection with his audience that makes him loved.
The last key ingredients to Zeng’s success lies in his discipline and independence. Zeng states that despite his success, he only takes a month off every year. Additionally, he says that he is not afraid of expressing himself or of censorship. His preference for themes that he prefers is a boost to his creativity and innovation as an artist, and ultimately it is evident in the quality of his work.
Impact of Western Culture and Globalization on Chinese Art
It would be safe to say that Chinese productions such as ‘The Last Supper’ are a result of a merger of global values and cultures. Recently there has been an upsurge of productions that defy traditional cultural values, an occurrence that correlates to China’s ‘opening up to the world’ in the 20th century. The Last Supper, for example, defeats traditional beliefs in both its religious connotations and defiance to authority. The correlation is not a one-off as throughout history, whenever Chinese art has undergone an adaptation, it has usually been as a result of adopting a modern western system (Li). As a result of globalization and the merger of Chinese and western values, Chinese Art has undergone three revolutions and adaptations.
The first revolution happened between 1919 and 1942 immediately after the demise of the Qing dynasty. Chinese intellectuals who had access to the progressive beliefs of the west started rejecting the ‘other worldly’ values exhibited in Chinese art then. Traditional Chinese art has always idealized lightness and fluidity in art and the seeming transcendence of images from theeveryday world. Art was no longer a spiritual manifestation of humanity to the modern thinker, as realism kicked in. As a result, there was a movement against feudal society called the May Fourth Movement that resulted in Western realism being integrated into contemporary Chinese art.
Just when Chinese art was adopting western realism, European realism was also undergoing a transition into modernism that went unnoticed by a majority of Chinese artists. Chinese art was still focused on objective form; whether the artwork looked like the ‘real thing.’ Modernist movements including expressionism, cubism, and impressionism had, however, transitioned into a subjective form of freely expressing emotions. A confrontation ensued that resulted in the Woodcut Movement of the 1930s, a populist approach with a desire to alleviate the wartime suffering of the people. The Woodcut Movement was influenced by German Expressionism and Soviet Realism and was connected to the success of the Communist Revolution.
Upon the establishment of the communist regime in 1949, another transition happened that lasted all the way to the Cultural Revolution. A new wave of art advocating for political idealism was merged with soviet socialist realism to produce the Maoist Revolutionary Realism. During the 1950s there were more ties between the Soviet Union and China that resulted in a ‘Sovietization’ of the arts. Maoism, however, was too absolute and this coupled with its strong emphasis on Chinese folk culture led to its rejection. Beginning in 1979, Chinese art began embracing western philosophical and aesthetic values as a younger generation increased contact with the western world. It was also at this time that there was an increasing number of artists studying in Japan while Japanese teachers imported into China introduced Western values (Carter). The result was the emergence of the Chinese avant-garde art.
While Chinese avant-garde art draws from both traditional Chinese art and western modern art, it is really an integration of numerous styles, aesthetics, philosophies, and cultures. Modern-day artists like Zheng have had numerous influences from all over the world having exhibited in prestigious global institutions like the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris as well as the Acquavella Galleries in New York. These artists have also engaged in collaborations with artists from other cultures and backgrounds as portrayed by Zeng’s collaboration with Henri Loyrette to explore the similarities between classical and contemporary art. The merger of Chinese and global values is also exhibited in The Last Supper that showcases a Christian religious ceremony by an artist from a traditionally Buddhist nation.
Has Chinese Art been Commodified?
There is numerous forged artwork in the market presently with online searches for prominent artists bringing up paintings worth less than $500. Librarians are even stealing art from museums leading many to state that art has been commodified so much that artists don’t care about value. Additionally, artists often engage in unscrupulous business practices that would be considered illegal in the western world as a way of raising prices. It is thus hard to find true value in the market, a factor that has been proliferated by the social nature of the market. Chinese auctions have no set rules and prices fluctuate drastically, with buyers flaunting their financial muscle.
Originally Chinese art had a spiritual sense that was exhibited both in the quality of the work as well as the theme it portrayed. Some topics were considered a taboo and certain ideals were idolized so that purchasers bought art to get a piece of spirituality. Starting from the 1920s when realism was adopted, however, spirituality was rejected for its links to feudal society and the state. The objectification present in spiritual art was replaced by a subjective form in which issues like sexuality were open for discussion. By the 1980s, many Chinese artists had abandoned the notion of spirituality altogether. Presently, Chinese art depicts popular trends and cultures in the modern world and is highly reactive to changing consumer tastes (Andrews and Shen).Artists like Zeng produce art that sells even if it is not related to Chinese culture or beliefs. Zeng has also stated that he did not like Chinese art and only picked it up after completing The Mask series, indicating that a majority of the modern wave of artists have little understanding of Chinese art that exalts spirituality.
In conclusion, Zeng Fanzhi is a good portrayal of a new breed of Chinese contemporary artists who have gained international; recognition. These artists have fused traditional as well as western styles to create an avant-garde art that has received worldwide preference with the Chinese art market being labeled the fastest growing. The increasing preference for Chinese art is as a result of numerous factors including improved fortunes, government support, the rise of China as a regional trading hub, and globalization that has influenced the perspectives of Chinese artists. This change in perspective has, however, led to an erosion of the traditional Chinese art that embraced spirituality. An understanding of these factors not only broadens one’s understanding of the course but also of the world cultural heritage. Additionally, it enables one to recognize how outside influences such as globalization, politics, and business can influence art.
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