Rufus Jiaan Chen

Commodity_Wang1 (1)

Figure 1. Wang Guangyi, Great Castigation: Coca-Cola (1993), Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm, Asia Society, New York

Commodity is essentially an economic term.  It is associated with the trading of basic goods, such as foodstuffs and raw materials, and is an object exchanged either for money or other commodities.1 In Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1867), Marx writes that “as soon as products of labor are produced as commodities, they became inseparable from the production of commodities.”2 Paul Wood has discussed how this concept of the “labor theory of value” might be applied to the analysis of art. A work of art can be considered a product of labor since the artist spends time, money and effort in making it. Yet, art is a special kind of commodity. It behaves differently from other commodities, in that the labor involved in making art does not necessarily correlate to the exchange value of what is produced, nor is the exchange value clearly related to use value.3 In the contemporary era, several artists have explored the complex relationships that inform our understanding of how art becomes commodified, while challenging the assumed boundaries therein, while others have seemed to uncritically embrace – even celebrate – the status of art as commodity.4

The Chinese avant-garde artist Wang Guangyi (b. 1957) depicts commodities such as Coca-Cola and Marlboro in his paintings to investigate the political issues surrounding the uneasy co-existence between capitalism and communism in China. Wang’s work reflects the post-Cultural Revolution era (1976-present), when the rapid intake of commodities took place in Mainland China. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), alleged that capitalism had infiltrated the government and Chinese society, and decided to preserve the “true” communist ideology by purging all present capitalist structures.5 Thus, Mao prohibited any type of currency-based commerce for 10 years until his death in 1977.6 The lack of commodity exchange for a decade jeopardized China’s global economic development. When Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) resurrected the Chinese economy through his policy proposal entitled Chinese Economic Reform (1978-present), he transformed China into a communist country with a capitalist economy.7 Henceforth, commodification became the focal point not only for China’s businessmen and economists, but also for its artists.

China’s ambivalent economic identity in the post-Mao period—its combination of Communist governmental principles and capitalist economic structures —dominates Wang’s Great Castigation: Coca-Cola (1993) [Figure 1].8 The painting depicts three figures: a soldier, a peasant and a worker. The first figure clutches Mao’s Red Book (a book of selected statements from speeches and writings by Mao) while all three together hold a large fountain pen that also serves as a flagpole. The nib of the pen thrusts into the capital “C” in “Cola” of the white letters to complete the brand name “Coca-Cola.” Philosopher Mary Bittner Wiseman has proposed that the first letter “C” stands for communism while the second “C,” attacked by the pen, can be interpreted as consumerism.9 The three fearless figures bearing a red flag (which evokes the flag of China) seem to challenge the Coca-Cola brand, which at the time of this painting’s creation had the largest share in China’s beverage market. Together, these figures capture the conflicting and fluctuating nature of Chinese economic and political ideologies by confronting China’s socialist past and its consumer-driven future.10 Wang explained the combination of these two “fantastic” ideologies in Karen Smith’s Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China (2008):

Wang Guangyi, Great Castigation: Louis Vuitton, 2003, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50cm, Ravenel International Art Group, Hong Kong

Figure 1. Wang Guangyi, Great Castigation: Louis Vuitton (2003), Oil on canvas, 40 x 50cm, Ravenel International Art Group, Hong Kong

I put the [Coca-Cola] can down to turn a page and suddenly, I found that the posturing of the soldier-peasant-workers against the Coca-Cola logo made strong visual sense. The more I looked the more intrigued I became. In content and style, both graphics are the product of two very different cultural backgrounds, and each totally embodied its own fantastic kind of ideology.11

The three figures are painted in a similar graphic style to Mao’s propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution, which heavily criticized Western consumerism. However, during the 1990s, the Communist Party began to promote materialistic consumption to increase China’s economic strength and to maintain its grip on political power. Coca-Cola was indeed one of the earliest Western enterprises that entered China, and its logo evokes China’s innovative economic successes under Communist leadership.12 The content of Wang’s painting is highly contradictory because it appropriates anti-materialist, propagandistic art from the Cultural Revolution, but also becomes an object of material consumption.13

Wang began the The Great Castigation series in 1990 and ended it in 2007, a period during which he witnessed the rapid increase of commodity consumption in the Chinese market. He painted basic goods in the 1990s, such as in Coca-Cola, and then luxury brands in works like Louis Vuitton (2003) in the new millennium [Figure 2].14 After two decades of artistic exploration, Wang earned a reputation in the global art market as his works achieved increasingly higher hammer prices at auction.  Great Castigation: Coca-Cola sold for £893,600 (approx. $1,324,918 USD)  at the Phillips Auction House in London on October 7, 2007. A can of Coca-Cola only costs about one dollar in China, but it becomes a million-dollar commodity when converted into art. While Wang’s work began as an exploration into the political and cultural power of commodities, it has since become a kind of luxury commodity in and of itself.


  1. Paul Wood, “Commodity” in Critical Terms for Art History, eds. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 383.
  2. Karl Marx, “The Fetishism of the Commodity and the Secret Thereof,” in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy vol.1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1867), 47.
  3. Wood, 388.
  4. Peter Kalb, “Commodities and Consumerism.” Chapter 8 in Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2013), 116.
  5. Jiehong Jiang. “Burden or Legacy from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art,” In Burden or Legacy from the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art, ed. Jiehong Jiang (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007). 220.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Mary Bittner Wiseman, “Subversive Strategies in Chinese Avant‐Garde Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65: 1 (Winter 2007): 112.
  8. Ibid., 113.
  9. Wiseman, 112.
  10. Britta Erickson, On the Edge: Contemporary Chinese Artists Encounter the West (Stanford, CA: Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center, 2004), 11.
  11. Karen Smith, Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China (London: Timezone 8 Limited, 2008), 61
  12. Guey-Meei Yang and Tom Suchan, “The Cultural Revolution and Contemporary Chinese Art,” Art Education 62:6 (2009), 27.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Minglu Gao, “Kitsch and Complicity: The Case of Political Pop and Cynical Realism,” in Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 257.