China’s Legacy: Let a Million Museums Bloom

Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times, is on a month-long visit to China to write a series which will, “explore how China’s shifting self-image is reshaping its art and art institutions.” From the first article, about Chinese museums:

Archaeology pushes its history ever deeper into the past; a racing market economy makes Chinese-ness a mutable identity, under continuous revision. The country and its art institutions seem caught in the tension between self-images: the sovereign civilization apart on one hand, the ambitious scrambler in the global game on the other.

[...] China’s museums come in all sizes and types, from the majestic Shanghai Museum to shabby rooms in small-town Confucian temples. The artifacts are fabulous; what looks from afar like a dim little nothing display can leave you floored. (Contemporary-art museums are for the most part in a separate, still shaky category, an amalgam of public and corporate, for-hire affairs and collectors’ vanity showcases.)

Yet most art is an unsettled category in China — “cultural relics” is the preferred term — and museums have complicated uses. They provide aesthetic delectation to be sure, but also moral education, pop entertainment and political propaganda. In a country that, culturally speaking, always has one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, art museums tend to be both innovative and conservative. They’re postmodern or premodern but skip the in between.

July 4, 2008 3:17 PM
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Categories: Culture & the Arts