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Mary Bittner Wiseman: A Grand Materialism in the New Art from China, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2020, xxi + 163 S., ebook, ISBN 978-1-4985-9691-6, USD 45,00
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Meiqin Wang
California State University, Northridge
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Anna K. Grasskamp
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Mary Bittner Wiseman: A Grand Materialism in the New Art from China

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Mary Bittner Wiseman's new book A Grand Materialism in the New Art from China is an interesting and unexpected read. In the brief abstract, Wiseman writes: "This book applies theories by Osborne and Danto to new Chinese art to show how artists are working below the level of language to make each work of art prove that it is art." It is debatable whether contemporary Chinese artists discussed in the book make artworks in order to prove them to be art, or even care about this matter. Nonetheless, the book provides a new interpretation by examining works from some of the most well-established contemporary artists from China, and strives to articulate what art is and what makes a work art. The author's overarching framework for the analysis of new Chinese art (mainly artworks from leading artists that have appeared in key exhibitions staged in the West) is materialism. Through the lens of materialism, she constructs a narrative for Chinese art in which she claims its global relevance, because, as she argues: "people everywhere understand and respond to material and material things." (148) In addition, she also endeavors to prove that new Chinese art is contemporary and can be fittingly understood in the American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto's definition of artworks as embodied meanings. [1]

The book is divided into three parts with "Crisis," "Working through Art," and "Thinking through Art" as their titles. However, the titles of individual chapters and sometimes their contents appear to be chosen and arranged in an unconventional manner resembling traces of thoughts loosely assembled. It is therefore important to read the introduction thoroughly to prepare for Wiseman's philosophical take on contemporary Chinese art.

Chapter One, at the beginning of Part I, perceives the art of Chinese avantgarde artists as a series of subversions that can inform non-Chinese audiences about the possible functions and the nature of art in general. Examples discussed include controversial pieces made around 2000 by Zhu Yu, Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, and Chen Lingyang, some of the earlier iconic avantgarde pieces made in the 1980s by Wu Shanzhuan, Xu Bing, and Huang Yongping, as well as those often-discussed experimental artworks made since the 1990s by Song Dong, Cai Guoqiang, and Xu Bing. While very different in their motivations and approaches to art making, Wiseman argues that the attitudes of these artists towards the various materials they employ provide an important starting point to learn about their art.

Chapter Two highlights the importance of expression in Chinese art history. Wiseman argues for a connection between contemporary art practice and classical Chinese art theories (represented by Xie He's treaty of art composed in the 5th century and Shitao's theory on art in the 17th century) when it comes to what art should be and do. She also delineates how classical Chinese artists and their contemporary counterparts are alike in their desire to capture the spirit or energy of the world in which they live through art. This is followed by a discussion of the focus of new art on the sheer materiality of the world, which Wiseman considers differentiates new art from classical art and makes it contemporary.

Chapter Three, the first of Part II, addresses the core concept of materialism. The author attributes Chinese artists' interest in materiality, what she calls "the materialization of art," to China's opening up as a result of the political and economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping. In this new era, communism and capitalism coreign, resulting in new art practices. The artworks of leading figures such as Xu Bing, Cai Guoqiang, Zhang Huan, and Ai Weiwei, as well as less well-known artists such as Chen Qiulin and Ji Yunfei, are discussed to illustrate how the material has become a focus of artistic creation. Wiseman understands "material" in the broadest sense and includes language, energy, history, and the behavior of women's bodies as the focus of her discussion of how the material prevails in the work of contemporary Chinese artists.

Chapter Four investigates how human bodies factor in recent Chinese art in terms of materialism. Wiseman explains the differences between attitudes towards the female nude in China and the West and points out the distinction between Chinese and Western feminisms. Emerging out of these comparisons is her characterization of Chinese-ness, which she defines as an emphasis on the making process accompanied by the aspiration for the vital spirit of a thing rather than its appearance. This, she argues, not only governed traditional Chinese art practice but continues to do so in contemporary times.

Chapter Five, which begins Part III, gives a close reading of the recent exhibition Art and China after 1989: The Theater of the World, staged in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2017/2018, in relation to globalism. Wiseman situates her analyses of the artworks presented in the exhibition within a lineage of key exhibitions that have shaped the Western understanding of contemporary Chinese art. She continues her discussion of the different perception of things (such as attitudes towards the dead body) in China and the West and argues that through Chinese art one can learn about other ways of thinking and being.

Chapter Six explores the art of Ai Weiwei and Lin Tianmiao to present a key argument: new Chinese art is global and contemporary. Wiseman draws upon writings on modernism and contemporaneity by the British philosopher Peter Osborne and his critical engagement with Arthur Danto's theory about the end of art to illustrate her point. Somewhat lengthy and a little convoluted, the discussions provide a theoretical framework for her to articulate why the material that appears in Chinese art carries significance and enables it to communicate across cultures, thus becoming global and contemporary.

In Chapter Seven, which ends the book, Wiseman continues discussing Osborne's and Danto's positions, specifically their writings on modernism and postmodernism. Via the work of these authors and a few key philosophers in the Western intellectual tradition such as Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Marx, and the writings by the contemporary Chinese curators and critics Pauline Yao and Wang Chunchen, she argues that the new art from China has the potential to change the perception about what art is or does in the West. She affirms that "art's charge is to reveal its subject" (149) and new Chinese art does just that. In doing so it fulfills Danto's definition of art.

Overall, the book is written in an elegant, poetic, highly rhetorical, and at times overelaborate style with a lot of abstractions. This appears to be a book for experts who are versed in both Chinese and Western intellectual traditions, especially those concerning art and philosophy. Nonetheless, those who are not can enjoy the prose itself. With imaginative thinking, Wiseman is able to weave vastly different subjects into a story about art and philosophy, answering her quest for what art is where China is concerned.

A major flaw that emerges in Wiseman's characterization of Chinese-ness is her essentialization of the differences between Chinese art, culture, and thought (at times referred to as the East) and those of the West. Her discussions about the East's embrace of the spiritual and the West's skepticism of it, the different attitudes towards human bodies and the different public responses to works by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu in the East and the West are indicative of the issue. An unfortunate error is the misspelling of many Chinese names, such as Liu Xiaodong as Lui Xiaodong, Huang Yongping as Huang Pong Ying, and Chen Qiulin as Chen Quilin, to list just a few. In addition, there is an inconsistency in terms of spelling. Most Chinese names are spelled in pinyin (the standard romanization system for Mandarin Chinese), while historical figures such as Xie He and Zhang Yanyuan are spelled in the 19th century Wade-Giles romanization system as Hsieh Ho and Chang Yen-yuan.

The book might not help readers who want to learn about the general history of contemporary Chinese art, but as a work contemplating art, philosophy, and materialism, it is certainly a worthy read. Wiseman's discussions of art and artworks range from abstract and overcomplicated to personal and engaging and reveal her enthusiasm as an intellectual who appreciates the benefits of expanding one's human qualities by learning from others through art. This point is clear when she states: "to have access to other arts is a gift, and to have access to an art from a civilization as old and as rich in its contributions as China is a special gift." (92)


[1] Arthur C. Danto, What Art Is, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Meiqin Wang