Cynical Realism

Cynical Realism
Art movement
Popi is a colloquial expression whose original meaning is close to ‘bored’, ‘senseless’, ‘rogue’, ‘small ruffian’. The term also bears the reference to ‘dissipated’, ‘cynical’, ‘indifferent to everything’ and ‘jaded’. I first used it as an art critical term in 1990 in my article ‘Apathetic Feelings in Contemporary Chinese Art Trends: An Analysis of the Cynical Realist Current’ to define a wide-spread attitude prevalent in Chinese society after the Tiananmen events of 1989 and the resulting artistic current. The works in this style often display fortuitous fragments of daily experience using a popi attitude to describe the bored feelings of their characters. The term has also been translated as ‘hippy spirit’, which nonetheless contrasts with the anti-idealistic trend expressed by popi: the popi is grey in his or her approach to life, in a way that recalls the attitude of traditional scholar-gentry frustrated in their official careers.
The main exponents of this trend were artists who were born in the 1960s and who in the 1980s were still largely studying in the art academies. With little idealism left to hold on, they gave up all sense of mission typical of the previous 85 New Wave [Art] Movement generation, espousing a view of contemporary society marked by a sense of malaise.
The work normally displays a high level of realist technique mastered during the artists’ training at art academies, in particular the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and seemingly rejecting the modernist experimentations typical of the artists belonging to the generation who were the protagonists of the 85 [Art] Movement. One of the most representative works of this current is Fang Lijun’s portrait of a ‘Bold Rogue’. Other artists include Liu Wei, Song Yonghong, Wang Jinsong, Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong.
Dal Lago, Francesca (1993). ‘Il realismo critico della giovane arte cinese’ [The Critical Realism of Young Chinese Art]. In Punti Cardinali dell’Arte, Catalogo della XLV Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Venezia: Edizioni La Biennale di Venezia, 538.
Li, Xianting (1992). ‘Apathetic Feelings in Contemporary Chinese Art Trends: An Analysis of the Cynical Realist Current’, Ershiyi shiji [originally published in Yishu chaoliu in 1990].
——(1993). ‘Major Trends in the Development of Contemporary Chinese Art’. In Valerie C.Doran (ed.), China’s New Art, Post-1989 (exhibition catalogue), Hong Kong: Hanart Gallery, x–xxii.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.