Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China

The venue:Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China

reporter:Lily Chumley (New York University)

 

Summary:In the decade from 1998 to 2008, universities around the country established hundreds of new art and design programs; central and provincial art institutes established new departments such as video-game design, urban design, multi-media, and experimental art; the “eight big art schools” increased to nine, when the former Industrial Art Academy became the Tsinghua Academy of Art and Design; and all the major art schools, as well as many minor ones, built massive, state-of-the art new campuses (many with flagship buildings designed by famous architects) to house their expanding student bodies. At the same time, the numbers of students taking art school entrance tests in mainland China increased rapidly, to a 2007 high of approximately half a million (170,000 in Shandong province alone), in what was known as “art test fever”. Post-70s and ‘80s generations of Chinese art students were no longer assigned state jobs, instead graduating into “free” labor markets as entrepreneurs, freelancers and wage-workers. They took up careers across the spectrum of China’s contemporary social order, with different relations to the concept of creativity and to the commodity mode of production. Based on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Beijing and Shandong province as well oral histories and analysis of artwork, this book traces these generations’ paths from art test prep schools and art school entrance tests, to “creativity classes” (chuangzaoke 创造课) to the post-graduation lives of young artists and designers struggling to market style as entrepeneurs and artists. The book argues that state-run art and design schools played a central role in the formation of China’s cultural industries, reproducing creative human capital by teaching “self-styling”, and incubating aesthetic communities as well as professional networks.

Lily Chumley is an anthropologist specializing in linguistic and semiotic anthropology, with a PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago. Her book, Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China, was published by Princeton University Press in 2016. Her second ethnographic research project, begun in 2009, focuses on Chinese older women's financial investments in relation to financial media. She has co-edited special issues of the journals Anthropological Quarterly (2013) and Signs in Society (2017) focusing on the concept of qualia.