Art and China's Revolution

Through January 11

The New York Asia Society

At the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, Mao Zedong declared that "in our struggle for the liberation of the Chinese people .  .  . there are the fronts of the pen and of the gun." In addition to these fronts, he exploited another in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976: the paint brush. Mao understood, in all his terrifying genius, that a necessary part of changing a culture is changing its art. During China's Mao era--roughly the three decades following the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949--much art was made either within or outside Mao's imperative that art serve his politics. Yet little of this art has entered the public square; and what has--mostly the large paintings of Mao with happy peasants fawning at his side--has been quickly dismissed as propaganda.

The New York Asia Society believes that this art warrants a second look, both for its aesthetic merit and for its legacy. As the contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing notes, "If you want to probe deeply into the underpinnings of contemporary Chinese art, you have to consider the influence of the Cultural Revolution on my generation because it was an entirely unique experience." Which makes sense, since these artists grew up in the endless parade of Mao's face. One painting alone--Liu Chunhua's "Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan" (1969)--was reprinted, by some estimates, 900 million times.

Understanding the significance of the era, cocurators Melissa Chiu and Zheng Shengtian have spent five years preparing this landmark exhibition. On view are over 250 works, many of which have never been exhibited in the United States, or exhibited at all. Though these 250 works, ranging from prints to paintings to sculptures, cover the many facets of Maoist art, more would have been on view had the Ministry of Culture in Beijing not frustrated the society's plans to exhibit 100 Mao-related works which have been sitting in storage (and without public access) in Chinese galleries for decades. The Chinese refusal to grant the necessary loan permits is a blatant attempt to censor a show on a subject the Ministry of Culture deems too sensitive for discussion--or disagreement.

As Chiu and Zheng know too well, "Art and China's Revolution" is a show that could not happen in China today. They were told, unofficially, by Chinese officials that the ministry refused the permits because of the show's timing. The opening date was uncomfortably close to the Olympics, a time for China to impress the world as a formidable, forward-looking nation. Reminding that same global audience--and in the cultural capital of the United States, no less--of China's stained past was something the Ministry of Culture had no desire to endorse. And yet, of course, their decision had the opposite effect: It just made China look worse.

The New York Asia Society, it must be noted, is not a museum. It has a permanent collection of art, and rooms for special exhibitions; but it is primarily a "nonpartisan, nonprofit educational institution" with offices here and across Asia designed to "enhance dialogue, encourage creative expression, and generate new ideas across the fields of policy, business, education, arts, and culture." And so it makes sense that the Asia Society would put on a show whose temper is academic, careful, reserved--and above all, diplomatic.

Mao's misdeeds aren't belabored here. The focus isn't even on him; it's on art itself and the artists who clocked in the hours to make it. To illustrate that important shift in focus, Chiu and Zheng arranged for six of the artists appearing in the show to answer questions and tell stories at a press preview. In so doing, they could prove that they painted in more than Communist red and that their work transcends "propaganda." As Zheng told us, "I want you to see beyond propaganda, to see the lives of artists. That is our hope."

It's according to that hope that he and Chiu arranged the works. The first rooms address Mao directly, as if he were a hill to climb so that the rest of the show can proceed downhill. Here the visitor finds a wealth of Mao memorabilia: Mao magazines and newspapers and Little Red Books, including one blue-jacketed copy from the 1964 trial edition; vases printed with slogans such as "Bombard the headquarters, my big-character poster!"; medallions and buttons plastered with Mao's face; teacups and teapots emblazoned with scenes from revolutionary ballets such as The Red Detachment of Women; red matchboxes and cigarette packs featuring cartoon soldiers; and even one commemorative glass mango, revered as a modern relic and symbol of Mao-thought.

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.

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