|The moral dilemma of turning Maoist propaganda into camp décor
By Richard Bernstein
Published: October 22, 2008
NEW YORK: Among the vintage French liquor and movie advertisements, the British Empire posters, and the American publicity art on display at an annual show in New York last week, you could see a rarity from China that, to me at least, summoned up one of the moral paradoxes of our time.
The print, from 1960, shows a line of workers and peasants marching under a giant red banner. Underneath is a caption that brought a kind of chill: "Oppose Rightist Tendencies," it reads. "Arouse Enthusiasm; Continue the Great Leap Forward."
The poster is one of the more expensive ($1,000) on sale at the East is Red booth within the poster show - East is Red (www.theeastisred.com) being the avocation of Dwight McWethy, an American business consultant who lives in Beijing and sells memorabilia from China's Cultural Revolution and other political movements, mostly to foreigners.
But why the chill? Certainly there's nothing wrong with collecting memorabilia from China's Maoist revolutionary period, which, despite the horrors it caused, certainly produced many arresting images and slogans - the Great Leap Forward, which was actually a horrific slide backward, among them.
The country's best artists were required to make Maoist propaganda, and some of them managed to make extraordinary works out of the mandatory acts of visual fealty to Mao.
In fact, a group of those paintings is now on display at a remarkable exhibition at the Asia Society in New York, entitled "Art and China's Revolution," bearing the message, among others, that propaganda can be art.
And yet there's something funny, a sort of willed amnesia, in the idea of collectors in New York buying revolutionary art from the radical Maoist days, turning it into a camp kind of décor.
Take that poster from 1960 on sale this week at The East is Red booth, the one whose caption gave me the chills.
The poster is a call on people to perpetrate terrible deeds, specifically to denounce alleged "rightists" during the anti-rightist campaign that reached its height in 1957 and was aimed largely at punishing people who took seriously Mao's earlier call (the Hundred Flowers Campaign, another catchy phrase) to criticize the Communist Party for its shortcomings. Hundreds of thousands of these supposed rightists, real and manufactured, were incarcerated for years in labor reform camps where thousands of them died.
Then there are those images of socialist plenty evoked by the poster, precisely at the time when China was afflicted by one of the worst famines of the 20th century - brought about by the same Great Leap Forward whose continuation is urged on the poster.
The poster, in other words, was part of the Big Lie of Maoism, a terrible reality covered up by exciting slogans and arresting images created by brilliant artists. Should we collect them?
Well, of course, no harm is done, and, certainly, the posters have both great visual and historical value. McWethy himself told me that he got interested in Cultural Revolution memorabilia because of the images themselves.
"Look at them," he said. "They are from a bygone era."
So here's a question: Would anybody feel the same interest in posters from the Nazi era in Germany calling on people to advance the cause of Aryan racial superiority? Well, O.K., Mao was not Hitler; indeed he was Hitler's opposite when it came to racism, which Mao opposed. And while he did bad things, as China now officially admits, he did restore Chinese pride and make great strides in public education and health.
What about Stalin then? Would New Yorkers feel comfortable with portraits of "Uncle Joe" in their family rooms or offices? Maybe some would, but probably not very many.
And yet, Mao, who was strikingly similar to Stalin in many ways, including their responsibility for the deaths of millions, seems to benefit from a kind of public indulgence that has never been extended to Stalin. Why the difference?
"If you ask people in China, Mao is still held in high regard as the modern-day founder of the nation," Melissa Chiu, one of the two curators of the Asia Society show, said in a telephone interview.
"In the West," she continued, "it's well-known that Mao had a terrible record and did some terrible things, like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. However, his visual image has been transformed into an icon. It's become divorced from his political record and his historical role."
That explanation would seem to be absolutely correct.
It probably started with Andy Warhol, Chiu said, whose silk-screen images of Mao, made in 1972 and 1973, just as China and the United States began to thaw their long frozen relationship, began the process by which the Chinese dictator was domesticated, turned from a fearsome Communist revolutionary into an object of popular culture, like Marilyn Monroe or Campbell's Soup.
I used to call it the panda-ization of China to refer to the tendency to translate what was actually a brutal dictatorship into something almost cuddly. The panda - not Mao's elevation into a god whom it was mandatory to worship - became the chief symbol of China. It was a propaganda feat of astounding effectiveness.
And yet, the truth is, I would collect Cultural Revolutionary memorabilia too, if I could afford it. I once kept in my office two framed Cultural Revolution-era posters, even though I had also, during a few years as a correspondent in China, interviewed people victimized both by the regime and who were not inclined to look at Mao as a figure of Pop Art.
In his recently published book, "Out of Mao's Shadow," Philip Pan, the former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, tells the story of Lin Zhao, an amazing young poet who, during the Hundred Flowers period did utter some criticisms of China's leadership, and then, almost alone among people who did so, refused to confess what were deemed to be her ideological "crimes."
In 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Lin was executed for being so stubborn. Her family was informed of the fact when a soldier appeared at the door demanding five Chinese cents for the bullet that had been used to kill her.
It's an uncommonly harsh story, but it speaks more to the reality of Mao's political campaigns than the images on the posters. So, yes, by all means, collect them, as I have done. They might even be good investments, but don't forget the truths that they conceal.