A New Thoughtfulness in Contemporary China: Critical Voices in Art and Aesthetics, edited by Jörg Huber and Zhao Chuan. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011. 232 pp. HK$195.00/US$25.00 (paperback).
The cultural viewpoints expressed in these essays, like the art exhibited today in the Beijing Zhongguo Meishuguan, or National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), present a radically different image of the state of contemporary Chinese culture from the perspectives given in European and American publications and the press. They represent an attempt to address the need to forge a contemporary cultural identity and voice, drawn from indigenous Chinese resources, responsive and relevant to the current socio-economic conditions in a globalizing China.
The essays cover a wide range of fields, including ink painting, calligraphy, photography, modern theater, performance, exhibitions, art history, criticism and the Internet. They afford us otherwise unavailable perspectives on some of the most important issues confronting the contemporary Chinese visual and performing arts:
1. The accelerated pace of socio-economic change in an urbanizing China, and the disappearance of hutongs and local village life;
2. The issue of individual subjectivity and the collective, after the period of extreme collectivism under Mao's rule;
3. The long heritage of traditional Chinese art and the development of a modern/ contemporary Chinese painting and calligraphy;
4. The development of an indigenous contemporary Chinese art and aesthetics that does not adopt Western cultural practices and premises;
5. Censorship and freedom of expression in the arts and the Internet;
6. Commercialism and the commodification of the arts;
7. The implications of the global/local (bentu) divide.
While the range of topics will appeal to a diverse readership, the quality of the writings is disappointingly uneven. The translations need considerable editing. The English is often so poor as to make the argumentation unintelligible. This being said, there are nevertheless several essays worth the purchase of this book. I shall devote the remainder of this review to "The Dismantling and Reconstruction of Bentu ('This Land' or 'Native Land'): Contemporary Art in the Post-Colonial Context", by Gao Shiming, Executive Director of the School of Media and Art, China Art Academy. This essay is a most penetrating and informed critical reflection on the cultural logic of global capitalism and the question of the formation of "a culture of our own". Central to the analysis is the concept of bentu, a Chinese term for the indigenous locality of artistic and cultural identification and belonging.
Gao argues that the global success of contemporary Chinese artists in the international art market does not address the need for a new cultural identity. In a remarkably candid statement, he observes:
Today, we are no longer satisfied with this success, nor with struggling for space and position in the globalized edifice as we would like to create a new homeland, a historical site of cultural creation and renewed subjects. …