China, Artists, & the Olympics: What Have They Got That We Don't?

08/14/2008 07:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The opening extravaganza at the Beijing Olympics one of those rare moments when many different threads of history simultaneously pass through the eye of the same needle. Yet what fills the pages of Western newspapers is this "scandal:" when we saw the cute little 9 year old girl sing alone in front of a billion people, the voice we actually heard was that of a 7 year old girl off camera.

Like, where have these people been?

Clearly they haven't seen a Madonna concert in the last 20 years. Or a concert by nearly any other major pop act. But surely they have seen a movie. Perhaps they don't understand the basics of how most sound is dubbed in movies. Or maybe they missed the fact that the whole Chinese megaevent was directed by a film maker, Zhang Yimou, who described the spectacle as a "live movie."

The main thing about the hi-tech whatever-it-was is that no one else in the world could have pulled it off. And that is disconcerting for Americans. There is very little around the world that we cannot convince ourselves we could do if we really wanted to. Not this.

First off, no other country has that kind of command of people. 22,000 of them. In 15,000 outfits. Doing the same perfectly synchronized choreography. Smiling. Each group of 2008 even seemed to have the same haircut. And of course no one else has that kind of money. Or all that technology, which is another way of saying money. Most of all, no one else could bring all of those pieces together quite like that, because no one else has an all-powerful Chinese Communist Party that could make it all happen. And in lock-step synchronization with the foreign policy of the state.

Does America even have a foreign policy these days? If we do, it must have something to do with McDonalds, judging by our golden arched embassies cluttering the world.

Most amazing of all, the show was actually good, in a weird, shallow, scary kind of way. But some of that goes with being a spectacle. Nuance and ambiguity are not on that menu. You try taking a hundred million dollars, 22,000 people and more digital gadgetry than NASA has and create a subtle literary masterpiece. Not.

No, it was not Great Art, but it was often beautiful in a shallow, glitzy way. Cirque de Soleil on a billion steroids. To go with all the athletes on steroids.

Just imagine The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave trying to pull this off. Imagine an American Olympics in which a big budget was laid out to wow the world with a spectacle of dance, music and technology to display our culture to the world. What would it look like? Well, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you don't have to use your imagination. You can actually watch the bi show from the 2002 Utah Olympics, featuring two tacky talking dinosaur heads blathering on in TV-sitcom-ese about the evolution of the human family when out from the dinos emerge... Donnie and Marie Osmond! Go ahead, click on the link. You have to see it to believe it.

For its big Olympic entertainer, China got Zhang Yimou. Zhang is a serious film maker. In fact, for years his work was banned in China. When he won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, the state would not even let him go to France to pick up his prize. Now he is overseeing the regime's beyond-hi-tech smiley-face-to-the-world. "10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1- Welcome Friends!"

Which of course triggered a chorus of "sell out" accusations and comparisons to Leni Riefenstahl, the hip-at-the-time German filmmaker who filmed the Nazi propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will at the Nuremberg rallies in 1934. Only history will tell whether such a comparison is deserved. But hey, my country has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and is running secret torture chambers around the world, yet no one is turning down NEA grants.

The more interesting fact is that the Chinese state has been actively seeking - and achieving - peace with China's artistic class.

Take all those Olympic fireworks, for example. They were designed and overseen by Cai Guo-Qiang. Cai is a Chinese-born, NYC-based artist whose extraordinary work filled the Guggenheim for three months earlier this year. I liked his show so much I bought the catalog. Cai started out experimenting with painting on paper with gunpowder. He would lay a large paper out on the floor and sprinkle gunpowder in the shapes he wanted. Then he would cover the powder with different sorts of objects depending on the effect he wanted. With his assistants gathered around the edges holding bags of sand. Cai would light the gunpowder which would explode in a flash, and the assistants would run onto the paper putting out the fire with their sand bags so the paper didn't burn up.

The resulting images are beautiful. A sort of Chinese calligraphy, but with a deeper texture, a texture which evokes a whole history of China and the invention of gunpowder and whatever else the viewer brings to the experience. Go the Guggenheim exhibition site, click on "view online exhibition," then "gunpowder drawings." Starting from drawing with gunpowder on little pieces of paper, Cai worked up in scale a step at a time and eventually arrived at the 2008 Olympics.

Donnie and Marie Osmond? Gimme a break.

Is the collaboration of artists like Cai and Zhang with the Chinese state on such a mammoth scale a sell-out or a reflection of how rapidly things are changing in China? The conventional wisdom of the West has course been that if China really wanted to "modernize" its economy then the Communist Party would either have to collapse or at the very least get pushed aside. Like happened in the Soviet bloc. Except that the post-Soviet experiment hasn't turned out so well, has it? And the Chinese are doing just fine thank you. Party and markets and technology and artists and media. Is it capitalist or Communist? What is happening in China is hard to pigeon-hole into the boxes we are accustomed to.

Certainly it is a massively repressive system. Repressive in ways that are unique in scope and scale, just like the Olympic spectacle itself was unique in scope and scale. I doubt the Tibetans were much impressed by the fireworks. Or the many Chinese villagers who have protested the utter degradation of the environmental necessities of their lives, only to be caught in a never-ended web of police brutality, judicial nightmare, and state-fabricated media-reality that is also unique in scope and scale. But the Chinese state, while repressive, is clearly not monolithic. Crucially, it seems to leave niches in which innovation is possible. And there is a growing cadre of artists willing to occupy those niches.

By the way, if you didn't see the Olympic extravaganza as NBC broadcast it, you can't see it at all, at least for now. As soon as it was done, videos of it were posted all around the Internet. YouTube was all over it. But a repressive power with international reach quickly forced everyone to take all that down. That would be NBC, which paid nearly US$1 billion for the exclusive rights to show this to you, American consumer-citizen. But do not despair, if you go to NBC's web site and wait through the commercials, you can see a couple of little snippets the editors at NBC selected for you.