The serenity of Cui Ruzhuoâ€™s ink landscapes is a far cry from the turmoil of Chinaâ€™s contemporary art market. But he can bank on his own status as the countryâ€™s best-selling living artist. Cuiâ€™s works reflect traditional Chinese forms and subjects, replete with largely monochrome mountains, lakes and trees.
Little known in the West, his works fetched a total of more than $120 million at public auctions last year, up 69 percent, even as the overall market plummeted, according to wealth publisher the Hurun Reportâ€™s newly-released China art list.
â€œWhen an artist is creating, a very important point is to definitely be sincere and responsible towards your own art,â€ Cui said at the launch of the document. â€œDo not just see your works as products,â€ he added. Cui is in a position where he can afford to proclaim himself on the moral high ground.
But he acknowledged that he watched the market â€œquite closelyâ€, before lauding multi-billionaire art collector Wang Jianlin as a man with â€œpersonal cultivationâ€. Connoisseurs fear that in a system where money dominates the conversation around value, artistic quality risks being sidelined.
â€œChinaâ€™s art market is a chaotic mess. People are always looking for a standard by which to judge works, but art isnâ€™t like the Olympics,â€ said artist, columnist and curator Xie Chunyan. â€œYou measure a long jump in metres, but art isnâ€™t that simple â€” money is one metric, but itâ€™s not the only criteria.â€
Hurun Report chairman Rupert Hoogewerf said that the art list was intended as a guide for someone like him, who loves â€œthe idea of being interested in artâ€ but â€œlacks a deep understanding of itâ€. â€œThese people are looking to become more educated and cultured and are looking to get into the art world,â€ he said of Chinaâ€™s nouveau riche entrepreneurs, â€œbut where to start?â€
FLYING IN CIRCLES
Chinaâ€™s contemporary art market is riddled with systemic flaws and inconsistencies, insiders say. The countryâ€™s system of museums remains weak, and critics are regularly offered â€œred envelopesâ€ of bribe money in exchange for positive reviews, aiding unchecked speculation.
Hoogewerf admitted that the auction statistics his list depended on were â€œfar fromâ€ perfect. â€œItâ€™s well known that a lot of the auction prices might be ramped, and some of the works are never paid for at the end of it,â€ he said. â€œThere are a lot of problems.â€
It is a phenomenon that threatens quality and development, according to artists and critics. â€œAn art world that focuses on money can only spit out artists of high net worth â€” not profound or truly great artists,â€ lamented Li Mo, calligrapher and history researcher at Beijing University.
â€œThe art market and artistic creation are like two wings of a bird â€” if the creative wing is atrophied and the money-making one is strong, our art world can only fly in circles.â€
TEST OF TIME
Auction sales for Chinaâ€™s top 100 living artists totalled $565 million last year, according to Hurun Report, down 45 percent on 2014. The fall was largely due to a collapse in volume, rather than average prices, with 6,863 works auctioned over the course of the year, compared to 15,921 in 2014.
Chinaâ€™s contemporary calligraphy and painting business remains immature and subject to individual distortions, said long-time art analyst Qi Jianqiu. The â€œdeformed marketâ€ of years past, he said, was based heavily on gifting practices and had been hard hit by slowing economic growth and an anti-corruption campaign under President Xi Jinping.
But according to art critic and ink painter Zhang Zhaohui, some artistsâ€™ sales values rose â€œbecause they have good relations with bureaucrats and the wealthyâ€.
â€œThey arenâ€™t in fact very good artists, but they work their network of relationships â€” perhaps using only 10 percent of their energy and brainpower on painting and 90 percent of their energy on making use of those relationships.â€
Even so, he said, the long arc of art history would establish the difference between price and genuine artistic value. â€œHistory is like a sieve â€” it will always filter out works that do not stand the test of time, while the truly good works will be gradually passed down through generations.â€