Art provides glimpses of China’s future

Curtis Carter recently came to China to give a series of talks, culminating in an address on Chinese contemporary art to the International Aesthetics Association Congress in Beijing. Curtis is the incoming president of the association and an internationally respected Chinese contemporary art critic.

He currently serves as the international curator and honorary director of the Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art and frequently lectures at China’s top universities and art forums.

Curtis is a professor of aesthetics and philosophy at both Marquette University and the Les Aspin Center for Government in Washington, D.C. In Milwaukee, he is best known for being the founder/director of the Haggerty Museum of Art.

You may ask, what relevance does an art critic’s writing have in a business column? The answer is contained in the introductory paragraph to his speech to the Congress: “Artists working in China today face many challenges resulting from the robust transitions internally that contemporary Chinese society is currently undergoing. The two principal sources underlying these challenges derive from the forces of urbanization and globalization. Urbanization is the central internal issue, while globalization focuses on China’s interrelations with the external world.”

If you were to substitute “businesses” for “artists,” it would be equally relevant. Sometimes, to understand your business, you need to take off the economic blinders and look around. In China, it is especially beneficial to be aware of the ever changing dynamics of its restless markets. The key is to be open and aware of the forces as they swirl around you and look for clues and indices.

In terms of urbanization, in the space of 30 years, China moved more people from the countryside to the cities than we have people in the United States. This rapid urbanization combined with greater disposable incomes has resulted in both a consumer bonanza and social displacement. Many of the traditional social structures have weakened as village relationships were replaced with unknown neighbors and parents took jobs which left them little time for their child. Add in a rapidly aging demographic, and you have a collage that depicts opportunities/challenges.

In terms of globalization, as first world economies are experiencing economic malaise, China is booming, but what goes up eventually comes down. The mixture of an overheated real estate market, incoming hot money flows and growing protectionism are threats that could easily combine to darken China’s economic outlook.

Ironically, as the song goes, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…” In this case, the words are written on the walls of the 798 Art District, where you can see the internal and external struggles depicted in the art that graces its hundreds of galleries and museums.

As mentioned before, the area has become Beijing’s second-largest tourist draw and a stark contrast to the interesting, but somewhat commercialized, traditional tourist attractions. In 798, you can see the many directions of China and the forces which bubble below the service. But, be careful you come prepared to absorb rather than impose, or you will just find yourself validating your own outlook rather than learning about China’s.

The reality is that art and commerce are related in more ways than just at the auction block. Art and artists tend to plug into the emotions and tensions of the society around them and can be a strong indicator of things to come.

So, the next time you are looking for a sense of China’s future, take a walk in the 798 Art District and catch a lecture on aesthetics. You may surprise yourself with your conclusions.

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