China to use "soft power" of arts for international influence

CHINESE ART AND POLITICS

China wants its own version of  Hollywood. An intriguing article in the Toronto Star examines China’s growing recognition that media and culture can be a powerful tool to spread political, social and economic ideologies beyond its borders much in the manner of the USA’s film industry.

The economic revolution in China began thirty years ago. Back then, there was nowhere to create or exhibit art works and the Chinese government hardly had time to think about art and international cultural standing. China was opened up to Western investment and the country has since surged toward becoming the world’s second largest economy. Now, China has begun to realise the power that can be gained by having a successful cultural industry.

“…a carefully calibrated gambit is playing out that links cultural production with economic development and the ruling party’s deep desire to shift from a service-first manufacturing centre to a serious, full-fledged player on the international stage.”

China is seeking the benefits of what it calls developing its “soft power”. The country has spent many years creating a booming primary and secondary industry and as a result has spent little time focussing on becoming a cultural world entity.

“…in modern China, soft power translates to a full-scale public relations campaign designed to bolster its image – and influence – by selling an in-tune, culturally savvy version of itself to the world.”

Considering China’s significant history in contributing to world culture in centuries past it is now seeing the value in developing its cultural identity again. China is opening itself up to the international art circuit and some of its artists are gaining widespread popularity and success.

The government is trying to use the arts to disseminate its political views to the world. China’s political administration increasingly views cultural production as a valuable tool for building a strong nation and is rapidly pouring millions of dollars of government money into this sector as well as opening it up for private investment.

1500 new museums to be built by 2015

“China plans to spend untold billions to build 1,500 new museums nationwide, most of them with budgets in excess of $100 million, by 2015. Meanwhile, the state-run media and entertainment bureaus announced this fall that they would spend billions themselves to help build gargantuan media and entertainment juggernauts to rival such American monoliths as Time Warner and News Corp., with the stated intent of producing content in multiple languages for export. It also said that increased private ownership, still under state scrutiny, would also be allowed.”

Many developments have been occurring over the years where old factories and former industrial areas are being rejuvenated by the government as new “art villages”, such as Beijing’s 798 Art District. These places consist of clusters of artist studios and galleries where art can be produced, viewed and sold.

798 art district third most popular tourist draw in China

“The 798 Art District has been a remarkably successful model. In its short life, it has become the third most popular tourist draw in the country, after the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Dozens of such districts dot Beijing’s urban landscape. In Shanghai, an unofficial number has such areas at close to 300.”

Beijing's 798 Art District

While there may be a move by the government to celebrate local cultural achievements on a world scale, they still want to have control over the ideologies being expressed. However, more widespread access to and use of the Internet and digital cameras has allowed distribution of Chinese art works that critique party ideals.

“…a new kind of expression that has sprouted amid the state-mandated cultural flowering. It’s a thriving underground scene that, through the portability of technology and government indifference, is slowly beginning to promote an idea alien to Chinese thinking – that individual expression can find a place, and an audience, however small, outside the party machine.”

It seems China’s political powers hold an increasingly modern and accepting view in terms of developing the country’s cultural domain. However, even China’s most celebrated artists are finding that they still must toe the ideological line in order to continue to produce their work. There is a dark side to this cultural push and many artists have found out the hard way what happens to those who challenge the government of China.

This is a summary of How China is using art (and artists) to sell itself to the world (Murray White, Toronto Star).

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