Richard King’s Proposal

Greetings to all.

I looked through the catalogue for the Toronto show, which looks great, and Wang Mingxian's chapter in his book. I think that the sections that deal with the two 1967 shows are particularly interesting; we would need to edit for Western consumption, explain things that his intended audience would not need to have explained to them, and make sure we have suitable images to illustrate them, but I suspect that there's a great chapter in there if we're creative with it.
Here's a first attempt at where an introduction might go; I'd rather get your thoughts on it before I draft anything for us to offer to the press and the contributors. Then I'll rewrite, and do a tentative table of contents, grouping the papers in sections as best I can and summarizing them in a couple of lines, also for your comments.
Best to all

Initial ideas for an introduction to the book we propose to put together:

1.      Opening section on the exhibition [which can draw from the material in the catalogue]: where the idea came from, how the exhibits were discovered, collected, and recreated, something about the people involved (Sheng, Scott, Wang Mingxian and Yan Shanchun), maybe including a few words about Gu Xiong's sketchbooks and the recreation of the red guard statue.

2.      Even though most of the contributors and curators come from China, this is clearly an exhibition that could not have been presented in China; this allows us to give some indication of why the Cultural Revolution and the art produced in it remains so sensitive in China more than a quarter of a century after it ended.

3.      This, in turn, allows us to consider questions raised at the time of the exhibition and the conference (and which I suspect Scott and Sheng have both been asked since): how proper is it for us to be displaying, and even celebrating, the art of a period which is regarded by many inside and outside China as a particularly black page in China's history? Many of the Chinese artists and scholars represented at the exhibition and in the book were themselves shamefully mistreated during the Cultural Revolution; and as Michael Schoenhals pointed out, at the times when cartoons lampooned Liu Shaoqi and other state leaders, the people themselves were being tortured and killed.

4.      The answers to the above questions are that this is a timely and important enterprise. It is important for those who were persecuted and survived to create art and teach/research it again deserve to be heard; their work from the period, and that of countless anonymous artists, was an important part of the life of China for a period of ten years; and the history of the Cultural Revulution cannot be fully understood without its cultural component. [I’m  sure there's more, but that's a start.]

5.      The Cultural Revolution was an unprecedented attack on authority in a country where people are trained to respect authority; and the attack was led, ironically, by the person at the top of the hierarchy, Mao. He was joined in his attack on the Party and state leadership (whatever his original motivation might have been) by the young and by all those who had reason to feel resentful of the bureaucratic structures developed in the 1950s and ?60s.

6.      the Cultural Revolution, and its art, cannot be understood without considering Mao [something needed here by way of historical context; Mao’s position in the mid-?60s]. The art of the Cultural Revolution is in his image, both literally in its iconography, and in its ideology  its rebelliousness and its vindictiveness towards enemies real and imagined.

7.      The Cultural Revolution is often described as a revolution against culture, and much time was indeed spent in a failed attempt to destroy cultural traditions, but it had at its heart the ambition to create a new, proletarian revolutionary culture. Here we can get on to the subject of the Model Operas and their relationship with Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, the works and the persons, hailed as tandard-bearers? in the arts of the Cultural Revolution. [I did my Ph.D on this stuff, so it should come reasonably easy.]

8.      The arts of the Cultural Revolution were denounced and scorned following the death of Mao, the arrest of the Gang of Four? and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, as China proceeded on the economic and cultural path that Mao and his closest followers had fought against. Much of the cultural product of the Cultural Revolution, especially the literature, has pretty much sunk without trace.

9.      The visual images and iconography keep resurfacing, however. For those who lived through the period, the images invoke a certain nostalgia. For the young however (and the majority of China's population is too young to remember the period itself) the images take on a different role: deprived of their political meaning, and the implied threat and sad memories that go with it, they can be transformed into kitsch, either reproduced in their original form (multiple screens playing Model Operas in high-priced bars) or comically and irreverently transformed by artists like Zhang Hongtu.

10.     And there are other issues that could never have been imagined at the time  big money and copyright. The modern Chinese painting to have raised the most at auction is the Model Work Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, a work reproduced in the hundres of millions as a propaganda image recalling an event that probably never took place, and artists are now claiming ownership of works commissioned as ollective? undertakings in the 1960s and ?70s.

11.     The Vancouver show and this volume is a chance to look at Cultural Revolution art as it was then, and what it has since become in a post-modern world and a global marketplace. It is seen here through the eyes of artists and teachers atr Chinese academies who are now also art historians and curators, and from the perspective of Western-trained scholars of the history of China visual and performing arts.

shengtian zheng © 2014