Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Never Say
The Sun Never Sets on the Maoist Empire

Few Remaining Works of Maoist Propaganda Reinvent Themselves in Western Commodity Fetish Niche Market

Upon arriving at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center’s dank basement-level one room collection which apparently constitutes a museum, I was dismayed to see ubiquitous “no photo” signs, as I had purposefully waited until my camera was repaired to go. Of course, they failed to deter me. I took photos anyways, but did so furtively, something which combined with my inexperience with shutter speed and aperture settings probably adversely affected the quality of the photos I managed to take when the guards weren’t shuffling to and fro. The museum was (as my response will be) arranged chronologically, with one large introductory information plaque at the front and several smaller plaques located throughout.

The Founding of Peoples’ Republic of China, The Land Reform, the Korean War, and Movements Against the Three Evils and the Five Evils

The plaque introducing the first period '49-'52 noted that nearly all posters were produced not by state owned enterprises, but instead by private enterprises which had formerly produced European style commercial advertisements in the '20’s and '30’s – proof that the sweetest irony is never fictional.

The plaque cited three broad categories of influences for the works of this period; traditional silks and Lunar New Year wood cut prints, Western art, and Eastern European art and literature. Particularly strong examples from the first camp are “Good for Both Water & Boss to Develop Production” – note, that’s not a typo, the placard really said that – and “Resist U.S. and Supporting Korea for Defending Family and Motherland,” which depicts Chinese and North Korean soldiers stabbing a stars and stripes clad big bad wolf caricature crawling its way across the Korean peninsula with Chinese and North Korean dual flagpole bayonets. The influence of western political cartoons on the latter is undeniable as it is in “Raise the Peace Torch to Brighten the Whole World,” “Founding Ceremony of New China,” and “Liberate Taiwan to Realize Reunification”, all of which also appear to draw on Eastern European (Soviet Style) art. With regard to the latter, I found it interesting to see the sham idea of liberation used to support imperialist ambitions in some context other than the United States’ War on Terror.

Perhaps the strongest piece of this period was the visually stunning “Strive to Produce More to Support the Most Beloved People to Attack U.S. Imperialism” whose use of sweeping movement in depicting a worker in the bottom left corner shoveling up and to the right and a soldier in the upper right corner rifle butting a grotesque caricature of a westerner down and to the left perfectly encapsulates the sense of sweeping change and juxtaposition of optimism and playful destruction of the political scene of the period.

Despite the political climate, some works of this period depict a docile proletariat’s life as domestic bliss. Works with this type of content drew stylistically mostly from traditional silks and Lunar New Year woodcut prints to display, as the poster puts it, “[display the] abundant imagination of a happy future,” of the time.


Peace, Industry, Domestic Bliss

During the subsequent period '54-'56, a peaceful and stable political milieu shifted the focus of majority of the propaganda to domestic industry and social life with a few notable exceptions. Perhaps one of the most exquisite pieces in the entire exhibit, entitled “Gala Night” comes from this period. In the foreground of the piece two porcelain faced school girls are engaged in a hypnotic, simultaneously symmetric and asymmetric pas de deux under a night sky trisected by spotlights’ beams at the intersection of which a firecracker explodes, creating an amazing sense of radial symmetry and motion. The piece reminded me of an equally exquisite Hermès scarf I bought for a lady friend entitled “Parapluies d’enticelles.”

Among the more visually interesting pieces related to industry during this period were “Strive to Produce More and Better Steel” in which two brawny steelworkers ride atop a steel dragon and “More Pigs for More Fertilizer to Obtain High Yield Grain” in which an enormous sow lies in front of a wall of grain with a litter of piglets suckling at her teat. The latter for some reason brought to mind that Sylvia Plath poem “Sow, ”included at the end of this entry should anyone wish to read it.


The Vietnam War and Dissolution of Soviet Alliances

The information plaque for the period 1957-1967 states that masses of farmers and workers produced cartoon style posters caricaturing the “naïve thought of the overenthusiastic people under Mao’s influence at that time,” though it’s difficult to tell whether or not it references the works displayed. If it does, the works do an excellent job of maintaining the Camp sensibility of the type of propagandist works they mimic – and all original agit-prop art falls into the realm of Camp sensibility. However I’d conjecture that the plaque is most likely not referencing them, as they appear too seamlessly campy to be intentional. As Susan Sontag notes “one must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp ("camping") is usually less satisfying[…] pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious.”

The plaque also asserts that the Chinese style of propaganda posters came into its own during this period, something I disagree with. The style of this period seems to be little more than a heavy handed illustrating style, one which I can’t quite put a name to, but extends far beyond the realm of Chinese agit-prop art. Though it is hard for me to say, not being an art historian, whether it influenced Chinese agit-prop art or whether Chinese agit-prop influenced it. Given the political history though, and the degree of openness between the West and China during this period however, I’m inclined to think that similar styles emerged independently. Regardless, it would be inaccurate to say that a unique Chinese agit-prop style came into being.


First Four Years of the Cultural Revolution

During the period of '67-'71, the start of the Cultural Revolution, a distinctly Chinese style of agit-prop art first emerges. The subject of almost all the pieces is Mao as the “red sun whose light brightens the whole country.” In these pieces Mao’s head usually blocks the sun, something which forms a halo around his face. Note the parallels between these images and Christian religious iconography as well as depictions of Louis XIV.

It is interesting to note that throughout this period Mao becomes increasing flatter (almost Byzantine), in relation to the three dimensional world around him, increasingly distanced from the proletariat, always in the foreground when the proletariat is in the background or vice versa. In many pieces his images is depicted only on posters within a mass of proletariat. It’s almost as if the communist propaganda becomes aware of itself as propaganda. Mao becomes an image within an image (think Godard’s films within films), or rather a plurality of images within a plurality
of images.

1972 - 1979

As the cultural revolution continued in the following period, propaganda poster production wound down, lost its center, and spun out into stylistic miscellany. Mao succeeded in deifying himself visually through the propaganda, but could only do so transiently. Mortality being at odds with deification, Mao ultimately failed and failed miserably. As for the masses who, in the words of the famous sociological tenet known as Thomas theorem, “defined the situation [of Mao’s deification] as real” and thus for whom the situation became ”real in [its] consequences”, something Anatole France said comes to mind; if ten million people believe a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing -- or in this case if one billion people believe a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. Mao’s image as a communist Helios ultimately faded; Deng Xiao Ping destroyed the vast majority of the posters when he took power, some 3000 exist in the collection of the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, now nothing but relics of a bygone era.

Contemplating questions of megalomania and arts awareness of itself as I exited, I came across a question of another sort; what visit to a communist propaganda museum wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the consumer capitalist crap fest that is the gift shop? The American side got the best of me and I ended up buying 16 postcards for 160 reminbi, most of which will be sent to my most conservative investment banker friends.

Throughout my perusing of the gift shop I couldn’t help but note, if the consumer capitalist nation-states in the West didn’t have a commodity fetish for vintage posters – remember that hideous craze like six years ago – this record of communist propaganda probably wouldn’t still exist. To the extent that the remaining images of Mao's deification does live on, it does so in an utterly ironic context.



Sylvia Plath

God knows how our neighbor managed to breed

His great sow:

Whatever his shrewd secret, he kept it hid

In the same way

He kept the sow--impounded from public stare,

Prize ribbon and pig show.

But one dusk our questions commended us to a tour

Through his lantern-lit

Maze of barns to the lintel of the sunk sty door

To gape at it:

This was no rose-and-larkspurred china suckling

With a penny slot

For thrift children, nor dolt pig ripe for heckling,

About to be

Glorified for prime flesh and golden crackling

In a parsley halo;

Nor even one of the common barnyard sows,

Mire-smirched, blowzy,

Maunching thistle and knotweed on her snout-


Bloat tun of milk

On the move, hedged by a litter of feat-foot ninnies

Shrilling her hulk

To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast

Brobdingnag bulk

Of a sow lounged belly-bedded on that black


Fat-rutted eyes

Dream-filmed. What a vision of ancient hoghood


Thus wholly engross

The great grandam!--our marvel blazoned a knight,

Helmed, in cuirass,

Unhorsed and shredded in the grove of combat

By a grisly-bristled

Boar, fabulous enough to straddle that sow's heat.

But our farmer whistled,

Then, with a jocular fist thwacked the barrel nape,

And the green-copse-castled

Pig hove, letting legend like dried mud drop,

Slowly, grunt

On grunt, up in the flickering light to shape

A monument

Prodigious in gluttonies as that hog whose want

Made lean Lent

Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint,

Proceeded to swill

The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking


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