Abstract Painting:
The Formation of a New Aesthetics in Post-Mao China

By Yiqing Li

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.2  (Fall 2021), 49-97

Why was abstract painting, previously condemned as the corrupt art of the bourgeoisie, legitimized in post-Mao China? How did this style contribute to a shift in art standards from the instrumental value of political propaganda to the intrinsic value of artistic forms, thus shaping a new concept of painting as an autonomous artform possessing self-referential and self-sufficient value? This essay explores the twisting path toward understanding and accepting abstract painting in the late 1970s and 1980s and contextualizes it within China’s domestic socio-political changes and its diplomatic relations with the West. Reformist artists constructed an aesthetic affinity between modern Western abstraction and traditional indigenous art forms. Although this cross-historical connection resulted in some misunderstandings of abstract art, it motivated artists to express personal feelings through pure forms without being burdened by the need to convey political messages. In return, art audiences were no longer passive recipients of propaganda; they became active explorers of new art experiences.

This essay also calls attention to the indispensable role of art institutions in promoting abstract art. The art market and mass communication media were not fully developed, so official art museums, art academies, and art journals and magazines were essential channels through which artists learned about abstract painting. Despite some conflicts between individual artists and institutions, their dialogues, negotiations, and cooperations reflected the underlying energies in society and mediated the cultural transformation in the early years of the reform and opening-up period.