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China: From Art Superstar to Political Superpower?

A series on the relationship between the arts and international affairs

by Alana Chloe Esposito

“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.” -W.E.B. DuBois, American Civil Rights Activist

Chen Zhiguang, Ants, 2008, Stainless Steel This artist uses ants as a subject for most of his works. According to him, the specialization of cooperative labor among ants makes them different than other creatures. Chen Zhiguang has a unique understanding of stainless steel, believing that its reflective properties can help to integrate artworks and their surroundings. In this way, he constructs magical spaces where his creations and their immediate environments are closely linked.

China: From Art Superstar To Political Superpower?

Upon taking a position in the arts in late 2007, I quickly learned that within the New York contemporary art scene Chinese art was synonymous with cool, trendy, and fabulous. The buzz, stemming from record-breaking sales of contemporary Chinese art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as well as myriad highly acclaimed exhibitions at prestigious galleries, seemed to spark immense curiosity about China throughout the West. “Have you seen Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim yet?” seemed to be the first question asked by every art enthusiast in the city. Meanwhile Saatchi Gallery in London presented “The Revolution Continues: New Art from China” as the inaugural exhibition at their new location in Chelsea.

The general enthusiasm also translated into commercial success. In 2008, 11 of the world's 20 top-selling artists, were Chinese. Additionally, at 2,900 auctions taking place between July 2007 and June 2008 most of the 500 top-selling artists were Asian, with Chinese artists Guangyi and Yan Pei-Ming among the top 10. (Unsurprisingly however, Koons, Basquiat, Hirst and Prince  grossed the highest). These figures marked a significant increase in Chinese art sales over a few  years. Auction revenue generated by 100 Chinese artists in 2007-8 totaled £ 270m, compared to only £ 860,000 generated by the same 100 artists in 2003-4. According to Andrew Johnson writing in The Independent, this marks a “seismic shift in an art market dominated by the Western tradition for almost 500 years”. Vinci Chang, head of sales at Christie’s Asian contemporary department explains that the artwork has been informed by China’s contemporary history. "These artists grew up in a post-Mao China and have seen a country under decades of turmoil and political and social change.” The result has been a burst of creativity since the end of era of Soviet-influenced social realist art during the Cultural Revolution.

So what, if anything, might this also signal about China’s overall attractiveness to foreigners and ability to wield influence in the international arena? In other words, how do the record-breaking auction sales art relate to China’s soft power?

At roughly the same time I was observing New York’s appreciation of Chinese art, China began redoubling its soft power initiatives with the goal of maintaining peace on its periphery in order to facilitate economic growth. It capitalized on the 2008 Beijing Olympics as an opportunity to launch what has been called a “charm offensive” to attract positive attention from the rest of the world as it grows more assertive in international and regional politics. For example, in 2005 the Ministry of Culture commemorated the 600th anniversary of the voyages of Zheng He, with a touring museum exhibition entitled “The Envoy of Peace from China”. Admiral-cum-diplomat Zheng He sailed across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa resolving international disputes and contributing to maritime security. The exhibition notes that he never tried to conquer any territory.

Recent soft power-enhancing measures include increasing the public diplomacy budget, expanding China Network Television’s international broadcasting, and supporting more cultural exchanges and Chinese-language teaching abroad. A shift in foreign policy towards greater multilateralism - as evidenced by joining the World Trade Organization, stronger cooperation on nuclear non-proliferation issues, and contributing more troops to UN peacekeeping operations - enhances these soft-power efforts. Signing Southeast Asia’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and creating a code of conduct on the South China Sea convey the message that China is willing to listen to other nations. Collectively these initiatives aim to reassure the world that China is developing peacefully, in a non-threatening manner, thereby reducing the likelihood that other countries will ally to balance a rising power.

By many accounts, China’s charm offensive seems to be working. According to Georgetown University's Southeast Asia Survey, by 2004 the number of Indonesians getting visas for study in China was double the number obtaining visas to study in the United States. The enrollment of foreign students in China reached 230,000 in 2009, and the number of foreign tourists has also increased dramatically 55 million in 2007 (roughly the same number of foreign tourists who visited the US that year).

"Right now, your kids wear Chinese clothes and play with Chinese toys. It is not at all inconceivable that their kids will listen to Chinese pop and prefer Chinese movies," writes John Derbyshire in the National Review Online.

In this light, it appears that the emergence of China as a ‘contemporary arts superpower’ also testifies to the steady expansion in Chinese cultural and diplomatic influence around the world. According to Joseph Nye, "China has always had an attractive traditional culture, but it is now entering the realm of global popular culture as well". He cites as examples novelist Gao Xingjian winning China's first Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which became the highest grossing non-English film as well as the popularity of Yao Ming, the Chinese star of the U.S. National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets.

Still, the Chinese government is not completely comfortable with all the creative output by its citizens. A tension exists between an authoritarian government’s innate fear of art’s subversive powers and its recognition that international acclaim of its artists can help China achieve its political agenda.

The shady circumstances surrounding artist Ai Weiwei’s arrest and release two months later and the detention of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo are two cases in point.

Other examples include the Chinese government’s recent recruitment of top Hollywood talent to produce propagandistic blockbuster based on a Chinese love story. Stan Rosen, professor of Chinese film at the University of Southern California, explained to NPR’s Weekend Edition, “They are trying to get films made that present a somewhat different image of China than the one you read about sometimes in the paper, about buying resources in Latin America and Africa and all over the world, jailing Nobel Prize winners; that kind of thing” (Full story).

It remains to be seen to what extent such efforts influence international attitudes towards China. No amount of artistic appreciation will erase international concern over human rights violations.  Yet as China’s card power capabilities increase thanks to its high military spending and status as the world’s second-largest economy, soft power initiatives provide the international media with additional opportunities to cover positive aspects of peaceful Chinese development.

About the author

Alana Chloe Esposito is a civil society leader with more than 12 years of combined experience in journalism, human rights advocacy, foreign policy, and the arts. She currently directs international policy and engagement for Common Ground, a Greek initiative to accelerate progress on social issues from greening the economy to reducing inequalities to safeguarding refugee rights -- through strategic cooperation.

In her previous capacity as a journalist, she wrote about art and cultural diplomacy for publications including The New York Times and served as UN correspondent for several media outlets, reporting through the lens of gender equality on topics including refugee experiences, sexual violence in conflict, and the UN's global development agenda.

She holds a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a M.A. in International Affairs from Sciences Po Paris and is a Senior Fellow of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute.


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