Ask a gaggle of economists which country has the world’s fastest growing economy and they’ll most likely say China. At the very least, most Americans see China as the world’s leading economic power, if you believe the polls. A clear sign that China sees itself as a global economic power might be that the Communist country is looking more and more cosmopolitan when it comes to culture, specifically the visual arts. According to a recent report in The New York Times, Chinese museums are finally “open to the world.” That openness marks not necessarily a search for cultural freedom, but rather a reaching for cultural dominance to match their dominance in the economic sphere.
“Leading Chinese museums are increasingly staging exhibitions from art centers across Europe, part of a wider cultural metamorphosis aimed at attracting more outward-looking Chinese youths, becoming more global in terms of exchanges, laying the groundwork for Chinese collections to be shown, in return, across the world,” writes Kevin Holden Platt in the piece. He cites the recently closed, year-long exhibition The Art of the Enlightenment at the National Art Museum of China (shown above) as exhibit A in the new direction in Chinese art museums. “Stepping up our staging of foreign art exhibitions and holding public dialogues with art experts from across the world is helping the museum become more international, more interactive and more popular,” Chen Yu, curator of the Enlightenment show, says in article. Bringing in such exhibitions not only shows the world how open Chinese museums have become, but demonstrates to the Chinese people (more than 4 million of whom saw the Enlightenment show) how the world is coming to China rather than the other way around.
Chinese museums are lending their rarely lent treasures at an unprecedented rate internationally, looking for foreign museums to reciprocate, as they most likely will. The insular nature of Chinese culture has been pushed aside in pursuit of a bigger international profile. The biggest winner in the exchange will undoubtedly be China. We’ll get to see the glories of Chinese culture, but China will bring the world to its people—a cultural coup of epic proportions. It’s ironic in light of the Opium Wars of the 19th century and the consequent “century of humiliation” for China that Britain has been one of the major traders in this new era of exchanges. On one (happier) hand, it might be a sign of burying the hatchet. On the other (more cynical) hand, it might be a sign of China flexing its new muscles over its former tormentors.
China won’t be the first country to mix political, economic, and cultural power. The Louvre remains the greatest museum in the world thanks in no small part to Napoleon’s rampage across Europe. The Nazis played the same game and tried to “rape Europa” of its treasures, including and most prominently those of the Louvre. After World War II, as the Cold War heated up, America tried its hand at cultural imperialism. Jackie Kennedy managed to woo the French government to lend the Mona Lisa in 1962 and the U.S. State Department promoted Abstract Expressionism as the democratic answer to the questions of Communism. It’s telling that the one country that lags behind the current international craze to exchange with China is the United States. What China is trying to achieve seems all too familiar, perhaps.