The Origins of China's New Interest in Art

The censorship of art during the brutal Cultural Revolution has led a generation of wealthy Chinese to become avid collectors

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Political activists of all persuasions tend to believe they can shape generations through the schools, in extreme cases by forcible relocation. A New York Times article on the boom in art collecting among China's new billionaires reports:

"We have seen exponential growth by mainland Chinese buyers who were brought up during the Cultural Revolution," said Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby's vice chairman for Asian art. "These are successful business people with huge amounts of money at their disposal."...

The surge in Chinese collecting is not just a reflection of new wealth, experts say, but also a reaction to the repressive Mao years when the country was denied culture. For the Chinese, who watched art disparaged as a frivolous exercise except when put to didactic use, the freedom to explore simple aesthetic pleasures, to repossess historical works and to show off recent affluence has been liberating.

"They have an interest in reclaiming their culture and their history," Mr. Howard-Sneyd said.

Of course the Cultural Revolution was intended to destroy the very values that China's new entrepreneurs reflect -- and, in many cases, lives as well as works of art. But how did it produce the opposite?

There's a clue in Made in China, by Donald Sull with Yong Wang. The chaos and dislocation interrupted centralized planning and gave more autonomy to rural managers, who became a nucleus of a more independent business style. And the book goes on to note:

The hardships of the Cultural Revolution also produced a generation of potential entrepreneurs inured to hard work and hardship, favoring pragmatism of theory, and eager to pursue opportunity. In many respects, the Cultural Revolution cultivated the generation of entrepreneurs whose pent-up energy and drive were unleashed during the economic reforms that followed.

Of course Maoism wasn't the first mass re-education project with radically unintended results. As I've noted before, the tsarist program for recruiting promising young men for the Orthodox priesthood recruited the young Stalin and other future revolutionaries, and many of Iranian revolutionary ayatollah Ali Khomeini's followers owed their educations to the Shah's scholarships for budding engineers.

Obviously, not all the unintended consequences of would-be social engineering are beneficial, but on balance it's good that values need not be set in stone by early education.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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