An Essay for Red Art – Propaganda Posters from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

Jennifer Dorothy Lee

August 2016

025Red Art—Propaganda Posters from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), an exhibition cosponsored by the Research House for Asian Art and the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Chicago, IL, arrives on the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), commonly called the Cultural Revolution, for short.  The proletariat is rarely spoken of today, in the contexts of twenty-first century globalization.  Its imagery nonetheless maintains a strong presence in global imaginations.

Once a repository for anti-establishment sentiment in the 1960s and 1970s, the Cultural Revolution inspired social movements throughout North America and Western Europe.  Today it fuels popular imagination by representing the complex apparatus of the state in extremis, challenged and overturned from within.  Scholars continue to construct interpretations of its causes and greatest excesses.  As a movement against social inequality, it rejected the new class divisions forming under growing Party bureaucracy after the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  As a strategy to shift the balance of elite power, it reconsolidated Mao Zedong’s (1893-1976) political position following the economic failures of the Great Leap Forward.  Existing narratives of this revolutionary zenith often consign it to history’s dustbin as an exception, an episode of “insanity, embodying nothing but chaos and violent destruction.”  This explanatory tendency only highlights the importance of approaching the historical traces of the Cultural Revolution with fresh eyes to unpack the symbolism of its visual forms and contents.

In addition to its lasting impact on world history of the twentieth century, the Cultural Revolution continues to influence how the PRC is produced through art.  Visual forms evolved with the rise of socialism and communism in China to satisfy new demands of art to serve the people and the revolutionary project embodied by the new party-state.  Cultural Revolution poster art arose from fluid contexts of technological innovation, cosmopolitan cultural exchange, commercial art, and wartime contingency to fill these demands.  The posters themselves reveal an amalgamation of visual styles and mediums that include the woodcut (banhua), traditional Chinese painting (guohua), new year prints (nianhua), watercolor, and oil painting; all deriving, in turn, from Chinese printmaking, folk art, nineteenth-century European naturalism, as well as Soviet-derived socialist realism.  Poster art came to serve as the nation’s primary vehicle of representation and information transmission, presenting didactic combinations of word and image classified as propaganda.

Easily dismissed in conversations of Chinese art and aesthetics, propaganda is a term of deceptive simplicity.  It evokes the imagery of Mao’s cult status, little red books, and the single-minded radicalism of the Red Guard movement (1966-1968).  Such associations incite strong reactions in viewers.  For many, the works produced under the aegis of the China Federation of Literature and Arts Circles constitute little more than cultural homogenization imposed by authoritarian governance, especially that of Jiang Qing (1914-1991) and the Gang of Four.  Indeed, the depictions of weapon-wielding ranks of worker-peasant-soldiers make no gentle solicitations on their viewer.  Unlike subtler forms of propaganda, they demand one to confront art’s instrumentalization.

Maoist China was unapologetic in rejecting artistic autonomy.  To make of art a service industry placed in the hands of the masses was a necessity:  It should be ensured that art and literature “fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part…and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”  Well before 1966 or even 1949, Mao elaborated on the nature of this service role, stating, “[L]ife as reflected in works of literature and art can and ought to be on a higher plane…nearer the ideal, and therefore more universal than actual everyday life.”  The correspondence of art to lived life, in other words, should surpass the ‘real’ while simultaneously enhancing it.  This became a sign of the particular importance accorded to culture in the total transformation of material life sought by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Art was imbued with the primary function of a “fighting front,” a “revolutionary weapon.”

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Mao’s militant rhetoric predated the Cultural Revolution, reflecting wartime realities in China and across the Asia-Pacific region in the earlier twentieth century.  Throughout unrelenting internecine conflicts, including the War of Resistance against Japanese imperialism (1937-1945), propaganda or xuanchuan was regarded with great urgency.  As early as the 1920s, Chinese intellectuals pondered Upton Sinclair’s assertion that “all art is propaganda,” mining the concept’s potential for a nation undergoing radical self-transformation.  Propaganda thus evolved from the intellectual battlefield on which art was passionately debated.

Once established as a battlefront, art form had to be universalized and massified.  CCP intellectuals faced an important consideration.  A mostly agrarian populace would likely find traditional art forms, such as calligraphy, just as inaccessible as Cubism or Dada.  The masses required altogether different cultural forms—truly national, popular forms.  An iconography developed to harness the new collective imaginary with expediency—merging, for instance, the vibrant colors of Chinese new year prints with stark woodcuts depicting the strong bodies of revolutionary fighters.  Such imagery galvanized support for national salvation campaigns that sought to defeat the “enemies of the people.”

After the founding of the state, the bold lettering of big character posters (dazibao) frequently underlined oil painted portraits of Mao in the socialist realist style.  Mao’s face replaced the sun, illuminating workers, peasants, and soldiers that supplied in turn the compositional landscape.  The ubiquity of Mao imagery in posters of the mid-1960s reflected a new emphasis in mass propaganda campaigns in which battle lines had shifted.

By the sixties, Mao located the main threat to socialism in the ranks of the Party and sought to “rectify those people in positions of authority within the Party who take the capitalist road.”  He mobilized teenagers without wartime memories, forming a Red Guard to wrest the revolutionary machinery from the bureaucratic miasma into which it had fallen.  Political posters served a renewed capacity, inviting viewers to root out enemies from within by waging criticism campaigns and self-criticism sessions.  Following the Red Guard movement, posters continued to reflect newly emergent political and social issues as well as, in many cases, the increased control of the Party cultural apparatus under Jiang Qing.  Well after 1976, the year of Mao’s death and the official conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, propaganda posters remained a prominent medium of public art.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution global art markets have fully embraced contemporary Chinese art.  From the political pop of the 1990s to the socially mediated interventions of the digital age, post-Mao art works more often than not attract scholars, collectors, and connoisseurs for their social dissonance and capacity for political critique.  In this regard the posters of the Cultural Revolution supply a crucial resource for understanding contemporary art practices in the PRC.  Beyond the art of the PRC, moreover, further explorations are needed of the formal connections, influences, and exchanges between “red” poster art and emergent practices.  The Cultural Revolution’s hold on collective imagination has never respected geographic or political boundaries.  Infusing the work of artists today, the experiences of social and political transformation across the globe and throughout the twentieth century are collectively shared and negotiated as forms of historical memory.  Many participate in a national imaginary that is defined less by Chinese statehood and more by the Chinese revolutions composing the modernity of the contemporary age.  Cultural Revolutionary radicalism, in this respect, provides both a legacy and historical precedent for contemporary art on a global scale.

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