New Internationalist

Not Just A Pretty Picture

Issue 98

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CULTURE [image, unknown] China's cultural counter-revolution

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Not just a pretty picture
The Cultural Revolution urged peasants to paint and artists to work in the fields. But party bureaucrats ended up stifling creativity. Now John Gittings reports that although China's doors are opening, so is the a between peasant and painter.

The images of art in the Chinese Cultural Revolution were bold, affirmative political statements about Mao Zedong's 'New Socialist Man'. In propaganda posters issued in print runs of up to a million, workers and peasants always smiled as they effortlessly built bridges or levelled the land - unless they were 'smashing the class enemy', when their faces became stern and pitiless. Youth was a cheerful girl bus driver cleaning her windscreen, a barefoot doctor picking herbs in the countryside, students with backpacks making their own Long March to see Chairman Mao.

Traditional artists had been condemned by Jiang Qing (Mao's wife) for their 'gloomy pictures' and forced to clean out lavatories with other Chinese intellectuals. But in villages and factories groups of amateur artists began to produce their own posters, woodcuts, and papercuts collectively, illustrating with rough enthusiasm the contrast between China's Bitter Past and her Present Happiness.

Mid 1970s woodcut in 'revolutionary romanticism' style.Chinese Visual Art Project.
Mid 1970s woodcut in 'revolutionary romanticism' style.
Chinese Visual Art Project.

Today, with the Cultural Revolution officially regarded as nothing but ten years of disaster (1966-1976), arts belong to a different world - where economic modernisation is the goal, and traditional pine and bamboo art is back in favour. Satellites and space ships fill the air in the new propaganda posters. And the atomic symbol is held aloft, replacing the Red Lantern (a popular motif from one of Jiang Qing's revolutionary operas) and the Little Red Book. The faces are mostly serious too. Students are no longer depicted marching into the countryside. Wearing spectacles again (symbols of the bourgeois bookworm during the Cultural Revolution) they contemplate a sky filled with logarithmic signs beneath the Leninist slogan: 'Study, Study and Study Again!'.

Mao first formulated the rules for socialist literature and art in his famous Talks to the Yan'an Forum in May 1942. Young intellectuals fleeing from Chiang Kaishek's censorship trekked into the barren highlands of Mao's north-western stronghold to join the revolution. Mao welcomed them but soon made it clear that revolutionary society makes its own demands upon the artist.

Mid 1970s papercut with traditional decoration.Chinese Visual Art Project.
Mid 1970s papercut with traditional decoration.
Chinese Visual Art Project.

Literature and art, said Mao, must be 'subordinate to politics' and must 'serve the people', providing the cultural cogs and wheels for the machine of revolution. What ordinary people needed, Mao said, was not 'more flowers on the brocade' of China's elegant high culture, but 'more fuel in snowy weather' to provide cultural warmth in a language they could understand.

This imposed on the Chinese artist a set of rules which, when rigidly interpreted by Communist Party bureaucrats (as in the four decades since then) have restricted and confined. Yet Mao also encouraged Chinese artists to discover what until then had been ignored - the rich traditions of folk art and oral story-telling, which had always been regarded as 'common stuff' by the pre-revolutionary elites.

This inspired Chinese woodcut artists to relearn their art in the villages from peasants' woodblock prints that used to be pasted up at the Chinese New Year. Musicians and writers similarly turned to the dance rhythms and ballad metres of the rural areas. A new directness of style began to bridge the gap between intellectual and peasant.

It was very different in the Soviet Union, where the art of the pre-revolutionary elite had been imported from abroad.

Apart from the religious ikon - which could hardly be adapted for the revolution - there was no popular artisitic tradition to temper the deadening influence of 'socialist realism' (which dictated that only 'concrete images directly relevant to peoples' lives could be depicted).

Even at the height of the Cultural Revolution when art was at its most affirmative and representational, 'socialist realism' was the wrong label in China. Though there were electric pylons in the countryside, they were shown without cables, perched symbolically on classical mountain peaks, unreachable by any linesman, in a style which can best be described as 'revolutionary romanticism'.

What went wrong during the Cultural Revolution, in art as in all other fields, was the 'one hundred and ten per cent' insisted upon by the cultural bosses. In Beijing (Peking), Jiang Qing personally inspected every line of the handful of 'model' revolutionary operas and plays allowed on stage.

The result was the strange blend of innovation and conformity that I saw in 1976 at the Nanjing Fine Arts College. Young graphic artists there, like Chinese students everywhere, 'went down' to the countryside or factory floor for their inspiration. There they worked as well as sketched and, even after returning to college, would go back with their drafts for criticism.

But the peasant paintings of Huxian Country in Shaanxi province offer a sad example of the sort of propaganda overkill which undermined the Cultural Revolution. In Huxian, and many other places, local art had been encouraged during the Great Leap Forward of the late 50s. New People's Communes had extended the collective concept to culture and education as well as agriculture: art classes were organised at night schools and the meaning of socialist co-operation was depicted in everyday terms - digging a new well or shifting loads of pig manure to make the fields fertile.

Huxian became the national model for peasant art and an exhibition of the best (and politically most correct) works went on international tour. A two storey gallery was built in the small county town with a hotel and restaurant behind it for foreigners and high-level Chinese officials.

In Huxian last autumn, I discovered that the little gallery is now regarded as an extravagance. Huxian's unique collection of peasant paintings is being casually sold off to stray tourists at prices between 50 and 300 yaun ($30 - $180), calculated quite arbitrarily as the visitor goes around. Wall murals in the villages are fading too - vanishing because they cannot be sold.

Peasants still paint at evening classes, and their style is still arresting. But now they paint contemporary themes of modernisation and the good life - hairdressers, furniture shops, new houses. 'What will happen to these new pictures?' I asked. The best will be chosen for exhibition in the Huxian art gallery - where they may catch the wealthy tourist's eye.

The values of the market place are now regarded, not as an invitation to 'restore capitalist practices', but as a healthy component of the socialist economic system. Intellectuals are no longer obliged to go to the countryside, and the difference between mental and manual work is now officially justified as reflecting a 'natural' division of labour. And so the gap between elite and popular art reappears and widens.

Once again the scholar artist paints his traditional mountain landscapes, no longer obliged to place a hydroelectric dam in the foreground. Meanwhile the peasant artist can rediscover the traditional woodblocks of centuries old pre-revolutionary Door Gods and Hearth Gods, or cut new blocks from faded original prints. No-one is any longer obliged to show proletarian modesty by not signing a work of art and presenting it as the product of a collective group.

Roadside billboard: 'Four modernisations to be achieved by the year 2000'.
Roadside billboard: 'Four modernisations to be achieved by the year 2000'.

There is a positive side too. Chinese art magazines - closed during the Cultural Revolution - now offer examples of foreign art and a forum for Chinese artists to discuss previously unmentionable topics such as abstract art.

In Beijing, the city's art gallery has allowed the 'Single Spark' group of young experimental artists to stage two shows. In a culture where Absract Expressionism is hardly known, and even Impressionism remains controversial, much of their work is inevitably derivative - here a sort of Picasso, there something like Munch - and to the Western critic simply second rate. But it is a phase through which the Single Spark artists have to work if Chinese art is ever to break free from the stultifying traditions of 'national painting'. 'Today the only new continent lies within ourselves', says their manifesto. 'To discover a new angle, to make a new choice, that is an act of exploration.'

Advertisements replace slogans in China today. Photo: John Gittings
Advertisements replace slogans in China today.
Photo: John Gittings

Yet these are but a small urban elite - or counter-elite. Art reflects life, and the great majority of Chinese people now look towards the billboards and the press, where political slogans and propaganda posters have been replaced by advertisements of another kind.

Young ladies of vaguely Eurasian appearance fondle pots of face cream or flourish badminton racquets. Medical panaceas are recommended by the kindly faces of traditional Chinese doctors with wispy beards. These more commercial images, along with rockets, spaceships and megalopolitan visions of the future,now appear widely in popular magazines and in the work of school children and other amateurs.

A poem by a 'spare-time artist' in Shanghai, displayed outside a workers' club next to his sketch of the busy Nanjing Road, sums up the new mood:

Oh, multicoloured spread of advertisements,
Smilingly stretched along the ten league road.
Citizen quartz watches; Phoenix face cream,
Victory Song TV sets; Turtle shirts ...
You are a set of bright medals on the chest of Shanghai!
You are a branch of flowers hanging over our new road,
In the colours of China's new spring of the 1980's!

Art, said Mao, must serve revolution. Now in China it serves the policies of modernisation and the growing consumerism of a society which feels it has been poor long enough. These are familiar - perhaps inevitable - cultural phenomena in the Third World. We wait to see whether a 'socialist' developing country can offer more.

John Gittings runs the Chinese Visual Aids Project at the Polytechnic of Central London and writes regularly about Chinese affairs in 'The Guardian'.


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