…continued from previous blog
Day 4, continued. We return to the Wall Art Museum – a private contemporary-art foundation – to finish off. There are roundings-up of various sorts. James Elkins says he’s happy with the outcome of the conference: a lot of engagement with the central issue of what art criticism is and is about, so a useful growth process (I am paraphrasing and probably grossly distorting here). Then up we pop, a few goodbyes, and we’re on a bus to an art opening. The show consists primarily of the work of Xu Longsen, who is best known for huge ink paintings in the Shanshui tradition. The opening is possibly sponsored by one Mr Li, who is also owner or main sponsor of the Wall Art Musuem and funder of the conference. It’s lavish. We board the bus again, and find ourselves at the side of the Forbidden City, in a swish restaurant. The food is fusion nouvelle cuisine and mighty good, though I prefer the Chinese stuff. Over final beers that final evening, it’s explained to me that our government official of the morning – see previous blog – was just giving the official line. On the ground things could be different. Am I happier? A bit. But I’m also still chilled by the idea. I’m in an authoritarian, some would say totalitarian, state, among very pleasant, very likeable people. It’s a country for which I, and probably every Westerner I know, has great respect. This isn’t just a country which produced great civilisations while ‘we’ were barely beyond the stone-axe stage, it’s also a country whose near-recent history has been horrible. I’m just an interloper who has little clue. At one point during the week, at a post-session debrief, I commented that I doubted my contribution to the event, and that I felt I was just chucking stuff over a wall. Where this all goes next will be a fascinating story.
To attempt a summary of what I learnt in Beijing very quickly: the sorts of separation we are used to in the West between artist and critic, artistic quality and market value, art-making and government policy, are much less clear in China, issues of gender and nationalism can be very touchy, and shows of public disagreement are sometimes embarrassing; it all makes debate more complicated.
In the end, I was left wondering about many things. The subject of the conference – the nature of art criticism, and East-West differences – was if anything more unresolved; in this context, there is the excellent book The State of art criticism edited by James Elkins and Michael Newman for anyone who wants to delve further on the Western side. On the other hand, I needed to think about what art criticism is doing. For example, it helps us to understand art, promote art, guard the quality of art, it creates jobs and conferences, but also specialisation, impenetrability, exclusivity, confusion and division. This seems a lot for something as amorphous as art criticism to be up to, and it leaves lots of wiggle room.