China’s Creativity Classes: Lessons in Artistic Self-Discovery and Personality

To the casual observer, the gaokao ()—China’s infamously stressful college entrance examination—is perhaps the most salient feature of the Chinese education system. But what of “art test fever”, the phenomenon of high school students enrolling en masse in art test prep schools in the hopes of acquiring the necessary gaokao scores for studying art? Lily Chumley, an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, sheds light on this trend in her latest book, Creativity Class: Art School and Culture Work in Postsocialist China (2016).

This book is the culmination of her research conducted from 2006 to 2009, during which she conducted extensive fieldwork through visits to China’s most prestigious art academies and art test prep schools. Chumley believes that this art test fever is very much a speculative bubble incentivized by the pressures of the academic test entrance system: while gaokao scores for art schools are lower than for other fields, the influx of test takers and a general population boom over the years has resulted in a concomitant increase in testing standards across the board. This maxing out of testing capacity is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that physical models have now been replaced by verbal prompts in art school entrance tests.

What struck me the most about art testing and education in China was the discrepancy between demands of the entrance test and those of professional culture industries that students go into after graduation. While the art test is a quantifying regime, in which one’s performance is converted into numerical scores for evaluation, success in aesthetic markets requires the presentation of one’s work in person i.e. a rhematizing regime, in which qualia is converted into indexical icons of personality. This is where “creativity classes” come in during the second year of college to bridge this gap and mark the beginning of foundation training i.e. the moment of radical transition from one mode of evaluation to another. At the gaokao level, evaluation of the student’s work takes place in isolation, with students being held to unified standards; at the college level, students have to narrate their artistic style and are repeatedly told to “find themselves”.

Chumley highlights that teachers themselves have constantly referenced the problems inherent in the current test-based system: for instance, Shandong was described to her as a sea of test prep schools. Creativity class, then, is essential for enabling students to find their own brand of distinctiveness as they transition to self-directed professionalization. According to Chumley, the students she spoke to over the course of her research found this especially stressful because of the value placed on curating one’s personality and style. These creative economies thus perpetuate anxiety amongst these professional aspirants. Ultimately, Chumley sees creativity as a means of enhancing China’s human capital, intellectual property, and soft power.

To learn more about her personal experiences and research, head on over to ChinaFile, where you can find a short video interview she gave last year.

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