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Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China

by Lily Chumley
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2016
256 pp., 25 b/w illus. $21.00
ISBN: 9780691164977.

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

Lily Chumley's Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China examines art school instruction and its applications in a variety of contemporary culture industries in China in relation to the government's goal of cultivating creative human capital in a market economy in which value is produced through innovation. Based on field work conducted in China, primarily Beijing and Jinan from 2006-2008, Chumley's analysis derives from an assessment of indicative artworks; interviews with established artists, designers, teachers and school administrators; and direct observation of art school classes and studio practices. It addresses questions of educational policy, art pedagogy and artistic creative practice in light of Bourdieu-styled interdisciplinary cultural studies that traverse such areas as linguistic and semiotic anthropology; philosophy; literary theory; communications studies; political science and economic theory. Interweaving personal experience, empirical evidence and theoretical discourse from Mao Zedong, Karl Marx and Li Wuwei to Michel Foucault, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas and Fredric Jameson, Chumley's study provides an innovative model of interdisciplinary sociological methodology gleaned from the perspective of art instruction and creative practice.

Chumley's research is buffeted by an array of opposing forces: global commodities fluctuations, nationalist state ideology, soaring commercial development and post-socialist disenchantment. Her text explores four substantive thematic areas: creative practice in areas such as graphic art/animation, fashion design, interior decoration, film/video production, architecture and fine art; self-styling, self-expression and personal realization; aesthetic practice communities organized by genres, conventions and preference; and post-socialism in China with its tensions between governmental control, market socialism and neoliberalism. She details the expansion and standardization of a system of widespread art testing heavily dependent upon Soviet-style cum French academic realist drawing and painting for which students undergo years of arduous and expensive pre-test training in representation. Qualified solely as a manual technical skill, one that becomes increasingly irrelevant in a technological environment, Chinese educational reformists have charged that such techniques stifle imagination, sublimate individuality and ultimately impact career mobility and invention. In tracing the evolution of art instruction at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA), Chumley notes political undercurrents in representational drawing that also continue to reinforce a labor theory of value inherited from Maoist culture. No mention of associations between abstract formalism and modernism's subversive tendencies.

In recent years Chinese modernization movements have introduced alternative methods to develop 'creative individuals' instrumental to a knowledge economy. "Creativity classes" attempt to transition from conformity to difference through liberating thought transformations; meta-marketing the creative personality; and group critiques that cultivate personal narratives born of experience. Chumley is quick to identify these practices as occurring in an illiberal society in which students must also enroll in state-mandated classes in Marxism and Deng-Jiang-Hu thought as part of curricula that must be directly approved by central government. Through an analysis drawn largely from linguistic anthropology and semiotic theory she scrutinizes on the one hand, the visual language of selfhood as the projection of complex interrelationships between community and personality; on the other, the problem of selfhood (and its implied relationship to commodity capitalism) within an established socialist collective. According to Chumley, "creativity" in China requires the ability to synthesize a highly complex set of multimodal discursive practices within the bounds of nationalism - how to think, feel, talk, dress and stand in individuated ways without implicating political inclination or socio-political philosophy. Such constraints recall negative connotations of individualism employed among French reactionaries following the French Revolution to signify irrational sources of social dissolution and anarchy that could pose a threat to social order. Yet the pursuit of selective individuation within a cultural hegemony, including the quest for uniqueness and originality divorced from cultural judgment, aestheticism and its relationships to moral norms, also reflects a postmodern condition of history in which the project of society, to which socialism is committed, is irredeemably disrupted. At the same time, such an approach to art making and artistic creativity ignores one of art's foremost functions, that of aesthetic resistance to economic, cultural and administrative authoritarianism.

Chumley's voice is strongest in articulating the problem of civil society as the loss of cohesion and the decline of social conscience that have accompanied widespread consumerism, reflected in critiques of postsocialist China by such figures as Yan Yunxiang (2009). "There is a sense that the greed of the market and the narcissism of self-styling have displaced the moral communion and altruism that socialism was supposed to produce," she writes. Despite their utilitarian dimensions, she finds aesthetic communities grouped around categories like literature, sculpture, painting and performance or localized amid studios, galleries, cafés and art fairs where artists socialize, attempt to bridge the gap between unbridled individualism and social uniformity, utopian sociality and the anomie of competitive production. In alternative "art-house" settings in historicized districts, for example, conversations that sometimes drift from romantic nostalgia about China's communal values to idealized forms of "European-style" enlightenment present the possibility for the recuperation of an alternative "aesthetics of community."

To the extent that the text interrogates aspects of education in postsocialist China, her conclusion opens with a description of "Reunion," a short propaganda film in the tradition of socialist realism aired briefly on CCTV screens in China during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The film highlights rebuilding efforts following the earthquake in June of that year in Wenzhou, Sichuan, with implications extending to Marxism, capitalism and "separate but equal" postliberal concepts of Chinese society. Widely associated with disparities between rural and affluent schools in China, power structures and elitism, she invokes this metaphor to illustrate persistent divisions between culture and class in Beijing, and relationships between class and education that continue to generate anxiety and alienation within the realm of Chinese cultural production.

This largely theoretical, incisive investigation into the nurturement of selfhood, personality and individuality in an evolving marketized economic system in China today viewed through the optic of art pedagogy and art praxis joins other studies in creative human capital by such authors as Michael Keane, Richard Florida, Charlotta Mellander and Haifeng Qian. The book is of cross-disciplinary value to fields of inquiry that include art criticism, cultural policy, comparative education and sociological/ethnographic theory both within and beyond China. In determining the power of education, artistic practice and aesthetic community to cultivate creativity as a mental function, it may serve to encourage educators and practitioners to question the aims and efficacy of policies integral to civitas, particularly the kinds of speculative inquiry and transformative creativity most conducive to the social good.


Last Updated 4th October 2016

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