Ah, the art of propaganda is alive and well in contemporary China, I see.
Ah, the art of propaganda is alive and well in contemporary China, I see.
There’s been a really interesting debate about Chinese art, and the current craze for it in the West, on Guardian Unlimited recently.
Jonathan Jones asks:
Isn’t it a bit rich that China, with its human rights record, is being so assiduously courted by so many British museums and galleries?
He suggests that ‘we’ are displaying a blindness towards the reality of the Chinese regime in our seeming obsession for all things Chinese. In my view this is only an extension of the attitude shown by the business world in recent years; dazzled by the prospect of securing a share of a vast, largely untapped consumer base, coupled with the pull of a seemingly endless supply of cheap unregulated labour, makes it easy to cast aside any lingering concerns about human rights. Personally, I feel it is a ‘good thing’ if recent events in Tibet and culturally-Tibetan areas of China cause people in the West to stop and think, although I doubt, given how inextricably linked the Chinese economic and labour market now is with the Western economy, individual ethical concerns would have much impact as a cause for good in China (and I strongly believe that real, permanent change can only occur from within.)
Of course the Chinese people are not to blame; they are equally subject to the vicissitudes of their government. And many of the artists working within China and attracting enormous attention from the Western art world are using their art as subtle commentary on the regime and the official policy of capitalism without democracy, often to the detriment of their careers and personal lives. So, equally, it is difficult to argue that their voices should be silenced because of wider concerns about the conduct of the CCP. And this is exactly the argument taken up by Eliza Gluckman in her response to Jones:
Distancing ourselves from Chinese culture will hurt only those labouring with imagination under censorship – there’s more than terracotta at stake
I guess what would be problematic is if China began to assert its influence over British museums and cultural institutions. And given the track record of the Chinese authorities, I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t apply strict conditions with respect to the interpretation of particular objects as a component of any loan or joint exhibition agreements. Indeed reports at the time accused China of trying to censor the Museum für Asiatische Kunst’s recent exhibition of Tibetan artefacts.
There’s a really interesting little article by Channel 4 News’ Beijing Correspondent Lindsey Hilsum on their website (thanks to Danwei for the heads-up), in which she examines the use of Cultural Revolution-esque terminology and language by the Chinese authorities when discussing the ‘Tibet issue’. While this is nothing new, of course, for example the Chinese propaganda machine continued to churn out hyper-propagandist posters for use in China long after restrictions on art and design in China had been relaxed, it’s thought-provoking all the same.
To commemorate the Great Helmsman’s 114th birthday, Wu Suizhou, whom CCTV describes as a ‘folk artist’, has produced a set of papercuts. The photographs on the CCTV website aren’t very clear (Xinhua is better), but it looks like he has chosen classic propagandist modes of representations of Mao and other communist icons as his models. Indeed, there’s nothing very new here. In the bottom right-hand corner in black is a papercut showing Mao, Lenin, Marx and Engels in profile. This is a copy of similar papercuts available during the Cultural Revolution. (The British Museum and Musee du Quai Branly have examples in their collections.)
I’ve been neglecting this blog recently. Mainly because my final year has crept up on me, and the ensuing panic has caused me to devote a little more time to actually writing-up my damn thesis! But I have been watching The Red Detachment of Women on DVD (in two sittings – the casts’ endless ‘determined fists’ get a little wearing after a while!).
Well, I can see why this and the other revolutionary operas were so appealing to audiences. I know very little about ballet, but the performance of the cast is clearly dazzling (unsurprising given the harsh regime meted out by studios – read Anchee Min’s Red Azalea for more details), the score is rousing and colours vivid (and of course, red predominates). Added to that is the fact that there would have been very little ‘entertainment’ available during the Cultural Revolution, making the opportunity to see a film – regardless of its propagandist content – a real treat.
The story is a fairly formulaic, gender-role reversed take on good vs. evil; girl escapes from dastardly landlord, hero saves girl, girl joins the Red Army (okay, that’s not in the vein of most classic stories!), girl leads her detachment into battle, hero is injured but survives only to be captured by evil landlord, girl single-handedly does for evil landlord and saves the hero, the masses are liberated by the victorious Red Army, etc, etc,. Added to that is the propagandist sub-plot, i.e. join the Red Army, it’ll be fantastic. You’ll have a great time (much like the adverts for the forces currently shown on TV!), plenty to eat and the locals will think you’re great! Plus, if you’re a woman, you’ll get to wear a natty knee-length shorts with leg warmers combo (a sartorial choice which had no – as far as I am aware – basis in reality). A half-arsed attempt at ‘sexing’ up the film to appeal to the masses, perhaps? Seems a rather bizarre decision for the costume designers to take, given that they were working in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, with its emphasis on androgyny and desexualisation of women. Still, having said that, cultural supremo, Jiang Qing, was a rather peculiar woman herself.
Of course, Mao’s famous proclamation that ‘women hold up half of the sky’ is the basis for this tale, and – perhaps – for the reversal of roles between the male and female heroes. In many ways it is a celebration of women; overcoming the barriers, restrictions and mistreatment imposed upon by men (some men – not their enlightened male comrades in the Red Army, of course).
Another 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 Western elements in the production of these revolutionary ballets, which seems at odds with the ethos behind the diktats imposed on practitioners working in other creative fields. The influence of Western ballet is unmistakable here, as is the only slight adaptation (the inclusion of occasional ‘bursts’ from traditional Chinese instruments) of Western classical music for the score.
Anyway, back to the film itself… I’m not certain how available this, and the other revolutionary operas are in Britain. This copy came from China. Thankfully, this is where YouTube, as a research tool, excels
The heroine escapes and hides in the forest from the landlord’s henchmen:
After suffering a brutal beating at the hands of the landlord’s henchmen, the heroine stumbles upon a detachment of the army…
An ensemble piece which follows the detachment’s assault on the landlord’s compound:
Oh, and finally, I should apologise for the rather strange appearance of Cogs and Wheels at the moment. I’m working on a re-design. 🙂
A Soviet Poster A Day is a great little blog; simple, yet offers a very effective way of presenting propaganda posters to external and non-specialist audience. In particular I concur with the comments in the introduction, that…
…every Soviet Poster has a historical reference essential for understanding the layers of meanings it carries through time.
Which is, of course, so true for propaganda posters and political art more widely, i.e. that we can appreciate these posters as examples of graphic design, but to really understand them, as their original audience would have done, we need also to consider them as historical documents, and have access to contextualising information (be it interpretive, or historical text; film; oral history recordings, etc). We need to be able to decipher the symbolism, ‘get’ the cultural or political references, ‘read’ the slogan. Something exhibition designers could do well to remember!
I’m writing a couple of book reviews at the moment. They’re sapping ALL my creative strength. Until normal transmission resumes, here’s an interlude…
Cross-ref’d from The Attic:
For a little while now I’ve been meaning to do a round-up of interesting little snippets of information do to with museums and related issues which I’ve recently come across. Most are via Museum Anthropology.
First up is a review of the Museum of the Battle of Ideas in Cuba. As Michelle Tisdel Flikke reveals in her engaging essay, the Museum was set up by the Cuban government in the wake of the ideological battle with the US over the custody of Elian Gonzalez. What’s interesting about this particular institution, is that it appears to be, not only a manifestation of the mythologising of history as a necessary component of the development of national heritage, but also that it is dealing with a fairly recent event. As discussions on this blog in the past have revealed, there is usually a time-lag between events happening and and them becoming part of the master narrative of nation. Often, in the case of war or revolution or occupation, a period of reflection appears to be necessary in order for the wrangling between various interest groups and different voices to reach some sort of dominant view which becomes historical ‘fact’. However, here, it appears the Cuban government, unsurprisingly, pounced on the propaganda value of the incident almost immediately, immortalising their version of events in a museum (which as I’m sure we’re all aware by now, seems to have the effect – outwardly at least – of objectifying history). But, what perhaps transcends this museum’s most basic propagandist function, is the imaginative way in which the Gonzalez incident is tied to a much broader historical narrative of migration to and from Cuba from the nineteenth century. Not only that, the museum has become an epicentre for popular imaginings of nationhood, with thousands of artefacts donated from Cubans all around the world, many of which – according to Flikke – relate to the revolution and perceived acts of aggression on the Cuban people. The museum thus has become a site of remembrance, memorial (to Elian and his family) and a repository of ideas of Cuban identity and nationhood. Perhaps appropriately enough in this context, a museum of the people. Although as Flikke reveals, the absences and ‘silences’ in the overall narrative are profound.
Altogether the essay is, for me, a fascinating insight into the workings of museums and heritage in a communist state; an intriguing mix of stock socialist imagery (note the evocative sculpture of the boy casting away an imperialist doll), revolutionary propaganda versus what appears to be a genuine sense of ownership, identification and engagement with the museum and its themes by its audience.
Bryan Ferry got into hot water this week (as reported by the BBC) for describing the visual iconography of Nazism as ‘beautiful’.
“My God, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves,” he gushed to the German magazine Welt am Sonntag. “I’m talking about Leni Riefenstahl’s movies and Albert Speer’s buildings and the mass parades and the flags – just amazing. Really beautiful.” (Via BBC Online)
While it was a pretty naive thing to say, it highlights the inherent problems associated with attempting to critically analyse the aesthetics of totalitarian regimes. It also serves to force me, once again, to confront my own reservations about my area of research. I’m sure a lot of people that I mention my work to, think I’m a little peculiar, and part of me worries a lot about what sort of image they are constructing of me (as a raving Communist or something!).
I’ve written before about the double standards reflected by the rejection (rightly so, of course) of Nazi iconography, while visual references to communism are embraced by popular culture. While I would baulk at suggestions that Nazism was aesthetically beautiful – approaching, as I do, like the vast majority of ‘normal’ well-adjusted people – the subject with a mass of unpleasant and disturbing associations, I find it compelling, even though it makes me intensely uncomfortable.# Afterall, it was meant to be powerful and soul-stirring. Goebbels was a master propagandist. He completely understood the power of film, in particular, to shape public opinion, create a sense of and identification with the ‘Fatherland’, and lay the ground for widespread acceptance of the eugenics programme, which resulted in the ‘Final Solution’. And it was the films of Leni Riefenstahl that first got me interested in visual propaganda while I was studying for my A Level in European History.
The furore that accompanied Ferry’s comments immediately put me in mind of the outcry engendered by Crispian Mill’s (the singer in Kula Shaker, a 90s band heavily influenced by 60s psychedelia and ‘eastern’ mysticism. That was a long time ago!!) when he commented in the NME that the swastika was a Hindu symbol. Which, of course, it is – though one which was adopted and subverted by Nazism. The response to what I suspect was a craftily edited version of the interview, not only revealed an ignorance about the historical and cultural life of the swastika*, but an understandable reluctance in society to accept critical analysis of the visual iconography of the Third Reich. Somehow, while we have dealt with the spectre of facism in the twentieth century to an extent where we can watch endlessly repeated documentaries about Hitler and the Second World War on the telly in, what appears to be a fairly detached manner, we cannot see the swastika, or images from the Nuremberg Rally, without feeling utter repugnance. These visual symbols, or identifiers, of the Nazi regime have retained their psychological power and menace in a way that communist iconography hasn’t. And while the meaning of communist visual culture in the west has transmogrified into something else and infinitely less threatening (i.e. high camp Commie Kitsch, or – at the very least – youthful idealism), its Nazi counterpart hasn’t. Consider two young men, one wearing a Che t-shirt and the other with a swastika tippexed on his jacket. Who would you prefer to sit next to on the tube? Okay, that’s probably a bit facetious, but you get my drift. In the 1970s, the potent symbolism of Nazism lent itself to Vivian Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s promotion of the swastika in a sub-cultural context as a form of sedition. On the surface of it, the wearing of fascist iconography was taken to mean an identification with the far-right. But intellectually, it was more an act of social transgression. Though I don’t doubt some were attracted to punk because they did identify with the far-right. For more on this read Griel Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, or The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, by Malcolm Quinn.
I’m well aware that I’m rehashing the same old themes time and time again in this blog, but I’m really having difficulty getting to grips with this particular aspect of my research. Why, when the outcomes of both ideologies were similar, i.e. oppression, death and destruction on unimaginable scales, are Communism and Fascism viewed so differently?
#Please don’t think I identify with Nazism on a personal – or any – level. At the last election I did one of those online surveys designed to help floating voters make up your mind who to vote for. I categorised myself as ‘left of centre’ and answered a series of questions about burning issues like immigration and fox-hunting (broadly for, and against, if anyone is wondering!). I was slightly bemused to find out at the end that while most people who place themselves in that political ‘zone’ are actually slightly more right-wing than they might admit, I was significantly of the leftist persuasion – even more so than I thought. Which I guess does make me a raving communist! 😉
*As an aside, I remember seeing a Victorian tea service on display at York Castle Museum, which prominently displayed the swastika as a decorative device. To its credit, the museum discretely, but directly acknowledged its presence, and the connotations it now holds, while explaining its original function as a good luck symbol. It could have been so easy to remove the tea set from display and pretend it didn’t exist. We have to confront the difficult and the disturbing and the uncomfortable sometimes, to better understand the world in which we live. If we avoid the problematics of history, well, we might as well be Holocaust deniers ourselves.