Pop: The Question

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Over the freezing cold weekend I curled up with The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts by Milan Kundera, the author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s largely a meditation on fiction, its meanings and methods, but some of what he says applies to the arts generally. That would describe his passage about why it would have been pointless for Czech writers after the fall of the Berlin Wall to produce a cycle of dense novels about the new post-Communist social fabric, a cycle modeled after Balzac’s Human Comedy, which also described a society — 19th century France — that was adjusting to the failure of an earlier revolution.

It would be ridiculous to write another Human Comedy. While History (mankind’s History) might have the poor taste to repeat itself, the history of an art will not stand for repetitions.

Maybe the history of an art won’t, but the market sure will. I’ve thought about that while watching the market explosion in Chinese contemporary art, so much of which relies on recycled Pop Art gestures. How many more new Chinese artists do we need working variations on Warhol’s portrait of Chairman Mao?

One example among many. The best known work of Wang Guangyi, one of the major names in Chinese contemporary, consists of obvious pop satires of Cultural Revolution iconography.

Great Criticism — Pop Art/Wang Guangyi — Sotheby’s

And Zhang Xiaogang, the auction price leader of the pack, is famous for his Bloodline series — cartoonish (meaning Pop) family portraits that owe something to Christian Boltanski’s (non-Pop) blurred album pictures of Holocaust victims.

Bloodline Series:Comrade No. 120/Zhang Xiaogang — Sotheby’s

It’s not that there’s any mystery as to why Chinese artists would turn to the language of Pop. It allows them to give the finger simultaneously both to the dwindling Communist order and to the rising power of the vulgar market, including the one that buys up their paintings as soon as they make them. Militant ideology is trumped by militant triviality — Pop lets Chinese artists formulate their misgivings about the past, the present and the future all in one gesture.

But to a Westerner who lived through the first explosion of Pop in the 1960s, the closer Chinese art is tied to Pop Art precedents, the weaker, more rear guard and even provincial it looks. Is it possible to describe a nation of over a billion people as provincial? It is when so many of their artists are content simply to offer variations on a Western art movement that’s nearly half a century old.

Maybe the Pop Moment is just something that will become a standard rite of passage for any society making the transition from Marx to Coca Cola. In that case, brace yourself for the coming tide of Cuban Warhols.