When artist and patron are one

By Raymond Zhou ( China Daily ) Updated: 2014-09-27 07:26:37

In the case of photography or calligraphy, it may not be the pet projects that are favored, but projects featuring the official's own work. It is in this shady area where over-the-line instructions and corruption may blur. I'm not downplaying the quality of an official's works. Some of them have indeed risen above amateur status and into the realm of professionals. The question is, are they so brilliant they deserve the accolades they get? If they can get the same accolades in blind tests in which their non-arts-related background is temporarily blocked, then I say they are as good as they claim to be.

To be honest, many of them cannot pass muster. Some may be purely amateurs but are deceived by those around them into believing they have become masters. I know of someone who is an official with a provincial-level government agency and who is into poetry. He would send out a couple of lines every week to a circle of acquaintances and friends. In my judgment, they are no more transcendental than limericks, and would have little merit even as limericks. But he has grown to think he is among the best poets in the region.

He has mentioned on many occasions he wants to collect his work as a volume, at which point the air in the room would freeze and nobody would say a word. Then someone would break the silence by saying what wonderful lines he has composed. Obviously he takes to heart these "compliments", which are almost squeezed out of those beholden to him for one reason or another.

Compared with my acquaintance's poetry, Qin's photography is a hundred times better. What should be scrutinized is whether he employed public resources to shoot the photos or scotch candidates with equally good or even better works so he could have such prominent displays like the subway stations.

In recent years, government restrictions have been put in place for some forms of intervention or extracurricular activities. This would be a constraint for someone with true artistic aspirations and would be unfair. But then, Chinese history has no dearth of rulers whose artistic achievements are in sharp contrast to what they did in their official positions. The emperors Huizong (1082-1135) and Li Yu (937-978) come to mind. The former devoted his life to calligraphy and painting, and the latter was one of the most brilliant Chinese poets. As political leaders, they failed miserably.

When one has placed the passion over the vocation, it may not be too much of a sacrifice to give up the day job. But mixing the two may raise eyebrows of suspicion, especially when public resources are involved.

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