CCAA | Chinese Contemporary Art Award

Chapters 2 › Unit 2: Create a journal entry: Engaging with art View instructions Hide instructions

Create a journal entry: Engaging with art


How does engaging with art help us to better understand Chinese society?

Share your experiences and have a look a the journals of other participants.
Feel free to comment.

Does art help understand society, or does society help in understanding art?

1 comment

Over many years and in many places in the world, art is considered representative of a certain culture (most precisely, the culture of a certain place in a certain period of time), therefore I think that the concept of art as a tool to understand a society does not only apply to China.

In the Chinese case, I think that art can a be a tool to understand Chinese society, but outsiders must have a previous idea of Chinese society in a certain period of time in order to understand its art. How can we say that we understand the whole of Chinese society under Maoist rule just by looking at the limited art allowed at the time? We would only have a very narrow view of what Chinese society really was in that period. By studying the history and looking at the art, then we gain more insights that we would have if we had only looked at one of the two.

One of the many sculptures in the 798 Art District in Beijing. My picture (2011).
One of the many sculptures in the 798 Art District in Beijing. My picture (2011).

More recent times are perhaps more engaging in this respect, because artists are freer to express themselves and, as often happens in totalitarian societies, they tend to represent their society in their art. Even when we do not want to express political views, we are never really free from our society, therefore works of art cannot but absorb our views. And, as consumers of the art, the viewers tend to attach their own personal views of society, politics and culture to the pieces of art they see... we "interpret" with the tools that we have. If we come from a very democratic, very liberal society and have never experienced, have no previous knowledge whatsoever, of the political and societal systems in China, how are we going to understand what these artists with these pieces of art are trying to state?

I have always seen art as a very subjective construction. I myself "see" art as an outsider, I do not have the tools to judge art sylistically or aesthetically. I can only report what I see and how the things I see make me feel. But I do know Chinese society a little, I have studied it and I have lived there for a period of time. In a way, therefore, I am better able to comprehend what Chinese contemporary artists are trying to represent of their society in their art compared to, say, a person that, like me, only appreciates art as an outsider and, moreover, has no previous knowledge of Chinese society.

Graffiti art hidden in a tunnel between two buildings at 798 Art District in Beijing. My picture (2011).
Graffiti art hidden in a tunnel between two buildings at 798 Art District in Beijing. My picture (2011).

In my position, I am not able to say what a person with ample knowledge of the arts is able to grasp about Chinese society by only looking at contemporary artists' pieces, without knowing anything about China. I would indeed be very curious to know the opinion of such people.


We speak here about a particular case which may allow to track down the evolution of contemporary art in China by looking at a large collection which had been formed over more than 20 years and which used (among other things) an art award, the CCAA, to gain knowledge about the art scene. Uli Sigg had worked and (partially) lived in Cina since 1979 and started 15 years later, only, to systematically collect Chinese contemporary art. At that time the art available and created was indeed a means to understand China better. First and foremost for Sigg, but later also for many Western art experts who became interested in the social transformation in China through its art production.
Since the 2000s art production has extremely diversified (as it did the society) and it has certainly become more complex to read both art and society.

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