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Assignments from China Academy of Art
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Assignments from China Academy of Art

— Speech at the Inauguration Ceremony for New Students of 2023

Dear colleagues, students, families and friends of our students,

Hello, everyone!

First of all, on behalf of China Academy of Art (CAA), I would like to extend the warmest welcome to our new students. From today, you are a member of this illustrious institution. We are all fellow travelers on the "Journey of CAA". When it comes to traditions of civilizations ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign, we are all fellow learners. We are, all of us, on the same journey as we strive to develop our senses further, uncover the mysteries of the inner soul, and achieve our artistic aspirations.

So, what are you expected to learn as a student at CAA?

Technology is constantly changing in this age of digitalization and artificial intelligence. Every form of technology will eventually become dated. Every style will go out of style. All knowledge is becoming easily accessible with a snap of our fingers. This brings us to the question: what are you expected to learn at CAA? These are what I believe you should learn. Firstly, discernment − the ability to discern beauty in the ordinary and the essence of all things. Secondly, refinement − the quality that ensures your cultural sophistication and aesthetic taste. Most importantly, competence − the capacity to reinvent and surpass yourself; and ambition − the relentless, unwavering desire to rise above the mundane. Discernment, refinement, competence, and ambition − these are qualities that you must possess, that no one can rob you of, for which there are no substitutes. They are also qualities that are essential to an individual and an artist.

As CAA students, it is vital that you possess the drive and confidence to apply art to everything in life. Art is not a professional skill that is confined within a limited space. It is a way you communicate with the world and the path toward self-growth and self-realization. Art is not pie in the sky. Art is rooted in everyday life. Artists must learn how to gain inspiration from the everyday world, question, and find their own causes. You must learn how to use your brush and every other tool at your disposal to feel, observe, empathize, and provoke. You must learn how to free yourself, perceive reality, and discover the world through the act of artistic creation. You must learn how to create new physical and emotional experiences, sensations, and values in this radically changing world.

This year marks the 155th anniversary of Mr. Cai Yuanpei's birth. He was 60 years old when he founded this academy in 1928. He was a mature artist committed to his dream. Mr. Cai Yuanpei was a revolutionary and educator. Art meant everything to him. It determines one's moral character and life. To Mr. Cai, aesthetics, education, and ethics are the three essential pillars of China's modernization drive. Aesthetics provides the method, education, process, and ethics, the foundation to achieve the common objective of nurturing an individual at the personal, social, and national levels. Art is the common denominator that marries aesthetics, education, and ethics and through which an individual is nurtured.

Our ancient Confucian teachings advocate the importance of understanding how all things work in order to accomplish all things well. Underpinning this teaching is this principle − to unleash the full potential of all things, we must first unleash the full potential of humanity; to unleash the full potential of humanity, we must first unleash our own full potential. In fact, it reveals how the individual is closely intertwined with all things in the universe. At CCA, we nurture students so that they become independent individuals who are also connected to the universe. The objective of education is to nurture people. The objective of nurturing people is to create extraordinary individuals who become independent thinkers and movers of the world. As Mr. Xiong Shili once said, "When you nurture one person, you guide and help all to stand on their own two feet."

Over the years, I've repeatedly emphasized that art and education share the same roots. In creating art, we are developing our own identity. When we say "We learn in order to be virtuous and to become productive members of society", we talk about education and art in the same breath, because their objective is the same − to nurture an individual. Thus, in art education, we must teach our students how to perceive and understand the natural world in a keen, astute, and authentic fashion so that their observations lead to insights. We must also teach them to transcend their emotions and assumptions and achieve a shared understanding with the arts community so that their learning informs their character.

This is why from this year onward, CAA will be adding a new series of assignments to our curriculum. All undergraduates and postgraduates of all disciplines must complete the these assignments during their study at CAA. Along with completing your program, completing these assignments will be a prerequisite to graduating from CAA.

Your first assignment is on "Me". Between your admission to and graduation from CAA, you must submit at least two self-portraits that are to be exhibited alongside your graduation work when you graduate. Let us move beyond the typical sketch you execute in examinations and learn how to create an authentic portrait. This will not be an easy feat. Using your brushes, you must transform a model into a living, breathing person. You must explore your inner secrets and personal stories in order to bring your inner world and spirit to life on canvas. I talked about how difficult creating a portrait can be at the inauguration ceremony last year. I shall not repeat myself today. More difficult than creating a portrait is creating a self-portrait, because as you gaze upon and depict yourself, you become both the subject and the observer. This assignment will help you grow as an artist. You will join a long list of artists as you participate in this grand tradition and benefit from the profound experience. You will also get to learn about yourself through art. In observing yourself, you learn to understand yourself, and in inventing yourself, you transcend yourself.

Your second assignment is on "My Family". For this assignment, you will be interviewing your family, uncovering your family history, and unearthing the stories of your parents and grandparents to create a visual genealogy based on what you have learned in your program. Every person born in the 2000s who traces their family history three to four generations back will inevitably stumble upon an incredible segment of modern Chinese history. The theme of this assignment, "My Family", is not permission for our young students to get caught up with or obsess over themselves. Instead, we hope that our students will learn to care about their family, engage their family in a conversation, and, through this process, learn what "home" means and is to them. You will trace your roots and the ties between your family and your clan and understand that everything you now possess was hardwon. Everything must be earned. The world owes you nothing. Through this assignment, you must try to connect yourself with the past, create ties that bind you to your country and the changing society, and find your place in history.

Your third assignment is on "My Hometown". You will have to do some research and share about your hometown. You should use your professional competencies and the skills you have learned to assess and re-present the objects, places, ceremonies, deaths and births, the mundane and the extraordinary, memories and changes, and more in your hometown. Use what you have learned in CAA and create a local chronicle of your hometown. It could be a collection of photographs or sketches. It could be a documentary or a handmade book. It could be an anthology of poems or a report. It could be anything as long as it is a piece of artistic creation. Today, with urbanization and digitalization, regional differences are steadily fading away and unique local flavors are being lost. Hometowns no longer hold the same weight in the hearts of the young generation as the older generation. Through this assignment, we expect you to explore your hometown through your artistic lens and give back to your hometown with your artistic competencies. The string of the kite remains unbroken. Our hometown is the lingering bond that persists in a life that grows increasingly homogenous and untethered.

At this juncture, I wish to share more about a module that is taught at the School of Intermedia Art (SIMA). Initially, we wanted to teach our students how to tell stories in that module. That is why we named it "Motivation" and had our students go through through family history. Most of our students tend to be very young. This year, our youngest student is only 16 years old. They have limited life experiences and have not read a lot. To avoid the creation of unauthentic fiction during the artistic process, Mr. Mou Sen limited their storytelling to "non-fiction" and focused on each student's family, clan, and hometown, exploring the origins of their family, their clan's genealogy, and the relocation of their hometown − the changes in the family and the evolution of society. You could say that this module has integrated the second and third assignments in an effective manner.

Your fourth assignment is "A Story About A Stranger". Dear students, your fourth assignment demands that you select a stranger on the street or in a cafe and observe them for 30 minutes to an hour. You are not to engage the stranger directly but are to observe them secretly and try to piece together their social status, family upbringing, and personality traits through their external appearance, including how they dress, move, or gesture. You will then write a 5,000-word biography that delves into their current circumstance and inner world. The hardest challenge that our youths face nowadays are social relationships. They suffer from social anxiety and mental fatigue. Through this assignment, I hope that our students learn how to discern a person's social identity from their appearance but delve deeper and learn how to genuinely care about others, even strangers. The world that we live in is filled with countless strangers. To make art, you must first be curious about people and about the countless lives that populate this world. You will need to nurture your senses and imagination when it comes to human nature and develop keen, astute observational skills in real life.

Your fifth assignment is "A Case Study on an Artist". You will have to put together an anthology on your favorite artist (designer/architect/director). You will have to conduct a thorough research on the artist's creative works and life and fully grasp his relationship with artistic traditions, his life history, his inner and external struggles, his joys and sorrows, what he loves and hates, his friends and enemies, his sacrifices and obsessions, and his failures and victories. To understand art, you must first understand the artist. It is essential that you carry out a thorough study of an artist's artistic life because, through that study, you will discover how he finds his true self. He will then serve as a role model who teaches you the lesson on the fundamental importance of art to life. To a young artist, conducting an in-depth study on an artist is the equivalent of holding a solo exhibition.

Your sixth assignment is on "Art". Artists do not live in ivory towers and art is no paradise. Every part of our present-day society can be transformed into an interpretation of what art is. Various manners and forms of art are exhibited in art museums. The old men writing on the ground by the West Lake are making art. Your parents, who have supported you in your artistic journey, have their own ideas of what art is. During your pre-examination session, you were taught a certain set of ideas about art. Now that you have entered CAA, you shall soon encounter different types of art. You shall soon discover that every discipline, every program, and every professor has their unique interpretation of what art is. Sometimes, these interpretations are in complete contradiction with each other. For your sixth assignment, you shall create an artwork that showcases your artistic practice and thoughts. Dear students, to know how to live life, you must first live it. To know how to love, you must first love. I want you to use art to express your artistic philosophy.

In your final semester, I hope that you will have a conversation about art with your family. Share with them what you have done at CAA and what you think art is. What does art mean to you, your family, and your community? Regardless of why you have decided to embark on your artistic journey, I hope that your time at CAA will help you find the reason to continue this journey − even though I believe that art requires no justification because what art is, is unconditional love.

These six CAA assignments focus on yourself, your family, your hometown, others, artists, and art. For young artists to grow and mature from these assignments, they will need to carry out repeated exploration, study, and investigation over a long time. You must complete these assignments during your course of study at CAA. They are both holiday homework and a gift that CAA has specially crafted for you. We are the world's largest art academy that offers the most comprehensive, diverse range of programs. As long as we continue our good work, in a decade or two, we shall become an enormous library that documents society through the lens of art. This shall be CAA's gift to China and its people.

Dear students, the fundamental mission of art education is to establish the way and art of self-liberation and artistic creation. The mission of universities is to teach us how to uncover our potential and purpose in the life that we share with others in this world. Art education's mission is to nurture individuals who know their place in the world, how they got there, what purpose they want to achieve in life, and what responsibilities they are expected to hold.

Dear students, joining CAA is just the beginning of your artistic journey. Liang Qichao wrote in one of his poems, "The world is endless, and the seas and the skies are immemorial." We are all but a drop of water in the vast ocean of time, drifting with the currents, with no control over where we are headed. Your family, hometown, the great artists of old, countless strangers, and every version of you in different stages of your life are your anchors.

Life is finite, but knowledge isn't. If you are a boat, art is your sail. Dear students, let us summon a storm and ride its waves together.