The Making of the Chinese Creative Class


A review of Self-Styling: Practicing Creativity and Remaking Aesthetics in Post-Socialist China by Lily Chumley

Self-Styling: Practicing Creativity and Remaking Aesthetics in Post-Socialist China is a fascinating study of ideologies and practices of creativity in China in the market reform era. According to the author, Lily Chumley, who is currently teaching at the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, self-styling refers to “the complex semiotic work of cultivating and narrating an aesthetic style and expressing an ‘individual’ self” (p. 5), a central aspect of creative practices. At its core, the dissertation explores what it means to cultivate creativity and creative subjectivities in a politically illiberal society, and it does a laudable job parsing out the tensions and contradictions experienced by young artists while trying to “find themselves.” Specifically, the author makes the following interlaced arguments: (1) Visual culture industries and its workers, including artists and designers, have played a central role in remaking political and commodity aesthetics, a role that certainly does not exclude the Chinese state as a key player in the growth and expansion of art education and creative industries. (2) Post-socialist visual culture is characterized by the coexistence of “the aesthetic novelties of reform and the aesthetic legacies of socialism” (p. 16). Specifically, for example, socialist realism has survived the market reform and has continued to exercise influence—in a highly specific form (images of pensive faces and weary bodies of the working-class) and through a perhaps unexpected venue (private test prep classes)—on post-socialist visual culture across multiple genres, including official art, academic art, and the avant-garde. (3) Creative practices in post-socialist China are shaped by nostalgia for an idealized past and anxiety about the commodification and perceived disintegration of Chinese society. (4) Young artists learn to perform creativity by “mastering genres of speech and narrative” (p. 179), developing personal styles “through the discursive marking of aesthetic and stylistic differences,” and socializing to “distinct aesthetic communities” (p. 177). (5) The political implications of self-styling remain ambiguous insofar as the “self” remains a neoliberal self whose interest does not go beyond pursuing freedom in the private sphere.

Taken together, these arguments make a compelling critique of creativity, debunk the myth of creative subjects as being born of the market force to become democratizing agents, as some Western observers would believe, and embed the emergence of forms of creativity in historical circumstances shaped by dominant institutions—the state, school, family, and the market.

The dissertation is composed of five substantive chapters in addition to an introduction and a conclusion. In Chapter 1, in addition to explaining and contextualizing the key terms of “self-styling,” “practicing creativity,” and “remaking aesthetics,” the author provides a useful justification for the focus of her research project on art schools. She reasons that “art school is the one place in which all members of all the visual-culture industries cross paths, an institutional nexus for a highly diverse array of fields and communities… Art schools therefore constitute a world of intersecting communities of practice and aesthetics far beyond the narrow professional fields of the ‘fine arts.’ Second, insofar as ‘creativity’ and ‘self-styling’ are the central topics of this dissertation, art schools provide the ideal place for examining how these productive capacities and subjectivities are cultivated (peiyang) in society.” Thus her field sites include private test prep schools, art-school entrance-test grounds, art supply stores, art bookstores, and art institutes. Other major sites of research include works of contemporary art and films, art exhibits, galleries, museum, studios, and cafés.

Documenting a series of art exhibits commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of reform (from 1978 to 2008), Chapter 2 looks at how the nation’s recent history is remembered and narrated in three independent art exhibitions. Notably, all the art exhibitions are “interdiscursive” with the official narrative, often employing the same imageries, tropes, and timelines of reform. At the same time, they are also differently inflected by personal stories and perspectives. Most, if not all, of the artworks in the exhibits draw upon nostalgic sentiments about the past as well as critical/cynical views on hyper-consumerism in contemporary Chinese society. Chumley makes an insightful argument about the “aura of the undesigned,” stating that “these artists employed a kind of archaeology of reform to create a postsocialist pastoral, memorializing and romanticizing a lost world of workers and peasants. By moving ‘unstylized’ objects into this highly stylized exhibition space—a sleek gallery with white walls, exposed pipes and buffed concrete floors—these artists seek to recapture a kind of authenticity belonging to things that are not designed: things whose aesthetic qualities are not reflections of their performances as commodities in markets” (p. 58). There are also artworks framed by a narrative of self-expression and self-realization. But whether celebratory, nostalgic, or moralistic, these art exhibitions are ideologically complicit in the sense that they “naturalize capitalism” (p. 73) by being silent about the central role of the state in China’s post-socialist transition, a role that comes to the surface in a historical account of the institutional reform of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA).

Chapter 3 explores the conundrum of the proliferation of Soviet-style socialist realist drawings (remade as art test realism or ATR) in the midst of the art test fever, and the rapid expansion of private test-prep industries in the 2000s. Chumley points out that the art test fever is by no means an indication that more young Chinese aspire to become artists; rather, it is more due to the parents’ calculation that taking the art test will provide their children with the best chance of going to college, especially if the children are not doing well academically. As art tests become increasingly standardized with the growing number of test takers, preparing for the test comes down to mastering three skills derived from Soviet-style socialist realism: “delicately shaded bust-length portraits of work-weary faces, called sumiao; vividly colored impressionist still-lifes focused on a chunky materiality, called secai; and rough, choppy, outlined sketches of people sitting, squatting and standing, called suxie” (p. 129). These are exactly the manual skills that students are taught to master in private test prep schools (huaban). Interestingly, because these skills are taught out of context, the history and politics of socialist realism are completely erased. As Chumley writes, “as the discourses surrounding drawing training … focused on drawing as a form of manual-technical training … oriented exclusively toward the entrance examination, the political and historical meanings of the realist genres being re-produced were ‘erased’” (p. 84). Hence socialist realism is reproduced without design by the private test prep industry.

In Chapter 4, Chumley argues that the art test fever played a key role in remaking the visual culture in contemporary China by “generating first a set of increasingly specific image-genres (the most prominent being a kind of highly detailed pencil portrait of an expressionless, weary face)… and second, a more subtle aesthetic, which I argue percolates beyond the rigid genres of the art test into contemporary Chinese visual culture, including avant-garde art and film” (p. 128). She traces the striking similarity in the portrayal of the migrant worker between ATR and the dominant realisms in visual culture, i.e. avant-garde realism, official realism, and academic realism. She explores the proliferation of images of the expressionless, resigned, weary faces of the migrant workers and argues that regardless of the genres to which they belong, these images all index a “vision” of “sympathetic objectification” (p. 133) through which the “envisioner” recognizes the working class’ contribution to the accumulation of societal wealth while at the same time turning laborers into “fundamentally passive” (p. 172) objects for contemplation. Thus, the seemingly meaningless ATR becomes fully meaningful when examined in juxtaposition with these images contextualized within the official, academic, and avant-garde genres. Worthy of further exploration in this extremely fascinating inquiry are: (1) the larger discourse of the marginalized groups (ruoshi qunti) that has proliferated in all kinds of Chinese media; (2) the centrality of the marginalized groups as Other in the formation of the identity of the Chinese middle-class; (3) images of the working-class that run counter to the ATR imagery (consider The Piano in a Factory, or gang de qin, directed by Zhang Meng).

Chapter 5 provides a deeply engaging ethnographic account of how CAFA students are taught to perform creativity in discussion-based, critique-style “creativity classes.” In these first-year classes, students are told to explore their selves in bodies and memories and to embed the “self” in aesthetic forms—forms that they also learn to use to locate themselves in relation to larger aesthetic communities, “groups of artists and designers differentiated by styles (high modern, neo-classical, traditional, anti-mainstream etc) and modes of aesthetic self-presentation” (p. 180). Chumley contends that finding one’s self in the context of creativity classes is politically innocuous, as the self is fashioned as fundamentally depoliticized and content with realizing his/her freedom in the world of consumption. Chumley gives a telling example of a student incorporating the image of the Statue of Liberty in her artwork. For the student, the image had nothing to do with a desire for political freedom or with its appropriation in the 1989 Student Movement; rather it meant “free, and a goddess” (p. 208). This chapter sheds important light on how creativity is actually taught, learned, and practiced in institutional settings like CAFA.

Chapter 6 further elaborates on the idea that “personal style is itself cultivated through the discursive projection of aesthetic community” (p. 237), and goes on to describe how one continues to find and articulate one’s self in diverse and overlapping practice and aesthetic communities after leaving school. This section focuses on events and interactions in a number of locations, ranging from art market and galleries to studios and cafes, where artists and designers develop and sharpen their sense of identity and identification with larger communities that may be physical and based on face-to-face interaction, or imagined via commodities or media in long-distance circulation.

To the extent that the dissertation focuses on the formation of “creative subjects” through practices that initiate young art students into the burgeoning cultural industries as “self-styling” visual culture workers, this research is also about the making of China’s “creative class.” This very timely study fills a gap in the anthropology of Chinese capitalism by focusing on production rather than consumption, and a gap in Chinese media studies by asking and answering a crucial question: How is creative labor produced and reproduced for the burgeoning creative industries of China?

Ruoyun Bai
Department of Art, Culture and Media
University of Toronto

Dissertation Information
University of Chicago. 2011. 304 pp. Primary Advisor: Judith Farquhar.

Image: 中文(简体)‎: Draft of the National Emblem of People’s Republic of China proposed by Central Academy of Fine Arts on 1949-9. Source: Wiki Commons.

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