PRINT December 1975

Images of the Chinese People

ORGANIZED BY THE ASSOCIATION des Amitiés Franco-Chinoises, this enormous and impressive exhibition contained some 250 items of contemporary Chinese art. The original works were done in a variety of media: oil, watercolors, pen and ink, wood engraving, even photography. As exhibited, all were offset printed—which is evidently the way they were intended to be seen in China. The exhibition was arranged partly according to the original media, partly according to the purposes for which the works were produced, such as street propaganda posters, festival designs, prints for display in classrooms, and others to be hung on doorways at the time of the New Year celebrations. It was made clear that the art shown derived from numerous different provinces in China, though the individual artists were never identified either on the works or in the catalogue.

For all of this variety of purpose and execution, the images were awesomely homogeneous. One’s prior image of contemporary Chinese art is indelibly confirmed, rather than shaken or expanded, by seeing so much of it together at one time. Muscular industrial workers and peasants on the farms labor on behalf of the new China. Everyone smiles, with—curiously—one exception: when an artist is depicted, he (or, almost as frequently, she) is invariably seriously at work, with an attentive audience gathered about (shades of Courbet’s Studio of the Artist). Occasionally Mao or some other historical personage is shown, usually surrounded by the people, rarely alone. Mainly, however, the workers portrayed remain as the artists who portray them, anonymous and interchangeable.

The uniformity of style in which these images are rendered helps them to merge into a totality as undifferentiated as the subjects they depict. Some of this uniformity is doubtlessly the result of the common reproductive process. All of the prints have a hard, glossy surface, and the color combinations are garish to an extreme. The effect is rather that of watching the least subtle sort of advertising on a maladjusted color television set. If esthetic sensibilities are somewhat jarred, the images have an undeniable immediacy of impact out of proportion to their usually quite modest size. One is certainly well aware that one is looking at Oriental art, quite beyond the fact of the Orientals who are the main subject matter (though occasionally an African or Westerner—the latter usually very Nordic—appears). Many of the conventions of spatial illusion and anatomical notation are unmistakably Eastern—although, one sometimes suspects, derived more from the Japanese 19th-century woodcut tradition than directly from China itself. The strongest influence, however, is the social realism of Soviet art, with perhaps a smattering of the USA-Mexico 1930s variety making itself felt from time to time.

The exhibition drew to the museum an unpredictably heterogeneous audience: the elderly and the young, French and foreign. Many of the latter were American fashion buyers, in Paris for the big spring ready-to-wear showings, and hoping no doubt to pick up some trendy ideas on quilted Mao jackets (Women’s Wear Daily has been heralding the new “Chinese worker look”). For whatever reasons, and with whatever expectations, they came to the exhibition, the audience was palpably upset by it. Norman Mailer might well have fancied that he smelled the sweat of fear in the air. They were seeing the future, and it made them nervous. Will I, too, be sent away from my comfortable existence to till the fields for three years, and if so, will I smile about it? Can 800 million Chinese be wrong? And, even if they are, who possibly is going to tell them?

Or were these simply the fantasies of your typical university-educated, card-carrying art historian? Certainly the cozy world of Western art has more to fear from the Chinese example than has your most dedicated capitalist. As we all know, the mainstream of the European-American tradition in art has, since the Renaissance, been the deification of the individual artist, who expresses personal ideas and emotions in the work of art. Out of this comes the enormous value (financial and otherwise) attached to the original work of art. And out of that value springs the complicated, interlocking system of dealers, collectors, museums (and university lecturers and art magazines) by which an artist’s works live or die after they leave the studio. Suddenly, via this exhibition, a radical alternative presents itself. The “work of art”—that is, the actual piece of paper or canvas on which the artist first places the image—apparently ceases to be of importance or significance once the reproductive print has been made. Imagine, if you will, an exhibition of Western art in which the opening words of its catalogue read (as those from the Paris exhibition catalogue do): “All of the works which are in this exhibition, this catalogue, are reproductions. Reproductions of tens or hundreds of thousands of copies.” While American dealers (and U.S. Customs) ponder over what constitutes an original print, and Tamarind Institute curators faithfully log a hand-pulled edition of lithographs, the Chinese are merrily turning out their prints at a rate to warm the hearts at Time magazine. Or would it? Certainly the idea that none of this art is for sale would have troubled the late Henry Luce. Though one is left unclear as to what exactly makes the Chinese art system go (obviously, some sort of bureaucracy), it is certainly something very different from the market economy (or the university teaching post) which supports artists in the West.

Giselbertus carving his name onto the tympanum at Autun Cathedral is regarded as a landmark in the emerging individualism in European art. One searches in vain for a single signature either within the images or on the margins of contemporary Chinese prints. The communication between individual artist and his (increasingly elite) public has, for the Chinese, been replaced by communication between the state and the masses (allowing that the two may still be differentiated) in which process the artist serves rather as a medium, like the paper and inks which produce the prints.

There are, of course, enormous advantages to the Chinese system. G. B. Shaw wrote (in The Doctor’s Dilemma, in which, more than incidentally, the dilemma was resolved by choosing to save a humble doctor’s life rather than that of an aspiring genius of an artist) that “all professions are a conspiracy against the laity.” Certainly this has been largely true to the situation of Western modern art and its public. Warhol made the cover of Time; Miró designed a poster for the Barcelona soccer team; Calder “did” a plane for Braniff. But, by and large, 20th-century art has continued to proceed quite deliberately in directions, both formalist and iconographic, which the general public has not been able, could not be expected to be able, to follow. The Chinese artist, quite obviously, enjoys a mass acceptance which probably should be the envy of most Western painters, sculptors, and printmakers. Art fulfills a purpose, means something for the Chinese, which transcends any experience in the West since the close of the Middle Ages.

But that is, one might say, the rub. Can art achieve a high level of mass acceptance (or, better yet, mass support) only by riding on the coattails of a dogmatic, antilibertarian social order, be it the Catholic Church of other days or an authoritarian communist government of the present? And if society (including the artists) must perhaps pay a high price in terms of individual freedoms in order to produce a truly popular art form, what price must be paid in terms of artistic quality? While it may be quite persuasively argued that it is irrelevant to apply qualitative judgments to an art which is socially committed, one trained in the making of such judgments is struck immediately by the almost universally humdrum appearance of the Chinese art in this exhibition. From our own (admittedly limited) experience in the West, it would appear that socially committed art loses most of its power as art once it ceases to be an art of protest (as in Goya, or Picasso, or some of the art of the Great Depression in the United States) and becomes instead an art of accepted truth (as in the Soviet Union).

But does this matter, or is it only the last whining complaint of a member of the old order? If it does matter, we (artists, critics, art historians, curators) might be advised to try to find a middle ground before it is too late.

Peter Walch teaches art history at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.