The Pursuit of a Powerful Mind: Art and Education

BY:Gao Shiming

Edited BY:Liu Yifan




The Frontier of Chinese Art Education exhibition site,

San Francisco Art Institute, USA, 2018


The past year has seen life struggles that transcend personal dilemmas. A renewed sense of the distance between the contemporary art world, which has constantly been in self-doubt, and today's public life. At the beginning of the New Year, let’s talk about (art) education, as well as the perception of local reality and the world.


Geng Jianyi, The Second State,

1987, Oil on canvas, 130 cm x 196 cm


“Wu Shanzhuan said, ‘Art is not an excuse for not doing other things.’ I agree with that.”


Looking back on my art and educational experiences over the past thirty years, I recognize that there were many contradictions and confusions. My experiences started with me being an art theory learner, but I think fundamentally I am more of a creator. I came into contact with video art when I was a university student. In 1996, I took part in the first video art exhibition in China, called Image & Phenomena. But I only had been an artist for a very short time, and I made up my mind to do that anymore after the inaugural Post-Sense Sensibility Exhibition in 1999. One of the reasons was that my understanding of “post-sense sensibility” was different from that of other artists—in my view it has many historical and realistic resources, such as the strange and unusual behavior of Zhuangzi’s depictions, the dazzling madness of the famous scholars of the Wei and Jin Dynasties, the bizarre perversions of the Zen masters; Li Shangyin's notion of “Coincidentally this beautiful zither has fifty strings”(锦瑟无端五十弦) has something indescribable and indefinable in it, which is why “it was just a moment in passing”. Marinetti's absurdity, Beckett's marrow-deep isolation and coldness, and even much of Dostoevsky's and Kafka's works are all very “post-sensual”. This is true of Geng Jianyi's The Second State, but it is also true of our everyday lives, such as the "emotionalism" that is amplified by the public media in reality shows. But these post-sensual states are mostly shaped by the politics of life and require a more powerful mental force than the current "contemporary art" in order to be opened up. Another reason was that I was very young at that time, with low tolerance. At several exhibitions, I saw the more personal-interest-oriented side of the art world and felt disgusted. This is not what I wanted. So, I decided to turn to the study of the history of ideas, hoping to do the work of mapping out the historical sources. That period of serious reading was one of the most influential times for me.


In 2002, I realized that there was another way of working that could fulfill my conceptual and operational ambitions, apart from academic research: curating. The first exhibition I curated is “Edges of the Earth: Migration of Contemporary Asian Art and Regional Politics”. The program began with a rather simple aspiration — "to "explore what has been suppressed, worn down into oblivion in the course of the formation of Asian subjectivity/modernity?", as put at that time. In the subsequent ten years or so from 2003, I had been engaged in curating, including the 2008 Guangzhou Triennial: Farewell to Post-Colonialism, and the 2010 Shanghai Biennale: Rehearsals. In the former exhibition, I intended to critique the postcolonial discursive spectacle and the multiculturalist governance that was then prevalent in the international cultural and political world. As for the social movements happening in Europe and the United States, I paid little attention and failed to find out whether they have realistic impetus, social basis and dialectical force; this question remains to be answered for those who are expert in social research.


However, I have always been very skeptical about what role contemporary art can play in the realpolitik arena. Over the past half a century, art has been put into fields where it was otherwise very poorly equipped. Most artists lack the awareness of the social and political processes in today's multi-media system, and tend to have a simplistic understanding of the mechanisms of socio-political functioning; few have received systematic training in this domain; most of them generate instinctive understandings and direct judgments through personal experience and media messages, and this is quite inadequate. In fact, the most essential responsibility of the artist is to achieve the development of human sensibility and perceptual capacity through their sensitivity to the living world and through the construction of their creative instincts.


Installation shot from 2010 Shanghai Biennale: 

Rehearsals, Issac Julien’s video installation Ten Thousand Waves


The 2010 Shanghai Biennale was intrinsically motivated by some of my own confusions during that time. In a letter to the participating artists, I wrote, “Individual artists are becoming healthier and at the same time hollower; we are somehow entering a “post-historical” state. How can we clearly describe this state? How does one escape the impasse of artistic creation in the current infinite and seamless art system constructed by the international discourse, major international exhibitions, world fairs and transnational capital?”


At that time, I still held an active thinking, wanting to invite artists, curators, critics, collectors, museum directors and audiences of all kinds to the Biennale as a rehearsal space, thus reconstructing the relationship between artistic experimentation and artistic institutions, individual creation and the public sphere. This requires everyone in the art world to shed their customary costumes of role-playing, to leave the increasingly institutionalized and even ideological theatre of contemporary art, and to enter as partisans into spontaneous, free exercises, or to enter from a temporary collective into a common creative situation, inspiring a real “artistic moment”.


Unfortunately, the original proposal for the Shanghai Biennale did not come to fruition. I intended to use the Soviet Russian Futurist writer Sergei Tretyakov's revolutionary poem written in 1924, Roar China, as an entry point to Rehearsal. In the 1920s and 1930s, the poem was circulated through various media such as theatre and prints between Shanghai, Moscow, New York and Madrid. I wished to use this intriguing past to re-examine the relationships between avant-garde and revolution, revolution and international, international and national, national and political, politics and art, and to prompt reflections on the narrative of the 20th century world art history, with one important question being: how modernism as "revolutionary art" was transformed into the so-called "liberal art".


About ten years ago, I saw an exhibition on the Russian avant-garde in Berlin, Building the Revolution. I was very surprised to discover that some of the very familiar Constructivist “paintings” are not actually untitled, but have titles that also function. Modern art history narratives have reduced Constructivism and Suprematism to the different styles and modalities of abstract art, The November Revolution Monument and the design of the First Soviet Theatre are seen as “artworks”. The original social context was cut off with the meaning and function erased. These “works” were framed and hung on museum walls as a tributary of European abstract art, becoming representatives of “untitled liberal art”. “Untitled” is in fact being deprived of the title.


The structure behind this is the Cold War system of the 20th century world history. Because of this, the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas (Moscow Higher Institute of Art and Technology), the twin flowers that were the starting points of modern art education, had completely different fates. While the Bauhaus was highly revealed, Vkhutemas was almost forgotten. And the early socialist tendencies of the Bauhaus were falsified into Fordism when they arrived in the US, gradually heading toward the opposite direction. In the ideological operations of the two opposing sides in the Cold War, this revolutionary radical formalism, or this constructivism with its spirit of destruction, metamorphosed into liberal art with the elements of individualism. On this liberal path of art, the only thing that can be done is to “celebrate the meaninglessness”. Yet I have always believed that the world-changing energy that came from a century ago is an unfinished mission in the history of the world and of art.


Around 2010, I even aspired to break one of the most fundamental ideas in the international contemporary art world — the performative personality of the artists — a typical neo-liberal moral sacrifice, as well as to implode and reconstruct the entire global art system, including galleries, art fairs, museums and Biennales. Of course, this was only an aspiration at the time and could not be realized in the short term. It was impossible for a single Biennale to shake the enormous inertia of the contemporary art system, not to mention the fact that there was a huge community of interests behind this inertia that shared the same views of art, value and history. These views are an ideological and emotional knot constructed by the interweaving histories of the colonialism and Cold War throughout the modern era.


Installation shot from Hanart 100: Idiosyncrasies, 2014

Illustrated here is from the Hanart TZ Gallery exhibition, Three Art World


If we reflect on the art ecosystem based upon these thoughts, we will find that the so-called “Chinese contemporary” is an intricate historical construction of “three art worlds” (the traditional art world, the socialist art world, and the global capitalist art world). These three art worlds do not follow each other in a linear history, but rather are intertwined in a stream of events. Today, the art landscape of the so-called “Chinese contemporary” is fraught with divisions — the traditional painting and calligraphy world and the “contemporary art cycle” are totally isolated from each other; the painters of the Art Association, the painting academies and “the contemporary art scene” see to be ignorance of each other... The art ecosystem of contemporary China remains far more diverse and complex than the one constructed by international exhibitions, museums and the art market. Unlike post-colonial “hybridity”, the plurality of Chinese art is structural and inherently remains to be realistic and of tension. What we are trying to do, therefore, is to push the refraction, crossing, overlapping and reverberation between the three worlds in a fluid way.


Over the years, I have repeatedly emphasized some of my observations: amidst the new global capitalism in the 21st century, the “exploitation” of the value of human labor by global capital has been transformed into the “dispossession” of human agency by the politics of life; the new digital imperialism no longer looks for “possession”, but “domination”; the fundamental problem of contemporary politics of life is no longer “oppression”, but “replacement”. From oppression to replacement, that is, replacing and abolishing your organs with prosthetics; it is not that we have something missing that makes us prosthetic, rather it is this pre-production of prosthetics that turns us into cripples. I strongly feel that not only new technologies such as social networks, real-time positioning and artificial intelligence become our prosthetic limbs; even the so-called contemporary art, creative industries, all kinds of disciplinary knowledge and even the university establishment itself, are the emotional, intellectual, political and ethical prosthetic limbs of the contemporary generations.


At the same time, I constantly feel a sense of returning to history — the state of affairs today is highly similar to the time of Das Kapital. That is why I personally believe that there is an urgent need for us to restart a kind of political economy research amidst the present experiences, to re-describe the real situation of contemporary people and to analyze the intrinsic mechanism and functioning of contemporary society as young Marx did. The relaunched political economy has to confront, first and foremost, the historical problem of "decolonization / de-cold war / de-imperialization", which itself is a complex task.


In the past few years, I have focused more on the academy, and the art that attracts my attention is not the art of a small circle. I have been following what the value of art really is for each individual — What motivates a civil servant who writes calligraphy every day for two hours after working late into the night, until he forgets everything? What drives a secondary school student who uses mobile phone software to make a small video through which he begins to mirror his surroundings and begins to tell his own stories and fantasies? What drives a person who does two hours of manual work that could have been done in half an hour simply to fulfill his satisfaction?


I believe education really can change society; it is something that can go straight into our hearts. If contemporary art is to reach only one person among a thousand, then I in my understanding art education is to reach the rest nine hundred and ninety-nine. I am not just talking about the so-called “aesthetic education” here, and my interest is not just in art education, but in “education through art”. Some of my doctoral students studied Tao Xingzhi and others studied Liang Shuming. Within both of them, there is a “transcendental practicality”, and the unity of transcendentalism and practicality is the very essence of what I understand as “art”. It is in the past few years that this has become increasingly clear to me, which is why I recommend postgraduate students of curatorial studies to read the Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian and Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics.


Posters on lectures on Modern Art by American history professor Roman J. Verostko on a notice board at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now China Academy of Art),1985


When it comes to our times, I generally hold a positive view — how do you know there isn't a force in the world at the moment that will change history and open up the future? Something vital may be brewing somewhere on the Planet, but we just don't know it. In a world where the forces of technology, knowledge, capital and power are constantly interacting, it is essential to think of oneself within a larger historical setting, which also keeps one from falling into a simple and narrow discourse. In 2013, I talk about what I perceive history to be in my essay for the exhibition Eightyfive-85. History is not a line, but a sea. The so-called “contemporary” is the surface of the sea, but the surface does not exist as an entity; it is only the illusion we see; but in fact, it is not the same as the sea. Today we are in the same history ocean as Joyce, Marx, Homer, Sima Qian, Li Bai and Jing Hao. We are still reading them, looking at these cases of soulful depth, to see what they did in the dilemmas of reality, how they revealed the secrets of the world, and how they translated them. The question we have to ponder here is why, after many generations, they can still make our hearts respond.


Since the 20th century, Western art has undergone a paradigm shift from the visual to the formal to the conceptual. The old European academies are losing their connection to the classical tradition, which is not only about exquisite skills, but also about formal perfection and, more importantly, spiritual transcendence. I believe that the "unconditional greatness" of history still exists. It is something intuitive, something that moves you directly, without any explanation, without any basis, but it shakes the mind and stirs the heart. Poussin said that an artist is someone who makes it his business to study the silent. I am paranoid that anything that can be conveyed clearly in a few words must not be art. Art must have an inexplicability, an ability to go beyond language, to abolish words. For true art, we must activate our whole body and mind to “know” and “feel”. Likewise, only truly great art allows us to respond to the body, to activate all five senses. In this sense, the creation of art requires the activation of the body and mind, and the education of art requires the intuition of emotions.


It is the responsibility of the Academy to uphold this unconditional greatness. But how do we contemporary people confront that unconditional greatness? Not simply by worshipping and imitating it, and not by submitting to it. We must not only “live with the past”, but also “live with the past as the new”, and this is what Chinese painting means when it speaks of “bloodshed against the ancients”. Fan Kuan revealed to us that there is a powerful yet solemn, mysterious yet eternal force in this world, a force that shakes the heart — it is today that we have to arrive at the same realm and even open up new realms in our own feelings and ways.


Unlike Hou Hanru, who feels that he was born in China very accidentally, I naturally feel a sense of nationalism since my birth in China. This kind of national sentiment cannot be reduced to the discourse of the nation-state. If you read Huang Daozhou's Poem for Cleansing the Heart (洗心诗), Xia Wanchun's Letter to My Mother in Prison (狱中上母书) or Lin Juemin's Letter to My Wife (与妻书), you will perceive that there is something so strong and profound within Chinese scholars, just as Li Shutong said, "The soul turns into a divine bird, and the blood splashes among red-hearted grass (魂魄化成精卫鸟,血花溅作红心草) ". Moreover, I genuinely believe that there is something very remarkable in classical Chinese culture. The cultural spirit is self-reinventing, and people like Su Dongpo and Huang Gongwang were great innovators of their times. And these innovations are inseparable from history; they are not one-off consumables in history. Chinese are open to innovation, forward and backward at the same time. Chinese calligraphy and painting, which by Western standards are classified as “museum art”, still have a huge impact on today’s Chinese society. We have to respond and give back to it again and again. To make everyone recognize and understand this aspect of Chinese culture is an important task of education, so that the majority can be inspired by it and then renew themselves.


To enable China Academy of Art to achieve this, one of the things I want to do at the moment is to improve two networks, one being the network of local education and the other being the network of international research and study. The latter is easy to understand, so I won't elaborate on it here. Over the years, we have transformed the Academy’s most characteristic tradition of going to localities to “gather materials (采风)” as an action of social perception and local reconstruction. The network of local education comprises local workstations established throughout the country, including all levels of rural towns and villages. In addition to serving as an experience and creation base for the undergraduates, the workstations allow postgraduates to dive in and get in touch with the real problems of contemporary Chinese society, and to make in-depth "social sketches" of life. The key to this is to connect the knowledge of the disciplines with the knowledge of society and life, and to reflect on art and the self in the light of social perception. Some of these actions have made a difference among the local people, in contrast to the so-called “social engagement” of the contemporary art scene. To make a difference you have to confront the local realities directly. For example, when you go to Longquan, you should study the contemporary ecosystem of Longquan celadon: why the kilns disappeared in the midst of urbanization and how to restore the charm of this old town today. When we were at the Daliang Mountains (大凉山), we saw people doing research on the Yi (彝) script — trying to convert it into new design elements, editing tutorials on the Yi script on the one hand, and forming local brands on the other, so that the local people can really benefit from it. Every place has different resources, different situations and different issues. The government, enterprises and the media are all partners and intermediaries in the middle of the process. The key is whether you can have a really deep understanding of the locality and whether you can really reach those ordinary people in the end.


I have been dreaming about this local education model for over ten years, and this is not merely for the China Academy of Art, but for all the universities in China. I think all universities should set up their own network of local education. This is partly because of the many problems with today’s university education models. Also, the deepening of globalization, landscaping of local life and a lack of popular cultures have gradually dismantled the living and spiritual quality of local society. We should use localities as an education apparatus to emphasize a deeply socialized dimension of reverse learning: to go beyond the global field of operation of contemporary knowledge production, be based on the real life of localities and local people, build a system of self-education and circulating production; to experience and re-learn another way of speaking and creating, another attitude to things, another ethic of interaction, and another understanding of life from local society.


A symposium commemorating 1st anniversary of Huang Yongping's passing in 2020

The Pergamum Sketch Room at China Academy of Art



Art education is not merely about teaching skills in art creation, but about developing students' sensibility and creativity. Art colleges are not just about churning out people for the art world either. There are many graduates from art schools in China every year, but only a small portion of them will become professional artists, while the others will opt to do things unrelated to art, which I think is a good thing. Wu Shanzhuan said, “Art is not an excuse for not doing other things.” I agree with that. When you graduate from an art school, you can start a business, become a teacher or a civil servant, engage in the film industry or even operate a street stall, with the imagination, the unyielding attitude, the transcendent practicality that you have gained from art education. Many people think that art students today are inferior to the older generations; in fact, as long as the post-95s and post-00s can break away from the traps of exam-oriented education, their views, vision, ability to do things with hands and enthusiasm are far better than us back then. In this sense, I still have hope for the future. The Academy is confronting many challenges, but the most important one is to cultivate fertile soil for learning so that more people can build their own artistic practices and experience a kind of deep understanding and enormous creativity that opens up our bodies and minds — it doesn't matter if you call it art or not.