How does engaging with art help us to better understand Chinese society?
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The earlier years of Chinese contemporary art, before the 1980s, was marked by art that was imitative of Western artistic traditions of some decades earlier. This reflected the fact that China was still a very closed society up to that time and so the artists had little contact with the outside world and little opportunity to gain knowledge of the most recent developments in contemporary art. It also reflected Chinese artists lack of self-confidence in their own ability to initiate new forms of artistic expression.
During the 1980s there was a move by China to have a more open door policy and artists also saw this as an invitation to engage in political commentary and criticism through their works, whereas prior to those years most of the art were works sanctioned by the academies and followed politically correct themes of harmony and beauty. However, their newfound expressiveness was not appreciated by the Chinese government and they were quickly driven underground.
From the 1990s, China's fortunes and position internationally grew, the market for Chinese art also grew and more artists became more concerned with what had market value over the previous preoccupation only with conceptual value. They were also reacting to the repression by the Chinese government and so the cynical realism style and pop art style became very popular because these served both to critique the governmental system in China and at the same time won favour with Western art buyers. New media also became popular during that era, which was highly favoured in the West.
By the 2000s, with Chinese travelling widely and becoming dismayed by the way globalisation tended to subsume identities, as well as China's growth in international importance and the concurrent growth in self-confidence, more artists turned back to traditional Chinese methods such as calligraphy and ink painting to formulate a new idiom for themselves as Chinese contemporary artists.