When we think of Chinese art, we might generally think of pirate factories and their websites cloning Western artists and selling the stuff for peanuts. We need to think again. China is collecting and buying art big time, and its emergence as a major art player is going to affect us all.
Experts say staggering prices for Chinese art at recent auctions reflect a huge appetite for both the spectacular investment returns and a fascination with all things Chinese. Recently “Execution,” a painting by Yue Minjun, 45, based on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, fetched 2.9 million pounds at a record-setting Sotheby’s sale in London. Eighty percent of the auction attendees were Asian.
The Sotheby’s event came just days after another sale of contemporary art in Hong Kong where records were broken for dozens of young Chinese painters — many of their works fetching prices above a million dollars. At the risk of stereotyping, here are some of the reasons for this kind of action:
Chinese art schools offer superior training.
Chinese art workers have excellent work habits.
China has a newly revived idealism and sense of history.
China has a new interest in modern appearances.
China has a tradition of speculation and gambling.
China’s new wealth is chasing new Chinese art.
World wealth is shifting from West to East.
Mei Jianping, a former New York University professor and creator of the Mei/Moses Price Tracking Index, says Chinese art is a good bet because the country’s newly rich want to snap up pieces as investments and status symbols. “It’ll be one of the best performing asset classes,” says Mei. “The Chinese art market has outperformed the Chinese equity market over the past 10 years.”
If this sounds to you like any other art bubble, with a sniff of manipulation, greed and self-fulfilling prophesy, you’d be right. Nevertheless, it’s a competitive world and Creative Darwinism is somewhat in control. For the idealists and dreamers among us, as well as those asleep at the easel, the lesson may be difficult: the production of art follows the production of wealth.
PS: “This is like deja vu all over again.” (Yogi Berra)
Esoterica: Big Western collectors and institutions are also moving in, with Britain’s high-profile art buyer Charles Saatchi set to exhibit Chinese art when he opens a new London gallery this year. Saatchi Online, one of the most prominent Internet portals for artists, with over 57,000 painters represented, has already launched a Chinese-language version. Western browsers scrolling the lists on Saatchi Online tend to be boggled when the names and the language suddenly change to Chinese. More boggling is on the way.
Buyers respond to magic
by Margo Buccini, Ponte Vedra, FL, USA
Would it be possible to add another reason for the growth in the popularity of Chinese art? Eastern philosophy appears to totally reject the concept of western post-modern ‘irony,’ which has spawned a whole sub-culture of really bad art. Many times in various art magazines and galleries, the talk of the art is more about the talk than the art. Some artists are more in love with the concept of their art than with the actual execution and completion of a serious work of art. Critics are becoming more derivative in their explanations of art. Now, if a person walks into a gallery and can define it as a work of art, it is. We are rapidly approaching the point where everything is art and, therefore, nothing is art. On the other hand, in the East, there appears to be a reverence for transcendence and respect for beauty in art. There is a magic in the awe inspired by a great work of art. Buyers respond to this magic!
Mortgage to pay
by Phillippa Lack, Cheyenne, WY, USA
So, what do we do now that first the wearable art market was lost to China, and now the other, it seems? I work pretty hard at my art, but unlike the folks in China who apparently can live on pennies, I have mortgage, etc. to pay. Do you have any practical suggestions for the rest of us?
Decay of Western art teaching
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
Years ago China started preparing artists as they prepared gymnasts. When I heard about it I thought in 18 years or less we are going to see major artists emerging from this country. I was right. It may be the economy that drives the market but it is the preparation of the artists to begin with that drove the market development. Finding quality instruction on a regular basis for all but the student that is 18 and entering an atelier or art school… those that have the money and time actually… is very difficult for the serious artist. I went to Museum of Fine Arts in the ’60s. We ended up taking over the school and becoming the political art factory for the East Coast during the anti-war movement. It was easy to do in a school that had, at that time, very little in the way of disciplined teaching. Anything went. No regrets either. It was fun and we were serious about ending that war. I still think we made a difference. Now as I return to painting I find myself in constant search mode for the knowledge I need to paint as well as I know I can. I have the talent… always have. And lucky for me, I have one of the most intense work ethics of anyone I know. So I will be fine. Painting daily, searching constantly, and studying always will pay off but it isn’t easy to find the teaching I need as I progress. I remain a little jealous of the way the artist is trained in China… Just a little.
Our new world stage
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
One cannot take away from the Chinese training in any profession. It is impeccable with traditions going back centuries. This should be a wake-up call to American artists as well as the artists of other countries vis-à-vis pride in workmanship. We have long given art and art training a back seat to science and economics in America. I feel we have to realize the treasure we have and gain some national pride in our art history and in the art being made by American artists today. If we don’t we will sadly fall behind in this area. Public schools have to begin to add programs back into their curriculum. Art education and appreciation has to take a bigger slice of the American conscience. I’m not apposed to the Chinese or Russian nationals creating fine art. But when they become the eye of the tiger in the money market, American artists will suffer even greater loss of pride, stature and importance in the art world. The Chinese today (maybe always) kick our butt in training methods. We seem to have a seat-of-the-pants approach that has served us well when art was not marketed as aggressively as it seems today. Today there is more available money and more potential buyers than before. Artists need to see themselves on a world stage and get out of the small town mentality if we are to survive.
by Tony Kampwerth, Knoxville, TN, USA
Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. If you have ever been there, you will realize the emotional impact this has on visitors. She had a great vision of this and won the competition for the design. She was a college student at the time. She is a Chinese/ American, born in America, but her parents are from China. She then has since designed some more significant memorial structures.
In praise of a healthy economy
Not only is the West mortgaging itself to the East, but the East is now in the business of closing down traditional Western industries through sharp competition. Here in Europe it is daily more difficult to sustain manufacturing of everything from clothing to autos. It’s feasible that in my lifetime the world will buy all cars from Asian manufacturers. The tipping point is nigh. Robert is gently making a valuable observation. Artists must realize that healthy economies make for healthy arts.
Natural unfolding of fate
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
As we go through the ages it seems that the structure of our business and art itself changes over and over again. This makes it difficult to pin-point what direction one needs to go to stay ahead of the game. Most of us are secure in our own little circles of followers and not influenced much by the world scene. And yet we are daily affected by the prices that Chinese-made paintings are bringing in the local shops. It is very hard to compete with the prices on most all products coming out of China these days. I can also see that there are awesome artists from China that are probably getting a bum wrap by being stereo-typed with the mass producing art factories. They too must be frustrated with all of this. I believe our paths will guide us as fate will have it.
International art investment
by Terence Buie, Nelson, BC, Canada
You may already be aware of the “Fine Art Fund” based in London, England. I met Philip Hoffman in Toronto in the early ’90s, He’s the man who started the Fund. Apparently it’s been a lucrative way for investors to participate in the art market (I wasn’t one of them!). He has just launched an Indian Art Fund.
(RG note) Thanks, Terrence. FAMS (Fine Art Management Services) operates from a Mayfair townhouse, works like a mutual fund, buys the art, stores it in a Geneva warehouse, and hopefully sells it later for a profit. The fun thing about the scheme is that you don’t even need to look at the art you buy. You may never even catch a glimpse of it. Hopefully somebody else will, at a later date, for more money. Philip Hoffman says of his clients: “They’ve no interest whatsoever in art. They’re looking at the paintings as a diversification of their investments.”
Experiencing Eastern masters
by Verna Marie, CA, USA
Having met Mian Situ, Jason Situ and several others from China through the California Art Club, I know the excellence of their work. I know you travel a lot and don’t know if you have had the pleasure to see Masters of the Western Art show that is at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles. That and the Californian Art Club show which will be in April. Mian told me that China brought many of the great Russian masters to China to teach and when he told me of their work habits I thought no one in America would do that. I now live in Kansas and that is one of the things I miss the most — seeing that show. And the art clubs that exist in that area. There is nothing here to compare with it.
Emergence of Chinese contemporary
by Jon Burris, Edmond, OK, USA
I have been involved with Chinese contemporary art since 1987 and have been fortunate to watch this genre develop into what it is today. I have been most closely associated with contemporary Chinese painting (and photography) over the past ten years and have been able to work with all of the artists who are now receiving multi-millions for their paintings. I am able to say that I knew them when the average price of their canvases was $10,000, which unbelievably, was only ten years ago for most, and four or five years ago for some! Actually, the fall auctions saw artists like Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang get $4 million and $5 million respectively for their paintings, and the artist Cai Guo Qiang received $9.5 million for a set of 14 drawings. The Chinese photography market is on the rise as well, with current prices for the top ten or fifteen artists reaching an average $20,000 per print! Not bad I guess, considering most of these guys have only been shooters for five or six years.
It is indeed the Chinese who are paying record prices for the art, due in large part to the state of their economy that is producing literally tens of thousands of millionaires who need something to invest their new found wealth in. Art has proven to be a good choice because it is the most liquid and the Chinese government has put limits on other kinds of investments like real estate. Most of the new Chinese collectors though know very little about what they are buying and an unfortunate result is that cartels have developed to keep the ‘investments’ sound. In truth, these cartels are the ones responsible for inflating the prices of the art to outlandish degrees by ‘flipping’ paintings via the auctions that have become the most visible means of playing the market. The worst effect of course, is that inflated prices are preventing many serious international collectors and museums from being able to acquire the art. This is unrealistic and unhealthy and there will be consequences, perhaps not in the form of burst bubbles (at least not for a while, maybe five more years) but in ways that will bring limits to the future of Chinese art.
A very few intelligent Western collectors have been buying since the early 1990’s and as a result, have been able to create good representative collections (Saatchi is not one of them, he didn’t get involved until much later, he just has more money than the Queen) but they are few and they have not been able to keep up with the rising prices so their collections cannot continue to improve. This is not good either for future generations of Chinese artists.
One has to ask why it has taken so long for most of the West to ‘discover’ Chinese art. An obvious answer is that it did not achieve prominence until it achieved high prices, thus gaining the validation of a Western press; after all, money is the yardstick by which we measure most things in the West. I would agree in part with the reasons Robert gives for why Chinese art has become popular:
Yes, Chinese art schools (Academies) offer superior training. They expect their students to learn the principles of painting first, to study their history and culture, and then express themselves on personal levels. In the West, we tend to encourage free expression above all else, we don’t have as long a history, and we don’t value our culture in the same way as the Chinese.
Chinese students in general are disciplined and hard working. Realistically, this is because competition is so great among a population that is so large.
China has always respected its history, although there does seem to be a new idealism, some say boosted by the fact that China will host the 2008 Olympics and a 2010 world’s fair.
China’s interest in all things modern and trendy is based in part on its newly developing and inquisitive wealthy class, but probably to a greater degree, due to new freedoms the Chinese government has allowed over the past ten years. The doors were opened following the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, however, not that much traffic back and forth took place! An internal free market had to develop and it did thanks to Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping.
China does have a history of speculation…and maybe gambling, but again, I think it’s mostly competitiveness.
China’s new wealthy are buying conspicuously, from art to cars, to mansions.
World wealth is shifting from West to East.
A major issue with all of this is how we as Westerners interpret the emerging Chinese artists and their world. We cannot afford to look at only the top selling artists and say we understand what Chinese contemporary art is about. That’s a little like asking the three blind men to describe the elephant. We cannot depend on the Western press in general, in my estimation they have done a very poor job of reporting what is happening in China when there is no sensationalism or politics attached. It’s so much fluff, like the recent article in Vanity Fair magazine. Even the art journals rely on the high end of the market for an interpretation, like an index of sorts. The best way to find out what is going on is to use the Internet to search out galleries in China (primarily in Beijing and Shanghai) and see what they are bringing to light… so to speak!
Sunset in the Hydrangeas
watercolour on paper, 12.5 x 12.5 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Norman Ridenour of Czechoslovakia who wrote, “On your list of why Chinese art, you left out: A multi-thousand year tradition of art, and a long history of exquisite aesthetics.”
And also Cherie M. Redlinger who wrote, “I did paintings of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as a citizen in a free country.”
And also Ron Ogle of Asheville, NC, USA who wrote, “The ‘success’ of the graceless egoistic Yue Minjun artwork reflects the influence of 21st century capitalism in that ancient land. Why not just film the killing of Tiananmen Square protestors and call THAT great art? Fortunately, music is not like painting, or else the biggest hits would increasingly be mere flatulence. As Bob Dylan sang, ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ ”
And also Jan Bennicoff of Springfield, MO, USA who wrote, “What ever happened to collecting American, Canadian, or other National Art?”
(RG note) Thanks, Jan. Just today I was talking with several of my dealers. They see little or no letup in the current enthusiasm for collecting both living artists and historical art. Things are still cyclicaland certain genres, media and names get overbought from time to time, and must wait for their time to come again. But there’s something very beautiful taking place: The relentless march of Hi Tech seems to bring out the need in some individuals to experience the spiritual, the natural world, and the magnificence of the truly handmade.
Enjoy the past comments below for Canvas tiger…