This is an issue about “art youth,” a designation that sounds much more natural in Chinese. It’s hard to convey all the connotations it instantly summons, but for starters, it doesn’t mean “young artist.” It’s a subcategory of the “arts and culture youth,” a stock character in the contemporary urban imagination who sports Warrior sneakers like the ones she had in junior high, hangs out on the social-networking site Douban, lives on lattes and late-night hot-pot, and collects old aluminum toys that evoke a 1980s upbringing in a city probably already unrecognizable today.

The overlap with the American category of the hipster is considerable, and that that word seems to have run its course, while the “art youth” seem to be just gathering steam, says a thing or two about the bigger situation. The American hipster heyday, somewhere between 2002 and 2006, was a few things at once—a political reaction to Bush-era weltschmerz, an expansion of the liberal consciousness after the multicultural battles of the 1990s, an inchoate fear of the incipient technoculture, and alongside that, a rudimentary embrace of the possibilities for atomized self-actualization that it suddenly offered.

Elegies to hipsterdom often invoke its easy slippage into a category coined by an earlier generation of youth—the Yuppie—as “identity construction” degenerates (or sublimates) into consumer preference, which the long tail is infinitely equipped to fulfill. Irony, the hipsters’ signature mode, has been decried as privileged nihilism, then psychologized as harkening back to the moment their Boomer parents met. For the art youth, the aesthetic tension seems to be more with symbols of their own early childhood. And that, in turn, is just a validation of that childhood, by a generation that rightly sees itself as heir to the spoils of a century-long catch-up game played in earnest by their forebears.

I feel lucky to have spent my twenties in the interstices of these two subjectivities. My first few years in Beijing brought me close to artists mostly of the generation just below that of the Polit-Sheer-Form group, a group for whom, in turn, the youthful 1980s avant-garde still loomed large. Their generational experience simply did not allow for the easy detachment of the New York scene, which I would dip into and out of usually for a few days on either end of a newly installed Beijing direct. Seeing a Qiu Xiaofei painting in an indie bookstore in 798 one summer day in 2004 was thus revelatory, a hint that a new sensibility, based on imagined nostalgia, was emergent.

The “art youth” have had a good run these past few years, emboldened by the surging economy, the rise of the creative class, and a newfound ease of access to (and exchange of) information, particularly the visual kind. Sure, they are just another consumer demographic. But they also intuitively get, in a way few before them have, how “identity construction” can be a hedge against having one’s identity constructed. Their creations keep them, and perhaps their less artistic contemporaries along with them, from turning into the psychiatric patients at the bottom of the Qiu Xiaofei painting on our cover, trapped behind electric glasses meant to keep them calm. If they are ironic it is because they get how easy it is, as Qiu describes his seated figures, “to mold belief from delusion,” and they want to stay alert.

July 25, 2010