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Chinese Art’s Definition, Influence and History Essay


Definition and influence of art

Art is composed of various human activities that require specific skills for instance music, literature, sculpture amongst others. Each community is endowed with its unique forms of art and which can be traced back sometimes across many years in history.

Art also offers a glimpse into a people’s way of social life and this gives rise to social criticism. It is important to note that in each social setting, politics in that particular area can have adverse influence in any form of art arising thereby.

This paper discusses the influence of politics in line with both contemporary and modern Chinese art. In addition, the paper discusses the relationship between western ideologies such as social criticism and Chinese art.

Chinese art in 1949 – the Foundation of Peoples republic of China

Chinese art spans over a range of centuries like the Neolithic period and the modern era and has experienced changes as time went by (Fenollosa 5). Chinese art has undergone many changes since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Many of the changes have mainly been due to the influence of communistic ideologies such as Marxist-Maoist as well as other events that have taken place in China ever since. This fact is evident if one has a glimpse of the chronology of events in mainland China from its inception up to date (Andrews 34).

Political influence in Chinese art – Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping

Chinese art has also had its fair share of influence by politics as in many other arts in other civilizations. As already mentioned, China earlier years were under the leadership of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China; and it is worth mentioning that these two aspects (the leader and the party) had immense influence on Chinese art.

According to Michael Sullivan Art in China Since 1949 observations, Mao Zedong leadership exerted a tight control over Chinese cultural life for almost thirty years (Sullivan 334). This in turn made art in that particular period to be a reflection or an expression of the political forces in charge.

In particular, Mao had earlier on made considerable efforts to ensuring that art “served the people” as evidenced in his contribution in “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art” in 1942 (Yang 14).

Thus, he had begun what would become the influence of art in subsequent revolutions and education systems of China in latter days. It is important to note that Mao encouraged people to offer their art skills to the nation to the extent of seeking knowledge from other western nations. Beginning the early 1950s, many Chinese artists sought training in the Soviet Union as well as in eastern bloc countries.

The two important periods in Chinese art – Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution

Historical periods such as the Great Leap Forward era in late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 had much greater impact on Chinese art (Latham 12). During the Great Leap for instance, the government had encouraged creation of new culture of communication in which goals and ideologies could be imparted on the Chinese people.

Traditional art led to new and realistic ways of expression for instance when ink painting was replaced by oil painting: ink painting had been around for the last one thousand years.

The subjects of art also became changed from traditional concepts of using nature – flowers, landscape etc to themes featuring soldiers, workers and heroes. This aspect continued during the Cultural Revolution albeit with some significant catastrophes especially when traditional artists became subjects of ridicule and even faced persecution.

Following this dreadful period, many upcoming and young artists endeavored to seek new voices and opportunities so that their works conformed to the whims of the ruling class and their ideologies. It is important to note that art and politics became so closely entwined during Cultural Revolution than at any other time in Chinese history.

Despite the many struggles, Chinese art continued to experience changes even after the revolution as other events took place. The death of Mao marked a significant stage whereby China finally “opened up” to the world and so did their artists, which of course led to far much greater influence by western ideologies.

Western influence in Chinese art

The western influence on Chinese art dates back to the late 17th Century. The impact was however minimal though it peaked in the 19th and 20th Centuries; and especially since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Mungello 71).

Many traditional artists copied Western styles although they did this without full comprehension and hence such attempts were sometimes unsuccessful. On the other hand, Chinese art made considerable effect on surrounding cultures like in the Muslim and Western Europe worlds.

In China itself, outside influence was discouraged under the Communism rule, which generally preferred graphical arts in the light of it being useful in political propaganda. Such government restriction saw the emergence of unique artist for example Ch’eng Shih-fa and Li K’o-jan. In spite of this phenomenon, other Chinese artists working outside China reveal Western influence; Chao Wu-chi in France and C. C. Wang in New York are notable examples.

Chinese art came to world’s limelight in 1978 at the National Gallery in Beijing. This event also offered a new form of critical realism towards Chinese art that was unheard of during the Cultural Revolution.

Following the succession Mao Zedong by Deng Xiaoping, Chinese artists began to question Maoist ideologies and at the same time sought to create a new form of art that bore western aesthetic ideologies.

In a similar fashion to the Western world, self-taught groups like the Star (Xing xing) and the Scar Painting (Shanghen huihua) emerged and became critical of the earlier Chinese art. Social criticism began to take shape under their numerous exhibition works in a move that was alien to China; challenging political authority as well as aesthetic conventions.

The Stars for instance embraced western styles in art such as Abstract Expressionism and Post Impressionism as part of the newly found freedom. Rustic realism, a concept whereby focus is on the Revolution impact to ordinary people, became another favorite way of expression and which had western origin (Gau 197).

In all these endeavors, Chinese art changed drastically in the 1980s mainly due to western influences. However, the transition was never always without hitch since the authorities in power formed anti-campaigns to reduce the influence. Some like the Anti-Spiritual pollution Campaign of 1982-1984 labored hard to condemn westernizing Chinese art and the consequential contaminating influence.

Despite the hardships, many more westernized arts from Italy and France found their way into Beijing exhibitions and thus increasingly influenced Chinese art.

The ’85 Movement

In 1984 for instance, the government tried to resurrect control of western influence at the Sixth National Art Exhibition held at the Beijing’s National Gallery. This however did not augur well with young Chinese artists who would later on form the ’85 Movement, and which was very vocal in relation to breaking from the government’s restraint.

During this period, avant-gardism flourished in all Chinese arts including in music, dance, film and literature aided by the common goal of shunning antagonism and breaking from traditional grip. They also embraced freedom of expression, individualism and western styles like pop and surrealism.

Notable among the pioneers of western influence in Chinese art were Li Xiaoshan, an art critic, who published “The End and Death of Chinese Painting” and a westerner Robert Rauschenberg who delivered lectures in Beijing. These and many others comprising the ’85 Movement saw new schools of thought emerge as well as breaking free from any authority or doctrine.

It is interesting to note that despite the success of the Movement, the political authorities almost triumphed through the “bourgeois liberalism”; a campaign to oust avant-garde formed in 1987 (Davis 233). The Communist Party also played it part in hindering Chinese-art-western-influence by reducing financial support hence artist could not sell their work unless they moved out of China.

Fortunately, the anti campaigns ended in 1988 paving way for emergence of new artists with westernized approach to art. The following year saw the outbreak of protests notably the Tiananmen Square Protest that led to democracy in China but resulted in tighter control by the government on Chinese artists. A number of artists were left with no option but to leave China and hence the world was exposed the Chinese art which it received warmly.

Modern Chinese art

In 1992, Guangzhou launched an exhibition that amplified avant-garde artists since the protests and which promoted social realism. Themes such as materialism and consumerism found their way into Chinese art mainly due to the aspect of globalization and the western influence.

Up to the late 1990s, many Chinese art exhibitions within and away from China helped sell Chinese art internationally and also bring about new ideologies in what was once a very controlled Chinese art. The trend has continued in the recent past whereby contemporary Chinese art has made it in to international exhibition as well as being valuable.

The authorities have also lessened their control and even continued to provide infrastructure such that China is now recognized as an art center amongst other countries (Croizier 4).

As already discussed, Chinese art has not been left behind in term of it being under certain influences. The most notable have been both political and the western ideologies since these two have contributed to the way Chinese art has fared in modern times.

On the political side, the authorities in China tried very much to influence Chinese art by confining it so that it mainly dwelt on the governments ideologies. This is the reason Chinese art could not flourish internationally at first since it only served the Chinese leaders and their affiliations. Fortunately, the Chinese artists wanted more than this and fought hard to seek freedom so that they could express themselves better.

On the side of western influence, we observe that Chinese art solely moving from traditional concepts which expressed art in natural subjects to more modern abstract forms. This was as a result of Chinese artists desire to know how other cultures were treating art.

Beginning with embracing other artist’s ideas and integrating them with Chinese art, a more robust form of art emerged in China. These new concepts and ideologies helped much in propelling Chinese art in to new heights including international recognition.

In addition, that which was originally considered as valueless Chinese art has in modern times become valuable and hence artists can make a living out of art. It has also helped Chinese art to be part of lucrative business the art collection is.

In all these discussions, Chinese art has had a social impact on the Chinese people. From the foundation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949 to date, we can see the many forms in which Chinese art has shaped people’s lives. This can be seen on the impact traditional art had on people in that the Chinese loved their surrounding and hence used ink to paint landscapes, flowers and animals.

Later on, the authorities encouraged Chinese art to paint peoples heroes, soldiers and workers. Even though they were restraining freedom of art, the Chinese people were made to recognize the important figures in China whom they could try to emulate. Ironically, the same form of art at the time led to protests, which saw normal people, and artists alike seek other forms of social life (Barnhart & Cahill 25).

In conclusion, Chinese art has undergone much change from what it once was to something entirely new. Much of the changes have been due to political and western influences. This has resulted to a better China where Chinese art can stand proudly amongst those of other civilizations.

Works Cited:

Andrews, Julia F. Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China: 1949 – 1979. Berkeley [u.a.: Univ. of California Press, 1994. Print.

Croizier, Ralph C. Art and Revolution in Modern China: The Lingnan (cantonese) School of Painting, 1906-1951, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Print.

Edward Lawrence Davis. Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture Taylor & Francis, Feb 11, 2005. Print

Fenollosa, Ernest. Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: An Outline History of East Asiatic Design. Berkeley, Calif: SBP, Stone Bridge Press, 2007. Internet resource.

Gau, Minglu. Inside/out: New Chinese Art, California: University of California Press, 1999. Print.

Latham, Kevin. Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2007. Print.

Mungello, D E. The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009. Print.

Richard Barnhart and James Cahill, et al. “Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting.” New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002

Sullivan, Michael. Art and Artists of Twentieth Century China, Berkeley [u.a.: Univ. of California Press, 1996. Print.

Yang, Lan. Chinese Fiction of the Cultural Revolution, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Univ. Press, 1998. Print.

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