Looking at Chinese art within the broad sweep of history

December 9, 2015

I always question why it seems we tend to look at art through a Western gaze. Having spent many years speaking to curators and collectors, I realise it is because Chinese art has not yet been properly understood in the wider context of art history.

Most Western contemporary art has evolved from Modernism: it breaks from its own traditions, constantly exploring new forms of approach. But what about the strand of Chinese contemporary art that does not evolve from Modernism? This comes instead from ancient Chinese traditions and philosophies, particularly the ink brush philosophy and principles of the Tang Dynasty where the Three Perfections— calligraphy, painting, and poetry—are combined into one.

If we look at how we live today in contemporary China, we still abide by the same philosophies of our ancient forefathers: Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. We have woven it through the many strands of our modern lives and contemporary culture.

Yet is this what our contemporary art reflects? Surely it too should reflect our traditions, and we should acknowledge these elements to be present in our contemporary art.

I believe that this misunderstanding of Chinese culture is because when Western curators looks at Chinese contemporary art they ignore how this art has evolved – from our ink brush culture, our calligraphy and landscape painting and our 2,000 years of unbroken history.

We cannot expect a curator or academic from the West to look at Chinese contemporary art, having studied for instance, Tang dynasty poetry. They have studied instead the history of art and the world in a different way. Moreover, Western curators may not comprehend that Chinese art has since the beginning been conceptual in nature. The Chinese began with words as art thousands of years ago. It could be the simplest phrase, but that phrase could be communicated to everyone.

It was only in the 1960s in the West that neo-conceptualism was born and Western artists started to use text as art. When I look at the works of an artist such as Jenny Holzer, they often remind me of Chinese Literati ink brush painting of ancient times. Alongside the painting would be calligraphy, written by the literati, or Chinese proverbs, prose or poetry.

These ancient works were designed to stimulate our thought, to cause us to ponder, reason and analyse. One did not merely appreciate the brush strokes and aesthetic, but also share the intellectual and emotional or political thoughts inscribed by the writer.

Indeed, the Chinese artistic language started with calligraphy so words came before images. This was particularly powerful when one considers that one word can have many meanings. And the meaning of the phrases and the style of calligraphy were vitally important, and could depend on whether the artist had meditated enough or was sufficiently cultivated to write good calligraphy.

When images start to be integrated into calligraphy, it becomes about the whole; the writing, poetry, image and seal must be understood together as one. If a work contains just an image it will be an artisan painting, not a literati painting.

It is also crucial to know that our “artists” began with the Literati, the elite of society, whereas in the West artists tended not to be leaders of society but the under-privileged who could not live in the same areas as the aristocrats who commissioned them. It was only much later in the West that artists were celebrated, and able to become rich through their trade.

When I see contemporary Chinese artists denying their culture and blindly following the Western canon I feel a great sadness and disappointment. I believe it is my duty to encourage a dialogue so that the West can have a deeper understanding of our Chinese culture and philosophies through our art.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation