Art History faculty member’s book explores artists’ social engagement in China

By Merrick Morneweck

Headshot of Chang Tan

Chang Tan, an associate professor of art history and Asian studies in the Department of Art History, has written a new book, “The Minjian Avant-Garde: Art of the Crowd in Contemporary China,” which is currently available at the Cornell University Press website and various online bookstores.

In the book, Tan explores how experimental artists in China interacted with Minjian, the rapidly transforming and diverse public of the post-Mao era.

“What I tried to do with the book is to focus on the artist and the artwork’s interactions and encounters with a broader audience,” Tan said.

While most research on contemporary art has centered on art institutions and artist communities, Tan’s work explores how the artists interacted with marginalized communities and others outside of what she called, “the very exclusive world of art.”

“I wanted to investigate the populist urge in art to both assess its strengths, but also to see its pitfalls and problems,” Tan said.

“The Minjian Avant-Garde,” which took about a decade to complete, studies artworks created over the last 40 years.

Research for the book included travel to the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong and Brooklyn, New York, to examine printed and handwritten materials, as well as visits to museums, artist studios, and private collections of art. She also conducted extensive in-person and email interviews with several artists.

Tan has been at Penn State since 2014. Her research and pedagogy focus on modern and contemporary Chinese and East Asian art, as well as ecological art and art of the diaspora. She is currently on research leave to focus on her next book project, and will continue working on this project at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts at Washington, D.C. next year.