If the Stars Art Exhibition was not “art,” then what was it?
As one of the major initiators of the Stars Art Exhibition, I have no intention of engaging in self-criticism about that period of history. The moment at which the Stars Art Exhibition shook the capital has disappeared with shocking ease. Like later controversial incidents, the very question of whether it marked a milestone in the flow of time is open to debate. I don’t care at all whether I was a transmitter or a medium, a voice or a beam of light. History has not denied me of my place in the memory of that time. If I am to continue to strive for a subjective spiritual perspective, and to seek artistic breakthroughs, then I have no need to return to these memories, just as I refuse to delve once more into the trivial matters of the Stars.
The problem is that a number of authorities in the art-critical world have frequently claimed that the works in the Stars Art Exhibition were overly politicized, lacking in artistic creativity. For this I am grateful. I will not forget who made these claims, nor how. It is extremely difficult to understand these irresponsible frivolities. What, exactly, does “politicized” mean? What is artistic creativity? One all too common, strangely accepted reality is that some people, as soon as they amass some semblance of discursive power, insist on turning history into semantics, imposing their preconceived definitions onto primarily historical phenomena. History then becomes conceptualized. The more authority one has, the less responsibility, and the more easily he can peddle certain concepts of definitions.
As for the critique that the Stars “are not art,” or “not creative art,” the more fitting question is when China’s so-called “creative” art emerged. Did it begin with the “’85 New Wave?” With the China/Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989? Or was it later, with the New Art, Pop Art, and Gaudy Art of the post-89 period? Where indeed can we fix the beginning of contemporary Chinese art history? When I think about this, I can’t but be disturbed. If Chinese contemporary art still exists—as some have claimed—in some sort of juvenile state, then those of us who experienced this early phase of its history are even less than duckweed atop the waters; we are not even bubbles in the water. And what of the originators of these “definitions?” Are they to be considered the mothers of the precious baby they consider Chinese contemporary art to be?
I don’t understand the origins, and even less the correct meanings, of these definitions. Their intellectual import seems to lie simply in making it easier for Westerners to understand things, or in looking to raise the educational levels of ordinary Chinese. We know that in this world any cultural incident, including Chinese contemporary art, is not the result of any single instantaneous development, nor the product of scholars, theorists, and critics. The maturation of art requires the passage of time and the intervention and fermentation of numerous factors. It needs to climb and roll, it requires sacrifice, it needs the sun to rise and new life to be born. Taking to the streets in protest (as the Stars did) was no amazing feat, but it was also not a mistake. At a moment when democratic consciousness was reaching a new fault line, this sort of choice or experiment was not only helpful but necessary.
Artistic creation derives from intellectual independence. In this sense, the Stars Art Exhibition represented a challenge to inherited concepts grounded in precisely this kind of independent thinking, and for this reason it was taken as a challenge to mainstream art. Facing the obscuring walls of conservatism and politics, the Stars articulated the earliest oppositional stance. This stance is a form, and a form that belongs distinctly to the Stars.
Or rather, the form of the Stars was precisely the form of opposition. Opposed to the mainstream, it expressed independence. This was a historical choice exclusive to the Stars, a wise and extremely creative choice.
Where lies the value of art: in action or in artworks?
Fortunately, the members of the Stars never achieved utilitarian success.
Writing in the White Cover Book that he published in 1995, Ai Weiwei stated that “The importance of the Stars lies in having taken up two questions that artists must face: artists must express themselves, and at the same time they must struggle for the power to express themselves. When expression is threatened, the artist must still seek this power; this manifests the artist’s dignity, and dignity in and of itself is often more important than any single good work of art.”
In an extremely ideological national situation and era, art inevitably faced challenges coming from the absolutism of politics. Regardless of whether one employed a strategy of passive avoidance or active confrontation, one had to raise the status of art itself. Otherwise, the place of art could only be defined by the political situation: At that time, people were encouraged one day to go out and stimulate the economy, then punished the next for violating the moral order. In the face of such overwhelming political dynamics, the Stars maintained their own attitude, and thus won dignity. This was not politics proper, nor some strange alternative form of politics. This was art—the basic condition and value of the artist.
Now that a quarter-century has elapsed since the Stars Incident, the questions of whether it will attain its proper place in the critical conversation and whether it will be seen as having a certain kind of value already seem incidental. But indeed there are some things about the Stars that can be confirmed, namely the form that the Stars took, its stubborn opposition to anything and everything “mainstream.” That is the spirit of the Stars, and the action behind its dignity.
When art is made, some people are inside. They are lucky.
The goal of art is to improve life, and the process of art elevates the individual.
In the process of improving artistic taste and quality, some people contribute action, and others contribute works. Both of these activities are human and spiritual, with the same creative value.
I have preferred to take both of these methods as my direction. In a situation that has not yet reached its ideal state, I feel an even greater sense of responsibility, and this sense of responsibility guides my choices. Just as in the thinking of the Stars, when the “timeliness” of art becomes a “problem,” responsibility leads me to press for action as a way of ensuring the completion of the creative process.
I also often feel that I am reaching for another extreme of art, or another side of the unlimited freedom of art—the unlimited power of freedom that lies inside art.
Now, having seen the almost magical success of certain schools and artists, can we truly say that the creative environment is mature? Can we really claim that a bright, shining age of contemporary art has arrived?
Huang Rui 2004-2005