Organized Panel Session
In November 1976, an exhibition of artwork by peasant artists from Hu Xian, a rural county in Shaanxi province, P. R. China, arrived in London. Feted in the United Kingdom as an "exhilarating" collection of artwork that could induce "a pang of longing for the collective [in] even the most hard-bitten Western cynic," artwork by amateur peasant artists celebrating socialist values and collective labor constituted the most visible representation of contemporary Chinese culture in the West in the late 1970s. Yet the celebrity of the Hu Xian peasant painters obscured an amateur art practice that was pervasive and widespread during the socialist period in the P.R.C., not just among peasants, but also industrial workers and the military. In this presentation, I argue that amateur art practice during the socialist period constituted an ambitious re-orientation of fine art practice, transforming it from the highly specialized labor of the professional and credentialed artist to a leisure activity accessible to worker, peasant, and soldier alike. Amateurism facilitated a transformation of the artist's identity, as concepts such as creative genius were evacuated in order to accommodate the contributions of untrained art producers, and attempted to make art immediate to wider audiences through a socialist cultural praxis in which one's subjectivity was transformed through the act of making art. The embrace of amateurism weakened the art academy as a legitimizing site of training, and its legacy informs the discourses of "contemporary Chinese art" that developed in the Reform period.