To the Editor:
In his most recent rant in Artnet Magazine, your correspondent Charlie Finch extends his call for a boycott of Chinese artists to include an attack the art collector Uli Sigg, former Swiss ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia [see "A Sigg Joke," July 23, 2008], who took issue with Finch in the pages of this month’s Art Asia Pacific Magazine. Finch suggests that Chinese artists serve the propaganda interests of the Chinese government, and that Ulli Sigg has an interest in furthering these goals.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Uli Sigg has never been an apologist for the Chinese government. In his diplomatic capacity and before that in his business dealings in China, Sigg has been a pioneer in negotiating with Chinese officials to bring their attitudes towards business and the arts more in line with international practices. I know for a fact that Sigg has often operated behind the scenes to rescue artists from the threat of censorship. He also has invested his own money in the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, the only such prize in China to pay recognition to developments in contemporary art.
Finch’s suggestion that Sigg may have done all this to protect the value of his art holdings is ludicrous. Sigg has been assembling his collection of over 2,000 works of Chinese contemporary art since the late-1980s, traveling to China and supporting artists at a time when most were threatened and many were jailed by the Chinese government. He has never sold a single work and, as far as I know, has no plans to sell his collection. Instead, he plans to donate his art holdings to an institution in China -- though he himself admits that the government would have to change substantially in its attitude towards contemporary art to accept many of the works tht he owns.
Finch suggests that the Chinese art world is somehow an extension of the Chinese government, but in fact censorship still exists in Chinese art circles and Chinese museums are still vastly underfunded. I have been engaged in research on this issue for a decade and have visited China numerous times and have seen no evidence that contemporary art is used as a propaganda tool for the government in China. Although Poly Group, the multibillion-dollar conglomerate and the privatized wing of the People’s Liberation Army, invests $100 million in art each year, these funds are primarily used for repatriating antiquities -- a fact that Sotheby’s or Christie’s can confirm -- not for buying or promoting contemporary art.
In point of fact, U.S. artists receive far greater funding from the U.S. government than Chinese artists receive at home. Notably, U.S. tax structure allows for donations to the arts, a situation that does not exist in China.
Finch and I may agree on the politics of China or the problems facing this rapidly growing nation (though I would never compare China to Nazi Germany). But Chinese artists represent a pocket of resistance within China, as can be seen in the many artworks by Chinese artists that document the country’s problems. If this critique is less visible in the Chinese art now selling for millions of dollars at auction -- well, that may have more to do with the "new Orientalism" of western collectors, whose taste hardly reflects the full spectrum of the Chinese art scene.
Finch is entitled to call for a boycott of the Beijing Games. But when he throws Chinese contemporary art into his argument, he is going after the wrong segment of Chinese society. That contemporary art has been able to flourish in China may show that that country is far more complex and more forward-thinking than Finch would like to believe.
-- Barbara Pollack
Charlie Finch replies: Polycorp’s role in the Chinese contemporary art market is well known to insiders, and has been reported by Bloomberg. As for Chinese government censorship, Bloomberg reported late last week that the Chinese government had postponed two shows, one of 35 Warhol portraits of athletes and another of paintings of Chinese Communist leaders, as being "inappropriate for the Olympics."
Apologists for China art and its central controllers have been the beneficiaries of perquisites and other incentives from the Chinese government precisely because they can be used as propaganda tools. One can only think of the journalists like Walter Duranty of the New York Times and others who toured Stalin’s Potemkin villages during the 1930s and returned with glowing reports of paradise on earth.
BARBARA POLLACK received the Andy Warhol Creative Capital arts writers grant to research the issue of censorship of the visual arts in China. She is writing a book about the development of the art scene in China.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).