How does engaging with art help us to better understand Chinese society?
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It is undeniable that art gives us a unique insight into different societies that we are unable to gain from history books and more conventional forms of statistics and facts. In the case of Chinese society this statement is even more relevant as the country, for so long throughout history and even now, has been shrouded by government censorship and has existed as an incredibly insular, walled off state to the rest of the world. Therefore, art is very much the only crack in the walls that gives us an insight into the reality of Chinese society; not the one that the Chinese authorities want us to see.
It wasn't until Mao's death in the late 70s that Chinese art began to reflect the inner workings of Chinese society and opinions as censorship gradually began to ease and artists felt the opportunity to express their feelings through their art. This beginnings of Chinese Contemporary Art is incredibly important in telling us about Chinese society as it is one of the first expressions from China that was free from censorship, especially charged with the emotions and opinions that had been repressed for so long.
Engaging with the art produced between the 80s and 90s shows us the messages that artists were communicating from the 'underground' of Chinese society that they were forced into. Whether it be political cynical realism or conceptualism, these works illustrate the Chinese society that was protesting against the government. For example, Wang Guangyi's 'Mao Zedong' illustrated a direct condemnation of Mao and the rules surrounding the Chairman as he turned the grids preserving Mao's universal appearance into grids that were trapping him into the painting; the artist now has control. Not only does Chinese Contemporary Art convey political messages but also societal messages such as Ai Wei Wei's 'Han Dynasty Urn with Coca Cola Logo 1995 which reflected upon the impact of consumerism that had finally reached China, how it effected traditional views of society and altered ancient customs.
In addition to the art produced, the reaction upon the production of such works helps us to better understand Chinese society. The anger of the authorities and effort made to suppress Chinese Contemporary Art illustrates the workings of Chinese society to us and the desperation of officials to conceal the truth, hiding the world from China and China from the world. For example, the CCAA exhibition at the Power Station in Shanghai got into trouble with the Chinese authorities due to Ai Wei Wei's inclusion. Overnight his work was eliminated from the show and his name was forced to be painted over. This demonstrates to us how the Chinese authorities attempt to negate names and forge their own version of history. This also emphasise the importance of protecting and using Chinese art to help us better understand Chinese society.