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Chinese Art and the Financial Crisis

Fall 2009 In Situ

Chinese Art and the Financial Crisis

The international financial crisis has China’s artists rethinking not the state, but their craft. Diana Fu reports from Xiaopu village, just outside Beijing

In the midst of farmlands, a cluster of low-lying concrete buildings breaks the otherwise rural landscape. The dust kicks up as a truck carrying livestock rumbles by one such concrete structure – a local contemporary art museum. Xiaopu village is one of several artists’ villages in the East suburb of Beijing that boasts a rich cultural industry (文化产业), a development priority of the local government. For local farmers, the land is sustenance. For artists, the village is a creative refuge from the chaos of the cities. They may be itinerant painters who moved from the cities to the countryside, but just like rural-urban migrants, Chinese migrant artists are feeling the weight of the global financial crisis. However, Shin, a 26 year-old migrant artist from Jiangsu Province, sees light accompanying darkness: “The credit crunch is a kind of blessing; it rids the village of artists who came to Beijing to get rich quick in the Chinese art market bubble. Those who care about art for art’s sake stayed.” She has a point. On the macro level, the economy is driving up the US misery index, but for idealists, the credit collapse may spur some collective moral reflection over personal and societal values.

Shin moved to the artists’ village at a time when top Chinese contemporary art pieces were auctioning at higher prices than Warhol’s Marilyns. Now, Shin is scrambling. Turning down a position as arts editor for a Beijing magazine, Shin gritted her teeth, took up a part-time job at the local gallery, and picked up her paint brush again. She is one among a minority of art students who rejected further cooptation into state institutions, such as the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Upon graduation, she moved with her artist boyfriend to Xiaopu, where she has a chance to mingle with Chinese contemporary art giants like Gao Minlei.

Her village is a typical rural village, except that artists outnumber farmers. Side by side, these two types of economic migrants struggle to make it through the tight days. The first sign of the credit crunch in the village was vacancy posters for farmers’ flats, which are usually rented to artists at a hiked rate. Then, just before the Lunar New Year, an estimated 30 percent of the village’s young artists packed up and went home to teach or to study for entrance exams into state art institutions. Shin and her boyfriend were able to stay because of a combination of family support and part-time jobs. They settled into a bigger studio because of rent drops, but tightened their food budget.

The village was hit hard by the crisis, and Shin laments the dwindling number of buyers and art collectors. But she remains adamant about not pandering to the state, as others have done. According to her, artists affiliated with state institutions can make it through the rough times because the state regularly commissions artwork that sings the praises of the motherland. In fact, officials from the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Propaganda make regular rounds in artists’ villages and their galleries to purchase paintings. The Beijing government recently named the villages “a major site of cultural production.” Translation: the state is on a drive to remake Beijing into a world cultural centre. Untethered economic growth may have slowed, but Beijing’s ambition to transform itself into a cultural centre on par with Paris has not been dampened.

There is just one slight problem: how to encourage freedom of expression, while ensuring that artists do not step out of line and start caricaturing the Communist Party? This is a sensitive issue, but according to Shin, many artists of her generation simply stay out of politics. She does not transgress, nor does she cater to the state by painting the ‘harmonious’ Chinese nation. She wants a space of her own, independent of the state. And she is paying the price. Two years after giving up city life, she has not sold a single painting. But she is not disillusioned. She is sustained by the belief that to become a true artist, one must labour hard, just like peasants till their land, hoping for a plentiful harvest. Shin’s harvest will come when her piece is picked up by a foreign collector, which will instantaneously make her a baofahu (a colloquial term literally translated as ‘explosive wealth’). But until then, the road is dusty and winds unpredictably. For the moment, Shin is concentrating on her craft, trying hard to distinguish herself from artists who bid for their own paintings in order drive up the market price. ‘The economic bust has burst some of those bubbles and “purified” art,’ she says. The Chinese character for crisis (weiji) captures this dualistic thinking: Wei (danger) combined with ji (opportunity) is not an oxymoron; it reflects the ying and yang of life itself.


Diana Fu is a Doctoral Candidate in Politics and a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. She is currently researching the development of civil society in China.


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