Coulter, Gerry: In the Shadow of Post-Democratic Capitalism – A Fascination for China, 26.11.08


I. Introduction

The relationship between the art of China and Western Art Museums has changed noticeably over the past decade. Previously we could expect Chinese artworks to appear primarily in historical, archaeological, anthropological or textile museums but not in major art museums (many of which still do not own an important Chinese art work). Many significant Western art museums have tended to avoid Chinese art specifically and Asian art generally. This is because Chinese art has remained outside of the definition of “art” (which in Western museums has been focused on oil paint and not the use of ink on paper, or ink and colour on silk or bamboo).

In the past five years, through a series of traveling shows, and a re-envisioning of existing holdings, our exposure to Chinese art in Western museums has increased. In the next section I examine how these shows are broadening the scope of what is on view in the West. In the third section I examine the global cultural context of these shows given China’s entry into a unique historical position – the potential bearer of post-democratic capitalism to the New World Order.

II. Broadening Our Horizons

At eighteen, the sheer number of Chinese art exhibitions in the West in 2008 was impressive. The cumulative running time of the shows amounted to 2808 total exhibition days. It was the year in which we found many Western Art museums having successfully vied (as they have over the past several years) to host major exhibitions of Chinese work. A decade ago this trend (which has taken off since 2003) was not yet perceptible on the horizon.

In Britain, the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, May 1 – November 30), hosted Chinese Imperial Jades. This show included several exceptional jade works from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) focusing principally on the years between 1736 and 1796 when the Emperor Qianlong ruled. Some of the works included inscribed poems written by the Emperor. The inclusion of text in the artwork is an ancient practice in China and is related to the high esteem which calligraphy has enjoyed over other art forms for two millennia. The works on view at the Fitzwilliam also stressed the persistence of traditional forms in Chinese art (something that differentiates it from the art of the West where successive periods and movements have been focused more on novelty). Several of the works on display were jade copies of much older ancient bronze works.

Two Chinese exhibitions took place in London in 2008: China Design Now (Victoria and Albert, March 15 – July 13), and The Lion and the Dragon: Photographs from China – 1903-1905 (Dulwich Picture Gallery, June 3 – August 24). The show at the V&A was an impressive display of architecture, fashion and commercial design focusing on three cities: the “Frontier City” of Shenzhen; Shanghai, the “Dream City”; and Beijing, the “Future City”. The works on show drew attention to a renewed interest in China for its pre-Communist history and presented these three cities, to varying degrees, as crossroads of Chinese and Western culture today. This show was among many in 2008 which saw the bulk of the cultural influence as still running from West to East. As I point out in the next section, this is quite possibly a precarious assumption.

Architects: Herzog and De Meuron (2005-2008)

1. Olympic Stadium (“The Bird’s Nest”), during construction in Beijing.

If the point of the exhibition was to bring the viewer closer to contemporary China then it did so with some success. In Shanghai we find a rank of trendsetters emerging among the urban middle classes to consume a new image of themselves. A strength of the show is that its discourse spread beyond this group to include those questioning consumerism and its impact. For example, Hu Yang’s photography series “Shanghai Living” (2004-2006), included the following remark from a laid off worker: “We live on my husband’s salary and are financially depressed [she is shown in the photograph lying on a bed in a small room decorated by popular images]. We didn’t want to spend money on wallpaper and we decorated with posters. We hope our boy will have a bright future and earn a lot of money” (exhibition website).[1]Another striking feature of the show is how well it demonstrated the merger of traditional Chinese forms with fashion. With the advent of consumerism and the emergence of a nascent Chinese bourgeoise the market for trend setting clothing is growing.

The Lion and the Dragon show at Dulwich was an interesting glimpse of photography in China at the time of British rule in Shandong Province (the ancestral home of Confucius). The photographs on show were mainly concerned with two men (British administrators Reginald Johnson and James Haldane). As photography they are remarkable (but unintended) specimens of the touristic presentation of colonial properties and personages. However, there is a twist in this case as the photographer – Afong Lai – was a Chinese person with a different view of group photography. Afong’s images included the virtual visit to the territory of King Edward VII (as a photographic display). This show, which fell largely under the international radar, can be hoped to spawn more of its kind in terms of exposing us to historical Chinese photographers.[2]

In Toronto, Shanghai 1860-1949 appeared at the Royal Ontario Museum (May 4 – November 2), alongside the Shanghai Kaleidoscope show (May 1 – October 26). The ROM’s shows drew extensively on the museum’s holdings and recent acquisitions. The effort was to present a photographic picture of Shanghai (which curators touted as the Paris of the East), during a period of enormous change (modernization, war, and revolution). Like the Dulwich exhibition there was a strong tendency to select images made by, and focusing on, foreigners in China (especially Canadians and Germans). The images on display were not uninteresting especially in terms of their contribution to the history of colonialism (perhaps an unintended consequence of the show from the point of view of curators and benefactors).

The ROM’s China Kaleidoscope was a much more interesting show of contemporary Chinese artists, architects and fashion designers. The post-Pop merger of what would previously have been kept as distinct “high” and “low” arts in this show (something we also saw at the V&A show in London), is one that appears in many other exhibitions of Chinese work in the new millennia. What the show did well was to capture the pace of change in Shanghai over the past two decades by featuring cutting edge photography, digital media (including video installations), painting, and the work of fashion designers. What the show did not do as well as the V&A’s China Design Now was examine broader perspectives on the emergence and merger of these new forms. The show itself was an interesting phenomenon of globalization as most of the works on display (aside from the fashion), could have been produced anywhere on the planet – as could the exhibition itself. The metastatic global proliferation of sameness is one of the saddest features of our time even when the outcome is salutary as in this case.

The Waldenstein in Prague was the venue for the first major showing of the Oriental collection of the Czech National Gallery in Masters of 20th Century Traditional Chinese Painting (April 30 – November 2). This was an impressive show and the direct result of a Western museum coming to think differently about what has been kept locked away in its basements and storerooms. It included works by Beijing School artists who were devoted to tradition (including Pu Ru and Zhang Daqian) and the modern (Lin Fengmian and Xu Beihong). The show also included the work of Chinese exiles including Qi Bashi (who worked in Czech lands leaving over 100 works there at the time of his death in 1957). The show leads one to speculate about collections of Chinese works in other Western cities which may have been, like this one (until recently), seldom  shown and not even catalogued.

2. Publicity Poster, 2008

In Paris, the Museé Maillol (June 18 – October 13), sponsored China Gold while Les Soldats de l’Eternité were on view at the Pinacothèque de Paris (May 1 – September 21). China Gold featured the works of 35 contemporary Chinese artists focusing attention on those who experienced “artistic repression” in the past but who are now experiencing greater “artistic freedom”. This theme is a popular one at present (to which I return in the next section) – the Westernization of China through the arts. The Soldiers of Eternity was one version of many such shows in recent years displaying the Terracotta Army of the first Chinese emperor which was never intended to be seen by human eyes – made as it was to be buried with him. Other soldiers from the army were on display at Drents in the Netherlands along with other Treasures of the First Emperor of China (February 2 – August 31).

Elsewhere in the Netherlands the Groningen and Assen Galleries teamed up for a multi faceted Go China show (February 2 – November 23). The Groninger on its own also held five other Chinese exhibitions in 2008: Writing on the Wall: Chinese New Realism (March 23 – October 29); a show dedicated to the artist “Ai Weiwei” (March 2 – November 23); New World Order – Contemporary Chinese Installation Art and Photography (April 27 – November 9); and Ancient Bronzes: Masterpieces from the Shanghai Museum” (February 2 – September 28). Go China was the major showing of Chinese works in 2008 bringing in Bronzes from the famous collection of the Shanghai Museum.

The show of contemporary artist Ai Weiwei (b 1957) included performances, installation and sculpture. Weiwei crosses traditional artistic boundaries, especially in his work with ceramics and design. He was also among the artists to play a role in the design of the 2008 Olympic stadium in Beijing. Among the more joyous moments of the entire Go China spectacle was the presentation of the new global cornucopia: a shipping container which was positioned on the floor of the museum so that dozens of cheaply mass produced “Made in China” objects spilled out across the museum floor. Unfortunately, this object stood in for irony and criticism that were otherwise lacking in the show.

Writing on the Wall was the most interesting of the Go China shows featuring artists of the Third Generation – here we saw the chickens of the Chinese Realist School coming home to roost in way not anticipated during their ascendancy in the 1970’s. Despite censorship (and indeed, because of it) China is a hotbed of Cynical Realism and ever ironic Kitsch Art. The catalogue for this show is among the most interesting produced in 2008.[3]

Even the furthest reaches of Europe would not be spared a China show this summer: in Iceland the Akureyri Art Museum sponsored Facing China From the Arctic Circle (May 17 – June 29), a traveling show which, before it is crated for the final time, will make its way Norway, Finland, Sweden and Austria. The show featured paintings and other works by nine contemporary Chinese artists.

Outside of the West (geographically speaking) in Singapore, the city in which China’s present and future has long been designed,[4] a Solo Exhibition: Xu Beihong in Nanyang (April 5 – July 13), also appeared. Finally, in its pedagogic mode, the Metropolitan Museum in New York offered instructions on How to Read Chinese Paintings (May 1 – August 10). Germans will not feel left out for long as other shows are planned for Germany, Austria and Switzerland for 2009 – 2011.

Today, Western museum goers can experience Chinese cultural artefacts as never before and this is undoubtedly a good thing. Perhaps we will see new life injected into Western Art as the influence of these shows makes its way through to a younger generation of artists not unlike the way Japonisme profoundly impacted van Gogh and many others at the end of the nineteenth century. The presence of so much Chinese art in Western museums today [even if only in temporary exhibitions] is undoubtedly a good thing. Culture however has two sides and it would be wise to view the explosion of interest in Chinese art and culture in the broadest context: which includes the possible rise of China to the position of ascendancy as the world’s leading post-democratic capitalist society.

3. Artist Ai Weiwei

III. The Global Cultural Context

Why then are Western museums, which have not historically been very interested in Chinese art, now rummaging through the storerooms of their own collections and competing to host Chinese traveling shows? There is no simple answer to this question. First, interests in the arts change over time – as there was a fascination with things Japanese at the end of the 19th century it is fair to assume that a similar cultural phenomenon is happening today involving things Chinese. However, the interest in Japanese objects in the late 19th century was also driven by a fascination in the exotic and the foreign. Many of the shows mounted in 2008, especially those focusing on contemporary works, show little more than a fascination for the Western as it reappears in China.

A Second reason for an interest in showing Chinese works is a very practical one. With insurance premiums skyrocketing it is becoming difficult to stage major exhibitions which depend on works moving about the planet. Museums are now looking very hard at their exiting collections in order to respond to the public demand for something new and different while avoiding the costs of hosting an international show. And where works have been brought in from China an interesting aspect of these shows is that the Chinese government (increasingly conscious of the place of Chinese culture in the New World Order), has itself been footing the insurance and travel expenses (as in the case of the Bronzes which appeared at Go China in Groningen).

A third reason is also very important at this time and it relates to the previous point. Not in five and a half centuries has China been so well placed to come to preeminence in the World Order. In the middle of the 15th century when Portuguese sailing ships set out to discover a “New World”, Chinese war ships were six times their size. The Chinese also had a massive army before which the best European forces of the day would have paled. What changed Europe’s future in relation to China was the time the country had spent under foreign (Mongol) rule (the Yuan Period [1271-1368] initiated by Genghis Khan). After the eventual ousting of the Mongols, China (during the Ming Dynasty of 1368 -1644), turned inwards from the sea. A future which would have easily seen European countries become colonies of China was averted.

Today China is poised to take a position of economic leadership. Many in the West see the appearance of Western art (oil painting, multimedia, installation art, etc.), as simply part of the “inevitable” Westernization of China. No doubt there is an important opening taking place both in China and in the West to each other’s way of making art. The cultural convergences which are an essential part of the contemporary landscape do not stop for border patrols.

Taking a leadership position for China, in the New World Order, means playing by capitalist rules better than existing capitalist economies. The Chinese leadership understands the importance of its culture and cultural history (and the fascination it currently commands), in its ascension to a position of leadership. But is this simply a process of the Westernization of China? Hasn’t the Chinese government been rather passive in recent years if this is indeed what is happening?

Something other than the Westernization of China is taking place today and the place of Chinese culture (and all of the exhibitions I have pointed to above), are merely one small part of it. In recent years in the West (at least since the years of Köhl, Thatcher, and Reagan, and gaining impetus following terror attacks in Washington, New York, London and Madrid), we have experienced a consistent and sustained effort to curtail long established civil freedoms and “excesses of democracy” in Western societies. Everyone is now treated as a terror suspect and government spying on e-mails is becoming a widely accepted practice as is the sophisticated tracking of our individual electronic footprints. How we are treated in Western airports (extreme high security environments), is rapidly becoming a metaphor for how we are treated outside of them. It has become common place in recent years (I have seen them in London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin) for soldiers with automatic weapons (in groups of three or four), to undertake foot patrols in tourist areas. The Chinese Army, also omnipresent in a city such as Beijing, are much less heavily armed. During an April morning in Paris it is no longer surprising to see busloads of police and tactical specialists moving about the city in riot gear at the mere suggestion that a group of students at the Sorbonne is planning a peaceful protest. As for our students, some are now afraid to participate even in peaceful demonstrations out offear that their photograph will show up later during a background check by a potential employer.

We live in changed times when democracy and civil liberties (always very problematic in relation to capitalist economics), isn’t what it formerly was and there is some reason to doubt that it will survive, in its stronger forms, long into the 21st century. Only forty years have passed since 1968 but somehow it seems much longer. This is an important part of the greater context of our fascination with Chinese culture – also the culture of social surveillance.

While avoiding cultural xenophobia towards China or the Chinese it is important to probe more deeply into the current climate of jubilancy concerning China. My target here is mainly the Chinese government which showed its people precisely what it thought of civil liberties in the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. While things have worsened in the West we have seen nothing of that sort from Western governments and I do not think we are likely to in the near future. What is important about Tiananmen, and the ensuing years, especially for the people of China during the country’s entry into capitalism, is that the country’s leadership believes it necessary for China to enter into the capitalist New World Order as a non-democratic country. In our current fascination with Chinese culture we need to keep in mind that the old ambivalences about democracy among the governments and elites of the capitalist West (ambivalences which have only deepened as the result of terrorist attacks), coincide, at least to some extent, with the Chinese government’s attitude to democracy and capitalism.

It is too early to say with any certainty that China will lead the world into a phase of post-democratic capitalism but it is certainly one possibility. It is important to be aware that this too may be part of China’s “cultural” role in the years to come.

If China can show the world that capitalism without the expenses and messiness of democracy is more efficient, there will be competitive pressure placed on Western societies to follow suit. Of course there will also be resistance to any such developments, especially in Europe where people still frequently return to the streets in mass protest. Reductions in democratic freedoms are likely tocontinue to take different (preeminently electronic) form in the West.

Chinese capitalism (anti-democratic in the extreme) is part of the totality of Chinese culture and there are no doubt Rightists in the West who are fascinated by more than Chinese artifacts. The very fact that the Chinese government is paying for the exportation of its culture to some Western cultural venues tells us that China is more interested in the China-ization of the West than in being itself Westernized. The China-ization of the West is also a problem for civil rights and democracy beyond what is shown or not shown in museums. China’s cultural totality, of which art is but one aspect, is now the spectre looming on the horizon of the West precisely at the moment when the spectre of terrorism is leading the West to terrorize itself.[5]

IV. Conclusion

As Chinese cultural artifacts come to the centre of the Western museal stage – it is important to keep in mind, in a time of diminishing civil liberties in the West – that one of China’s future roles may be to lead the New World Order into a post democratic era of capitalism. We live in a time when the attitude towards Chinese Art is changing greatly (mostly for the better I think) in the West. Coincidentally, China’s adoption of capitalist productive modes is part of its “coming out” party into late modernity – which included hosting the 2008 Olympics. We need to keep in mind that while art exhibitions posit the Westernization of China – we live in a time when some would not necessarily see the China-ization of the West as a bad thing (especially in terms of curtailing democratic freedoms).

Because of the slippery slope we are presently standing on (given the official response in the West to both terror attacks and well organized anti-globalization forces – especially after Seattle 1998), we could say that something similar to “China-ization” of the West (in terms of freedoms), is already taking place. We can say with certainty that Western countries have moved closer to Chinese style electronic monitoring of their citizens over the past decade than China has moved toward Western style government. China is a country that plays to win – if it is serious about entering into the New World Order – and it is very serious – then it will seek to rise to the status of a global superpower. If it does not become a superpower China will no doubt play an important role in our collective electronically monitored futures. The ideology of involuntary transparency which accompanies the electronic surveillance of our (almost) every move today in the West is itself one more form of terror.[6]

During 2008 we saw an unprecedented interest in Chinese art in the museums of the West. China is not forcing its art and cultural heritage onto the West – elites in the West, including museum elites, are competing for it. What remains to be seen is how much of the current fascination for China (and China’s fascination with the West), will extend to a time of even greater Chinese cultural leadership in an era of what may well become, a fully post-democratic capitalism. If such an era is to come to pass it seems that China will be a major source of it impetus.

Gerry Coulter’s essay “Jean Baudrillard and the Definitive Ambivalence of Gaming” appeared in the SAGE journal Games and Culture (Volume 2, Number 4, December, 2007:358-365) – also available online at: His recent Article: “A Place For The Non-Believer: Jean Baudrillard on the West and the Arab and Islamic Worlds”, appears in Subaltern Studies:; An essay “A Way of Proceeding: Joseph Beuys, the Epistemological Break, and Radical Thought Today” appears in Kritikos: A Journal of Postmodern Cultural Sound, Text, and Image (May – June, 2008):; and his quarterly column for Euro Art (On-line) Magazine: “Kees van Dongen and the Power of Seduction” (Spring 2008) is available at: Dr. Coulter’s teaching has been recognized on numerous occasions most recently by Bishop’s University’s highest award for teaching – the William and Nancy Turner Prize.

Endnoten    (↵ returns to text)

  1. (accessed, October 8, 2008).
  2. Images from the show appear at the gallery’s website: dragon… (accessed, October 8, 2008).
  3. Thomas Berghuis et. al. (2008). Tekens aan de wand: Chinees Nieus Realism en Avant-garde in the 80s and 90’s. Rotterdam: NAI Publications.
  4. In 1995 Architect Rem Koohaas wrote: “As it stands, the Singapore model – one of the most ideological of all urban conditions – is now poised to metastasize across Asia. …Singapore represents the exact dosage of ‘authority, instrumentality and vision’ necessary to appeal. In numerous architectural offices in Singapore, whose names few have ever heard, China’s future is being prepared. …After the iconoclasm of Communism there will be a second, more efficient Ludditism, helping the Chinese toward the ‘desired land’: market economy – but minus the decadence, the democracy, the messiness, the disorder, the cruelty of the West. (“Singapore Songlines” in S, M, L, XL. (Second Edition), New York: Monacelli Press, 1087.
  5. See Jean Baudrillard (2003). The Spirit of Terrorism. New York: Verso:81.
  6. See Jean Baudrillard (c 1992). The Illusion of the End,Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994; and Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.