Learning What Can’t Be Taught: Reflections on Art Education through the Story of Six Artists from China

Learning What Can’t Be Taught: Reflections on Art Education through the Story of Six Artists from China

Asia Art Archive

May 4, 2021
Anthony Yung and Özge Ersoy
Asia Art Archive
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When Lu Yang was a second-year graduate student in the New Media Art Department at China Academy of Art in 2008, she made a series of elaborate diagrams of devices that merged machines with animal and human bodies. One of these works, BCMI Reverse Monitoring – The Ultimate Learning Terminal, shows a device designed to enhance human learning efficiency. Imagine this: you are strapped to a gray office chair with belts, your body movement reduced to a minimum. You wear a cap that collects signals from your brain, which are transmitted to a computer for analysis. The computer monitors your attention level to ensure you are in an optimal state of efficient comprehension. When your attention level decreases, the computer punishes you with high-frequency noise and electricity, and after some time, your brain adjusts itself to avoid punishment.

Lu Yang,BCMI Reverse Monitoring – The Ultimate Learning Terminal, 2008–09. Inkjet print, 111.5 × 175.5cm. Courtesy of Lu Yang.

Lu did not specify the kind of information transmitted by this device, and theoretically, it could be used for any subject. Recalling the iconic scene from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in which Alex, the juvenile delinquent, undergoes an extreme form of aversion therapy, Lu, like Kubrick, explores the irony of using inhumane means to make the organic mechanical, to create “good citizens” or, in her case, “good students.” In our interview, Lu recalled that her experience in the New Media Art Department (NMAD) was quite different from what her work illustrates. She joined NMAD as an undergraduate when the program was launched in 2003, and later received a full scholarship to pursue a graduate degree in the same program. Lu said that she was a “bad student” in undergrad, in the sense that she skipped classes and did not do well in exams, and when she gets invited for short-term teaching engagements nowadays she is a “bad teacher,” as her knowledge of theory and art history remains “very poor.” 1 She admitted that her strongest attribute as an educator is to find the “worst students” in the class and support them to realize their best work. Lu herself studied with artist-teachers who encouraged her to experiment with her uncommon interests in horror imagery, body modification, and alternative cultures. Lu and her teachers at NMAD, especially the artists Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi, shared an interest in questioning the boundaries of the human body, as well as power, subversion, alienation, and social control. Zhang and Geng began making works around these topics in the early 1990s, many of which are now considered canonical in contemporary art history in China for their forceful criticism of the ideological control and patriotic education promoted by the state.

Zhang Peili, Announcement no. 3 (Hygiene) (still), 1991. Video (color, silent), 36 minutes 49 seconds. Courtesy of the artist. 

With the exhibition “Learning What Can’t Be Taught” at Asia Art Archive Library, we set out to discuss the major changes in art education in China from the 1950s to the 2000s through a selection of artworks, archival materials, and interviews. “Learning What Can’t Be Taught” tells a story about six artists from three generations, who were each other’s teachers and students at China Academy of Art (CAA), the first art academy in the country, established in 1928. Looking at how these artists have learned art in and outside of classrooms, we ask: What makes a “good student” or a “good teacher”? Can artistic attitude be taught or passed down from one generation to another?

In 2002, Xu Jiang, then the newly appointed president of CAA, inaugurated the New Media Art Department and made it equal in status and scale to the Chinese painting, oil painting, printmaking, and sculpture departments, the four medium-based units that had been the core of the art academy since the 1950s. China’s economy had grown significantly around the turn of the twenty-first century, and universities were encouraged to expand their enrollment, so much so that between 1999 and 2003, the school enrollment rate in higher education rose from 6.3 percent to 15.4 percent. 2 Along with this radical expansion, art education underwent reforms to its structure, curricula, and administration, which allowed space for experimentation before the current formal structures were introduced in the 2010s. In operation from 2003 to 2010, NMAD stands out as a remarkable pedagogical experiment and a pioneer in formalizing contemporary art education in the country. Led by Zhang Peili, a trailblazer of video art in China and an alumnus of CAA, NMAD produced over three hundred graduates before being folded into the new, larger School of Intermedia Art.

The graduation exhibition of NMAD in 2007. Photograph provided by Jiang Zhuyun.

“Democracy and openness are the essence of the education of NMAD,” Zhang said in 2004. 3 His emphasis on “democracy and openness” was not simply a gesture to vague ideals but a pertinent response to the rigid and “parental” style of formal art education in China. The basic pedagogical principles and institutional structure of China’s art education were established in the early 1950s following the tenets of Soviet socialist realism. In the 1980s and 1990s, Zhang Peili and most of the other teachers at NMAD progressed through a similar educational system in which skill training to the level of excellence in a particular medium was the paramount goal. The most radical change NMAD offered was to support students to learn different techniques only after they explored their creative ideas and needs. “Without a project in mind, it’s pointless to just learn skills,” Zhang told us in an interview. “We simply encouraged students to learn skills that were relevant to the work they wanted to make.” 4 This principle was criticized by several faculty members as irresponsible on the teacher’s behalf, and in hindsight, Zhang admitted that students’ self-motivation and proactivity were indispensable for the program to cultivate artists. For Zhang, art education at NMAD aimed to create a stimulating environment for those students who had already developed an interest in art: “Art served as the agent for them to engage in a dialogue [about contemporary society].” 5

In NMAD’s agenda, “new media” did not refer to specific technologies but any creative means that differed from those in traditional academic settings. While NMAD offered classes in the application of contemporary media like video, photography, sound, animation and internet art, it also hosted courses about methods of artmaking that were harder to define in technological terms, such as those involving the body, performance, conceptualism, and creativity at large. In this sense, the newness in the understanding of media in the context of NMAD was not about new media technologies but rather fostering new relationships between media and artistic ideas.

A class by Wen Hui on body expressions at NMAD in 2005. Photograph provided by Jiang Zhuyun.

Another radical change Zhang Peili advocated at NMAD was to invite practicing artists from outside the academy to teach classes, then unprecedented in art education in China. Geng Jianyi, a conceptual art pioneer and an alumnus of CAA, was one such artist and went on to become one of NMAD’s core teachers. In our interview, Jiang Zhuyun, one of the first NMAD graduates and currently a teacher in CAA’s School of Intermedia Art, remembered how he was influenced by an introductory course led by Geng, who would later become a close friend and frequent collaborator. 6 Jiang shared his confusion about Geng relaying the myth of Hou Yi and the ten suns instead of speaking about visual arts in this course. In Chinese mythology, Hou Yi, the god of archery, tries to reason with the ten suns chasing each other across the sky and scorching the earth. After failing to convince them to stop—the ten suns being the ten male offspring of the emperor Jade—he shoots them one by one with arrows until there only one remains. The notion of aiming for the impossible resonated with Geng’s understanding of art education. After working as an educator over twenty years, he would reveal that eventually “art can be learned but cannot be taught.”

Jiang Zhuyun, Sound of Temperature, 2005. Video documentation of performance, 7 minutes 40 seconds.

Installation view of “Learning What Can’t Be Taught,” AAA Library, 2021. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

In the early 1980s, when Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi were students in the oil painting department of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (ZAFA), the former name of CAA, they received similar encouragement to find their individual voices, even though, in Zhang’s words, theirs was a “mechanical training” that required all students meet technical and skill-based standards. This was a time of foundational change for the country, with space allowed for new information and ideas and the revival of literature and creative production following the end of the Cultural Revolution. While art academies were still dominated by the doctrines of socialist realism, some teachers and students sought to test their limitations and provoke discussions about how academies could respond to the fundamental changes in the artistic environment.

Zhang Peili, Untitled, 1983. Oil on canvas, 120 × 100cm. Collection of China Academy of Art. Courtesy of the artist and China Academy of Art.

Installation view of “Learning What Can’t Be Taught,” AAA Library, 2021. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

Zhang Peili’s Untitled (1983) testifies to the creative freedom the artist strived for in his student years. This oil painting depicts a group of workers at a construction site, and although the content of the painting is in line with the proletarian struggle and hardships of everyday life and therefore apt for an education shaped around socialist realism, Zhang’s handling and artistic language diverge significantly from the principles of this orthodoxy. The painting deliberately omits details and explication: the figures don’t show any emotions and are not represented in heroic poses; some even turn their backs to the viewer; and abstract forms populate the background. Characterized by a cool, pale palette in contrast to the vibrant colors of socialist realism, a sense of estrangement and detachment emanates from the work, reflecting the artist’s interest at the time in existentialist literature. In our interview, Zhang shared his motto from the 1980s when he spoke about creating a new language within the restrictions of his education: “What matters is not what you say, but how you say it. What matters is not what you draw but how you draw it. What matters is not what you do but how you do it.” 7

The artistic freedom that Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi benefited from in the early 1980s was exceptional and only possible thanks to a small group of artist-teachers like Zheng Shengtian and Jin Yide, who both supported their students in challenging the principles of socialist realism. The controversy surrounding the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts’ 1985 graduation exhibition is an indication of their remarkable support. Supervised by Jin Yide and Zheng Shengtian, artists of this class from the oil painting department were heavily criticized for their thesis projects, which were targeted for having “too much emphasis on individualism.” In his contribution to the September 1985 issue of the Meishu magazine, Jin Yide describes how these graduation projects prompted a reaction among faculty members: “Many students used phrases like ‘my feelings,’ ‘my passions,’ ‘my language,’ and ‘my world’ in their thesis defense sessions and graduate work statements. These words elicited strong opinions from some comrades, who believed that it was not a good sign for students to emphasize themselves too much.” 8 He then warns about the dangers of conflating issues about academic studies with political ones: “Now, with our students, we know not to equate their political ideology or discipline in the organization with artistic creation and artistic personality.” This debate is now seen as a crucial step for the development of contemporary art education in China.

From right to left: Geng Jianyi, Untitled, 1983. Pencil on paper, 39.5 × 54.5cm; Untitled, 1983. Oil on paper, 34.5 × 41.5cm; Zhang Peili, Untitled, 1983. Oil on canvas, 120 × 100cm. Courtesy of Geng Jianyi’s estate, Zhang Peili, and China Academy of Art.

Installation view of “Learning What Can’t Be Taught,” AAA Library, 2021. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

The late 1970s and 1980s are often considered the beginning of contemporary art in China as artists became committed to creating transgressive and experimental works, working outside of established institutions, and questioning the existing art norms and system. In “Learning What Can’t Be Taught,” we look at how the foundations of contemporary art were built on the previous generation of artist-teachers. Despite developing their own artistic language in the 1950s and 1960s, a period that is often considered as rigid and inward-looking, Jin Yide and Zheng Shengtian passed on to their students Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi an artistic attitude to constantly search for an individual artistic language and to foster a sense of responsibility to cultivate the younger generations.

Jin Yide and Zheng Shengtian were both students at ZAFA in the 1950s, a time when China was starting to adapt to the art and art education system of the Soviet Union. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship in 1950, the convergence of political interests between the two countries led to changes in artistic conventions as well. In the 1950s, the PRC took the specific idea of socialist realism that emerged in the Soviet Union in the 1930s as its norm for aesthetic standards: theories and guidelines about art education in the Soviet Union were translated into Chinese; students were sent to study at art academies in the Soviet Union; and experts from the Soviet Union were invited to teach at China’s major art schools. The most well-known and influential expert was painter Konstantin Maksimov (1913–93), who joined the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing from 1955 to 1957. The first art educator sent from Moscow, he hosted a class for a group of top artists from across China, which is now considered a critical event in the establishment of a paradigm of socialist realism in the country. Graduates of the Maksimov class were known for making some of the most acclaimed paintings in China in the 1950s and the 1960s, and they also became the most acclaimed teachers and administrators in art education. In this context, it was unusual then that Jin Yide and Zheng Shengtian would study other artistic vocabularies that diverged from the orthodox Soviet Union style, including those from Eastern Europe and Latin America, pre–Cultural Revolution influences on contemporary art in China that remain under-researched. 9

“I always liked the art and culture of Russia and the Soviet Union but I didn’t think I had to imitate it,” Zheng Shengtian told us in an interview. “I thought I should look for my own way.” 10 One of his major sources of inspiration was “An Exhibition of Paintings and Prints of Mexico,” organized by the Mexican National Front of Plastic Arts, which toured to Beijing and Shanghai in 1956. Featuring around four hundred artworks, this exhibition was uncommonly large and featured artists that were recognized as socialist but worked in a different style than those of the Soviet Union, including los tres grandes of Mexican muralism: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. That same year, Siqueiros visited Beijing and hosted a forum with Chinese artists where he openly criticized the socialist realism advocated by the Soviet Union as neither able to represent the progress of the contemporary world nor adequate to connect with the national characters of different countries. 11

From left to right: Zheng Shengtian, Nude (reproduction), 1962. Oil on canvas, 65 × 100 cm; Reading (reproduction), 1963. Oil on canvas, 100 × 65 cm. Courtesy of Zheng Shengtian.

Installation view of “Learning What Can’t Be Taught,” AAA Library, 2021. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

Zheng Shengtian’s paintings Nude (1962) and Reading (1963) show his experimentation with artistic languages beyond Soviet socialist realism, and the influences from Mexican muralists and his teacher Dong Xiwen (1914–73), an artist who advocated for a kind of contemporary oil painting that is connected to China’s own artistic heritage. In these works, Zheng uses strong colors and rough shapes to create a sense of flatness, but because of their unusual style, neither of these works were selected for exhibitions at the time when they were made. My Home on the Grassland, another painting of Zheng from the same period, was accepted to the 4th National Fine Art Exhibition in 1964, but it quickly prompted criticism and was removed from the exhibition and never returned to the artist. In recent years, Zheng has remade some of his paintings that were confiscated or destroyed during the 1960s and 1970s, adding his self-portraits and written memories to the paintings in a body of work he calls The Lost Paintings.

Zheng Shengtian, Lost Paintings My Home On The Grassland (1964), 2020. Oil on canvas, 122 × 183cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Jin Yide’s paintings from the same period were not accepted in exhibitions either. Anyang (1963), Dalian (1963), Lanxi (1963), and Harbin (1963)—all landscape paintings showing diverse modernist vocabularies, which were not considered “suitable” artworks at the time—have only been shown to the public in his 2017 retrospective at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. Kept in Jin’s studio for decades, these paintings provide an entry point for the artist’s process of looking for his voice and for considering the influences of an education that espoused the idea that art had infinite methods. From 1960 to 1962, Jin Yide participated in a class led by the Romanian artist Eugene Popa (1919–96) at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. This class created uneasiness among faculty members as Popa advocated a form of socialist art that embraced artistic individuality, another move away from the orthodoxy of Soviet socialist realism. While graduates of the 1953–55 Maksimov class were treasured as elites and given the power to lead art education in the country, graduates of the Popa class were criticized for having acquired bourgeois ideas of modernism. Even if, in practice, Popa’s class was less influential than Maksimov’s class due to its smaller scale, it was foundational for a group of artists who were dedicated to seeking alternative artistic languages. In a similar vein, Jin would take classes from Ni Yide, a pioneer of modernist art in China, who instructed his students that there was not an ideal method that guaranteed success. Jin recalled, “This realization was more important to me than learning new skills.” 12

Top, from left to right: Jin Yide, Angang, 1963. Oil on paper, 54.5 × 39cm; Dalian, 1963. Oil on paper, 46.8 × 32.1cm. Bottom, from left to right: Members of the Eugen Popa Class at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, 1960. Photograph (reproduction); Ni Yide and Jin Yide, 1963. Photograph (reproduction); Jin Yide in front of his work Support Cuba, 1962. Photograph (reproduction). Courtesy of Jin Yide.

Installation view of “Learning What Can’t Be Taught,” AAA Library, 2021. Photo: Kitmin Lee.

Following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the resumption of art education, Zheng Shengtian became the first academic art teacher in China to receive national funding to visit the United States. From 1980 to 1982, he taught at the University of Minnesota as a visiting professor; he also visited Mexico, Canada, and thirteen countries in Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Norway, and Finland, among others, and eventually returned to China through the Soviet Union. He made hundreds of slides and photographs of artworks in museums during these trips and brought them back to Hangzhou in 1983, which constituted “the largest collection of international art” in China at that time. 13 “During my two-year stay in the US, I had three exhibitions that received generally favorable reviews. But an overwhelming state of confusion would reign over me when I was alone in the studio. The overseas experience had broadened my horizons: there was so much artistic terrain for me to fly over, but the traditional training I had received in the academy still kept my wings bound, leaving me in a pained struggle between ‘I would’ and ‘I could not,’” he wrote in a memoir. “I made a mental note to myself that when I resumed teaching, by no means would I trammel my students in any way.” 14

Zheng has known well that education is crucial in providing the necessary conditions for an artist to grow but that it might also hinder an artist’s potential. Born in 1938, he is among the generation of artists who experienced the political turmoil in China in the second half of the twentieth century, when the boundaries of what is suitable for teaching and learning changed drastically. Now eighty-three years old, Zheng is still active in research, writing, and other activities to promote art and is recognized by many important contemporary artists as an influential teacher. In the interview for “Learning What Can’t Be Taught,” we asked Zheng about the moment when he felt he turned from a student to an artist. His response reveals, for us, a precious attitude for any artist and educator: “I am still waiting for this moment to come.” 15


Interview with Lu Yang, conducted by Anthony Yung, December 2020. To watch the full interview, please see this link.


“School enrollment, tertiary (% gross),” World Bank Open Data .


Zhang Peili, “Why the New Media Art Department Is Necessary,” 2004.


Interview with Zhang Peili, conducted by Anthony Yung, December 2020. To watch the full interview, please see this link.




Interview with Jiang Zhuyun, conducted by Anthony Yung, December 2020. To watch the full interview, please see this link.


Interview with Zhang Peili.


Jin Yide, “Thoughts About Supervising the Graduation Projects,” Meishu, September 1985, 43–46. Translated by Anthony Yung.


Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century, Zheng Shengtian’s decades-long research on the infusion of Mexican art into twentieth-century Chinese art, offers exceptional research in this field. Click here to see the catalog of this exhibition, published by USC Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena, CA.


Interview with Zheng Shengtian, conducted by Anthony Yung, December 2020. To watch the full interview, please see this link.


Zheng Shengtian, “Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century,” in Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century (Pasadena, CA: USC Pacific Asia Museum), 14–16.


Interview with Jin Yide, conducted by Anthony Yung, December 2020. To watch the full interview, please see this link.


Interview with Zheng Shengtian, conducted by Jane DeBevoise, October 2009 .


Zheng Shengtian, “Encountering Life: Scanning Myself,” 2013 . Translated from Chinese to English by Zhao Han.


Interview with Zheng Shengtian, conducted by Anthony Yung, December 2020.

Education, Contemporary Art, Painting, Communism, Latin America
China, Curating, Exhibition Histories, Academia, Socialist Realism, Artistic Research, Censorship, Community, State & Government, Computer-Generated Art, Figurative Painting, Historicity & Historiography

Özge Ersoy is Senior Curator at Asia Art Archive. She was Research and Programming Associate of the 13th Gwangju Biennale (2021–21) and Assistant Curator of Sarkis: Respiro at the Pavilion of Turkey, La Biennale di Venezia (2015). Her recent writings have been included in Curating Under Pressure  (Routledge, 2020) and The Constituent Museum (Valiz and L’Internationale, 2018).


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