by ANDRE VLTCHEK
In Europe and the US, for years and decades, art has become sclerotic, toothless, and somehow synonymous with grant applications, ego trips, identical-looking museum buildings, hordes of tourists and the constant glorification of form over substance.
Like Gucci and Prada, Impressionists and the “3 Tenors”, for instance, have been elevated to status symbols, or to something one is expected to see, and listen to periodically, in order to show some basic signs of sophistication.
The Western propaganda apparatus spent great energy and tremendous funds on extracting all the teeth from the artists, eventually turning them into well groomed poodles. Sex, gore, booze, drugs and nihilism: yes, yes! Politics, revolution and attempts to overthrow the Western imperialist regime: no, no!
We used to believe that at least those guys and gals sitting in Paris, were somehow different. Then on a May 27th, 2008 interview with Charlie Rose, Matthiessen stated that he “invented The Paris Review as cover” for his CIA activities.
By then, of course, nobody with a working brain believed that European and other Western cultural institutions in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, were just ‘promoting artistic activities’. But who would ‘bite the hand that feeds you’.
At that point, all creativity was gone. In the West, collectors, capitalist propagandists, the entertainment business and those who just needed to have their dwellings and businesses ‘decorated’, already controlled the majority of ‘art’.
In China, ‘things’ are different. And the more different they are, more cash and energy is spent by Western governments, propagandists and cultural institutions, in order to make it exactly the same – toothless and sclerotic – as its counterparts in the West.
Chinese art is combative and fully engaged politically, and socially. For years and decades it has been on the vanguard, relentlessly pushing boundaries, asking uncomfortable questions, loudly accusing and demanding.
It also evolves: as it is increasingly involved in one tremendous project – helping to build and to improve the country with the largest population on earth.
Much of Chinese art, at least the best of it, is still undeniably socialist.
But Western propaganda is continuously barking at China.
“Censorship!” it screams. “Freedom of speech!”
Anyone who attacks socialism or the leading role of the Communist Party is immediately elevated to the status of a cultural icon, a divine being, by Western critics and media. It does not really matter how well the artist paints, singer sings or filmmaker directs – becoming a dissident, an anti-Communist; it gains immediate access to fame, limitless grants and funding.
Like those few artists in Caracas, Maracaibo and Havana who are willing to sell their souls and the revolution for hard cash, several Chinese artists have also joined the pre-orchestrated choir of supporters of Western cultural imperialism, after calculating and coming to the delicate conclusion, that the soft leather seats of luxury sedans under their backsides compensate for a lack of conscience, even for treason.
Some dissident ‘heroes’ are subtle, but most of them, so beloved by Western galleries, are actually increasingly vulgar: delivering endless flow of paintings depicting Chinese comrade ladies in military and police uniforms and Mao pants, in near pornographic poses, with huge erect nipples and hairy crotches between widely-spread legs. Such images do not require a great imagination or exceptional talent, and Otto Dix and others better executed them in the West, many decades ago. But they sell very well in New York, Paris and Sydney. And they are considered, ‘oh my god, so risqué!’
Would it not be so gross, barking at China’s art scene could actually be seen as very comical, as at closer examination, Western art is actually much more rigidly regulated than art in China, the same as the so called “Western Democracy”.
It is already living in some post-censorship (not just in post-modernist) era, resting lazily on slightly stinky compost covering green pastures over the hill. It doesn’t even need to be threatened by censors; it is amazingly auto-repressive, remarkably disciplined; it regulates itself with great sensibility, intuition and precision.
Much of Western art is positioned deeply and firmly inside far from the odorless rectums of the sponsors and owners of the galleries, of funding agencies and political and ‘cultural’ institutions.
Its colorful tubes and triangles, stains and phantasmagoric curves are all self-serving. An old woman who can’t afford to pay electric bills, a man who has his house repossessed because he can’t pay the mortgage after falling ill, children killed by US drones in far away countries: all these realities are almost never represented by the complex lines and curves, stripes and explosions of colors.
The milieu of Western art is egoistic; self-serving, as it was paid, for decades, to be.
Go to London galleries, go to Chelsea in New York, and you will see: much of the contemporary art is about failed erections, about the fear of ageing and lonely death, or about outbursts of selfishness: self esteem, self-admiration and ‘self-discovery’. Most of it is all ‘me-me-me’, plus, as mentioned above, about those experimentations with a quantity of extremely abstract forms, with no meaning or use.
Then visit the “798 Art District” in Beijing or “50 Moganshan Art District” in Shanghai. There, so much appears to be in direct contrast to what takes place in the galleries in the West.
The Chinese artwork is engaged, full of humanism, compassion and wrath against injustice. Many artists exhibiting there are clearly searching for solutions and ways forward. Not for themselves – for their country!
In January 2013 I visited dozens of art galleries in Shanghai, with my friend Yuan Sheng, a leading Chinese concert pianist from Beijing. We planned to call on “50 Moganshan” for only two hours, but in the end decided to stay there for almost the entire day, climbing the stairs to the attics, discussing the artwork, engaging in conversations with the local curators and artists.
While “798 Art District” in Beijing (also known as “Dashanzi Art District”), is based among enormous 50-year old decommissioned military factory buildings, in Shanghai, the artists are working and exhibiting in the former industrial area along the Suzhou Creek.
In both cities, hundreds of galleries and art studios now mix with avant-garde theatres, unique cafes and eateries, and with outdoor sculptures. The former industrial landscape offers a neutral and unsentimental backdrop.
Both places are dramatic and full of creative energy. And they are not the only art ‘temples’ of these great cities; just important ‘additions’ to the countless concert halls, opera houses, museums, music districts and cultural centers.
The government provides space, but the galleries are run independently, with very little interference.
And just as in Venezuela and Cuba, the Chinese state puts great emphasis on arts.
“I think the arts are now getting tremendous, unprecedented attention from the government and from the common people alike”, explained Yuan Sheng, a concert pianist, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and a professor of piano at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. “During the 6th National Meeting of the 17th National Congress, the government passed a resolution, which emphasizes greatly the importance of cultural development, decisively increasing financial and other support for the arts and cultural development of the country.”
Galleries in Beijing may be the most radical, but even those in Shanghai are clearly engaged, and in combative mode.
Oil paintings of Wei Yi at 523 Art Zone Gallery are exposing the problem of rural laborers. The Art Zone’s powerful exhibition “We Are All Bachelors” shows ‘men without women’ aged 40-70, in the poor mountainous Miao towns.
“We have already dedicated many years of our lives, exposing the social problems our country is facing”, explained an employee of the gallery, while packing for me several free catalogues and DVD’s of related documentaries. “If people are not interested, we have to make them change, so they get involved. We are working with some very famous artists like Lin Xiaodong, who is exposing the plight of farmers and immigrants from the countryside. He, of course, also exhibits his work in several major museums and at the 798 Art District in Beijing”.
At ShangART Gallery, a naked man is crawling on a horizontally placed ladder, going nowhere.
There are impressive photos from Tibet and Nepal by Xiao Lin and there is the scarred urban landscape, destroyed hutons and kitschy modern developments and abandoned mosques at OFOTO Gallery.
Then we visit yet another enormous exhibition from rural China, this one at the Suzhouhe Art Center. “Our artwork is part of the huge social investigation conducted at Western Hunan Province”, explains an employee of this multi-story gallery. “Hunan still has so many poor people. What you see here is the result of our two-year work; work which we plan to continue for at least ten more years.” On display are brilliantly executed full-size portraits depicting both men, and women from the countryside. One wall is fully dedicated to “The Village Committee”. Each portrait has an explanation. Yuan is translating for me: ‘Head of Party in the Village, Yu Huang Gang: 5 acres of land, 7 people in the family, 2 cows, 7 ducks, 3 sons who are still single, 70 years old.”
Across the road is the Aike-Dellarco Gallery. There, one powerful work of art has two images imbedded in one painting; the images change depending from which side one looks. What is permanent is the huge fire in the distance, but seen from the right, one faces Palestine or maybe Egypt, with people running away from the flames and smoke. Moving to the left, the fire remains, but now we are in the middle of some pedestrian street in Shanghai, where people are actually moving slowly towards the blaze.
And nearby, there is yet another gallery, with an enormous eerie painting of a monstrous and appalling-looking aircraft carrier, seen through the absolute environmental destruction on the slopes of the mountains.
The variety and force of the local paintings is remarkable; their creativity is breathtaking.
Here, almost everything has meaning, the stories are real and urgent, almost all of them global.
Before leaving the district, we enter the Pata Gallery that is exhibiting work of Zheng Hong Xiang. On one of them, there is an executioner’s noose hanging from the ceiling, and a half-naked man with his head covered by a red box. There are fragments from the US Declaration of Independence printed on the surface of the box, in white letters.
Yuan and I approach Ms Ivy, a young art student who works in the gallery. What does she imagine when she see these paintings?
“This is called ‘Misunderstanding’”, she explains, without any hesitation. “A man is soon going to commit suicide. It is like what the Declaration of Independence says, versus the reality. You can read quotes of Jefferson and other US founding fathers on the box, but that is not what the life of this man is all about. And look at the next painting – look at this: it depicts this tremendous carcass of McDonald’s man, one of the cultural icons of US, that is exported to the whole world.”
I look around the gallery and notice another covered head, this one by Chairman Mao’s quotes, with a statuette of a rhinoceros standing in front of the painting.
In China, of course, it is not all exclusively about socialist zeal and social consciousness; and the art is not always engaged, progressive and political. There is plenty of repetitiveness and commercialism, too, although it is clear that artistic integrity and willingness to address essential issues is incomparably more alive here than in the West.
An undeniable dose of Western nihilism can also be detected here; it already penetrated local art. It is somehow tolerated, even admired in certain circles.
Dozens of ‘top Western artists’ migrated to China, for many different reasons. Some are here to share, some to learn, although there are those who are here clearly on a mission – to neutralize political messages, to discredit socialism and to separate local art from reality.
We took a close look at one of the galleries run by several Western artists residing in Shanghai. They were not showing anything ground-breaking. What we found was just the usual diet of derogatory pop that is often passed off in the West, as Chinese New Wave: female police officers with heavy make-up, performing erotic dances inside their police car, then sexy poses of female soldiers. All Communist symbols put down, diminished, dragged through dirt.
It is not only in China: the West is working hard on trivializing all Latin American revolutions, and it is paying heavily for any attempt to de-politicize local artists, from Central to South America, from Southeast Asia to the Middle East.
While walking through the Shanghai Art District, what kept coming to my mind were the ridiculous graffiti now decorating Tahrir Square in Cairo, and what I was told about their origin. It was definitely not some homegrown Middle Eastern stuff; it was actually not unlike the ‘artwork’ of the period of the ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine and elsewhere.
But here I was, to the highest degree, impressed by how many great Chinese artists are resisting, in fact flatly rejecting those Western implants, designed to destroy all social and socialist messages.
It is obvious that leading Chinese art galleries are capable of, ready and willing to exhibit works of art that are combating all types of problems that China and the world are presently facing; from the plight of rural workers, to the changing urban landscape, social inequalities and Western imperialism.
It is also clear that their approach is constructive and socialist, not nihilistic and destructive, trying to serve the country, not to destroy it.
“Art critics admit that Chinese art now leads the world”, I was recently told by Peter King, a Professor at Sydney University.
And it is leading through its substance, not just through its form.
It is not the Chinese government, but the West that tries to muzzle local artists; to strip them of political fervor and social consciousness. And it is doing it cannily, covertly and persistently.
Sydney interacts with Chinese artists more than any other ‘Western’ city in the world. It is due to its relative geographic proximity to Asia, and also because of the growing number of Chinese students here.
The Ray Hughes Gallery in Surrey Hills was one of the first art institutions to react to the new wave in Chinese art. It now possesses one of the greatest collections of Chinese contemporary paintings in Australia, and arguably in the world. It actually began exhibiting China’s avant-garde soon after the first journey of Ray Hughes to China, in 1999. He was quick to identify the tremendous commercial potential of China’s new wave, and now his gallery hosts several vintage pieces of the iconic Luo Brothers from Nanning, as well as of Qi Zhi Long, Lin Xiaodong, Li Jin and several other famous artists.
Evan Hughes, the son of Ray Hughes, is a Cambridge-educated art collector. He is pragmatic and honest and told me during our encounter:
“Chinese art is definitely much more politically and socially engaged than that in the West, where there are hardly any political artists left. Western art had been invaded by apathy, already in 70’s and 80’s. In China there is a revolution in what can be now exhibited – political content has been liberalized.”
“We are offering the work of many important Chinese artists; some of them are political, some are not. But what makes several of them so impressive is that they went through training at the great Chinese Art academies including the Guangzhou Academy. Their technique is simply brilliant.”
The most striking example of the prominence of Chinese Art in Sydney is just a few years old, the magnificent White Rabbit Gallery in the Chippendale neighborhood. It is the first large art institution in Australia fully dedicated to modern Chinese art. It is called a gallery, but in reality it is a large multi-storey cultural center, which consists of a library, tea-room, boutique, Film Club and several enormous spaces, exhibiting some of the best contemporary artists from China.
“At White Rabbit, the art is not necessarily political”, explained Liz Keenan, Press and Publicity Director of White Rabbit Gallery. “We are aiming to bring here the best of Chinese contemporary art of the 21st century”.
Ms. Keenan walked me from floor to floor and from one avant-garde masterpiece to another. Inside White Rabbit there are canvasses, statues, structures and other art works by Cao Xiaodong, Chen Fei, Feng Yan, Gade, Xiong Wenyun and many others. There are large and often controversial works, like Wang Zhiyuan’s Thrown to the Wind, an11 meters tall, tornado of plastic containers or Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.
But it is striking how great is the difference between the Chinese arts exhibited abroad, and the art on display in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai galleries!
It is as if they came from different countries, from different galaxies.
Instead of selecting canvasses that would inspire Western audiences and dormant Western artists, instead of presenting great Chinese political and social art as an example, almost all Western galleries choose either abstract experimental or decorative works.
Of course they are great, too, but they will not change the world!
But the most celebrated, the most propagated in the West, are artists like Ai Weiwei; a staunchly anti-Communist artist and a vocal advocate of ‘Western democracy’.
Ai Weiwei, a darling of the Western mass media, recently attacked the great Chinese novelist, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mo Yan. What was Mo Yan’s greatest sin? Apparently, being an unapologetic socialist and the vice chairman of the Chinese Writers Association.
In the West, no shadow of doubt can be cast on Ai Weiwei himself. He is allowed to be political, he is encouraged to regurgitate propaganda; ‘our propaganda’, of course.
Was he arrested because he was a dissident, or because he really broke the law of his country? And when we are told that ‘police broke into his million dollar studio’, should we not ask how he made those millions, and who was propagating his work? Of course, in the West, such questions are labeled as ‘unacceptable’, and ‘impolite’, almost sacrilegious!
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that artists have to be political. It is actually their obligation to be political – to be engaged. Therefore, it should be Ai Weiwei’s right to be anti-Communist, anti-Mo Yan, while propagating Western imperialism.
As it is my right to be anti-Ai Weiwei-ian!
The problem is that those Chinese artists who believe in socialism but criticize the system in order to improve it, are generally ignored, even ridiculed in the West, unless they opt for some compromise and at least show a few exposed nipples and the legs of their female comrades in military or police uniforms!
Western art has always prostituted itself, serving those who happen to be holding the reins of power. This has gone on since the Greeks and Romans; and has continued for centuries, even millennia.
That glorified tradition of Western ‘freedom of expression’; it exists only for as long as most of the artists, media people and thinkers agree to march in closed ranks, serving the regime. As long as they repeat that the idiocy of the ‘multi-party’ system that upholds the dictatorship of elites, is superior to all other forms of governance.
Most Western operas and symphonies of the past, were written for some narcissistic king or bunch of twisted aristocrats, and were premiered in front of a closed circle of powerful spectators. Composers had patrons, they were ‘sponsored’, or they starved, not unlike now.
And painters? Almost all were falling one over another, crawling up the rear of the moneyed classes; kissing hands and other bodily parts of bishops and cardinals, dukes and emperors; those bandits, and early-days ‘patrons of the arts’.
Last year, once again, I went to the Museo de Prado in Madrid, just for a few hours, before departing for Santiago de Chile. I could not last for long there: I felt dizzy from unbridled Christian fundamentalism. I observed in disbelief, all that panoptic of Iberian kings, dukes, queens, kids from the palaces, top ranking religious crooks; all painted by Velasquez, Murillo, El Greco – the demigods of Spanish art. Compared to what is on exhibition at Prado, the Taliban look fairly secular.
And the Louvre? Once again, all those carpets hanging from the walls, depicting hunting scenes, all that amassment of furniture, old musical instruments, mugs of crooked aristocrats, religious motifs… There are a few curvy nudes, of course. If war, it is mostly glorious.
Walking through the Prado or the Louvre, one would never think that Spain and France were two great colonial, imperialist powers, causing the deaths of tens, probably hundreds of millions of innocent people in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Where were those free spirits, those great Western artists? Were they too busy dying from syphilis and cirrhosis of liver, at the same time as entire tribes and nations were being reduced to dust by the patrons of the arts?
Did we ever see artwork named: “French soldiers are slaughtering the last women and children of Grenada”, or “Spanish priests are torturing and raping Inca villagers”?
In one of the most visited museums in the world – Musée d’Orsay in Paris – all the artists seem to be engaged in having breakfast in the grass, salivating over curvy or cubist models sitting on wooden chairs, cutting off their own ears, finishing their intestines with absinth, or flying over Paris or Vitebsk with their dreamy lovers. If ‘far away places’, then they are depicted through the shining eyes of tigers or other animals, peeking from an impenetrable bush, in so called ‘primitive art’. If Polynesia is being shown; then it is through its corpulent nudes and not through some French mini-genocide committed by Jean-Baptiste Dutrou-Bornier on Easter Island.
Western artists have a history of being much more submissive than their counterparts anywhere else in the world. And there should be no doubt that the Western regime corrupted or forced into silence many more creative people than any other dictatorship in the history of mankind!
According to the Stuttgart-based painter and political cartoonist, Marina Wiedemann:
“Contemporary art in Europe is a total debacle. Exceptions: sure there are some. But it all feels like some polluted swamp: on the surface are those handpicked artists you are expected to stuff your face with… the art that you are being fed with, by the establishment… underneath, a brutal fight for joining those who are already floating and visible. And artists who are really talented and have plenty to say: they have no chance to surface at all, as they are kept under, by the most celebrated shit covering the surface.”
The greatest political artist of Southeast Asia, Djokopekik from Indonesia, commented for this essay:
“I am not too interested in Western art, but from the little that I know, it seems that Western artists really like to paint without considering the situation in their part of the world and in the world in general. And the world is now in mourning because of so many ills and so many deaths, while Western artists still continue to live happily, making lots of money, and not thinking about other people who are suffering.”
Djokopekik, who is of course a much greater artist than Ai Weiwei, spent years in brutal imprisonment during the pro-Western dictatorship of General Suharto. It goes without saying that there was no mass campaign in the West to free him, or to demand ‘freedom of expression’ in Indonesia.
But back to the rectum: let’s fetch those free and proud Western artists from its depth, and ask them ‘why on earth’, or more precisely ‘why the hell’ they ended up on their pathetic ego-trips, instead of dedicating their lives to showing the horrors their governments and cultures are committing all over the world?
In the past the West had at least a few great painters, like Goya, Delacroix, Picasso. Now? Where are those daring to paint Belgrade or Baghdad after bombing, of the Laotian and Cambodian countryside after receiving millions of tons of bombs, or the torture chambers in Chile, Argentina? Do we know of some great Western painter who would be working in East Kivu in DR Congo or in Palestine?
I will tell you who does it: the Latin Americans and the Chinese! Not gringos and Europeans.
I was recently filming in one tremendous museum in Santiago de Chile: the Museum of Memory and Human Rights. There is everything that one has to know about the US violating human rights, by manufacturing and supporting Latin American dictatorships. The architecture of the museum is splendid, combining an old villa and several stories of imposing glass and steel.
And in one of the exhibition halls: I discovered paintings by one of the greatest contemporary artists – Fernando Botero; that very Botero from Colombia, who is famous all over the world for his paintings and sculptures of fat and nude women. But this time there were no buttocks and breasts, just Muslim men with their hands tied behind their backs, blindfolded; their bodies tortured, with dogs jumping on their exposed chest.
Abu Ghraib; the horrors of Abu Ghraib! I stood in front of the paintings, motionless, for many long minutes, and my glasses got foggy; I was overwhelmed. Not because what I saw was telling me something new: I have covered Western wars and atrocities for many years. But I was overwhelmed with gratitude towards this grand Colombian artist, because here, once again, he had demonstrated what exactly the art is capable of doing and should be doing.
If he, if others like him, had something to say about Chinese art, I would listen. And I am sure that China would listen as well.
But there is absolutely nothing we can learn from artistic cowardice and impotence arriving from London and New York, Paris and Berlin! There is nothing we can learn about ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ from the cultures responsible for hundreds of millions of people murdered on all continents.
Artists of the world should unite against nihilism and spinelessness coming from Europe and North America. To hell with their money, and as Sukarno used to say: “To hell with their aid!” and their ‘funding’.
Let them paint their lines and ovals. Let them piss on the canvases, spread it all over and call it art. Let them cover their internal emptiness with abstractions. Alternatively, let them paint flowers for luxury hotels and villas of the millionaires.
The great Argentine painter, Alberto Bruzzone, once said: “I cannot paint flowers or motherhood, when they are killing my students on the street!”
Many Chinese painters feel the same: they have no time to deal with their sexuality, with personal fears and desires, while there are still hundreds of millions of their fellow citizens living in poverty, and billions all over the world living in slavery!
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.