The Magazine

Seeing Red

Happy, productive peasants can't be wrong: Socialist Realism lives!

Dec 1, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 11 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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All these items are impersonal, mass-produced. The next room, still inundated with Mao's iconic image, introduces us to artists. Here hang floor-to-ceiling some of the giant, illustrative oil paintings rendered in the Soviet Socialist Realist style and touted as "model" works for following Mao's precepts: that art be hong, guang, liang (red, bright, shining) and gao, da, quan (lofty, grand, complete).

Mao stands tallest in each--in 1958 he lamented that an artist had dared to paint him shorter than Stalin--and at the center, always smiling. Others depict him alone, bordering on godhood amid wispy clouds. The works remain mask-like, a film of highly polished myth in which one thought reigns: Long Live Chairman Mao! There is an artist who made the work, but he can't be found beneath the thick layer of Mao.

It is in the next section that Chiu and Zheng place works to chip away at that layer. Notably, Mao isn't to be found: The images are taken from the observed world, such as a crane poised in dark underbrush, a snowscape, skull, orchid, or peasant. These works were made by older artists whom the Red Guards persecuted, subjected to physical and mental torture, and labeled "black" (like the Nazi epithet "degenerate") for working in the old custom of ink painting; or by younger artists who forsook Mao and joined the secret No Name Group, founded in the early 1960s for the study of European Modernist styles. Other works in the section are by young artists who went to the countryside in Mao's name to "enter deeply into life" for "reeducation" among peasants instead of among "intellectual, bourgeois" professors.

Just before the exit there's a collection of small studies of peasants rendered in cheap oil paint on cheap paper--sometimes magazine pages, which buckle under the weight and greasiness of oil. But it is their imperfection that gets to the marrow of this exhibition: In these simple studies, the artist expresses affection for his people.

Such affection is what the visiting artists kept returning to, not the injustices they suffered under Mao. (Zheng was imprisoned in a cowshed where he and others labeled "intellectual bourgeois amenable to reform" were placed for intense sessions of "self-correction" and public criticism.) For Zheng and the six, it is preferable to present themselves as artists, not victims, and their work as art, not propaganda.

But there is an irony here, for "Art and China's Revolution" asks the visitor to divorce art from politics when Mao had rallied for the exact opposite. "What we demand," he said, "is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form." It's dangerous to forget Mao's imperative for ideological purity in art, for it is to see the art not as it truly is.

The show's last component was installed on the Park Avenue median on 70th Street, right outside the Asia Society building, soon after the show had opened. It's a 10-foot tall steel sculpture of a Mao jacket, standing upright and bodyless on its bottom hem. The right sleeve is raised slightly, as if about to acknowledge the visitor, and it's as if Mao's ghost were in there, keeping mum inside that massive steel husk. Like the other works nestled inside the gallery, this sculpture presents the persistent fact that China's artists are still wrestling with Mao Zedong. They are caught, in the words of the catalogue, somewhere between "criticism and nostalgia."

Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.