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The Minjian Avant-Garde: Art of the Crowd in Contemporary China

Book cover for The Minjian Avant-Garde

Author: Chang Tan

The Minjian Avant-Garde studies how experimental artists in China mixed with, brought changes to, and let themselves be transformed by minjian, the volatile and diverse public of the post-Mao era. Departing from the usual emphasis on art institutions, global markets, or artists' communities, Chang Tan proposes a new analytical framework in the theories of socially engaged art that stresses the critical agency of participants, the affective functions of objects, and the versatility of the artists in diverse sociopolitical spheres.

Drawing from hitherto untapped archival materials and interviews with the artists, Tan challenges the views of Chinese artists as either dissidents or conformists to the regime and sees them as navigators and negotiators among diverse political discourses and interests. She questions the fetishization of marginalized communities among practitioners of progressive art and politics, arguing that the members of minjian are often more complex, defiant, and savvy than the elites would assume. The Minjian Avant-Garde critically assesses the rise of populism in both art and politics and show that minjian could constitute either a democratizing or a coercive force.

This book was published with generous support from the George Dewey and Mary J. Krumrine Endowment.

Coming from a unique perspective, The Minjian Avant-garde urges art historians, curators, and reviewers to set aside constrictive paradigms and consider China's contemporary art in its complexity. It is a thought-provoking and outstanding contribution to the field of Chinese art.

—Shaoqian Zhang, Oklahoma State University

Chang Tan zooms in on minjian, deploys it as a theoretical and contextual framework, and offers a rich study on the complexities and potentials it has offered to art and vice versa. The Minjian Avant-garde displays an impressive command and balanced understanding of the chosen cases, while providing a high level of sophistication and nuance in its re/interpretation of well-known, lesser-known, and unknown materials.

—Meiqin Wang, California State University, Northridge, author of Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China



Additional Information



  • Book

  • Cornell East Asia Series

Publication Details

Publication Year: 2024

Publication Number: 216

ISBN: 9781501773181