HONG KONG – With New York’s Asia Art Week and the Hong Kong edition of Art Basel right around the corner, one is reminded of the growing sophistication and the healthy appetite for art in China – in both traditional and contemporary categories. But how should one understand this development? Where does Chinese art stand in the global market? And where is it headed? 

Dr Iain Robertson, Head of Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, shares his insights.

ArtBasel_General_View_D4S_1The art market in China has seen tremendous growth. Image courtesy of Art Basel.

Sotheby’s: What are the major factors that influence the China art market?

Robertson: There are perhaps two significant questions which pertain to the market for art in China. The first is obliquely, albeit crucially, linked to the enduring health of the country’s economy. The second concerns China’s majority consensus on taste.

Sotheby’s: The market for art in China has grown tremendously over the past few years. Do you think the momentum for growth is still there?

Robertson: China would continue to grow its global art market share if the reforms initiated in 2011 continued to be applied to all aspects of the national art market. Besides that, the particular attention paid to the veracity of auction house data and to authenticity will be crucial to market trust and confidence, as both of them are necessary ingredients of a vibrant market. There’s also the question of import duty and export laws, which are felt to be closely linked to national fiscal reforms and therefore the country’s economic health.

Sotheby’s: How about taste? I suppose it’s really hard to get a consensus on something so subjective?

Robertson: Indeed. At the SIA forum held in Beijing last November, there was some departure in the views on contemporary Chinese taste among the speakers. Some, such as art critic Zhu Zhu, thought that it was establishing itself on traditional principles, but others like Philip Tinari of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art felt that the content and form of contemporary art in China were inseparable from the global aesthetic because today a Zeitgeist was no longer the prerogative of one particular city, nation or culture, but instead was a universally shared condition that crossed national borders.


Sotheby’s: What are your views on this, especially in relation to the resurgence of ink works in China?

Robertson: Actually not only in China – there is an increasing popularity for the expressiveness of Chinese and Middle-Eastern ink works, and they both constitute script, poetry and literature. I think these qualities are reasons for cultural separation, by which I mean in the future there will be divisions in taste in contemporary art, since much ink painting is peculiar to the grand civilisations and largely unintelligible to an amorphic contemporary art audience. The clearest examples of this can be found in the traditional brush painting schools in Hangzhou, Tehran and Tokyo, all of which teach particular calligraphic traditions. In a sense it would be as if in Europe, students were offered instruction in the art of illuminated manuscripts, with Latin as the lingua franca.

There are of course other traits to Chinese art that garner an international appeal. We see a lot of artists seeking inspiration from and debunking Western historic masterpieces in a Post-Pop manner. There is also a documentary photography genre and a certain amount of conceptual art. There is, in addition, a significant amount of Academic oil painting. But to my mind, the number of artists who have forsaken oil and canvas for pen and ink signals a change in cultural direction. 

Sotheby’s: In your opinion, what is the outlook for this category?

Robertson: The story of the resurgence of the pen and ink art in China has only just begun. The prospicient will sense that the national mood is leaning perhaps towards a revival of the spirit of the past. The commercial proof is evidenced by recent highly successful sales of Chinese ink painting in Sotheby's New York, but also by a number of significant historic and contemporary museum exhibitions of brush painting in Europe and America.

Asia Week New York will take place from 13 to 21 March, 2015

Art Basel Hong Kong will be held from 15 to 17 March, 2015