Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Discontinuous Past2


Crisis & Opportunities
Looking at auction results of recent years, an
outsider might be hard put to believe the Chinese art
market has been and still is in crisis. Yet that is
precisely the case.
The trends of recent years have been disturbing,to say
the least. 2 major traits have emerged: 1stly, moderns
& contemporaries have been increasingly preferred over
classical pieces. 2ndly, where classical artworks are
concerned, the masters and perennial favourites have
reigned so exclusively, almost misleadingly, to the
extent that any unwitting observer would think that
that was the scope of classical Chinese art.
Of course, some may assert that these are trends in
almost any art market. However, these trends are
symptoms of the ailing state of the Chinese art
market. It has been an open secret that even major
auction houses, with their expertise and experience,
have been hesitant in accepting assignments of
classical art. A major reason? The difficulty in
authenticating such pieces of art. Naturally, the
problem of fakes has always plagued the art market,
yet to cause partial paralysis seems a tad too
extreme. More disturbing are the implications: despite
all the experts hired,the risks involved in the
authentication process evidently could not be kept to
an acceptable level. Rather than be proven wrong and
face embarrassment (not to mention costly and damaging
lawsuits), many are choosing to play the safe card:
limit transactions to the more easily identifiable
(and therefore more easily authenticated) pieces. And
these are usually the modern & contemporary
(normally, the more recent the piece, the easier it is
to authenticate), which are relatively more well
documented and in which scholarship is more easily
available. As for classical art, pieces promoted are
usually those of reasonable pedigree (of ownership and
collectors) and fame. In this case, ironically, the
ownership and collectors' history is seen as a
guarantee, of sorts, of authenticity; bloodline via

One might argue that this makes good business sense,
but is it? Ultimately, the long term health of the art
market will determine long term profitability, such
tactics are merely a short term solution, which if
prolonged may do more harm than good, much like
antibiotics abuse. The crucial thing to do is to
examine the root of the problem: art scholarship and
the education of the public domain.
Here is where Chinese art has a slightly more unique
problem. The Cultural Revolution and, to some extent,
the political upheavals of the last century have
proven to be catastrophic for Chinese art. Not merely
were art pieces lost, looted, destroyed, scholarship
has also been greatly affected or disrupted. 2 of the
more obvious consequences have been :
(1) The (pragmatic) concentration of scholarship on
the masters and therefore the resulting indirect
neglect of more minor works and artists.
(2) The (ironic) situation where significant research
and scholarship in Chinese art actually exists outside
of China, particularly in the USA, Europe and Japan.
Not to mention the huge and often under-reported &
under-analysed collections of Chinese art held outside
of China, which are often closed to scholarship and
public viewing.
Both these factors have not merely perpetuated the
slant in the art market, but also made it more
exclusive than ever. Art markets have always been
exclusive, this quality generally maintains the price
levels, however, it also threatens long term survival
prospects. As present generations age and pass on, if
measures are not taken to better educate the wider
public in Chinese art, then the danger of these
cultural and artistic treasures being "lost" in the
passing of time looms.
The solution(s)? There are no quick fixes and
fortunately all is not lost yet. A CCTV report
(4/9/2002) cites crackdowns by the Chinese government
on fakes and other initiatives to protect the art
industry. Such efforts are encouraging, yet they need
to be long term in nature and of course, their effects
will be seen in the long run. Even more effort is
required, not merely on the part of the public sector,
(especially museums, scholars and institutions of
learning and research) but also the private sector;
particularly the auction houses, art dealers and
private collectors.
Educating the public in the historical, cultural and
artistic heritage that belies Chinese art is of vital
importance, if the Chinese art market is to thrive.
Though initial focus will naturally be on the ancient
masters and famed works of art, yet, no art scene has
ever been totally about the masters, the thousands of
minor artists and works that populate the scene across
dynasties and periods are as much a part of the
complete picture as the masters. They form the
background, if you please, against which the masters
stand prominent. Without this background, the picture
is not merely incomplete, but also lacking in vitality
and life.
The distance between academic scholarship and
commercial concerns should also be narrowed and the
impetus for this should originate from the auction
houses and dealers. They may not seem obligated to
educate the public in art, yet they will be
beneficiaries of wider public interest in art
generated by such education. Furthermore, if they
increase funding of research and scholarship in such
fields, the resulting expertise and knowledge will
surely be commercially relevant and rewarding in the
long run. In terms of the private sector, these
players do and, conceivably, will continue to affect
and direct trends in art collection and the art
market. As such, it makes business sense for them to
start (more) vigorously "diversifying" the range of
art pieces offered, rather than concentrating on the
narrow range which is currently profitable. [Matters
have reached a ludicrous stage when you see an old
master going for less than a contemporary. Maybe one
could argue that it's a matter of tastes, but really,
it's a matter of sense. Besides, exactly who is
"directing" or influencing that "taste"?]
Efforts at harmonising/linking knowledge bases
created by various institutions and researchers across
the world
will also aid the cause. Such harmonisation will
imaginably reduce duplication
of effort, whilst promoting joint efforts, in research
of common
areas of interest. Such bases will also act as
archives for future
researchers and any initiatives to educate the public
in Chinese art.
As for private collectors, matters are more
complicated. Understandably, for various reasons, many
are reluctant to make their collections available to
scholars and public viewing. Not only are there
privacy and security concerns, recent international
legislation concerning artistic property and
ownership, especially with regards to disputed
ownership and war loot, has heightened this
reluctance. Aside from these concerns, increased
interaction between the public & (especially) scholars
and these art pieces can only improve the state of
research and knowledge in this field. Ultimately, this
will increase the value of most collections, naturally
benefitting the collectors themselves. Of course, it
would be hard to emulate the generosity of certain
well known collectors, like Mr C.C. Wang, who have
donated significant pieces from personal collections
to museums or loaned pieces for public viewing [see:
the CC Wang Gallery at the Met and the 1999
exhibition; The Artist as Collector: Masterpieces of
Chinese Painting from the C. C. Wang Family
Collection].Yet the true art lover would find it more
difficult to see the decline of what he or she
Now is the time for action. As a Chinese saying goes;
in every crisis lies opportunities.