Monday, July 07, 2008

Perceptions of the CR

Frog in a Well has a great response to Jed Perl's attempt at Chinese art criticism---and to casual interpreters of Chinese history from the West generally.  

Several sections are worth quoting (excuse me for quoting so much!):
The nostalgia for communist-period idealism you sometimes hear I always find hard to figure out.

For Perl, however, the only possible reason to think about China is to denounce Mao and the Cultural Revolution (which are of course the same thing.) Thus it becomes impossible for Chinese to be anything other than toadies unless they are in jail. 

In particular, Frog in a Well takes exception with Perl's image of the CR:
The theme of “Revolution” comes up a lot in the art Perl is talking about, in part I think because he is talking about western collectors, who probably don’t know much about China but do know there was a revolution and in part because lots of Chinese artists do use Communist iconography and themes from the past. Some of them are probably toeing the official line, some are subverting the official line, some are doing both, some think they are doing both but actually are not. For Perl though it is pretty easy. If you see anything that looks “China-y” it’s crap.
I have studied the catalogue of this collection, The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, and I am pretty confident that it is the most hateful art book published in my lifetime. For the revolution that is continuing is none other than the Cultural Revolution.
Really? The modern smiley-face authoritarianism of China is the same as the Cultural Revolution? One begins to suspect he does not know much about the CR, which is pretty rapidly confirmed as he scoffs as a curator for suggesting that
“reprising the Red Guards’ antiauthoritarian stance to art, sought to bring down the institution of art itself through Dadaist strategies”?

In what sense, pray tell, was the Red Guard anti-authoritarian?
“Pray tell” suggests that he has no clue what the Red Guards were. The first thing a youth was supposed to do after strapping on the red armband was to “bombard the headquarters” and attack the authorities that actually controlled their lives, teachers, party bosses, etc. Everyone in China over a certain age knows this, which is why it is always so hard to figure out what Chinese artists might be doing with Mao images or CR images or whatever. Not everybody in the world needs to know (or can know) all the things Maoist references can mean in China, but if you are going to write about Chinese art it helps to have some idea what you are talking about. One can imagine touring the Louvre with Perl and having him be stumped by why there were all those pictures of a lady holding a baby. 
Perl, to his credit, does have some interesting things to say about the draw of propaganda, such as when he paraphrases Susan Sontag: "...there is a difference between appreciating the peculiar power of a certain kind of totalitarian imagery and going right ahead and succumbing to its power."

But I would go further than Frog in a Well to say that Perl's confusion about the Cultural Revolution is not just a sign of how little he knows about China but the crux of a lot of people's misunderstandings about current Chinese politics.  The CR is at the heart of the fears of today's leadership and people---fears of chaos, fears of public protest, fears of democracy---as well as an important source of moral support for dissent.

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