After the fall…

Yue_MinJun___The_Massacre_at_Chios.pngAs artist Yue Minjun reaches new highs in HK (during recent sales at Sothebys that set new records in jewels, ceramics, and paintings both traditional and contemporary), Richard Polsky over at ArtNet is predicting a decline and fall for Chinese Contemporary Art. (Which makes NY real-estate and art investor Howard Farber’s disposal of most of his Contemporary Chinese collection tomorrow at Phillips look well timed.)

But Polsky goes further, stating flatly:

“There’s nothing innovative here. In fact, other than its specifically Asian content, the work is totally derivative of Western art”.

Kriston Capps over at grammar.police calls the over generalisation “baseless”, which is maybe going too far the other way, but he raises a good question at the end of his comments: what will survive the inevitable fall? His question refers specifically to the Chinese market, but I am curious about contemporary more globally.

In both Western and Asian contemporary markets pundits are predicting corrections. In the US for macro-economic reasons and excessive exuberance. In Asia because of speculative buying by new enthusiasts, and over production of works by the big names. In both cases some artists, and collectors, will suffer more than most. Any views on whom? And how much?

8 thoughts on “After the fall…”

  1. A decline and fall, or a plateau and stagnation? Whichever form the bubble burst comes in, it will particularly affect the top tier sellers, who have proved in the last decade that they are incapable of further innovation and that the temptation of a well-selling formula has kept them from exploring new artistic ground (see the depressingly flat painting of Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun). But I have more confidence in the potential for medium priced and early to mid-career artists that are already on the circuit. Even the high-priced Zeng Fanzhi has proven he is willing to experiment with his formula, and successfully. Mid-range artists like Ji Dachun are creating distinctly individual works as well.

    On the question of the derivative nature of much of contemporary Chinese art, Polsky has certainly overstated what is an obvious problem to any observer. While techniques, critiques, and artists’ attitudes in the contemporary Chinese art world often seem derivative, it is the Asian content particularly, and possibly the craze of this moment for this art as well as the interaction with global art markets that it has spurred, that will eventually justify it as mentionable in future history of art texts. It is also impossible to ignore the incredible innovation of artists like Xu Bing and Cai Guoqiang, as well as Gu Wenda or the recent projects of Qiu Zhijie, innovations that may have been spurred by long-term interaction with the west, but could not ever be called derivative.

    There is also potential in the growing Chinese mainland market, potential to further support the bubble after it does or does not burst in the West that is. Just as the fractional majority?/?minority of new and inexperienced Chinese investors who often claim not ‘to get’ this new art at the same time as they collect it for its perceived value were a step behind the meteoric rise, so may they be a step behind the fall or stagnation. The market in New York and Hong Kong may hit a barrier in continued rising prices and the obvious next step is for those lots left unsold to next be sold off as soon as possible in the mainland auction markets for greater prices to less experienced buyers who think they can finally make a big statement. A classic example of the inexperienced mainland buyer overshooting their knowledge is the Three Gorges painting by Liu Xiaodong sold at Poly’s Autumn 2006 Auction for a then record price of around 22 million RMB. The client was a well known restaurateur who was trying to pull an advertising ‘Wynn’ for her new Philippe Starck-designed ‘Lan Club’ in Beijing (the hotel and casino magnate Steve Wynn bought a Ming dynasty underglaze copper red vase at a Spring 2006 Hong Kong auction and then gave it to the Macau Museum in preparation for his new Casino there). As far as I have heard, in the last year since her purchase of the Liu Xiaodong piece she still has not actually paid for her painting.

    While inexperienced buyers abound, I think that as long as the explosion in luxury lifestyles continues in China so will the demand here for contemporary Chinese art, whether the market for it exists in the west or not. Should that happen, will then dominant Chinese tastes veer towards more conservative, a la neo-impressionist/realist artists Chen Yifei, or maybe towards a more self-confident and less derivative contemporary Chinese art? And, will those collectors or investors who chose to purchase works based on innovative techniques and concepts rather than big name and big price works be justified once the market rises again? Or will these big-name Chinese artists of the moment always hold the value they have recently gained?

  2. I don’t have a prediction but rather a question as well: Who are the critics and curators who are able to truly translate this work to a western audience?

    While I was in London, I was speaking to a few editors who are divided on the issue of whether or not Chinese contemporary work deserved serious mention within their pages. The more commercially minded one suggested that, given the collector-driven nature of the Chinese contemporary market, at least in the West (but as Michael notes above, also in the East), the work and the artists deserved editorial attention. Our less commercially minded editor replied, “Okay, but who is qualified to cover it? No one on our staff is.” There’s a reason it’s a collector driven market (again, at least in the West), because there is a total lack of discourse surrounding this work. (And it’s a total shame that collectors are left to learn from the paltry, pathetic and all around insipid offerings that the auction houses pass off as “essays” in their auction catalogs; these things are an embarrassment.)

    Now, the same may be said for a lot contemporary art at the moment, regardless of its geographic labeling, but until one can point to the critics, the curators, or even to the artists who can make the work legible beyond its market definitions, determining real “value” or “staying power” or whatever is going to be an ignorant and futile endeavor. I’m not saying that these individuals are not out there. I’m only stating that, if they are, we need more from them, and they need more visibility.

  3. Two lines of inquiry:

    (1) Is “derivative” necessarily a dirty word? When correctly defined, can it not link contemporary Chinese practice to our post-modern, pluralistic moment in the West, and make the Chinese work more open to interpretation and critical valuation?

    Is Chinese art a monolithic entity, or does it (more likely) encompass as large and diverse a set of concerns and expressions as the West? Aren’t there Chinese artists closer in subject and treatment to certain Western colleagues than they are to their own countrymen? Aren’t artists everywhere engaged in a dialog with art history? Aren’t they familiar with a similar post-modernist canon, and able to borrow or recombine from a large but finite set of mentors and precedents? Don’t they all participate in a continuum derived from formal academic studies as well as daily trolling of the internet?

    To the extent that Chinese contemporary art shares this continuum with the West and is equally “derivative” (of past theory and practice, of current critical discourse and information sources), doesn’t this make it much easier to assess, to measure with a familiar yard stick? In other words, doesn’t this familiarity make it more critically “legible”? Conversely, if Chinese art is viewed as not “derivative” but rather as developing from unique national and historical factors, doesn’t it then appear more foreign, more difficult to judge, more resistant to valuation independent of the marketplace?

    (2) I notice a particular aversion to the collector-driven nature of the Chinese contemporary market, as it might lead to unprofessional acquisitions by naive collectors, who might buy without the benefit of critical or curatorial advice. But we already see this occurring in the market for Western art, as certain collectors bypass the establishment to assemble large holdings, even founding their own personal museums. Eventually the critics and curators are brought on board to provide intellectual justification. But wealth is the fulcrum, giving the collector initial access to the marketplace, and conferring its own imperative to the purchased work.

    This model of enthusiastic, speculative buying by a new breed of collectors has not (yet) led to a collapse of the market for Western art. Is there any reason to assume that the market for contemporary Chinese work is more prone to disaster?

  4. The nervousness about buyer-led markets is amusing to this capitalist. Are curators and commentators worried about losing control of the market? If work needs explaining to be worthy of collecting can we be sure of its long term relevance? Indeed some of the survalue of today’s market can be attributed to over-hyping by some of those “interpreters” of the current contemporary art scene.

    On the other hand I do have sympathies with the need to provide some context for a new culture’s art references. One person worth talking to about such things is Karen Smith, Beijing resident and author of Nine Lives. She was a big contributor to the success of this year’s Tate Liverpool “Real Thing” Contemporary Chinese exhibition.

    There are also a few local collectors who seem to know know what they are doing. Zhang Haoming (telecoms entrepreneur and owner of the Beijing Art Now gallery and a really quite good fusion restaurant here called Le Quai) recently had a house-warming for his mini-guggenheim-style home (complete with circular spiraling walkway) in North Beijing. The collection he has chosen to display (largely Chinese but including a Damien Hirst print) allows one a nice glimpse of the contemporary art scene in Chine of the last few years. It includes, by the way, a lovely Zeng Fanzhi, Michael, bizarrely sited behind the TV screen facing a (fortunately darkened) external window.

    So maybe local collectors will pick up the slack when foreign collectors take fright? Or will other’s take Farber’s lead and dump while the market is hot? Long term I am sure some of the current names will survive – perhaps some of the names on Michael’s list – but not all.

    But what about the West? What collectors are over-exposed to questionable hot work? And what artists are riding the wave of their galleries’ PR, but losing touch with what made them interesting in the first place?

  5. In reponse to Jonathan’s call for more critics, curators and artists to provide context for new work, this just in from writer/curator Karen Smith in Beijing.

    “Against the excitement that successive record-breaking sales are having, it certainly feels like no one cares about the art itself. In my experience “real” collectors place quality above everything else. Lack of awareness, and the dearth of critical debate about Chinese art means that, aside from the small number of serious collectors who do their homework, buyers are not always making informed choices. Whilst I am less concerned about the longterm gains or losses of art investors, the longterm repercussions in the art communities, affecting the value system held by the aritsts, as well as the nature of the art they create are important.

    And anyone trying to build a serious collection is seeing prices sky-rocket with no critical premium attached to really important works.

    As a writer I find myself in a small minority who still get excited about process; the evolution of artforms and aesthetics. Most editors just seem to be concerned with a new record price or the latest deal. The mood of the moment is very “South Sea Bubble”, and surely won’t last.

    Another worry is that auction houses, whose names were once associated with expertise and scholarship, are now merely market makers. This may be an inevitable result of the lack of qualified experts in the field. But with all this market success without experts, where’s the incentive to provide training and investment in research?”

  6. It’s fair to say that we’re seeing evidence of heightened anxiety about some parts of the market (this conversation included). The press is on the case. Editors and writers are almost hungering for a crash. It makes for a good story.

    Last week’s New York Times Magazine issue with the gold manhole on the cover about the “New Gilded Age” included a cautionary tale about patron power at Dia. Jerry Saltz’s jeremiad in New York magazine about money “ruining art” (coupled with Alexandra Peers’ sidebar on stretched gallery finances) has gone curiously unremarked in this salon. The proliferation of this sort of press is an advance indicator of … well, no one quite knows exactly what. All I know is that I’m getting calls from journalists looking for quotes about the market’s peak and other, so-far unreported signs of impending doom.

    Three thoughts. First, the observations proliferating in the press today echo, sometimes almost verbatim, the sentiments that were being expressed in the second half of the 1980s about the waning influence of traditional validators. Those worries turned out to be well placed, although the damage, in market terms at least, wasn’t as long-lasting as many had feared.

    Second, because the art world and its press is an echo chamber, I hereby issue a code red self-fulfilling-prophecy alert. I invite your thoughts on the degree to which the markets are being driven by consumer psyhcology.

    Third, on the question of Chinese art, superficiality, derivative styles, and so on, I second Steve Kaplan’s thoughts. I am not sure this issue can be discussed under the same rubric as the outlooks for established markets. I detect some condescension in debates about Chinese art. Establishing the sometimes all-too-obvious links to Western art is an opening salvo in the emergence of a strong Chinese art. Can this phase be avoided? Are Chinese artists supposed to jump straight over the derivative copycat phase and right ahead of the global art conversation? Is there an analogy between the critical response issuing from the West and how developed nations approach environmental concerns in Asia?

  7. Apropos of “After the Fall…”, the Dow just lost 367 points on Friday. The usual suspects –record oil prices, credit woes in the housing sector and lackluster third quarter profits — reignited recessionary fears and spurred a lot of selling. In a bit of historical frisson, it was twenty years to the day since Black Monday, the crash of October 19, 1987, when the Dow fell 22.6% (still its largest one day percentage drop), which precipitated the implosion of art markets in the early 1990s. But before we fear that lightning can strike twice, the Dow’s Friday pullback was only 2.6%, and it remains up 10% for the year.

    While some will posit imminent disaster, the two situations are hardly congruent. Still, the dramatic drop will certainly heighten art market anxieties. At moments of downward volatility, all speculative investments are called into question, with art collecting perhaps the chanciest arena. It would hardly seem a propitious moment to introduce an entirely new sector, yet this is precisely what is occurring with contemporary Chinese painting. A group of artists, nurtured in relative obscurity, far from the international spotlight, are being marketed like a crop of hothouse tomatoes: a new strain, genetically engineered to thrive in adversity And they are setting new auction highs.

    If there is a “condescension in debates about Chinese art”, as András suggests, perhaps this aesthetic sniping is exacerbated by a mistrust of the larger situation. Charlie Finch often oversimplifies in service to his muckraking persona, but he recently sounded an alarm, calling the Chinese contemporary boom a “state-orchestrated fix”. That art markets are being influenced, if not fully leveraged, by the huge Chinese trading surplus in cheap durable goods. That the playing field is not quite level. That a Poly Culture and Arts Corporation, staffed by former Red Army apparatchniks, is part of the central government’s “five-year-plan” to promote culture, expand markets and guarantee sales.

    Conspiracy theories tend to find voice during volatile historical moments. They provide easy, emotionally satisfying answers and make for a good story, but are hard to prove and need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, on our own pages, in a thread on the painting sweatshops in Dafen, the questionable creation of high-end reproductions by the Poly Auction Company was mentioned , as were its supra-organizational ties to other political and economic activities, including arms sales.

    It is not strange to contemplate art markets that are heavily influenced by certain oligarchical entities. Collecting is, after all, an elitist activity, enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful, and the West has its mega dealers, mega collectors, auction houses, etc. But when the promotion of art and the guarantee of sales seems to become the province of a central government agency in a one-party state where political freedom is still an issue, the excesses of oligarchy seem especially troublesome.

    Any thoughts?

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