Chumley Connects Wealth Management and Art in Postsocialist China

By Tanzeen R. Doha – China’s postsocialist era has seen many fascinating cultural and economic shifts. Lily Chumley, an assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, discussed two such shifts—in artistic training and personal wealth management—on October 31, 2016 at the invitation of the Department of Anthropology.

Chumley’s talk was entitled “ZhenShanMei/true, good, beautiful: Three Antinomies of Value and Three Double Movements in Chinese Late Socialism, or ‘Socialism’ Lately.” She began by explaining her first project, which focuses on art schools in China. In the 1990s, Chinese visual culture workers went from working for the state to working for the free market—a shift which enabled them to express resistance to creative restrictions. As Chinese art schools bloomed in that decade, and since, they became crucial sites for contesting artistic restrictions imposed both by the state and by new forms of commodification.

The schools use a meritocratic system in which students are required to learn realist art, and to pass a standardized test for realist proficiency. Then, in a sudden shift, they are expected to develop their own individual styles and cultivate their individual expressiveness. Testing continues—for example, through abstract tasks and prompts such as “make it bigger.” One student, who like her classmates had never made any kind of abstract art before, responded by placing a portrait of her face inside a fishbowl to exaggerate its apparent dimensions.

This training system, Chumley said, is known as “art test fever” (meishugaokao re). The students learn a specific set of skills, certain modes of representation, and certain ways of carrying themselves. Told that they are finding themselves, and their individual expression, they are pushed to attain a new kind of individual embodiment.

Targeting women

Chumley’s second project addresses wealth management in postsocialist China. This industry emerged in the mid-2000s in conjunction with a new middle class—one comprised of workers with stable salaries who wanted to increase their wealth without exposing their assets to the risks of the stock market.

At first, the industry targeted the primary earners: men. But with most men too busy working to think about such matters, it was their mothers and wives who ended up participating in the wealth management services. As such, in terms of its marketing efforts, the industry underwent a gendered shift in order to target more women.

Double movements

Chumley examined the connections and continuities between her two ethnographic projects and discussed how they make sense within the history of China’s post-socialism. The relation between these sites is economic. When art students encounter the neoliberal market of culture economy, their future seems uncertain. This is not the case for their state-employed teachers. Wealth management – practiced by mostly mothers and grandmothers - also seems to be motivated by a concern for the economic future. These uncertainties can be understood as paradoxes, contradictions, and double movements:  between neo-Maoism and neoliberalism, between populism and authoritarianism, and between imperial expansion and domestic decline.

During the Q&A, Chumley discussed the significance of dialectics in her work. She discussed how the dialectic has a certain relation to a concept of totality, and how the Maoist dialectic is different in some ways from conventional Marxist and structuralist accounts. She was guarded in her remarks about strong truth claims of the dialectical method, but suggested that it was productive for her work. 

This event was sponsored by the Department of Anthropology, East Asian Studies, Cultural Studies, Cinema and Digital Media, Davis Humanities Institute, and ISS.

Learn more about Lily Chumley at her NYU faculty webpage. Her book Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China was published this year by Princeton University Press. 

The author thanks Adam Liebman, a PhD candidate in anthropology who specializes in contemporary China, for his critical feedback.