Sunday, 23 June 2013

How do we rekindle a tradition?

Yesterday I went to the National Art Museum of China. The exhibition there was around one of my favourite subjects, the transformation of art in the 20th century. I found myself drawn, as always to the art of the 1930's and onwards, where communist block futurism prints begin and woodblock carvings of revolutionary fervour depict strong heroes. The work before this era is traditional Chinese ink painting, on vertical scrolls depicting nature scenes. These scenes have a language of their own, through the imagery and brush strokes. 

Once the 1930's begins, there is a noticeable shift to more 'western' forms of visual art, printing, oil painting, depictions of the human form, bold use of colour. Following this on, I started to see Chinese art following a theme of western art history, with some abstract works and texturised paintings.

As I was ambling around, in a semi daze, I was stopped by a young woman named Coco, who asked if she could ask me some questions (in very good English). She explained that she worked for the Central Academy of Cultural Administration and was interested to know what westerners thought of the exhibition.

She asked me if I understood the traditional ink painting, which I had to admit, I didn't really, I had just been looking at it as an amateur. She explained abut the Chinese relationship to nature in art, and how this tradition had been overwhelmed by a desire to paint in a western style over the period of the early 20th century. I was curious to know if this had been a choice, or a political decision. Did the artists have the freedom to make the work that they desired to make? Did they intentionally shift direction from their Chinese roots? Or was there a need to conform, to be seen to be supporting the state, the revolution and communism through their art?

Coco's reply was that this was a choice that artists made, as they felt that western visual representations were more sophisticated and powerful, (although I have to admit to thinking that it is unlikely that I would hear anything different in this context.). I think the best that I can say is that artists were influenced heavily, whether through their own eyes, the surrounding artistic community or the state.

As we continued to chat, Coco asked me if I thought it was important for the Chinese to support traditional painting. This threw me a little as I had had been thinking of it as a development, in the way that we no longer paint in the style of the 1900's. As far as I'm aware, we don't really have a 'traditional' visual arts culture and so it had not occurred to me. But as she said it, I realised that it is more than an artistic movement, it is the loss of a tradition, a loss of a language specific to this culture. It made me think of the way that Scotland has supported the traditional music scene over the past 30 years, with investment in the Mod, the Feis, and all kids of youth and community activities, with some very key players driving this development. Compare this to England's attitude to traditional music, which has been very investment poor and it is clear to see that infrastructure support is key to making things 'popular'.

Coco speaks about the loss of traditional painting as a 'disaster' for Chinese visual culture, and I can see that she is right. As I had been blithely enjoying the more westernised art that I had a visual language for, I had neglected how damaging that could be. I rewalked the first few galleries, and sure enough, there is a sharp downturn in ink painting from 1930 onwards. This is about the time that China began to open to change, to throw off it's traditional hierarchical structures. I can see why this form of art was moved away from, as it embodied a school of philosophy and politics that were being ripped away so thoroughly. But now, can we disassociate it from those meanings and rediscover the art form in a contemporary context?

We talked about this, about how infrastructure can support the reemergence of 'traditional' art forms and how bringing it to young people and allowing them to find a creative space between 'gatekeepers of tradition' and 'imaginative innovators' might create a wide rate of responses and a textured and interesting culture. I don't know how Coco will be able to use this discussion, I'd like to think that she can provide evidence to a cultural board somewhere who will support a programme of youth engagement, but how these things work in China is a mystery to me right now.

As we went our separate ways, we exchange numbers and I'm hoping to get in touch with her again, there is so much I can learn from this woman, about the way China changed artistically through the century in line with political shifts, and the way in which her infrastructure works now. I am interested to know what she will use her research for and what difference it might make.

I suppose the difference between a visual traditional culture and an oral/aural one is that those old paintings still exist. Pre-recording era, players had to keep playing the old tunes, in the style that they were taught in order to pass the tradition on. Now that we have recordings, younger players are freer to interpret the music in a contemporary or more personal way, knowing that those records of how they were once played will be preserved digitally. Perhaps this is a spring board for the development of Chinese painting, to take the old tradition and use it in a new and creative way, to say something about China as a country, to speak about China's current political and social landscape?

As I continue through the exhibition, I do find the occasional bit of fusion work. For example an ink brush painting but of figures rather than nature, ink brush nature paintings but on large canvasses instead of scrolls. It seems that there is a small niche of aisles who are looking at fusing traditional ink brush painting with contemporary visual arts practice, so perhaps all is not lost.