I’ll tell you something.
I hate modern Western conceptual art.
I mean, obviously there are witty, intelligent, insightful and though-provoking artist and works, but on the whole they drown in a cesspit of garbage (at least that’s the impression I’ve got from most of modern art exhibitions I’ve seen in Poland). It seems like you don’t became an artist by virtue of what you create anymore. Instead, you need to somehow sneak your way into the magical circle of the artistic clique, which then bestows on you the status of an artist, and after that – you’re free to do whatever you want and someone will be bound to publicise it, because hey! – you’re an artist. The problem with the clique (apart from being a bunch of stuck-ups who despise everyone else – ‘oh, I’m creative, I’m too deep to talk to you’) is that it sets its own very rigid standards, which seem to be roughly these: everything that might be remotely associated with the word ‘beauty’ is philistine and therefore must go. Only transgressive art is real. ‘Esthetic’ is synonymous with ‘meaningless’.
The effect is that you have an artistic ‘elite’ of smug specimens in a permanent state of teenage angst, making a virtue out of their pubescent anger and sexual frustration. The only value they can appreciate is shock-value. They claim to be criticising social problems and what not, but it seems like all they really do is go out of their way to offend sensibilities by showing something not only appalling in its contents, but also plainly ugly – after all, it’s certain to bring them attention (if you dare to criticise it, you’re mundane, stupid, traditional and bourgeoise, and you simply ‘do not understand art’). ‘Let’s make a video of a woman giving a banana a blow job and then slashing it with a sword – that’s so phallic!’. Or: ‘let’s take a dildo and hang it on a religious symbol – that’s so transgressive!’. Or: ‘let’s take a fake eye, put it into a vagina and draw eyelashes around it – that’s so gender!’ (all of these, unfortunately, are real examples).
Honestly? Get some bloody counselling, the lot of you!*
But what does it all have to do with me and my life in China?
Only that it seems like I’m finally rid of it here. I can walk into a gallery without fear of being attacked by swarms of plastic pudenda. When you watch an exhibition of Chinese paintings, you get a distinctive feeling that Chinese art students are still required to know how to wield a brush (what a novel idea!) And yes, on the other hand they may have some general leanings toward the literal and the oh-but-it’s-pretty**, but frankly, I’m much happier with this sort of fault then the other one.
One thing that brings out a sense of deep respect and admiration in me: the way the draw on their artistic tradition. Walking into a gallery here you know that ink painting and calligraphy are still alive and well. While traditional Chinese ink landscapes with all their beauty may be a bit tiresome to a Western eye (only because on the surface they all seem almost identical), modern Chinese painters use the same tools to achieve much more individual and expressive effects. Just looking at the brushwork in a simple picture of a figure or a flower leaves you stunned with the level of artistry.
So all in all, I’m more than happy to immerse myself in the local art. And even though I know I lack the knowledge and the background to fully understand it, I hope that by the end of my stay in China my grasp of it will improve a bit. And since I AM supposed to be studying Chinese art history here, you may expect some posts on it in the future too.
* Let me repeat it once more: no, I don’t think all conceptual art is like this and all of it is worthless. It just seems like a considerable part of it fits the description, that’s all. On the other hand it might be just that the Polish art circles have been trying to pack a whole century of modern art development into these few years that have passed since Poland got rid of communism and waved goodbye to social realism. Maybe they’ll get over it.
** That’s probably because they actually still live in a communist country. Social realism still rampant!
NOTICE: All illustrations in this post are pictures taken at the exhibition of Qi Baishi‘s paintings. Qi Baishi was one of the greatest modern masters of Chinese art who brought it into the 21st century. He specialised in shrimps (that’s right: shrimps). You can see more of his art here. I’m sorry about the quality of the photos – it’s really difficult to make them sharp without the flash or a tripod.