Within our first few days in Beijing, I was struck by the lack of graffiti throughout the city. Once criminalized and erased in cities around the world, graffiti has been embraced internationally as a means of demonstrating a vibrant cultural sphere. Some cities, such as New York, have gone so far as to preserve major graffiti works. Instead in Beijing, propaganda posters and wall designs signifying Chinese virtues line buildings. A visit to the National Museum of China, a domineering building with a monumental collection, demonstrated the country’s deep artistic canon but did not present contemporary or political art. It wasn’t until we reached the 798 Arts District that we discovered graffiti and, more broadly, a vibrant arts scene.
A former military factory designed in the Bauhaus-style in the 1950s, the 798 Arts District is a sprawling complex filled with galleries, upscale coffee shops, and trendy clothing stores. Following economic reforms in the 1980s, the state owned enterprise became a private endeavor, and eventually went out of business. After artists began taking over the abandoned space, the local government encouraged the growth of the arts district yet sought to make it more mainstream and commercial.
Walking around the area provided an opportunity to see the many iterations of the relationship between state and civil society. The grounds itself are remnants of a more socialist past. As a state owned enterprise, you can see how the factory acted as a self-sustaining neighborhood with living quarters kept close to the factory.
In the current arts district, the state appears in different ways. Security cameras line the district. From our readings and conversations with Professor Lin, it became clear that political artistic critiques are not tolerated within the space. The government simultaneously fosters freedom of expression yet contains it to a specific geographic area and type of expression. The upscale cafes and shops pointed to the fact that this space was intended for the wealthy, creating questions around who has the privilege of freedom of expression and on what terms. It is critical that governments support the arts, yet how much state involvement creates a state-controlled cultural sphere?
Despite the limitations on artistic expression, I was delighted by the quality of art and the dedication to craftsmanship. As I walked, I came across stunning handmade furniture, apprentices working on silkscreen printing, and a jewelry artist alongside talented contemporary art. While this space might not be the place for political art, the area demonstrates a vibrant, international contemporary art scene, contrary to the stale art scene often represented in Western media. – A.P.