Book Review: Art in Turmoil

By Stefan R. Landsberger

King, Richard, Ralph C. Croizier, Scott Watson, and Sheng Tian Zheng. Art in Turmoil: The Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010. xii, 282 pp. $85.00 (cloth), $32.95 (paper).

The Cultural Revolution (CR) decade may have ended more than 40 years ago, but interest in the massive quantity of artwork it produced is still very much alive, leading to heated debates on relevance, quality, influence, and even, one could argue, more reactionary discussion on recognition, authorship and (intellectual) ownership of the original producers. The present volume engages with the creation and appreciation of visual, literary and performing arts of that decade, as well as their interpretation, appropriation and reinvention since then.

Julia Andrews examines the careers of representatives of the three generations of artists active during the CR, such as those who had grown up during the Republic, those who actively participated in the creation of the People’s Republic, and those who were born after 1949 (27-57). She shows how creative ability could help overcome persecution: the same political demands on the arts that had relegated older and established cultural producers to the “cow sheds” could actually alleviate their suffering in a later stage when their talents were needed. Likewise, promising artists from the third generation were able to follow alternative career paths by creatively manipulating the same political practices that had initially blocked their advance. Lastly, Andrews looks beyond the Maoist period to try and fathom why its aesthetics remain so pervasive to the present day. Her tentative conclusion points to the commonality that these public presentations have, i.e., a kind of “fictionalized remembrance” (56-57). The story of Shi Lu (Feng Yaheng), who created the masterpiece Fighting over Northern Shaanxi, as described by Shelley Drake Hawkes (58-90), narrates the vagaries of an artist who started out as an ardent supporter of the Party, only to be caught in the crossfire of life-and-death struggles over artistic styles and politics even before the CR had actually begun. Spurned by contemporaries for his artistic innovations, he achieved a form of self-liberation by returning to the precepts of the New Culture movement and Confucius.

Part Two presents the memoirs of two artists who took part in the movement, in different capacities. Shengtian Zheng, now credited with having created most of the landmark painting Chairman Mao Inspects Areas South and North of Yangtze River Near Wuhan, looks back on his experiences as a young artist and teacher at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (Hangzhou) during the CR (93-106). Gu Xiong, on the other hand, was an active participant in the movement, first as a Red Guard and then as a sent-down youth. During his stay in the countryside, he documented his fellow exiles and the lives they led in sketchbooks, which he was able to retrieve a quarter of a century later (107-118). Although these chapters, dwelling on deprivation, mistreatment and torture, are certainly interesting, they shy away from certain critical issues that need clarification: the nature of the Party leadership’s relationship with the arts establishment and the artists as well as the artists‘ attitudes towards and their relationship with (political) patrons. How else can one explain the relative liberty that artists enjoyed while preparing a commissioned work, even while being struggled against?

Part Three deals with the way in which iconic artistic products of the period are negotiated in the present. Britta Erickson discusses the creation of the famous Rent Collection Courtyard sculpture group in 1965 and the furor its appropriation by Cai Guo-Qiang at the 1999 Venice Biennale caused in China (121-135). Although the political sentiments instrumental in the creation of the original group are no longer relevant, its ascribed model status has turned it into an exemplary “Chinese” creation that cannot be sullied. Cai’s “recycling” turned him into a lightning rod for nationalistic resentment (132-135). Similar but, at the same time, completely opposite mechanisms are at work when dealing with the creative works produced over the past five decades by the peasants-artists in Hu Xian, Shaanxi Province. Ralph Croizier shows how these painters moved from wall painting to basically producing art in any medium for any type of demand. They responded to the highly politicized market of the early 1970s by painting, with or without the assistance of sent-down professional artists, politically correct images of idealized rural life that would come to define how China “looked” in those days. At the same time, they easily adapted to the commercialized market of the 1980s, when naive “peasant art” became much sought after (136-163).

Paul Clark not only dispels the myth that there were only eight model works for 800 million people to go see during the CR, but also convincingly shows the vibrancy and dynamism of the performing arts in this period (167-187). And even though the model works (operas, ballets, symphonies) arguably stifled creativity in many respects, they may have, in the end, contributed more to the modernization of various genres of performance than the political pronouncements and experiments in the decades preceding it. By analyzing the two model ballets The White-Haired Girl and The Red Detachment of Women (188-202), Bai Di takes the role and meaning of model works one step further to argue that they in essence stressed degendering, creating a feminist utopia where androgyny is very much present (190-191). This degendering is antithetical to the current regendering taking place in Chinese society, making the model women of the CR exemplary in their escape from subordinate gender roles. In the final chapter, Richard King analyzes the militant hero around whom most of the model (propaganda) art of the CR revolved (203-215). As the fortunes of the CR leadership waned, the militancy of their heroes, intended to mobilize the people against perceived opponents, became ever more outspoken. But this was a cardinal sin against the principle of propaganda: to be acceptable, propaganda (art) must at least reflect some recognizable reality. Once this ceases to be the case, it falls on deaf ears.

This volume compellingly illustrates that the artistic products of the CR period were anything but “artless, sterile, without depth, without truth, and without reality” (189). Moreover, present-day artistic producers and their works, as well as society at large, continue to be influenced by them.

Stefan R. Landsberger is Olfert Dapper Professor of Contemporary Chinese Culture at University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Associate Professor of Contemporary Chinese History and Society at Leiden University, The Netherlands.

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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