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December 4, 2011

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Confusing art and beauty

A visiting professor of East Asian languages and cultures has touched a nerve by writing in his blog that the biggest failure in China's modern art education is to equate art with beauty. Wang Jie reports.

The idea that art should be visually beautiful is deeply rooted in Chinese thinking and aesthetics is generally considered to be the study of beauty.

Though philosophical debates have raged in the West over the definition and nature of art and beauty, it's much simpler in China, at least for the general public, which has difficulty appreciating non-representational art that is not visually attractive.

But this traditional linkage between visual art and "beauty" (a term difficult to define) is limiting China's art education, creativity and appreciation of much Western and other contemporary art, according to some art experts and educators. Though China is awash in art education from an early age, it lacks breadth, depth and different views, they say.

On November 20 and 21, Xu Gang (Gary Xu), a visiting professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, blogged his observations about this linkage.

"The biggest failure of contemporary art education in China since the 20th century is to equate art with beauty," wrote Xu, who is an associate professor of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Illinois at Urbana, the United States. Xu is a scholar, author, translator and art curator, embracing all aspects of humanities; he is also interested in Chinese cinema.

Xu said the Greek word for aesthetics means perceptions or sense impressions but in China it has come to mean the study of beauty, while art is generally translated as the method or skill of achieving beauty.

He also observed that Western contemporary art has moved beyond realism and physical beauty, going to a deeper level and concerning itself with psychological expression.

He generated more than 100 comments, mostly criticism, after his first posting.

"If art is not beautiful, then why should we need it?" says Jay Wu, a 40-something professional. "Truthfully, I especially hate those contemporary artworks that appear bizarre, meaningless and ugly."

What about his perception beyond visual beauty?

"I don't know what you are talking about. If a piece of art can't ring a bell in my heart, what kind of perception can I have?"

Wu's words mirror the taste of the general public toward contemporary art.

But ironically, art education in China starts very early and many children in kindergarten take drawing classes; art classes continue throughout public schooling.

The purpose for many parents is utilitarian.

"My son is so naughty that I sent him to drawing class; at least he can be quiet for an hour," says Li Siwen who has a six-year-old. "Next year drawing classes in primary school may help him stay quiet in class."

Acquiring the skills to draw realistically and vividly is the priority in art class and this emphasis continues in many art schools that produce graduates with superb technical skills. Critics say many of these technicians lack imagination.

"Art teachers in primary school require students to draw exact likenesses of a subject," says Rebecca Wu, who has a 12-year-old son. "The teacher herself probably doesn't know much about Western modern and contemporary art history. My son is unable to draw so realistically, so his paintings appear abstract, though he has never heard the word 'abstract'."

Zhou Tiehai, vice director at Minsheng Art Museum, points out that art education in China is still stuck at Impressionism. During his campus days in the 1980s, he had no access to modern art because Western art and ideas were considered bourgeois and did not serve society.

"There was no Internet and I had to search the library to study Western modern art," Zhou adds. "We were too influenced by Russian social realism since the 1960s."

Art as a "true" reflection of life and people or a perception of life and people is the biggest difference in art expression in the East and West, he says.

The art museum now offers weekly classes in contemporary art.

Today there's instant access to modern and contemporary art. Yet despite China's fast development in many fields, there's generally a vacuum in Western modern and contemporary art education. This is ironic since China's avant-garde and contemporary art is no longer underground but is quite mainstream and highly commercial.

"There is no systematic education whether for high school students or university students in China on Western modern and contemporary art history," Zhou continues. "Even art academies are brief and superficial in their approach to Western art, which usually ends with pop art in the 1960s."

Conceptual art and big names such as Damien Hirst are alien to most young Chinese art lovers.

Those who do know of him are not comfortable with his central theme of death and his works in which large animals, such as a shark, sheep and cow, are preserved in formaldehyde.

"Whether Hirst or de Kooning, neither artist's works are beautiful, but that doesn't affect their great achievements in the art world," says Zhou.

During the latest Shanghai Biennale, a major contemporary art fair, most local visitors found many works baffling.

"In an effort to promote the Shanghai Biennale to more young people, I held a series lectures at universities around the town," says Zhang Qing, the former curator at the Shanghai Biennale, now head of curating and the academic department at the National Art Museum in Beijing,

"You can't believe, how little the university students know about modernism and post-modernism. Certainly it was impossible for them to understand the artworks at Shanghai Biennale."

Zhang used an example to illustrate the point about inadequate art education. If farmers are not planting rice, then it's ridiculous to blame the supermarket staff because there's no rice.

The idea that an artwork can be appreciated on its own, without background or context, is totally wrong, Zhang said.

"Like wine tasting, it needs time and knowledge."

But in China, prejudice against contemporary art does not only exist outside art circles. Last week, Feng Xiaogang, the director of several box-office hit movies, mocked performance art in his microblog. "A relative of a friend is repairing bicycles at Songzhuang (the birthplace of China's contemporary art), and he is frequently approached by Westerners asking what this performance is about," he blogged.

The famous director was widely criticized and teased for knowing so little about performance art and contemporary art.

Zhou from the Minsheng Art Museum observes that Western classical music is also not familiar or accessible to many Chinese, yet they regard it as something bourgeois that they want to learn about.

"But when it comes to contemporary art, their attitude is negative."

The three-month Picasso exhibition at the China Pavilion has drawn thousands of visitors but many people don't appreciate it. It ends on January 10.

"If they are not equipped with knowledge, such a visit is worthless," Zhou says, "so I strongly advise reading about Picasso before visiting, otherwise you are just visiting a big name."

In order to help young people understand contemporary art, Zhou and his team organize weekly lectures at the Minsheng Art Museum.

"But we are just an art museum, not a university and our resources are limited."

The lack of a proper art education might have negative effects in the future, says Zhang from the Biennale, adding that the focus on realism and "beauty" also holds back Chinese designers.

"See how far Chinese designers are lagging behind their peers in the West, sometimes realism kills one's imagination and creativity," Zhang says. "Our urban planning, public art and architecture are not outstanding either."

"Art doesn't equate with beauty, otherwise it is too shallow," Zhang concludes. "Society is moving forward, and our perception of art should also move forward."

Asked about gaps in art education, teacher Wang Yuhong at a local academy, says: "Contemporary art is something happening right now, not something in the past. So we don't have materials to teach, and even we ourselves are not clear about what's happening at the latest or past Venice Biennale. All I can do is to recommend some artists I like to the students, and they can follow them up in the long run."


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