Commentary RESEARCH

Understanding Chinese anthropology of art


2024-06-06 08:22

Chinese Social Sciences Today

Chinese anthropology of art has grown into a mature field of study with its unique methodologies, theoretical system, and disciplinary characteristics. It is concerned with Chinese art and social actors involved in artistic creation in China, including not only urban artists but also craftsmen, artisans, and performers from different regions and social strata who engage in folk art. Chinese anthropology of art encompasses four research areas. 

The first area falls within the scope of historical studies and involves two main components: rituals and performing arts, and craftsmanship. Ritual and performing arts relate to arts that figure in folk cultural activities such as seasonal festivals and rites of passage, or that sometimes manifest in sacred spaces. They are largely non-tangible, possessing rich cultural symbolism and functionality. Craftsmanship pertains to artwork with strong utility applied in production and daily life, including household goods and works of decorative arts or plastic arts. 

The interaction between “etiquette and custom” and “folklore” is of particular interest to Chinese anthropology of art. On one hand, this subfield, based on the local features of traditional Chinese culture, returns to the original contexts wherein folk art emerged. It explores the development and evolution of traditional art in diachronic and synchronic contexts by integrating the research methods of both historical studies and art anthropology, focusing on belief systems, cultural signs, as well as “etiquette and custom”-based social order in the context of folk culture. On the other hand, interdisciplinary exchanges and mutual learning are conducted to extract common theoretical issues from numerous case studies. 

The second area pertains to practice research. In this article, practice refers to innovative and experimental contemporary activities aimed at transforming society and reconstructing culture by means of art. In recent years, China has witnessed the emergence of urban art districts where artists or art-related communities gather, as well as the artistic practice of integrating art into rural construction. 

Urban art districts are centered on the production and consumption of art. Their formation, construction, and development constitute important representations of contemporary artistic practice in China. Their marginal positioning and avant-garde nature, along with the pioneering topics they inspire have brought related studies to the forefront of anthropology of art. The interplay between contemporary art and traditional craftsmanship has yielded positive results. In some Chinese cities famous for traditional craftsmanship, products have been created in response to market demand and aesthetic lifestyles, and handicraft businesses have concentrated, empowering the revival of traditional cultural cities. 

The integration of art into rural construction has generated new spatial significance and value, broadened the horizons of rural residents, and driven economic growth, thereby facilitating rural revival. Artists have revitalized rural local culture through their creativity and innovation, opening up new possibilities for rural development. 

The third area involves building a Chinese anthropology of art disciplinary system. Anthropology of art investigates the relationships between social actors, cultural symbolic systems, art signs, and aesthetic behavior amid social changes, deriving and improving theories on the basis of empirical fieldwork. In terms of theoretical and methodological development, monographs and research papers discussing the disciplinary orientation, research objects, research methods, and local value of Chinese anthropology of art have been published. At several Chinese universities, introductory courses as well as master’s and doctoral programs in anthropology of art are now available, and research centers have been founded. 

The fourth area concerns ethnography of art conducted overseas by Chinese anthropologists of art. This emerging subfield emphasizes creating a Chinese narrative for world art and expressing Chinese concerns through a “from domestic to overseas” approach. This is an important step for Chinese anthropology of art on its path towards internationalization, transforming China from being viewed to being a “viewer” that can engage in dialogue with the world. Only by adopting a global perspective can art studies achieve global reach and contribute to the interconnection, integration, and interaction between various forms of art. This is one of the goals that Chinese anthropology of art intends to attain through future development. 

Fang Lili is a professor from the School of Art at Southeast University. Lu Rui is from the Chinese National Academy of Arts. 



2024-06-06 04:22
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