On a recent lazy afternoon Wang Haiyang, a student at
China's top art school, was quietly packing away some of his new oil
paintings in the campus's printmaking department. He is 23, and he just
had his first major art exhibition at a big Beijing gallery.
Many of his works sold for more than $3,000 each, he said. And he hasn't even graduated.
"This is one of my new works," he said proudly,
gesturing toward a sexually provocative painting of a couple embracing.
"I'll be having another show in Singapore in March."
For better or for worse — depending on whom you talk to — Beijing's
state-run Central Academy of Fine Arts has been transformed into a
breeding ground for hot young artists and designers who are quickly
snapped up by dealers in Beijing and Shanghai.
The school is so selective that it turns away more than 90 percent of
its applicants each year. Many of its faculty members are millionaires
and its alumni include some of China's most successful new artists,
including Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. And with the booming
market for contemporary Chinese art, its students are suddenly so
popular that collectors frequently show up on campus in search of the
next art superstar. At the annual student exhibition the students no
longer label their works only with their name and a title. They leave an
e-mail address and cellphone number.
"I can say we have the best students and the best faculty in China,"
said Zhu Di, the school's admissions director. "And we give students a
Yet as the academy reshapes its mission and campus, its flowering
relationship with the art market is stirring unease among those who feel
that students should be shielded from commercial pressures.
"The buyers are also going to the school to look for the next Zhang
Xiaogang," said Cheng Xindong, a dealer in Beijing, referring to an art
star, one of whose paintings sold for $3.3 million at a Sotheby's sale
in London in February. "And immediately they make contact with them,
even before they graduate from school, saying, 'I will buy everything
from you.' " (A similar phenomenon has been observed in recent years at
hot art schools in New York and Los Angeles.)
"This can be a dangerous thing," he said. "These young artists need time to develop."
Yet many counter that the school's soaring fortunes also result from the
Chinese government's growing tolerance of experimental art, which was
once banned. While Beijing still censors art that it deems politically
offensive, including overtly critical portrayals of the ruling Communist
Party, economic and market reforms have changed the way the government
thinks about art and the way the Central Academy trains young artists.
In the 1980s the school occupied a modest plot of land near Tiananmen
Square in central Beijing where the faculty rigidly taught Soviet-style
Realist art to about 200 students, many of whom were destined to work
for the state. Today the school has a new 33-acre campus and more than
4,000 students. It offers majors in design and architecture and abundant
courses in digital and video art, and some of its graduates are making
In the old days, Mr. Zhu said, students had a passion for art. "They
viewed art as a way of life," he said, "and Central Academy was a talent
pool. Now, as society has changed, more and more students view art as a
job. Students are more practical."
The nation's other leading art schools are undergoing similar makeovers.
The China Academy of Art, which has trained some of the country's most
inventive artists, boasts a huge new campus in the eastern city of
Hangzhou. (It was formerly known as Hangzhou Academy.) In western China
the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which has a reputation for training
great painters, received more than 64,000 applications this year for
just 1,600 openings.
But no school has as much clout as Central Academy, the only arts
college directly supported by the central government in Beijing. And
recently, academy administrators say, the support has been extremely
The school's new gray-brick campus, 10 miles north of Tiananmen Square,
has hip cafes, attractive dining facilities, spacious classrooms and art
studios, and sophisticated equipment, including high-powered computers
and Autodesk video editing systems that cost as much as $200,000 apiece.
The campus also has an impressive new 160,000-square-foot museum and
art gallery designed by the prominent Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.
Faculty salaries average just $700 a month, but the pay means little to
most of these teachers, whose canvases might as well be painted in gold.
Liu Xiaodong, a Central Academy graduate who has been on the faculty
since 1994, often portrays China's disadvantaged, for example people
displaced in the Three Gorges Dam area, site of one of China's biggest
development projects. Yet Mr. Liu is among the country's wealthiest
artists; a huge Three Gorges painting sold at auction last year for $2.7
million, a record for a contemporary Chinese artist at the time.
Sui Jianguo, the school's dean and one of the country's most acclaimed
sculptors, has seen his works sell at auction for as much as $150,000.
And Zhan Wang, a professor and sculptor, is successful enough to employ
more than 40 workers in his studio on the outskirts of Beijing.
The prestige of teaching at the nation's most elite arts school remains a
major draw for such artists, particularly at a time when China's art
scene is flourishing. This year the Central Academy managed to lure back
Xu Bing, 53, a past winner of the MacArthur Foundation's so-called
genius award, from New York, where he had worked for the last 18 years.
"China is the most avant-garde and experimental site in the world," said
Mr. Xu (pronounced shoe), now the school's vice president for
international relations. "Everything here is new. There's so much
happening, and I want to be a part of it."
Mr. Xu's work was controversial in the 1980s, when China had just begun
to open up to the West, and his return was a bit of a surprise to the
Beijing art world. His 1988 mixed-media installation "A Book From the
Sky," consisting of hand-printed books and ceiling and wall scrolls,
appeared to replicate ancient literary texts but in fact contained fake,
unintelligible characters. Viewed as a clever critique of Chinese
government propaganda, it created a sensation when it went on view at
the National Art Museum in Beijing. He was also a popular teacher at the
academy in 1989, when many students were complaining about government
restrictions that prevented them from freely expressing themselves, in
art or speech.
When pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in Tiananmen Square that
year, many students and younger faculty members from Central Academy
joined the protests, even making the plastic-foam-and-papier-mâché
sculptures of the "Goddess of Democracy," which became a symbol of the
Mr. Xu said he doesn't worry about government interference with artists
or censorship. "The old concept about art and government being at odds
has changed," he said. "Now artists and the government are basically the
same. All the artists and the government are both running with
Many of the changes in the Central Academy's mission grew out of the
efforts to develop a new campus, which also meant rethinking the
school's mission. Some faculty members were leery of the move from the
old campus, which began more than five years ago with a relocation to a
One professor, Sui Jianguo, made sculptures to protest the move, some of
which showed deformed human figures lying in the rubble of the old
campus as it was being demolished. But now he is happy with the changes
at the academy. "The whole education system had to be done in a new way,
which turned out to be better," he said, referring to the openness to
new ideas and new majors.
Some faculty members privately lament the decline of traditional Chinese
painting and disciplined training in centuries-old mediums. And some
complain that today's art students are not as inspired or idealistic as
those in the 1980s.
But other teachers said that their students, largely born in the '80s,
simply reflect the changes sweeping China, which have brought more
wealth to the country and given it more of a global consciousness. While
the enormous growth of the Central Academy has opened the way for
students without a grounding in traditional mediums, they say, many are
highly skilled nonetheless.
"I think the students are more a mix of the best and the mediocre," said
Yu Hong, a painter who has taught at the school since the early 1990s.
"But there are some students better at drawing than when I was a
"Their vision is broader," she said of the students over all. "They've experienced much more."
Most of the faculty agrees on one major shift: The students seem less
interested in politics and more concerned about their personal struggles
and issues of identity, not unlike artists in the United States and
For example Wang Haiyang, who will graduate this year, paints canvases
depicting someone who looks very much like himself: short, with large,
expressive eyes and what might be described as a troubled soul. He
depicts his character with a physical double, in sexual poses, in
violent acts and in women's clothing. "They tell my own story, my
mentality," he said of his works. "The whole process of art is like a
process to cure myself."
Raw expression is on ample display at the academy. Students, once
required to paint the same figurative portrait again and again, are now
encouraged to look deep within themselves and to be creative. Given that
the school is no longer purely about painting and sculpture, they can
find outlets in areas like photography or new-media art. Majors can
eventually lead to career choices like designing video-game characters
for big corporations.
Chi Peng, who graduated in 2005 with a new-media degree, is viewed as a
success story. He broke into the international art market a few years
ago, at 25, with a series of photographs in which his naked image
sprinted through the streets of Beijing with blurry red planes in hot
Today he sells his computer-enhanced photographs for as much as $10,000
apiece. A decade ago Central Academy graduates who were lucky enough to
sell a painting shortly after graduation would have been delighted to
Mr. Chi calls himself an "80s boy," part of a new generation that grew
up in a freer, more consumer-oriented society. "It's hard to define the
80s generation," he said. "Our generation is a little tender but not
As for the pressures of the fast-moving art marketplace, which
encourages artists to brand themselves for big collectors, he
acknowledges some ambivalence.
Reflecting on his career ascent, he said: "It's fast, really fast. I
never could have imagined this, and I'm not sure it's a good thing for
By David Barboza
For The New York Times