Answering the Question: What is the Chinese Avant-Garde?

Paul Gladston and Zhai Zhenming


Zhai Zhenming is Professor of Philosophy at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China. Among other things, Zhai has lectured and published writing on the subject of contemporary Chinese art. The following conversation focuses on the use of the term “avant-garde” as a way of describing contemporary Chinese artistic practice of the late 1970s and 1980s and in particular differences in the term’s significance within Chinese and Western cultural contexts. Key issues discussed here include the Chinese avant-garde’s reconstruction of a relatively autonomous artistic sphere as a way of resisting established governmental authority; a strategy somewhat at odds with the persistently negative / deconstructivist tendencies of the Western historical and neo avant-gardes.

Paul Gladston: Western historical avant-garde art is often understood as an attempt to negate, transgress or deconstruct established political, social and artistic conventions. You have argued that Chinese avant-garde art of the 1980s doesn’t work in quite the same way. What grounds do you have for putting forward this line of argument?

Zhai Zhenming: Yes, I have made that kind of argument before. But the differences I referred to would manifest themselves only if we make the observation at a certain pragmatic level in a particular context. If we just focus on the function of “negating” or “transcending” alone―which I think is essential to the notion of avant-garde art―and ignore the particularity of the targeted convention for a moment, then we can see a commonality between the Western original and its Chinese counterpart. Only after recognising such a commonality in the first place can we then talk about the differences in a shared framework. In the West, the political, social, and artistic conventions, which the avant-gardes attempted to negate, had, among other things, a common religious overtone. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Chinese artists faced a status quo that was pervaded by a political, rather than religious ideology; one that did not allow them to take an approach toward artistic creation apart from the political. So situated, the artistic minds of the time had nothing else to go against except this seemingly all-powerful ideology and its institutional embodiments. Such a contrast, I think, can explain why the differences between Western and Chinese avant-garde art deserve serious attention even though both can still be discussed under the same rubric of “avant-garde.”

PG: Given that Chinese avant-garde art draws heavily on the formal innovations of the Western avant-gardes, can it really be described as avant-garde? Isn’t it simply secondary and belated in relation to Western avant-garde art?

ZZ: As I just alluded to, the notion of “avant-garde” art originated historically in the West and should preserve its basic meaning when it’s used to refer to what happened in China during the late 1970s and 1980s. But when we look back at the late 1970s and 1980s in China, we need not be surprised to see a time when a devotion to art as an undertaking separate from the political was itself a radical gesture of negation; a negation of something seemingly all-powerful. I agree with the implication of your question, that avant-garde art in the West is indivisible from a process of radical formal innovation. I would also agree that the culmination of this process of innovation was in reaching the logical limit of negation, which is self-negation―the self-negation of the avant-garde. But self-negation has to be preceded by a painstaking process of self-affirmation in the first instance.

Avant-garde art in China during the late 1970s and 1980s was indeed secondary to Western avant-garde art in its formal adventure and thus did not operate in line with the dynamics of artistic creativity as witnessed in the West. But in view of its resistant stance toward the political power that loomed large in China at the time and its attempt to overcome that power in order to move ahead, it might, in a mitigated sense, deserve the name of avant-garde. During the late 1970s and 1980s, Chinese avant-garde artists were motivated principally by the urge of individual freedom as a force opposed to authoritarianism.

PG: A number of Chinese writers have argued that Chinese avant-garde art of the late 1970s and 1980s was more political than that of the Western avant-gardes. Could you explain further what is meant by this? Doesn’t this assertion overlook the overtly politicised work of Western avant-garde art groups such as Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus and the International Situationists as well as the necessarily coded forms of critique put forward by the Chinese avant-garde who remained subject to strong ideological suppression?

ZZ: To my knowledge, the Western avant-gardes, as you mentioned, declared their political agendas verbally and in writing, and interpreted their own (anti-)artworks as against the status quo in its totality, which they believed to be responsible for whatever they thought ill of. Take Dada for example, they thought the whole Western world was being destroyed by the means-end rationality that had led to the outbreak of World War I. This is unlike the Chinese avant-gardes in question who expressed their political agony allegorically. The Dadaist or Surrealist did not, as it seems, intend to express much more than an attitude of opposing whatever purported to be “rational” as well as any legitimate form of artistic expression in the conventional sense. In general, they believed that artistic convention was part of the establishment based on rationality. Of course, their understanding of rationality only within the purview of instrumentality was problematic. Anyway, the Western avant-gardes politicised their work largely by declaring their formal innovations as political, whereas their later Chinese followers challenged political authority mainly by the visual allusions of their artwork itself.

PG: I would agree that that is the case to some extent. The negativity of the Western avant-gardes was often symbolic rather than actual. However, as the theorist Peter Bürger has argued, the Western historical avant-gardes can be understood to have been involved in active attempts to sublimate art within the modern life-world―that is to say, in attempts to bring about a synthesis of art and life―and, thereby, a reworking of the means-end rationality of the latter along the more playful lines of the former. Do you think the Chinese avant-garde of the late 1970s and 1980s was attempting to do something similar? If not, what were the aims of the Chinese avant-garde of that time?

ZZ: Peter Bürger’s observation is enlightening, but I do have a few words about the notion of the “means-end rationality” of modern life. As I remarked once in Manchester at a conference, the idea of “work” plays a tricky role, or a deceptive role, in the formulation of the so-called “means-end” dichotomy. Apparently, no one seems to go to work for the sake of work, and the purpose of work is supposed to lie outside of work. That is, work appears to be instrumental by definition and thus has to serve life, which includes every kind of human activity except work, as an end. Thus, for example, a career-driven husband can say to his home-staying wife: “I go to work and earn bread for you and for the whole family, and you enjoy life,” as if his work had no other meaning than serving family members. But as we know, a so-called “decent” job that deserves being called a “career”, is not just about working for food and shelter. Rather, it aims at “success,” which has little to do with basic needs of life but much to do with one’s whereabouts in the hierarchy of the power structure outside one’s family. So the workplace as an arena of conflicting “wills to power” is disguised as a grain field, as it were, where one alone harvests rice and wheat in isolation dealing with nature. On the other hand, artistic creation, which is meant to be humanistic and non-instrumental, once developed as a money-making profession, has already mingled its playfulness with instrumentality in practice, though not necessarily in principle. After making these remarks, let me return now to your question. Bürger was right that the Western historical avant-gardes attempted to blur the line between art’s playfulness and life’s means-end dichotomy not only in practice but also in principle. In China, I have no doubt that some artists during the late 1970s and 1980s followed the same line of thought, but since their doing so did not allow them to appear to be against something as apparently powerful as the official ideology of that time, they might not strike onlookers or critics as avant-garde. For better or for worse, they might have been viewed, if they did not also do something allegorically political, more like freelance improvisers of existing ideology instead.

PG: It could be argued that the Cultural Revolution is similar in some ways to the project of the Western avant-gardes in that it involved an attempt to negate the distinction between culture and society for revolutionary political ends. Do you agree with this line of argument? In what ways, if any, does Chinese avant-garde art of the late 1970s and 1980s act as an extension of the Cultural Revolution?

ZZ: Just for our current discussion, I think instead of just saying “political ends”, we should make a distinction between the ends of a politician’s taking hold of political power and the ends of non-politicians―including artists―who want to change political reality. Most Chinese scholars, I assume, would view the “politics ends” of the Cultural Revolution largely as of the first kind. But, obviously, the “politics ends” of the Western avant-gardes is of the second kind. So construed, the similarity you referred to might be somewhat insignificant. In fact, the meaning of “culture” in the title “Cultural Revolution” is deceptive. The word “society” did not even have a separate referent apart from the political bureaucracy at that time. In that case, the phrase “to negate the distinction between culture and society for political ends” might not be as descriptive of what happened as it sounds when we talk about the Cultural Revolution.

PG: One way of interpreting Chinese avant-garde art of the late 1970s and 1980s is to see it as involved an attempt to (re)construct a semi-autonomous cultural sphere after the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Do you agree with this interpretation? If so, doesn’t that run contrary to a conventional Western understanding of the avant-garde as a critically negative force?

ZZ: The Cultural Revolution did not do much in subordinating the cultural to the political in China, because such a process had been completed not long after the Communist Party came to power in 1949.  But I agree with the view that the Chinese avant-gardes were trying to re-claim the right of artistic creation outside the official propaganda programme. That was a negative force against totalitarian control, but not against art itself as, again, seen in the West. This could hardly have been otherwise, because neither an autonomous nor a semi-autonomous sphere of art existed in China at that time. The only possibility was to reconstruct a semi-autonomous artistic sphere as a resistance to political power.

PG: Another way of interpreting Chinese avant-garde art of the late 1970s and 1980s is to see it as a response to the somewhat contradictory messages implicit in Deng Xiaoping’s policy of opening-up and reform. That is to say, on the one hand, calls for the opening up of a “de-politicised” space where individuals and groups could exercise entrepreneurial self-expression and, on the other, a persistent belief―shared by many avant-garde artists who lived through the Cultural Revolution―that art should continue to serve the political needs of the Chinese people. Do you agree with this interpretation? If so, again, doesn’t this run contrary to a conventional understanding of the avant-garde as a critically negative force?

ZZ: By the same token, this seemingly paradoxical face of the Chinese avant-garde movement could be understood in terms of the political nature of the exclusive power that deserved a unified movement of negation by artists. The avant-gardes may or may not have “people” in mind, but they must appear to be working along the “people vs. enemy” kind of ideological line in order to have a strong counter effect on indoctrinated minds. At that time, one could not establish one’s expressional legitimacy unless one did it in the name of the “people” or the like.

PG: Throughout the writings of Jacques Derrida, deconstruction is upheld as a movement of difference and deferral between signs that continually re-contextualizes and therefore re-motivates existing forms of meaning. It could be argued that Chinese avant-garde art of the late 1970s and 1980s is deconstructive insofar as it actively seeks to do the same in relation to existing forms of cultural, social and political signification. Is the use of the term deconstruction in this way entirely relevant to the work of the Chinese avant-garde? If not, why not?

ZZ: The work of the Chinese avant-garde is less deconstructive than its Western predecessor insofar as deconstruction is primarily about self-reflexive negation. As I said, some Western avant-gardes claimed that their art was at the same time anti-art, whereas the Chinese avant-gardes aimed partly at a social affirmation of art as art for its own sake. In other words, it actively sought to erase, and redeem by means of erasing, on-going forms of meaning of everything except art, and in that sense they were more self-glorifying than self-negating.

PG: To what extent could Chinese avant-garde art of the late 1970s and 1980s be described as modernist and/or post-modernist?

ZZ: To a great extent the Chinese avant-gardes in question could be, I guess, viewed as more modernist than post-modernist just because of their relative lack of a motive for self-negation. After all, their negation was based on a conviction that the territory of art should be separated from those of non-art as a matter of principle.

PG: Chinese avant-garde art is often discussed as though it were a homogenous phenomenon bounded by single national-cultural identity. Is it appropriate to think of Chinese avant-garde art in this way?

ZZ: I think this might be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy as some social scientists have called it, though one of a different kind. What I mean is that if you view the Chinese avant-garde art as homogeneous, then it would appear to be homogenous, because the measuring stick has not been provided by any third party but by the viewer him or herself. The fact that Western critics and collectors have taken politically allegorical pieces from China almost exclusively as “avant-garde” does not mean that there is an independent criterion by which they have made their selections. Since the notion of avant-garde originated in the West, the Chinese are not in a legitimate position to declare their own particular criterion or rule of labeling. But I would like to believe that there were some highly creative artists in China who did what they did, and they deserve being called avant-garde in its fullest sense. But obviously, if they did exist, they have been ignored by critics and left almost no trace in any written version of the history of art.

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