Academic journal article China Perspectives

Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China's Cultural Revolution

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Apolitical Art, Private Experience, and Alternative Subjectivity in China's Cultural Revolution

Article excerpt

Major histories of the Cultural Revolution have been preoccupied with politics within the Party-state and the resulting violence and destruc- tion. Bestselling memoirs tell victim stories, reinforcing the master narrative. For a revolution named for "culture," remarkably little has been said about Cultural Revolution culture Itself, and what little scholarship there Is fo- cuses again on political propaganda and Its political dissent. The private, non- political art produced underground remains little known. Apart from a scarcity of records, such art simply does not fit the master narratives of the Cultural Revolution. This article explores apolitical art and Its different role In politics: not as Its servant or as dissent, but as Its critical and aesthetic alternative.

The case for this exploration Is the Wuming (No Name) Painting Group active In Beijing 1973-1981. All of the painters during the group's active years were workers or urban youths sent down to become farm labourers. Excluded from formal academic training, they learned painting by self- teach- ing. A few core members of Wuming started painting together as early as 1962, while a circle of twelve younger painters joined them In 1973. The community, now with a clear group Identity, met regularly to paint, read, lis- ten to music, and discuss literature and philosophy, producing several thou- sand oil paintings and holding three major underground or unofficial art exhibitions (1974,1979,1981).These paintings provide visual memories of an ultra-political era, telling an unknown story of the subjective experiences of that revolution and the silent change brought by private artistic activities. Biographies of the artists tell of the state's shattering of family and Invasion of privacy even to the Innermost thought and emotion. Visual evidence - paintings preserved as visual diaries - documents the artists' personal expe- rience during the Mao era, demonstrating the existence of visions of moder- nity and forms of subjectivity other than the state's socialist subject.

Contrasting with dissident art (eg. the Stars group of 1979) and with the political pop that thrived after It, this underground art articulates private sen- sation and emotions using subject matter with no overt political content - landscapes, trees and flowers, water and moonlight, still Ufes and Interiors, houses and streets, portraits of friends, families, and self. Small and Informal In effect, Wuming paintings were produced and circulated outside the official art apparatus, In private time after work. In a conscious revolt against official art doctrines, the artists embraced the twin enemies of official art: literati aes- thetics and Western modernism. The artists thus created a form of Chinese modernist art. Modernism Is a vastly used and contested concept. I engage this concept to highlight three specific aspects of Wuming art as part of global artistic Modernism. Modernist art began In Europe by repudiating the function of art as narrative, Illustration, or teaching, moving from representation to agency. Continuing this artistic movement In Mao's China, VVi/m/ngartlsts re- pudiated the official doctrine of art serving politics, thus also moving from rep- resentation to action and agency. Secondly, Wuming's modernist art Is a critique of Chinese revolutionary modernity, corresponding to the global mod- ernisms that have thrived as a critical response to the arrival of modernity. Thirdly, by turning 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, for- mulating a self-conscious and self-reflective Individual subjectivity.

Scholars have attributed the rise of private art to post-1989 China as part of a de-politicising of society In the 1990s. Geremie Barmé sees 1989 as the turning point towards the "graying of Chinese culture." b) Hou Hanru finds In the 1990s a new wave of artists abandoning Ideology-centric art and seeking self-expression. …

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