Earlier this year, Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) ran a massive exhibition about the artistic response to Taiwan’s emergence from authoritarianism. The Wild Eighties: Dawn of a Transdisciplinary Taiwan detailed the democratic, taboo-breaking energy that exploded through Taiwan’s art scene in the 1980s. Covering everything from performance pieces to Taiwanese New Wave Cinema films, it raised a question, though: Where does that vibrant atmosphere sit in relation to today?
Now, we’ve had the chance to interview one the exhibition’s curators, Director Jun-Jieh Wang (王俊傑), to get his thoughts on an answer. The following conversation took place via video call. It’s been translated into English and edited for length and clarity.
The exhibition looked at the artistic protest movements of the 1980s. What were people fighting for back then? Was it economic demands, identity issues or calls for freedom from government oppression?
We have to talk about it from the 70s. In the late 70s, after Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) became the president, the Chinese Nationalist Party started to promote the Ten Major Construction Projects. That meant Taiwan experienced a large economic boom. There was a peculiar situation: While the economy was great, the political oppression [under martial law] started to loosen. As such, there was not much economic resistance, the resistance was more like clashing against the whole [authoritarian] system, in the manner of the early Democratic Progressive Party. For example, there was The Kaohsiung Incident in the late 70s. From that position, in the 80s, there was the sense of a social justice movement forming.
Of course, the economy was also connected to social causes. At that time, Taiwan began to have large corporations that were monopolizing the economy and manipulating the stock market. Those who monopolized the stock market were arrested. Additionally, at the end of the 1980s, more intense student movements were popping up. For example, toward the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, there were student movements like the Wild Lily Student Movement, and also the Snail Without Shell Movement, in which the younger generation camped out to protest against unaffordable housing. And then there were also issues like the first gutter oil incident. As these events slowly surfaced, people started to realize the importance of social and public issues.
What happened to the 80s artistic-political energy in the end? The exhibition mentions some criticism of filmmakers for working with the government. Is this how it fizzled out? Were artists caught between a rock and a hard place, between commercial and government funding?
Okay, this is an interesting question. If the same thing happened today, I don’t think anyone would find it strange, because government funding for art, culture or artists seems very natural in today’s world. Artists creating commercial and artistic works at the same time is now seen as natural too, because everyone has to make a living. But in the 80s, things were slightly different. The government offered very little funding for arts and culture, artists were creating works with very few resources. If there was political intervention in art, or if independent artists were in contact with government agencies, it would get a lot of attention.
This is the big difference between then and now, but Taiwan New Wave Cinema is another complicated issue. The Taiwan New Wave started in 1982 with the support of Taiwan’s Central Motion Picture Corporation, a government-owned film company. It was rather strange that a government agency supported small scale art films. It was because the entire Taiwanese film market was in a crisis, so these agencies thought they could support young directors, and the approach worked, surprisingly, so they continued supporting a lot of young talents.
However, later on the wave lost momentum, because while intellectuals were supportive of these new directors, the films were criticized for not generating a large box office take. This created the demand from some people that the films should be both popular and commercially successful, while others thought they should reflect the artistic vision of intellectuals. Films were thus divided into two completely different directions. Therefore, it caused a lot of controversy when Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) and other important Taiwanese filmmakers shot a promotional video for the Ministry of National Defense.
Is that split in Taiwan’s art — between commercial and government-funded work — still reflected today?
I think the state of Taiwan’s art environment is a bit strange right now. The government provides a lot of support that artists can apply for. So, whether it’s the Ministry of Culture or the cultural bureaus of local governments, they all have a lot of funding. However, when the artists’ survival depends entirely on the government, it’s hard to tell if they are true to their artistic visions. The government will support all kinds of projects, and in every city and county there are art festivals which need the artists’ participation to help with city marketing. Therefore, governmental financial support, commercial commissions, city branding, art and whatever other elements are now mashed into one thing.
Does this make creating art feel like ticking boxes?
The art market has begun to strongly intervene in artists’ creative processes. In the 80s, there was no art market. So when artists were creating, they wouldn’t be so clear about what kind of art they wanted to create or what kind of results they could achieve. Idealism at the time was stronger because when you were creating you knew you couldn’t sell it for money. However, things now are different, you very likely create things for an external motivation. In this situation, the essence of the art, and the possible profitability, or other external motivations, come with conflicts, in my opinion.
Do you think any of the energy from the 1980s is still around in Taiwan today?
The values are completely different. I think the energy at that time was completely based on the intellectuals, artists, and cultural figures. They were very idealistic, and the values were very pure: That is, to change, and to fight against the unreasonable. By comparison, today’s society is already digitized, and everything is professionalized and systematized. So when we do anything, it’s not like in the 80s, when we did things purely for an ideal. Although we find the 80s very interesting, it’s a little difficult to say it has a direct influence on today. Everything has its own place now. And thus, it’s a little bit difficult to be ideal-driven.