It isn't easy to mount a terrible show in which each piece of art is absolutely fantastic. But until one has confronted the reality of "China: 5,000 Years," one cannot imagine either how good the material or how bad every curatorial decision (assuming that there were some curatorial decisions) could be. There are some successes here: the museum staff have done an able job, for example, with the lighting of the show; and no fair-minded review could skip mention of the handsome display cases made specifically for the exhibition. It's a shame, though, that "China: 5,000 Years" is incoherent, misleading, patronizing of the culture it ostensibly celebrates, politically expedient, and hypocritical.
To understand the context of the Guggenheim's survey, one must go back a couple of years to another exhibition. In 1996, after a decade of planning, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition of work from the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. The Palace Museum's holdings are essentially the collection of the Chinese emperors, and Wen Fong, consultative chairman of the Department of Asian Art at the Met, did an extraordinary job of both representing the collection qua collection and selecting the very best art. Despite the last-minute withdrawal of several important pieces, the show was both intelligent and very, very beautiful. The fact that it also served the purposes of the Republic of China government did nothing to mitigate Fong's achievement. Indeed, it served the purposes of the ROC so well precisely because it was such a good show.
The Mainland was much annoyed by the success of the exhibition. Chiang Kaishek's successful abduction of the Imperial collections has been a thorn in the side of the Communists since 1949. Mainland authorities, determined not to be outdone, made it clear that they would be receptive to a counter-exhibition on the scale of the Met's show, and the Guggenheim rushed in where angels might have feared to tread. Hence "China: 5,000 Years." The Guggenheim was at a distinct disadvantage from the start. Whereas the Met's exhibition had relied on a specific group of works that had been incorporated by the Ch'ien-lung emperor into a strictly hierarchical canon, the Guggenheim's show was to be curator Sherman Lee's selection of whatever good stuff could be found around the Mainland. Wen Fong had a specific if conservative vision and objective: he believed in the Imperial notion that literati painting is the highest form of art, in the dominion of the Song dynasty (tenth to thirteenth centuries) and the monumental landscape, and in other traditional structures of Chinese art history. The Guggenheim show, on the other hand, has no shadow of an objective. It's a rich grab bag, in which tomb objects and clay figures and court painting and calligraphy are all displayed helter-skelter, as though the curators had gone on a wild spree and come home, dumped their full shopping bags, and spread out the contents for a momentary glut of materialist ecstasy.
Imagine a show, mounted in Shanghai, called "The History of Western Art." Imagine that every single piece of art in this show were of the highest possible standard, that the show included things that had never before traveled to Asia. In the first room, there might be some cave paintings from Lascaux, a fragment of a Pompeiian fresco, and an illuminated book of hours. The next room would tell the story of the Renaissance with one Masaccio, one minor work by Fra Filippo, two spectacular Bronzinos, a room of Durer drawings, a fine Van Eyck, and The Birth of Venus. Then there would be a few rooms of usable objects, say, a number of ironage tools, three pieces of Mycenaean gold, a bunch of Roman coins, and some magnificent Russian empire furniture. The next room might be sculpture, with one Greek figure attributed to Praxiteles, a number of extremely good Assyrian reliefs, and Michelangelo's David. It would be hard to fault such an exhibition on content, and for someone well-versed in Western art it would be rather exciting to see so many great things gathered in one place. …