In China the days of art as ideology seem numbered. Craig Clunas finds it is the burgeoning economy rather than the state that is driving the art market
Is the recent death of China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping an event of art historical importance? The death in 1976 of his predecessor, Mao Zedong, was in that it led to the political downfall of the faction within the Chinese Communist party known to its enemies as the Gang of Four, and to the reversal of their policies in culture. At the end of the cultural revolution, urban intellectuals were permitted to return to their home cities from the countryside where they had been sent to engage in class struggle, and art schools across the country reopened. Artists were allowed to engage with traditional Chinese themes, as well as encounter artworks created outside China.
The first unofficial public art exhibition was staged in 1979 by a group of young amateur artists calling themselves the Stars (the mischievous allusion in their name was not to stellar fame, but to Mao's dictum that "A starry spark can start a prairie fire"). With tacit support from at least one senior member of the state's artistic bureaucracy, they mounted their show on the railings of the Chinese National Art Gallery, where an official exhibition was taking place. They showed work that drew on long-suppressed currents of international modernism, practised in China before the Communist liberation of 1949. Some of this was deliberately confrontational in its political subject matter.
Nearly 20 years on, how relevant does this self-consciously "dissident" art seem to China today? To younger artists, brought up under the economic and cultural explosion which has characterised Deng's China, it may seem about as relevant as the Maoist icons it seeks to satirise. Young artists in China are trying to create, not an "unofficial" art, but an "un-unofficial art", that does not seek to engage with the official ideology of the state, but simply treats it as irrelevant. It may well be that the death of Deng has had the same impact on art in China today as European Monetary Union would have on the curriculum at the Royal College of Art.
This is not to say that the Chinese state has lost interest in art. At this moment a colossal bronze statue of the late Deng Xiaoping is being cast, which will stand in the booming southern city of Shenzhen staring towards Hong Kong.
Conflicting agendas emerged in an academic conference on Chinese painting in the 20th century, held last month in Beijing. The conference was held in association with the celebrations for the centenary of the artist Pan Tianshou (1897-1971), whose work is the subject of a major retrospective at that same gallery where the Stars hung their work on the railings nearly two decades ago.
Pan's importance as an artist, art historian, theorist and educator is considerable. He was the first professor of traditional Chinese ink painting at the Chinese National Academy of Art. His work remains widely admired. But this alone does not explain the degree of official backing which the commemoration received; it was held in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, a bit like holding an academic conference in Windsor Castle. The minister of culture himself gave the opening address.
What this revealed, to me at least, is that the late Pan Tianshou is an artist who meets the current needs of the Communist party for artistic heroes. Internationally accepted as producing work of great quality, he was an artist who was resolute in the defence of the Chinese brush-and-ink painting tradition at a time of enthusiastic adoption by some of his contemporaries of media and styles that were seen as "western".
One phrase out of his voluminous writings was inscribed in huge characters on the walls of the art gallery: "We must draw a huge distinction between Chinese and western painting..." Pan Tianshou met a tragic end, dying in the turmoil of the cultural revolution. He had been hounded, and his work defaced - but this, too, fits him to be a hero of the political heirs of Deng, another victim of the "Ten Years of Chaos", though an ultimate survivor.
Slogans are not what they once were in China. But, today, billboards in Beijing that are not advertising mobile phones are quite likely to be carrying some variant of "Let national culture flourish". It is this notion of "national art" which is at the head of the party's arts agenda. It is a language not of class struggle, but of heritage. The return of Hong Kong to the control of the mainland is seen as a national triumph, not a victory over imperialism - a word almost as rare now in discussions about Hong Kong in the People's Daily as in the Daily Telegraph.
But this nationalist agenda for the celebration of a painter like Pan Tianshou is not necessarily the same agenda as that held by the several hundred Chinese scholars who remained when the minister of culture had gone off in his limo. A throbbing subtext of their debate (not helped by a lack of slides, apparently forbidden lest foreign scholars introduce politically sensitive work by Chinese artists working abroad), was the question of Chinese traditional painting, not now but after 2000. Had it got a future? Or was it doomed to be abandoned by coming generations?
My own view is that this is the last historical moment when such a question can be posed without seeming quaint. The stupendous growth of China's economy will answer it decisively, as large numbers of the newly wealthy patronise an art-form that has ineradicable associations of high culture and historical prestige. Nobody in Japan today worries about the possible extinction of kabuki theatre, or of sumo wrestling, because there is a large audience which has the money and desire to pay for them. Yet a century or so ago these traditional artforms too seemed at risk in the face of a tide of westernisation.
The market in 20th-century Chinese painting is booming. Work by big names like Pan Tianshou, and by living artists in the same tradition, is selling for very high prices. This boom will keep national art healthy, whatever academics and governments say. The equally high prices being paid for academic realist oil painting have no bearing on this, except in the sense that almost all types of art, old and new, are booming in China today. The question of painting in oils versus painting in brush and ink melts away as the market demands a plurality of products to suit a diversified art-buying public.
The Chinese state today forbids much less than it used to in the arts, but it enables much less too. The losers in all this are the artists whose work has no more market appeal in China than it does to a mass audience outside it; those who might decline the 19th-century label avant garde, but who still work in a manner and media that seek an extension of the envelope of artistic expression.
In China it is not repression artists fear as much as poverty and indifference. But who knows? Who would be brave enough to affirm that no Chinese Saatchi Collection will come into being, to act alongside other types of collector as patron for those who have no interest in making "Chinese painting" but who are impelled to make art in China?
Craig Clunas is reader in the history of art at the University of Sussex and author of Art in China, Oxford University Press, 1997.