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Thursday, August 6, 2009

It's BS! Not a Single Chinese in World's Top 200 Artists

On June 8, 2009, Times Online published a list of "Top 200 Artists of the 20th Century to Now." Not a single Chinese artist is on that list! I was absolutely flabbergasted. But I should not have been surprised. I should not even have paid attention to such a list. After all, this list was the result of a poll of mainly Western readers: 1.4 million of them. And, like all the rankings, this list was intended to stir up controversy in order to draw readers. To use an analogy, this list is as relevant and irrelevant as the US News and World Report's college rankings. Still, the exclusion of Chinese artists speaks volume of how little the general public in the West knows about China.

Many names on the list are not questionable. Picasso of course deserves the no. 1 spot, and names such as Monet, Klimt, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol, de Kooning are thundering! No one can argue against inclusion of these great artists. They are great because they have challenged or even changed our views of art and of life, because they were consistent and productive, and because their works became icons of the 20th century.

Still, I believe several Chinese or China-born artists should have a position among the top 200. They might not be compared to the Picassos at this point of their career, but people will talk about their legacies twenty years from now. If Damien Hirst can be named the world's no. 53 artist, I do not see artists such as Cai Guoqiang, Ai Weiwei, Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, or Yue Minjun fall too far behind. In terms of total auction records, Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, and Yue Minjun are all up there, with Damien Hirst, in the list of top-five "most expensive living artists."

I must acknowledge that the auction price is one of the least accurate criteria for judging an artist's greatness. Too many factors impact the auction price: price manipulations, financial fluctuations, geoeconomic shifts, the ignorance and stupidity of the nouveau riche (they were synonymous with "American," then with "Japanese," and now with "Chinese"), and so on. When it comes to the auction prices of Chinese artists' works, they increased together with the attention to China's rise.

Still, when someone's work smashes auction records, the price is usually a reflection of this artist's achievement. Zhang Xiaogang is one of the world's most expensive artists because his "Big Family" series are increasingly treated as the representational icons of the traumatic Cultural Revolution. Fang Lijun smashed one auction record after another because his "cynical realism" best captures "the capitalism with Chinese characteristics": the insatiable, unregulated, unrestrained pursuit of materialist desires disguised as what's unique of the socialist and totalitarian China.

Maybe, twenty years from now, these names will become household names anywhere in the world. By then, China will be either the most dominant country in the world or another busted super-power-wanna-be. Either way, Chinese artists will have born witness to the most massive 21st-dream fulfilled or smashed.

1 comment:

  1. I´m surprised you´re so upset about this.

    Would any of the early Modernist painters - the Futurists, Cubists, Surrealists, etc. - have made any "Greatest..." lists written in the early 20th century, at the time they were new and active?

    Couldn´t it be a sign you´re doing something wrong to be a living painter that makes this list? i.e. being too palatable to established tastes and interests, i.e. not risking or not - god-forbid - being revolutionary in your painting and style and ideas?

    That to make this list and be acknowledged is just your codification that you´re already gone, already compromised away from being an artist who can truly overturn things, disturb things, be critical in a way nobody wants to acknowledge or tolerate or handle?

    Of course, maybe that´s not the goal - being disturbing and revolutionary - maybe the goal these days is to be more like rock music - commercially acknowledged and purchased and ranked, yet still capable of some kind of honesty and beauty (...The Beatles?...Radiohead?...The Velvet Underground?...Talking Heads?), in which case the ranking oversight would be annoying, but also a point of pride, to not yet be old and already-estimated, already-codified.

    Or, of course, maybe the goal is just to appease the ultra-wealthy and the transient cultural authorities (Times Online), in which case, yes, this would be a travesty.