salon culture


salon culture
The ‘foreign salon’ (yang shalong)—a Chinese term I coined in 1987—has played an estimable role in the cultural life of Beijing (and later other cities) from the late 1970s. Salons of various descriptions held in the apartments of journalists, ‘foreign experts’, diplomats and business people (and latterly in the homes of ex-pat Chinese and mainland returnees, including in particular US-based academics) were also crucial in helping non-official culture go international from the 1980s onwards. Film festival organizers and overseas critics (those in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan played a key initial role, as did individuals and organizations in a range of Western countries) often felt themselves not only to be expressing artistic discrimination by their support for the fringe-dwellers of the Chinese arts scene, but also felt that they were exercising a morally worthy function by promoting nascent artists.
There are those who celebrated this internationalization of Chinese avant-garde art in the 1990s, the collapse of boundaries and the cross-cultural movement of bodies. However, perhaps amidst the laudable moves towards an artistic global dialogue in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we can also detect a reconfiguration of the presumed bourgeois civilizing mission of an earlier age. A century after the zenith of Western empires, some international cultural brokers appear to have the ‘courage’ to shoulder once more the ‘White Man’s Burden’.
The line of reasoning pursued by both indigenous cultural figures and their supporters was that international recognition would force the authorities to tolerate innovative cultural figures, and thereby contribute to a liberalization of cultural production in general. Trading on their international success, many of the independents play their Western supporters and mainland opponents against each other to create an alternative system of counter-cultural hierarchy that, although less restricted and paternalistic than official culture, represents a new kind of orthodoxy, one that fits neatly into the chain of production and consumption for global festival culture. Among writers, artists and film-makers who have ‘made it’ internationally, one can often detect a strain of resentment and neo-patriotic ire directed at their patrons. This sentiment is often only vocalized in the Chinese media, or privately among their fellow cultural practitioners.
For the avant-garde scout who is active in the ‘salon’ (salons can be manifest in dinner parties, dances, private exhibitions, as well as binges of all descriptions), the collector of radical chic who is in search of the authentic dissenting. Other, there is something enticingly self-reaffirming in the embrace of the non-official artist. In the alignment of the cultural adventurer/investor with the progressive Chinese artist there is, to quote Tom Wolfe, a ‘feeling that he is a fellow soldier, or at least an aide-de-camp or an honorary cong guerrilla in the vanguard march through the land of the philistines’ (‘The Apache Dance’, in idem, The Purple Decades. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1984, 345). This process of identification and validation through discovery is part of a’particularly modern need and a peculiarly modern kind of salvation’. One can assuage a guilt about one’s wealth, for ‘avant-garde art…takes the Mammon and the Moloch out of money’, while also allowing the individual to engage in a fight against a repressive socialist state that fails to recognize the artist’s worth, and the tussle with the bourgeois West in tempting it to embrace the talents of an Eastern terra incognita.
The academic salons of the new century feature mavens of Cultural Studies and neo-Marxist connoisseurs in Euramerica (be they ethnically Chinese or not) who make a claim for an intellectual-moral high ground from which they presume to judge and police cultural exchanges.
GEREMIE R.BARMÉ

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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