Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

March 7, 2007

Is Communism Good for the Arts?

I love the Internet.  I love trailing little references here and there like bunnies down rabbit holes, and finding great stuff with just a little bit of digging.  This is a real gem.

Is Communism Good for the Arts?  Radio programme on-demand, from WNYC New York Public Radio (5th March 2007)
32 mins

A very useful discussion of the arts and communism, with a focus on traditional and classical music, in the Soviet Union, Cultural Revolution-era China and Fidel’s Cuba.  A quick, fairly off-the-cuff review follows:

On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, this discussion reflects on seriousness with which communism has taken the arts.  Reminds me of comments made by a curator whom I recently met, who had studied Chinese political history at university in the US; a course which omitted discussion of the arts, despite their central position (as ‘cogs and wheels’) in the ideology of the communist state.  So, it’s encouraging that a serious arts programme thought to treat communism culture as a valid subject for discussion.

The programme began with a focus on classical music under Stalin, with the musicologist Solomon Volkov’s assertion that in the USSR, propaganda art could still be ‘real’ art, at least in the realm of classical music, under Stalin, providing it met the ideological functions of the state and that Stalin personally liked the work.  Otherwise it would be deemed ‘formalist’ and it’s composer shipped off to Siberia.  Volkov felt that under Stalin there were similarities between the cultural sphere of the USSR and the relationship between Renaissance artists and their patrons.  He made the useful assertion that all culture – even today, in capitalist societies, operates as state propaganda to an extent (willingly or otherwise).  This put me in mind of ‘Cool Britannia’ and the explicit links that New Labour made between itself as a ‘social movement’, or a force for change in Britain and the development of the YBAs, Britpop, etc during the mid-90s.  For a time, Britain was sold to the rest of the world through it’s culture, so – yes – to a degree it operated as propaganda for the new government.  Good point from Volkov there.  😉

To an extent, he felt that today in Russia, the propagandist works of composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev, are accepted as great art, despite the political influence on their production.  He feels that sufficient time has passed to consider them objectively as historical documents perhaps.  Up pops that historical time-lag again, which seems to be psychologically necessary for people to deal with the heritage of the recent past.

The discussion then moved to Cultural Revolution-era China.  Bright Sheng, the US-based composer, who himself was sent down to the countryside at the age of 15, but because of his musical talent avoided physical labour, gave a brief overview of the role of Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) in the control of the arts.  He felt that she had an obvious, but – of course – unstated taste for western romantic classical music, which he feels one can detect in the Eight Model Operas, for example.  While everything was sloganised and heavily referenced traditional Chinese opera, he describes the musical output of the CultRev as a ‘strange hybrid’.  This is an interesting point.  Once again it highlights the hypocrisy of the ideologies supposedly behind the CultRev: while ostensibly ridding China of bourgeois, capitalist influence, it was a pretence.  Because the western influence remained.  The same could be said for propaganda posters of the era – while they bear the influence of traditional nianhua prints, they are essentially a continuation of the aesthetic ideas of the woodblock prints of the Lu Xun/’May 4th’-inspired 1920s and 1930s, which was itself rooted in the style and ideologies of European artists like Kathe Kollwitz.

Sheng revealed that while he was restricted in the performances he could make as a pianist, he was able to largely self-direct his learning privately through the works of Chopin and Mozart.  Again, this adds weight to my impresion that the CultRev was, to a large degree, all show.  It was about the superficiality of the performance, rather than the practice (if that makes sense?), the CultRev operated through the control of individual’s outward expression.

Sheng himself has composed two works based on his experiences of the Cultural Revolution, ‘Madame Mao’, an opera and ‘Hun’ (Lacerations), which he described as a ‘musical memoir of the Cultural Revolution’, and his most angry piece he has ever written.  While he had never before believed in catharsis through artistic expression, he says that was, for him,  the ultimate outcome of writing the piece; it helped to get rid of a lot of anger, which he hadn’t previously realised was there.

Volkov and Sheng went on to discuss the role of the arts in communism.  Volkov felt that it had a lot to do with the personality of the leader, i.e. Stalin – as a ‘connoisseur’ of the arts – understood the propaganda potential of culture.  And of course, art and performance played a central role in the earliest pro-communist propaganda campaigns in China.  But culture was also an indicator of strength and power.  The presenter offered a link between culture in Russia and the development of sport in the GDR.  In a similar fashion, Sheng felt that the Eight Model Operas were Jiang Qing’s ‘claim to fame’.  He then went on to make a really crucial point, I believe, that these operas have not been forgotten in China, largely because – in his opinion – for people of his generation they constitute the only culture that they grew up with, so remembering them is largely a ‘nostalgia thing’.  That ties in very well with the paper I referred to the other day in my discussion with Mary about communist relics, which discusses the sensual recollection of socialism facilitated by the Grutas Sculptural Park in Lithuania.

The discussion then moved on to Cuba – which is a slightly different ‘kettle of fish’, so I won’t linger too much on that here.  However, the writer Robin Moore, did offer a (persuasive) argument for why the arts are so important to communist regimes, and why they have to be so closely watched:  Whereas in capitalist society people have financial incentives to go about their daily lives, in socialist societies basic domestic needs, healthcare and education are largely taken care of by the State, so moral incentives are needed instead to keep people ‘on target’.  This means ideas are more highly prioritised in communist states than in capitalist societies.  But it also means that the artistic community has to be more closely monitored.

Finally, the dicussion was brought to close with the guests’ predications for the future.  In China, Sheng felt that the arts were following the US lead – largely commercialised, and pretty free, so long as political themes were avoided.  In 10-20 years,  he could foresee a cultural renaissance happening in China as a result.  However, although communism has poured money into culture, he felt that overall it has been a ‘bad thing’ for the arts in China, because it ‘stopped creativity’.  But, as the presenter said in conclusion, ‘ideas are hard to kill’.



  1. […] the podcast, Yuen makes the same points as Bright Sheng, i.e. Jiang’s appropriation of western forms (despite the attendent ideological issues) in […]

    Pingback by Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works « Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China — April 15, 2007 @ 11:23 pm

  2. […] interesting aspect of the film I’ve noted, refers back to Bright Sheng’s comments in the radio interview I’ve blogged about before.  The strange mixing of traditional and […]

    Pingback by The Red Detachment of Women (1970) « Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China — October 19, 2007 @ 8:34 pm

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