TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1998

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

EASY ON THE MAO

To the Editor:
As the guest curators for “A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth Century China,” the modern part of the Guggenheim's “China: 5000 Years” exhibition, we were surprised by the many errors and spurious allegations in Andrew Solomon's review of the exhibition (May 1998). To suggest, as Solomon does in the first paragraph, that Dr. Sherman E. Lee, curator of the ancient section of the exhibition and retired director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, made no curatorial decisions in the course of preparing his checklist—which covers 5,000 years of Chinese art—is unbelievable.

Turning to our part of the exhibition, we would like to believe that the motive behind Solomon's misleading attack on the exhibition is not malicious but, perhaps, a well—intentioned effort to promote a group of contemporary Chinese artists he admires. Much of the review is colored by the anachronistic and ethnocentric view that the best Chinese art is that which most resembles contemporary art in New York, and that the project of establishing an independent history for the art of modern China should thus be viewed as illegitimate. While we happen to admire some of the same contemporary artists Solomon champions and have curated and reviewed their work ourselves in the past, the work we selected for the Guggenheim does not intend to—and does not claim to—spotlight contemporary artists.

The modern part of the exhibition is organized into four roughly chronological sections, and takes viewers through the history of the past 150 years thematically, focusing on the complicated range of relationships between China's modern art, the culture of China's past, and the cultures of a global present. One sees first innovations made between 1850–1950 by ink painters in the treaty ports of Shanghai and Guangzhou; next are the cosmopolitan and socially activist works of avant-garde oil painters and printmakers made between 1920 and 1950. The third section traces the growing power of socialist realism in the Chinese art world between 1950 and 1980, the first three decades of the PRC, and allowed New York viewers the unsettling physical experience of confronting for themselves the powerful, highly polished, and often emotionally convincing works of Maoist propaganda. The final section has yielded a remarkably pluralistic revival of the personal and individualistic modes of Chinese ink painting that were so consistently and harshly suppressed under the Maoist regime. The suffering of such artists may now have ended, but the monumental, expressionistic ink paintings that conclude the show asked questions that remain unresolved, and highly contentious, about the future of Chinese art and Chinese culture in the modern world. The post-Mao work in Western media, which the Guggenheim has on its future exhibition calendar, will no doubt raise similar questions.

Whatever Solomon's agenda, we deplore the factual inaccuracies that form the basis of his review. We fully expected that most visitors to the exhibition would bring to it little prior background in the history of modern Chinese art; the exhibition is, after all, the first historical presentation of late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Chinese art that has been shown in the West, and we believe it is the first exhibition ever to present in a single space the range of contending aesthetic and political ideologies of China's modern art world. What we did not expect, and find irresponsible, is that a reviewer might assume a posture of expertise without even bothering to read or make notes on the exhibition's didactic labels, and would thus blatantly misrepresent both the exhibition's structure and its purpose.

Solomon states, first, that the modern show was originally supposed to include “traditionalist” and “nontraditionalist” work, but that the “nontraditionalist” part was canceled. No responsible scholar of Chinese art would associate himself or herself with such simplistic categorizations of the history of modern Chinese art, and we have never done so. Continuing this misrepresentation in his discussion of the first section of the exhibition, Solomon omits the title of Part One, “Innovations in Chinese Painting, 1850–1950,” and then castigates the Guggenheim for promoting “traditionalism” when “innovation” is so evident. Failure to read the didactics is inexcusable for a reviewer who makes claims about what the labels do or do not say.

Completely omitting mention of the sixty-seven examples of Modernist painting and graphic art from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s that comprise the second part of the show, he writes “the work on the second floor is, by and large, propaganda work of the Cultural Revolution.” Only eight of the 144 works exhibited on the second floor were propaganda paintings of the Cultural Revolution. And, according to Solomon, “the Gug doesn't do much to acknowledge that this is propaganda work” and “you can't just hang this stuff around a museum and not say anything about it.” I believe our characterization of the Cultural Revolution in the label as “one of the great man-made calamities of the twentieth century” mobilized by “Mao Zedong and his close advisors” which “completely destroyed China's governmental and institutional structures, caused untold suffering [and] left the military as the only source of social order” is pretty straightforward.

Mr. Solomon's parallel between the Cultural Revolution and Auschwitz is fine as far as it goes, but his requirement that the curators further locate and denounce the source of Cultural Revolution evil is naïve. The clear moral distinctions to be made between victims and victimizers in the Holocaust are far more difficult to assign for the Cultural Revolution, when an entire people turned against itself, family members sometimes attacked one another, and victims and victimizers traded places as political winds shifted.

Solomon has not only distorted the meaning of the exhibition by taking passages of text completely out of context, but he has missed the larger point. China has spent the last two decades since the Cultural Revolution trying, not always successfully, to undo the damage. Paintings from the period speak of a terrible human tragedy caused by horrific mistakes and document a period in China's history that everyone wishes had never taken place. That we were able to obtain these loans, that Chinese institutions are now willing to have the recent past openly reexamined, is a significant and encouraging step. Furthermore, that we were able to present (with approximately 75 percent borrowed from China and about z5 percent from elsewhere) a history of twentieth-century Chinese art that has not been manipulated for political purposes is one of the major achievements of the exhibition. We were fortunate to obtain the highest quality extant examples of Shanghai School painting from Shanghai and Beijing, of Lingman School painting from Hong Kong, of Republican period art from Taiwan, Hong Kong, North America, and various mainland collections, and of post-Mao painting from public and private collections around the globe. We have refused to whitewash the historical record by pretending certain kinds of art did not exist, but preferred to allow viewers to make their own intelligent judgments.

Solomon further complains of the absence of recent work in the Western manner from the show, but once again misrepresents what was actually there: “there is reason why [the show] should, in its wall labels, its catalogues, and its arrangement, acknowledge the existence of what it does not include.” The introductory label to our final section states clearly what he says it lacks: “a significant body of [Chinese] work in contemporary Western formats and styles, including oil painting, installations, and video art, has been shown in Europe and the United States in recent years.” The catalogue, similarly criticized by Mr. Solomon in this regard, had not yet been published when Mr. Solomon's comments about it appears, and will not be released until mid-July.

Not only did Mr. Solomon largely ignore the thematic introductions to the exhibition, he misrepresented the content of the labels for individual objects, presenting as his own superior and alternative interpretation what is actually well-documented in the exhibition labels. For example, mention of Western influences in painting of treaty port Shanghai and specifically in the work of the Shanghai painter Ren Yi, which Solomon claims the exhibition ignores, is standard in current Chinese painting studies. The label for Hu Yuan and Ren Yi's Portrait of Gao Yong, for example, states that Ren Yi is believed to have studied drawing at a Catholic art school in Shanghai. Nevertheless, Solomon's apparent unfamiliarity with classical Chinese painting leads him to radically overstate, in his comments on the psychologizing gaze in Ren Yi's bird paintings, his degree of Westernization. Jumping ahead a century, he complains of the lack of mention of the Democracy Wall movement of 1979. We are surprised that he is unaware of the well-documented participation of Mao Lizi and the Star group, represented in Part Three of the exhibition, in activities related to the Democracy Wall movement. Such scholarly errors, omissions, and misrepresentations pepper the review, and we can only hope that interested readers will consult the available literature or the catalogue when it appears.

A problem of a different but equally troubling nature in Solomon's piece is his preference for unreliable rumors over research and for unsubstantiated attacks. He begins by characterizing the exhibition as incoherent, misleading, patronizing of the culture it ostensibly celebrates, politically expedient, and hypocritical. The curator of the ancient section, Dr. Sherman E. Lee, is known for his extraordinary eye, strong opinions, passion for the most uplifting aspects of Chinese art, and reputation for scholarly and curatorial integrity. Anyone who knows his contributions to the field over the past half century will throw down the review as malicious nonsense at the end of the first paragraph.

Solomon goes on to repeat a rumor that seems to have been fabricated and very effectively circulated by a Chinese art dealer who has alleged personal interference from curators of the ancient section of “China: 5000 Years” in our modern checklist. In fact, this dealer, who represents a number of academic realist oil painters whose work we chose not to exhibit, began a completely groundless media campaign against the curators of the ancient section before the New York opening, which we can only assume was an effort to pressure the museum into reconsidering our curatorial decisions. The modern curators did not, and would not attempt to, interfere in the checklist preparation for the ancient section, which was curated by Dr. Lee. Neither Dr. Lee nor the consulting curator, Howard Rogers, who supervised preparation of Dr. Lee's catalogue, made any attempt to interfere with our checklist.

The internal decision that led to postponement of the final part of the exhibition had nothing to do with the consulting curators and appears, from our vantage point, to have been a pragmatic move on the part of the institution. The modern and contemporary curators were originally promised by the museum three floors of exhibition space in SoHo. The planned renovation was not made in a timely fashion, and the resultant lack of gallery space was dealt with by the museum's decision to postpone the final part of the exhibition. A false rumor, repeated by Mr. Solomon, had spread among the Chinese artists in New York by the time of the opening that the final part of the exhibition was canceled. In actuality, the museum has repeatedly announced that the last section has merely been postponed.

In conclusion, we believe Mr. Solomon's agenda (if our assumptions about his good intentions are accurate) would be better served by attempting to educate his readership than by distorting the facts to support the negative approach taken in this review. Contemporary art from an unfamiliar culture cannot be fully appreciated if it is understood with the limited criteria we apply to American art. In the case of the Chinese, who have the longest continuous civilization and written history of any people on earth, a pretense to understand them without investigation of their history is indeed, in Solomon's words, “patronizing . . . and hypocritical.” While artists often refuse, for valid psychological and creative reasons, to acknowledge having a fixed place, or interest, in the history of art, critics are well-advised not to emulate them, but to try to see “the other” as something more complicated than a mirror image of themselves.

Julia F. Andrews
Associate Professor
The Ohio State University

Kuiyi Shen
Assistant Professor
State University of New York at Buffalo

Andrew Solomon responds:
I am pleased by the care that Julia Andrews and Kuiyi Shen have taken to respond to my review, and I appreciate their considered defense of their choices. Contrary to their suggestion, I have given the better part of my adult life to examining art from outside the First World, and have spent a great deal of time in China; in fact, I am writing this response from Beijing, where their letter has been forwarded to me. I have written about Chinese history; about Chinese art from the Xiu dynasty to the present; and about contemporary Chinese culture. I have advised the US Department of State on the relationship between “official” and “unofficial” culture in China, and I have enjoyed months at a time living among the unofficial artists of the country. I have published articles on contemporary Chinese culture in academic journals and in The New York Times. I hope that I have not seen “the other” as “a mirror image” of myself.

I would remark in passing that my comments on Ren Yi were based on Prof. Jonathan Hay's readings of the paintings by that artist in the exhibition. My comments on the painting in question were subsequently quoted as “an infinitely sophisticated interpretation” in a lecture at London's School of Oriental and African Studies in May. I think the emphasis Ms. Andrews and Mr. Shen have put on criticizing my understanding of Ren Yi is misplaced. As for their acknowledgement of the commonplace that Western art influenced Shanghai painting: there is a world of difference between acknowledging that an artist “studied at a Catholic art school” and addressing the central question of twentieth-century Chinese art, which is the interaction of the brush-painting tradition, the Soviet-influenced realist tradition, and the international language of modern art.

I would also like to remind the curators that members of the press were given all the texts for the catalogue that the museum did not contrive to publish until after the exhibition had closed. Failure to read the didactics would indeed have been inexcusable. It was my experience and the experience of many other visitors to the exhibition that the Cultural Revolution work dominated the second floor in the same alarming way that it has dominated the halls of officialdom in the PRC. The parenthetical acknowledgement that the Cultural Revolution was a calamity was not reflected in any curatorial decisions that I was able to observe, and it was not echoed even by implication in the show's labels for work of the period.

I do not think that it would be productive to respond further on a point-by-point basis to the accusations put forth by Ms. Andrews and Mr. Shen. The curators have argued with the letter of my critique; I would argue with the spirit of theirs. It is peculiar that the final section of the Guggenheim's exhibition was “postponed” and that no date for the showing of it has been announced. It is odd that this section was postponed after the loan agreements for some of the work included in it had been signed, and it is odd that it was postponed so soon before it had been scheduled to open. Whatever the reasons behind the “postponement,” the exclusion of this material from a show presented to the general public as an overview of “5000 years of Chinese art” gave the impression to a viewership unfamiliar with Chinese art of the twentieth century that what they saw was what there was. The “postponement” was a disastrous act of curatorial irresponsibility. If it became necessary to “postpone” a major section of the show, the entire enterprise should have been “postponed” or, at the very least, reconceived and repackaged.

“We were able,” the curators say, “to present a history of twentieth-century Chinese art that has not been manipulated for political purposes.” Perhaps Ms. Andrews and Mr. Shen were seduced by those systems of indirection that are common in China, where political agendas are often accomplished through a selective silence rather than through explosive noise. I believe that the Guggenheim exhibition was possible only because of the political agenda of Mr. Jiang Zemin and his government. Their decision to loan work that would have been suppressed ten years ago was intended to persuade Westerners that China is liberalizing in areas where it is in fact as oppressive as ever. The curators of this exhibition seem to be putty in the hands of a manipulative government that actively practices censorship, that denies human rights to artists, and that uses art of every description as part of a complex propagandist agenda. The statement in the curators' letter that “Chinese institutions are now willing to have the recent past openly reexamined” reflects an innocence that would be amusing if it were not shocking.

Art has been seen in China to be powerful and dangerous at least since the Crow Terrace Poetry Trial of 1079; it is still seen in that way, which is why many of the Chinese artists whose names we know in the West are unable to exhibit in their own country. Whether the medium is calligraphic or conceptualist, the work of art functions differently in China from how it functions in the West. Anyone who reads the American press will have followed the saga of how Chinese government censors blocked the appearance of Chen Shi-Zheng's Peony Pavilion at the Lincoln Center Festival this year, reneging on their contract and denouncing the production as “dangerous feudal garbage.” The same month, the PRC blocked the exit of mainland artists whose site-specific work was to be included in the Taipei Biennial. There is no benign smile in China for contemporary artists who engage with their country's realities.

The Guggenheim show included, as I have said, some magnificent works of art, but I would stick to my original statement that it was a terrible show. In two decades of reviewing, I have written only about shows that have interested me, believing that the critic's role should be constructive rather than destructive. In this instance, however, I believe that the poor work of the curators in a field that is so important, and about which Western viewers know so little, was not simply naive to the point of incompetence, but also frivolous, ill-considered, and dangerous.