Paradigm Shift: Resistance, Mass Culture, & Chinese Art

Resistant Mass Culture

As explored in detail in “Socialist Realism & Tiehua,” with the CPC’s control of Mainland China came a wave of new art: socialist realism, based on its Soviet counterpart. This changed art that met the public eye quite heavily, but most importantly brought resistance to an unusual light. Whereas resistance normally occupied a space outside of mass culture, socialist realism brought artistic resistance to the forefront of culture in China.


Historically, the standard art in China had been guohua, a type of art specifically associated with the traditional Chinese identity and empire/nation. Nonetheless, the communists associated both the means of production and customers of such art bourgeois and therefore a part of the problem they sought to eradicate (Andrews 558). Mao Zedong himself had aspirations for socialism to develop its very own art with which to replace that of capitalism (Jian 70). Seeking a new society even extended to aesthetics, in this sense resisting the Chinese conception of art.

Socialist realism, in practice, says Jian “cultivated the socialist imagination of a passionate, romanticized paradise with its socialist heroes” (72). Understandably, socialist-realist art sought to glorify the communists’ vision for society and acted as a means of propaganda to redefine China. This redefinition proved to be fluid, with one such “socialist hero,” Lei Fang, always in flux depending on the political circumstances of any given time (Jian 62).

Western Model, Chinese Interpretation

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 11.41.24 PMWith the core ideology of communism itself coming from Western Europe, and first being the basis of a permanent government in the remnants of the Russian Empire, communism itself could even be thought of as a Western model originally formulated through Western societies. This too holds true in socialist realism, being heavily founded in Western artistic motifs.

When the CCP gained full control of China, a full campaign to remake Chinese art was set in place seeking to create a synthesis of both Chinese and Western art, though the difficulty stemmed from just how to blend the two (Andrews 556). At any rate, while Chinese artist had sought Western learning before, this was a bit more direct form of Westernization; however, China has worked hard to still make socialist realism something distinctly Chinese.

The Chinese interpretation came to be a bit more humanistic than Soviet styles (Jian 41). Beyond this, though, a notable shift came in the new focus on individual human figures, and especially their expressions of confidence and smiles. In the long Chinese artistic tradition (with the exception of art under the Chan Buddhism tradition), which was heavily influenced by Confucianism and Taoism, subjects in art were seldom happy and painting generally had a somber feel (Lin 45).

Command, Not Demand

Under the socialist command-style economy instituted under the CCP’s rule, command became China’s version of demand typical of market economies. Under this model, socialist-realist art was commanded from state-supported artists, then fed to the masses in order to propagate a state myth. There was command rather than a demand coming from the masses and artists expressing their subjective experience.

In this sense, socialist-realist art was much like that in more capitalistic countries; it sought to satisfy the needs of the masses and required just as much marketing as actual production (Chegodaeva 51-52). Whereas private companies and investors seek money in market economies, under China’s economy during this era the real goal was the people’s submission. Chegodaeva states,

Money did not interest [communist parties]; the demands they made of art were somewhat different. Above all, they needed art to propagandize communist ideas or, more accurately, to create the communist myth, to serve as a kind of stage set designed to replace and conceal real life, to hide from the people the truth of communist power (52).

chinese-communist-poster-1This strategy proved to be effective—citizens became reliant on these easily interpreted visual images to become familiar with state ideology, both consciously and subconsciously. Jian elaborates on this, saying, “seeing replaced rational thinking. When red filled the visual field of the masses, the rich visual experience served to gradually discipline society towards unity” (73). To strengthen its power and standardize mass culture to be resistant of the past, the CCP effectively used command in its economic model to make art a propaganda tool. Jian criticizes this, saying that art with purely political purposes turns truth into a meaningless concept and that this led to the abandonment of artistry; there was only propaganda (61).

Despite this, the pieces still had to be visually appealing—Chegodaeva states, “[art] also had to please, to delight, to be beautiful and interesting” (55). Creating dazzling pieces with the immense resources the state was willing to pour into its commands would help make propaganda enjoyable and even a way to glorify the nation.

Prevailing Underground Resistance

Despite mass culture’s transformation into  a resistant propaganda tool, underground movements still flourished—even during periods as tumultuous as the Cultural Revolution. Wang Aihe explains her personal experience with a group called Wuming. According to Wang, this group met as early as 1963, with additional members joining in 1973, and “met regularly to paint, read, listen to music, and discuss literature and philosophy, producing several thousand oil paintings and holding three major underground or unofficial art exhibitions (1974, 1979, 1981)” (27). This artistic experience certainly deviates from those involved in the state’s then sprawling art-propaganda machine.

What’s more is that this art even started to become individualistically subjective rather than adhering to the core tenets of revolutionary romanticism that fed socialist-realist art. Wang remarks that the Wuming art moved “from representation towards subjective experience – unique individual sensations, emotions, and perception – Wuming art developed an alternative modern identity and subjectivity for both painter and viewer, formulating a self-conscious and self-reflective individual subjectivity” (27).

Resisting Mass Culture

After the end of the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong’s death, a new Chinese premier, Jing Xiaoping, oversaw changes to the nation, seeking to modernize in ways socialism was failing—China lagged far behind its more capitalistic counterparts. More economic freedom slowly made its way into China’s policy, leading to artists taking subjective stances even in the public eye, often resisting mass culture rather than enforcing a resistant mass culture.

The Market Economy

A profound change within the Communist Party of China has been the acceptance of a mixed market economy, which has brought a completely new climate for Chinese artists. Cheung states, “along with the process of building a new society, the Chinese have had to leave behind the social security of life in the communist era and enter a fresh new world that may also be chaotic and full of risk” (225). This new risky world brings economic opportunity, at the cost of a sense of security, particularly for artists. The tiehua factory in Wuhu, for example, failed, but tiehua artists have now been making work on their own.

Interestingly, artistic value has now been commoditized. Gao Minglu remarks, “a combination of ‘Jianghu’ (market gaming within official art circles) and individual artists conspiring with the market has brought about a capitalization of the concept of artistic value, as well as a lack of integrity in relation to the making and showing of art” (210). Although he is critical of this attitude of art, it is nevertheless thought of differently—rather than being a tool, it is now a product with value in a market.

New System, Same Consumer Culture

Most intriguingly, the natures of art during the years of socialist realism and today have similarities when it comes to consumer culture. Gao Minglu states, “the mass media’s overwhelming of the population with propagandist images (such as Mao’s art) or advertisement and entertainment symbols (such as Coca-Cola and Marilyn Monroe) apparently levels the differences between Mao’s mass culture and Hollywood.” (qtd in Wiseman 112). In this analysis, the masses are still fed images en masse, but just for different reasons. Granted, in a market economy the variety is much greater.

Chegodaeva also explains this similarity, asserting, “[communists] too, needed to throw their arms around millions of consumers and enjoy massive returns, only in a different “coin,” (52). Here, again, consumer culture in a market economy and mass culture in a communist-led society have similarities. Both market to the masses and cultivate some kind of myth; however, those in market economies seek financial gain while communists had the goal of solidifying their control of the masses.

Becoming a Creator

shanghai-1484452_960_720It’s no secret that China now has a reputation for being a manufacturer of goods; however this is a stereotype that the nation seeks to overcome by developing a reputation for creating products, not just making them. O’Connor and Xin explain that larger Chinese cities especially seek to follow a new “knowledge economy,” seeking the advent of innovative and creative industries as per their future goals in economic advancement (272).

There have been many ways cities have sought this reputation. A notable aspect relates to art: O’Connor and Xin state, “the rush of the large cities to promote themselves as modern and cosmopolitan is now inextricably linked to their ability to present contemporary art – without a biennial you’re nothing!” (278). This has, among other factors, led to the opening of many museums throughout China. Artists, however, have still been subject to state control: Cheng asserts that the state has exerted control over art …via control of art academies and gallery spaces….” And has been imposing its favored genre of realism.

Opportunity & Constraint

The artists of China have benefitted in a variety of ways from the newer economic freedoms in China, though policies have also inhibited an increase in freedoms despite increasing the potential for opportunity—artists may be successful, but they can also be at the mercy of what is deemed acceptable in state galleries or what consumers will be willing to purchase.

On art in contemporary China, a notable critic of this situation, Gao Minglu, remarks,

It became increasingly devoid of content, stylized and fashion driven. Chinese contemporary art entered into a world in which the rich competed savagely for reputation and where artistic spirit had been abandoned. Flexibility of political structure and the power of capital tamed the artist. Contemporary art gradually overturned itself. Modernism, the pursuit of spirit since the 1980s, died (211)

Though the issues stretch beyond this: while art districts have emerged in Chinese cities, artists, according to Minglu, “are forced to collaborate with the industrial interests of local government” (215). Districts can lead to a richness and collaboration between artists, but also make them more subject to government intervention.

Additionally, the rapidly growing system of museums in China provides many local artists a venue to have their work displayed and support them, but these also don’t seem to be working ideally. Unfortunately, governmental policies on what is acceptable are in constant flux. Many artists and officials running museums have trouble creating new exhibitions and accumulating connections out of fear for an end to their fragile careers (Rodner and Preece 137).

Self-censorship can be a growing issue, along with an insufficiently functioning museum apparatus. Rodner and Preece state, “such erratic cultural policies simply complicate an artist’s brand development on the cultural horizon, hindering their position on the local and international art market” (137-138).

Growing Complexity of Resistance

In recent years, interpreting Chinese art has become quite complex. This is due to new and changing artistic tones, the absorption of many new influences, and cultural misunderstandings between East and West.

New Artistic Tones

7506421924_36fd7d2a79With the immense changes to Chinese society in past years, and the post-Tiananmen crackdown on freedom of artistic expression, artists have been adopting new, more complex tones. Gao Minglu explains this at a fundamental level: “…there was…a move away from the thematic seriousness of Chinese contemporary art of the 1980s to a more sarcastic tone after the events of 4 June 1989” (210). After the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests and issues at an avant-garde exhibition, artists then had to adapt their tones amid stricter policies preventing unrest and challenges to the CCP’s power.

Cheung seconds this, asserting, “some Chinese artists have responded to economic expansionism by adopting a critical, ironic rhetoric, thus creating a rupture in the wave of consumerism sweeping the country” (227). While clearly showing elements of resistance, these non-serious tones add a layer of subjectivity open to ever-greater levels of interpretation. Cheng adds that artists are thus challenging the status quo with these diverse art forms, which punctures “the futurity of drastic urban growth and economic transformation” (232).

Absorbing New Influences

27954465020_3b1d770287_oAt a basic level, this absorption is characterized by the ongoing debate of allowing Western influences in Chinese art. Nevertheless, Sullivan asserts, “.. it is precisely the dynamic interaction of the Chinese with the Western modes of painting that has produced the extraordinary richness and range of modern Chinese art” (299).

Cheng notes that after 1976 (the Cultural Revolution’s end) artists began absorbing more and more Western motifs during their searches for a form of modern expression. The art of the West, here, was used as a base. Wiseman adds to this, stating that political pop, for example, is directly based on the pop art style popularized in the West during the 1960s (109).

However, the new influences and richness haven’t been only from the West: other artists have actually been doing the opposite by looking deep into Chinese history for inspiration from long lost artistic ideas and motifs (Sullivan, 299).

All of these influences have added endless influences to Chinese art, also making the interpretation of such much more of a challenge.

East-West Perceptions

While China, in modern times amid marginalization by other powers, began to look Westward for ideas, the understanding of China’s circumstances cannot seem to be perfectly understood by the West.

Originally, in the late Qing dynasty and early Republic Chinese elites found ideas from the West and openly interpreted them to suit the modernization of China, so long as they had been formulated by ancient Chinese sages in some way or another, though they later openly absorbed non-Chinese ideas (Yü 138). This certainly influenced Chinese art and thought, with the ruling party today even being based on Western communist ideology. At the same time though, Sullivan points out that Chinese artists have taken influences from the West on strictly their own terms (299).

The growing competition between East and West and even post-Cold War clichés, have played into the perception of Chinese art. This is most notable in perception of the experience of Ai Weiwei, who has been persecuted for his rebellious art. Stevens and Larson explain a problematic perception by the West:

So what is it about Ai? What makes him, in Western eyes, the world’s “most powerful artist”? The answer lies in the West itself. Now obsessed with China, the West would surely invent Ai if he didn’t already exist. China may after all become the most powerful nation in the world. It must therefore have an artist of comparable consequence to hold up a mirror both to China’s failings and its potential.


Works Cited

Andrews, Julia F. “Traditional Painting in New China: Guohua and the Anti-Rightist Campaign.” Journal of Asian Studies 49.3 (1990): 555-557. Print.

Chegodaeva, Mariia. “Mass Culture and Socialist Realism.” Russian Studies in History 42.2 (2003): 49-65. Print.

Cheng, Scarlet. “China Goes Contemporary.” World & I 8.6 (1993): 140.MasterFILE Premier. Web. 4 July 2016.

Cheung, Ming. “Contemporary Chinese art and the dream of glocalisation.” Social Semiotics 24.2 (2014): 225-242. Print.

Jian, Huang. “Photography and Ideology in Revolutionary China: A Critical Review.” Modern China Studies 23.1 (2016): 59-74. Print.

Lin, Xiaoping. “Challenging the Canon: Socialist Realism in Traditional Chinese Painting Revisited.” Third Text 21.1 (2007): 41-53. Print.

Minglu, Gao. “Changing Motivations of Contemporary Chinese Art Since the Mid-1990s.” Journal of Visual Art Practice 11.2-3 (2012): 209-219. Print.

O’Connor, Justin and Gu Xin. “A new modernity? The arrival of ‘creative industries’ in China.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 9.3 (2006): 271-283. Print.

Sullivan, Michael. “The Twentieth Century.” The Arts of China, 4th ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000. 274- 298. Print.

Wang, Aihe. “Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China’s Cultural Revolution.” China Perspectives 4 (2014): 27-36. Print.

Wang, Eugene. “The Elegiac Cicada: Problems of Historical Interpretation of Yuan Painting.” Ars Orient 37 (2007): 176-194. Print.

Stevens, Mark and Christina Larson. “China’s Most Dangerous Man.” Smithsonian 43.5 (2012): 54-60. History Reference Center. Web. 4 July 2016.

Rodner, Victoria L. and Chloe Preece. “Painting the Nation: Examining the Intersection Between Politics and the Visual Arts Market in Emerging Economies.”Journal of Macromarketing 36.2 (2015): 128-148. Print.

Wiseman, Mary B. “Subversive Strategies in Chinese Avant-Garde Art.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 (2007): 109-119. Print.

Yü, Ying-Shih. “The Radicalization of China in the Twentieth Century.” Daedalus122.2 (1993): 125-150. PDF.