The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China
(Timezone 8, 2010)
One might refer to Barbara Pollack’s exegesis on the art world in China according to what some Americans understand as a straight-talkin’ book. Whether it’s understood that way in China is up for grabs, I suppose, depending on the reader. Published by Timezone 8 in Beijing, The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China is a terrific read.
It is an adventure, to be sure, recounting my prepubescent memories of reading—and rereading—a novel called The Secret Cave late at night in bed with a flashlight. I would argue the success of Pollack’s book is that she is one of the few art writers who knows how to create an adventure, in which not everything is given at once, and the book just keeps moving along, moving down the road to Hangzhou or Shanghai, or wherever. We’re there with her in the taxicab on the way to the Forbidden City or in the horrific interior of the Today Art Museum in Beijing. Whether she’s discussing auctions in Hong Kong, biennials in Shanghai, artist Ai Weiwei’s gray-stone compound in Caochangdi (outside of Beijing), or dwelling on the idiosyncratic dress codes of artists or compulsory tendencies of wealthy collectors or hair-styles of gallery owners, they all come alive. Pollack’s nuances are marvelous as when she describes Fang Fang as “a 20-something whiz kid running Star Gallery…with a skewed buzz cut and a cell phone permanently at his ear” or Song Kun who “captured the grunge lifestyle of her generation of Beijingers, getting drunk, lounging on mattresses, going to concerts, posing for her friends.” In Pollack’s case, she literally takes the reader through the dark caverns, the corridors and vestibules, the highway and byways, that constitute a behind-the-curtain look at the high low style, techno-luxuriant Chinese urbanity to which few American critics have been given access. The exquisitely detailed prose accounts of her Sinographic adventures among the hoity-toity kitschy art crowd illuminate the dark corners where Chinese entrepreneurs, exhibition organizers, regulators, and administrators are all willing to speak “for the record.” This suggests something I have personally found evident in Pollack’s intensely alert, yet silently penetrating, approach as an interviewer: she has an extraordinary ability to seize an opportunity in pulling out not only guarded information, but an accurate sense of the person whom she is addressing. In so doing, Pollack retrieves many dark secrets hidden behind or within the veneer—what the Chinese call guanxi or the manner of doing business through “relationships.” In addition, Pollack’s research is carefully done, the editing is consummate given the broader audience intended by the publisher, and the first-person approach is frankly ideal for the list of personalities, institutions, and dinner parties she has chosen to represent. Whether the book is actually about criticism—in the sense of what another generation of Westerners used to call “art criticism”—is unlikely, especially in comparison with Richard Vine’s New China, New Art (Prestel, 2008), which focuses specially on the analysis and pointedly critical interpretation of works of art well-known in the Chinese contemporary art market. Such an approach is clearly not Pollack’s forte, at least, not in the pages of The Wild, Wild East. However, her delimitations become sublimated in another way. Instead of critically focusing on the works, she chooses to focus critically on the people—on what the art world really is—and ultimately on what general readers will ultimately seek out: the motivations behind the stated, often contradictory intentions of people commercially involved in the art world. Like the Broadway show tune from the early ’60s made famous by the popular singer Barbara Streisand, Pollack proverbially understands that people need people, regardless of their foibles, or, better put, because of their foibles. The faults and inconsistencies only become acceptable to a true reporter when the respondent does not try to conceal or rationalize their existence. Thus, Pollack shows little patience when interviewing a Western-trained Chinese art dealer in Beijing from the 798 gallery complex who attempts to explain why his overt commercial involvements with emerging artists do not contradict his idealism as a theorist. Pollack’s response: “I don’t believe a word he has just said, because my basic impression of this man is that he is highly ambitious, capitalizing on opportunities to attain recognition and success.”
According to a conversation I had with the publisher of Timezone 8 Books on a recent trip to Shanghai, his concern for the outspoken approach of the author of The Wild, Wild East was very real, but not real enough to halt the publication of the book. Whereas Pollack began traveling between New York and China six years ago, for the purpose of covering the Chinese art world for such periodicals as Art + Auction, ARTNews, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times, there was some concern that longer term players would take offense at her personalized comments that probably for the first time had been put on record. Even so, as New York artists discovered in the 1980s, it really did not matter what was said, whether it was good or bad, as long as it was said for the record.
In 1939, the American critic Clement Greenberg wrote an important essay where he articulated the differences between art and kitsch, which he respectively labeled as avant-garde and rear-guard, in relation to the production of cultural artifacts. In recent years, I have discovered in my own writing and teaching that the separation between art and kitsch has become less distant than they once were. One might argue that the avant-garde of the present—given its marketing allure and academic dependence—has become kitsch. This would depend on the kind of art being addressed. Relative to Pollack’s book, there is an element of kitsch in her writing to the extent that, in most cases, fashion, allure, and media have taken precedence. Put another way, if art still exists in the world, it exists in competition with everything else. This assumes that “everything else” also constitutes the very premise of those existing commercial transactions and affectations that have intervened in today’s speed-driven and highly virtualized art market. Therefore, unless we are talking specifically about works of art, we are talking about “everything else,” which becomes instantly (digitally) transformed into kitsch. Finally, Ms. Pollack does agree that the urban Chinese environment lends itself to kitsch very easily. One might argue as to whether this is an indigenous or foreign perception—a topic that goes beyond the pale of her important primer in setting the stage for what is to come. But that is another topic more given to the problem of aesthetics.