PRINT Summer 1980

The Ten Frustrations, or, Waving and Smiling Across the Great Cultural Abyss

If much of China’s art is lacking today, it is not lost, only sleeping. Some day we shall carry on a tradition that has made the world marvel.
—Madame Quo Tai-Chi, Queen, October 9, 1935.

IN RETROSPECT, I’M NOT SURE what I saw in the two and a half weeks I was in The Peoples’ Republic of China.1 I do know that the things that most interested me had little or nothing to do with art. But since art is my field, it provides the most convenient framework in which to try to convey my excitement and confusion about China. The following is neither “my Chinese Diary,” nor an expert’s overview, but an attempt to make some sense of a baffling experience.

It was simultaneously just what we had expected and totally unimaginable. We knew the Cultural Revolution was over and we were prepared for the (by now diminishing) references to the Smashing of the Gang of Four. We knew that Mao’s 1957 exhortation “Let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools of thought contend” had been the official arts line for some time. But we were unprepared for the billboards, the advertising for Sony, Lucky Cola, Swan Products, directed now at the Chinese, not just at foreigners; and for the persistent efforts to get us to spend money. (“We need the foreign currency,” they ruthlessly explained/when we protested at being rushed away from interesting sights to the inevitable gifte shoppe attached to every factory, temple and exhibition.)

Our guide, Gu Yang/told us early in the trip: “The people are sick of politics.” She laid this disenchantment squarely before the door of the four-headed serpent,—attributing it to the Gang’s lively but limited view of correct culture. I was greatly disappointed when I realized that in today’s “normalizing” China, politics was out and tradition was in—tradition in the most banal and retrograde sense, at least to Western eyes. Gone are most of the “heroic revolutionary” and “Mao cult” billboards and posters, gone the “Red Detachment of Women” ballet; even the Peasant Painters and worker woodcuts are nowhere to be seen in the huge, crowded big-city bookstores, where the newest romantic novels are the bestsellers.

In their place is not a flourishing new art, but “fat babies” straddling fat carp, swirling atoms/rosy-cheeked children in space ships, kittens, goldfish, benign portraits of Zhou Enlai and Hua Guofeng, and the “lotus-faced ladies” who cross the graceful purity of ancient goddesses with a disturbingly bland eroticism. Mao is to be found, but not in his previous profusion. We were not taken to see the famous Rent Collection Courtyard in Peking, though we did see a miniature version of it in the Shanghai National Art Museum (along with the only remaining major collection in China of the great ancient paintings, scrolls, bronzes and porcelains). The objects we saw in the factories, art galleries and department stores were either pallid imitations of the art of the past or banal schlock or handsome crafts, such as paper cuttings and bookmarks—all made with the utmost care and the most extraordinary degree of technical skill. Like they say, Chinese society and politics are based on contradiction. In the lobby of the Shanghai Ballet Theatre there is a huge gold on red quotation from Mao: “In the world today all culture, all literature and art belong to definite classes and are geared to definite political lines.” At a factory in the Mai Lu commune nearby we saw labels being sewn into men’s shirts which read “Touch of Class.”

While we may deplore this new socialist consumerism, it is hard not to enjoy what John Gittings has called “the very innocent sort of admiration with which many Chinese now regard the new advertisements appearing in the last year on hoardings that once bore heroic pictures or quotations from Chairman Mao.” He copied down a poem in a glass-case street show of workers’ art that read:

Oh, multi-colored spread of advertisements
Smilingly stretched along the ten league road
Citizen quartz watches; Phoenix face cream
Victory Song TV sets; Turtle shirts. . . .
You are a set of bright medals on the chest of Shanghai!
You are a branch of flowers hanging over our new road,
In the colors of China’s new spring of the 1980s!

The advertisements, like the brilliant patches of colorful clothes airing on bamboo poles over residential streets, do add life to often drab urban landscapes. They are also a bit quaint to Western eyes; one of our favorites was the dashing rider promoting the Chinese movie version of Zorro. The other prime urban decorations are the gigantic large-character poster billboards, white lettering on red grounds, that exhort workers to work harder and citizens to be better socialists.

I knew there would be a culture gap, but I had looked forward to meeting artists whose politics were up front in their art. In one sense that is what I found—though they weren’t much interested in talking about it. The Chinese arts are still very political compared to those of the West. Propaganda and art are still frequently interchangeable. Socialism is still the all-pervasive ideological motive and force behind everything (even the new consumerism and incentive programs). The move in art from didacticism to entertainment may have something to do with the fact that the Gang emerged from the cultural domain, though culture is here defined in the broadest sense, including the whole superstructure: “the information media, statute-law and the judiciary, education, philosophy/literature, the arts, leisure activities, social conscience and the preferences of the intelligentsia.”3 (The “Four Modernizations”—agriculture, industry, defense and science/technology—do not include culture.)

Consequently art that looks limited and a bit decadent to us must be seen in the light of the fact that during the Cultural Revolution only eight operas were approved, and no matter how wonderful they might have been, this is something of a starvation diet for 800 million people over a ten-year period. Deng Xiaoping himself, in 1975, expressed the then “absurd view” that “Cultural life is monotonous . . . the model operas are not an example of a hundred flowers blooming but of one flower blossoming.”4 Jiang Jing’s pride—the model operas—are now seen as “too formalistic,” and her “theory of the three emphases,” aimed at the perfect socialist work of art, has been rejected in favor of Mao’s vaguer, or more subtle, distinctions between subject matter (the “democratic essence” of his “Six Political Criteria for Art”) and esthetics (“artistic technique”). At the same time, the Gang was always stressing “the new,” and the ideological rejection of empiricism was also bound to affect the arts. All this may illuminate the terrible time we had defining or discussing “innovation” with our Chinese colleagues.

In developing his one-hundred-flowers theme, Mao had said that “it is harmful to the growths of arts and science if administrative measures are used to impose one particular style of art or school of thought and to ban another. Questions of right and wrong in arts and science should be settled through free discussion in artistic and scientific circles and through practical work in these fields.”5 One is now told constantly that during the Cultural Revolution writers were terrified to write, artists to paint, composers to compose, etc., since the strictures were so complex that virtually any “imperfect” attempt might end as the dreaded “poisonous weeds,” to be rooted out by drastic means. According to playwright Tsao Yu, even now that the Cultural Revolution is over, “some people don’t know what to do. They are like people who have been unbound but can’t walk because their legs are numb.”6 Similarly, Zhang Yuanzhen, director of the Shanghai Art Gallery said recently: “For ten years we were isolated. Now we are trying to understand what has been going on in the outside world. What are the new schools and how can we integrate their good points into Chinese art?”7

They are being justifiably cautious, however. Many agree with the composer, Wu Zuquiang, who advocates “making foreign things serve China” while opposing “indiscriminate and wholesale adoption of anything Western,” lest it sully the national spirit.8 We often felt that for all the immense friendliness and enthusiasm, the older and more prestigious artists were less interested in what went on in the West than in how the West received the “new” Chinese art. At both the Shanghai Institute and the Shih Lin Seal Engraver’s Society in Hangchou, our hosts were very disappointed to hear that we had no real “criticisms” to offer about their work, and that we had not seen their first overseas exhibition. We hastened to assure them it must not have come to New York, but the truth is that the art they were doing had so little to do with our own interests that most of us probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. On the other hand, we were dying to try to explain what we did, and why, but nobody except Gu ever asked. At the stately Seal Society, during the formal introduction, the director said they had a question for us. We all perked up over our tea, but the question was, again, what did we think of Chinese art? I got stuck with answering and muttered something lame about how communication was important and we could learn a great deal from each other since we overemphasized innovation and they overemphasized tradition.

This was the crux of our misunderstandings. Good will could not overcome the basic fact that we were talking at cross purposes, neither understanding the other’s culture well enough to do more than wave and smile across the abyss. For instance/at a banquet in Peking with the staff of the Academy of Fine Arts and a few non-art professors from Tsinghua University, there was a painter at our table who had been to West Germany and had seen more contemporary Western art than we had Chinese contemporary art. He liked Photo-Realism. But he frankly acknowledged that abstraction was culturally impossible for him to grasp. Where did it come from? he asked us. What does it mean? Why does it exist? We drew a deep communal breath over our Mongolian Hot Pot and came up with a variety of off-the-wall replies—some theories that might have been recognized by the authors of the textbooks, and others that decidedly wouldn’t have been. The Chinese artists were interested but sincerely baffled by our lack of a coherent theory on this important subject. There seemed no common point of departure into a “real discussion,” especially since we ourselves didn’t agree. Although we were told the Academy subscribed to Art in America, nothing of ours written or reproduced there seemed to ring a bell; their knowledge of Western art history usually seemed to stop with Impressionism, maybe Post-Impressionism, maybe a whiff of Cubism, and recently there was a Käthe Kollwitz woodcut exhibition in Peking. Even in these areas they seemed to be less familiar with theory than with pictures.

We, in turn, were always asking inappropriate questions about abstraction and innovation, and it took us an inordinately long and frustrating time to realize that their esthetic traditions are so different from ours that what we call innovation—that mad treadmill of progress that stimulates sales—has no application to Chinese art. The Chinese art people weren’t being “inscrutable”; they just didn’t know what we were talking about. They always agreed, in fact; they too were extremely interested in and dedicated to “innovation.” And although we in the West think of Oriental art as “abstract” and have used it to inspire some of our most extreme non-objectivism, the Chinese think of their traditional art as realism. (They proudly and often noted that Guilin, a town where karst peaks rise abruptly and fantastically from a flat plain, “proved to Westerners that Chinese painters weren’t liars making things up.”) We kept trying to explain how in the West change is constant, individual progress is expected, individuals work “freely” and competitively, how it is individual artists rather than schools who are credited with the greatest leaps forward.

We did not take time to recall, however, that within the Chinese tradition the audience’s perceptive capacity is heightened and stimulated by minute changes and a poetically politico-symbolic vocabulary incomprehensible to us. One of our major frustrations was just that level of generalization on which the Chinese are accustomed to communicating. Our troubles stemmed partly from the language barrier and ignorance on our part and partly from the interpreters not being artists. But it also had to do with the way the Chinese express themselves both verbally and visually in a thicket of metaphors, similes and parables that sound to us incredibly quaint and oblique. Even the documents of the Cultural Revolution, for instance, which affected the political future of the whole country, were couched in a language of flowers and bees and weeds. The Revolution itself was sparked by a historical play—The Dismissal of Hai Jui by Wu Han. We wasted a lot of our time trying to pin the Chinese down to specifics when they were probably being quite specific all along.

Chinese art education is divided into Traditional Chinese Art (paintings of landscape, birds and flowers, and figures; calligraphy; and chop carving) and Western Art (oil painting and sculpture). In Shanghai we visited the two sections of the Art Institute, where some of our misconceptions were clarified and others were heightened. This is one of the few such institutes in the country. All its members are graduates of the high art schools. They are there for life, some 60 of them in the Traditional section and 30 in Western art, ranging in age from 40 to 90, doing “new creation” and “research” in their “own work.” (A few promising amateurs are also given further training there.) They are among the thousand or so artists in all of China who are the real “professionals”—paid to make “fine” art full time. Their average salary is 100 Yuan monthly, whereas the average worker’s salary is 60 Yuan a month. (We never met anyone who made over that, and we met many who made less.) In addition, the state pays for all materials and for framing and mounting. These special institutes exist only in a few cities and the one in Shanghai is the largest. Its members hold an annual exhibition and participate in the Shanghai Painting Association’s and other nationwide shows. Every spring and autumn they travel to other parts of China (the countryside) to work from “grass roots units.”

The Traditional Art section was housed in a lovely old foreign-built mansion with luxurious gardens. The artists who greeted us were mostly dressed in the gray suit of the upper echelon of the cadre. They were neat, dignified and quite formal. Their art was the best of its kind we saw in China. After the Brief Introduction, as we were admiring the scrolls hung in the main room, we had an exchange which epitomized our differences. Although stylistically much of the art was virtually indistinguishable to us from that in the museums, its “quality” was obvious. We unanimously focused on a particularly bold, black and white brush painting of an eagle perched on a pine branch. We complimented the painter, and one of us took the bit in his teeth yet again and asked: What distinguishes this from ancient art; what are the innovative elements?

The artist replied that the traditional eagle is very brave, so to paint the eagle symbolizes bravery.9 We tried again, and additional false starts increased his bafflement and our frustration. Finally, in desperation, the artist said, “New painters here too like to be different but they do it on the basis of the old.” He pointed out that his work was based on a specific traditional painting as well as on an unchanging genre, and that in the older work “the leaf of the pine is very fine and exquisite, but here it is free and strong.” I couldn’t resist asking about the Ch’an Buddhist school, which had specialized in just such strong strokes, and one of the women said, “Oh yes, Liang Kai.” So we got that far—but no further. The Ch’an Buddhist painters of several centuries ago look more “modern” to our eyes, but I couldn’t tell if they heard me saying this, whether my ignorance embarrassed them, or whether the question simply made no sense at all.

This disputed eagle, which looked to us like a very skillful example of a tried and true style, may indeed have incorporated all kinds of personal innovation that were simply invisible to us. Equally possible, it may not have been innovative at all in our sense of the word. What is clear, at least, is that the degree of innovation is different in the Oriental tradition. Ad Reinhardt, who was an avid scholar of Chinese painting, loved it because nothing ever changed, because the Chinese were painting “the same painting, the same old thing, over and over again”—just as he was.10 Anyone who has studied the history of Chinese art knows that the changes that did take place were very subtle and very gradual. Chinese innovation took place not so much within an individual’s lifetime production as within a collectively evolved historical style (whereas our avant-garde tradition has abandoned connoisseurship in favor of novelty). Individual artists in China were revered, but their contributions were seen within the tradition itself, at that slow pace. This sheds some light on Chinese Socialism as well as on Chinese art, and may to some extent answer questions as to why traditional images associated with the Bad Old Imperialist days continue to thrive in the New China. More specifically, the situation has of course also been attributed to the Cultural Revolution: “Chinese painters will now produce guohua [ traditional painting] and nothing else for the next twenty years because they have been deprived of the chance for almost as long.”11

I also found interesting another scroll in the same room. It was more “modern,” less delicately expressionist, and showed a mountain landscape with an old house atypically large and centered, one window suffused by a brilliant yellow light—an odd and incongruous suggestion of electricity in what appeared to be an “ancient” scene. It had the air of a nativity, and that, it turned out, is just what it was—a political nativity. It depicted the house in the Chingkangshan mountains where Mao had written a significant essay—“Why There is Red Power.”

At the Western painting section of the Shanghai Institute, we found the furthest-out art we were to see in China. This branch was established only in 1965, and a year later fell victim to the Cultural Revolution’s distaste for elitist establishments and foreign culture. In contrast to the well lit elegance of the Traditional section, it felt familiar to us. It was dimmer/shabbier; the artists were rather scruffily dressed and more relaxed. Over a couch hung a tightly painted oil, an industrial landscape with a band of bright pink cherry trees and a band of yellow flowers and a band of smokestacks and a band of sky, reminiscent of Childe Hassam or other provincial Impressionists.

“Painters here prefer the Impressionist style,” we were told by the director (a sculptor, perhaps in his sixties, a follower of Rodin as all the sculptors seemed to be). He had studied in Paris and Belgium in the ’30s and spoke French. He was a charming man, and his staff joined in, interrupting and laughing, during the Brief Introduction. They were disappointed that there was not a single oil painter in our group. (Our one specimen had skipped this session.) They obviously had anticipated great communication since they are, after all, specialists in our kind of art, and they were eager to hear about “the lives of painters in America.” However/the avant-garde since the ’30s seemed to be absolutely unknown to them—except, again, for “Photo-Realism”: Duane Hansen, Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell. It was very difficult to explain what we are and most of us lacked institutional affiliations. Free-lance art critics, like me, for instance, do not exist there. We stumbled through, trying to exude as much good humor as they did. Then we went to see their work.

Painting by painting we went through the large exhibition, followed by a crowd. Every artist was dying to hear our every comment, though none of them spoke much English. The art was, for China, stylistically varied. There was a sort of Matissean still life done by the former director, who was “the teacher of Zao Wou Ki.” There was the usual flock of well executed socialist realist documentation—Mao carrying pumpkins “like the peasant women,” oil field workers, Zhou in the hospital, Zhou with kids on his knee, illustrations from Lu Hsun/Impressionist landscapes often executed with a certain flair and painterliness, and narratives that are moving despite their conventional execution. My favorite of these was the portrait of a young woman standing proudly in a snowy village street, all in cool grays and blacks. The subject is the revolutionary martyr Lu Hou Lan, dead at sixteen; the artist was, not surprisingly, a woman. We beamed at each other, but alas she spoke only a few words of English, and I could communicate only my special interest in her work.12

Whenever we approved of something, the artist was called forward and shyly accepted our compliments. The works we liked best—those with outbreaks of expressionist brushwork or offbeat imagery—were inevitably by the very young men, which got embarrassing—though their elders seemed as pleased by their success as we were. Two stood out. The first made huge, bold and originally colored history scenes with powerful looming figures. The subjects were from China’s distant past, and one big battlefield canvas had a kind of barbaric energy that reminded me of Malcolm Morley. The second—Ching Yi Fei—made a huge canvas about “modern young people thinking about history,” in a style one could call romantic Surrealist history painting. At right front an oversized self-portrait seen from the back surveys a background (or a painting within a painting) that is made up of myriad smaller scenes in washy grisaille and sepia, like ghostly old newspaper photos showing the history of China approaching the revolution. At the left, painted like the figure, in full color and concrete realism, is an oversized empty wooden armchair. It was an impressive painting and especially so in this context. When we went later to Ching’s little studio, we found he painted unabashedly in several totally different styles, among them the romantic narrative—e.g., a canvas of the grandmother from a Lu Hsun story, dying of starvation in the snow, clutching the shoe of her grandson who had been eaten by wolves.

Like those at the Fine Arts Academy in Peking, where engrossed students turned out identical drawings of nude or “ethnically costumed” models, the studios here were straight out of nineteenth-century Paris: peeling plaster, dim light, centered around a small, black-piped coal or wood stove, a few life drawings and perhaps a reproduction of Ingres or Whistler pinned to the wall, no personal details at all. We also visited the sculptors: a woman making curvy, elongated Lo-han-like traditional dancers and an equally stylized and emaciated twentiesish nude reaching daintily for the sky; a man working on a monumental bust of Zhou in gray clay, imitating chiseled stone, to be cast in bronze; another man making smaller portrait busts in plaster and bronze, the liveliest of which portrayed the composer of “The Yellow River Concerto.” Art in China is mostly painting, or two dimensional. Sculpture seems for the most part either monumental or figurine scale, destined for the plaza or the mantelpiece, perhaps due to the lack of a middle-class market and commercial galleries to buy anything in between. Although the Duchampian esthetic would surely be anathema to the Chinese, the only abstract sculpture we saw was in fact “found objects.” In all the temple and palace gardens were huge natural rocks, pitted and carved by the elements, “chosen” by esthetes to be displayed as art.

The other high point of our art visits, and the other place we felt most at home, was the Shanghai Film Animation Studio. It wasn’t on our itinerary, but someone knew some movie people who had been there; our request to visit was granted after a certain reluctance on the part of our local guide, who thought we were loafers and uninterested in China because so many of the group skipped official visits to wander around or shop. The Studio turned out to be a kind of factory, and we immediately liked the people, who were relaxed and jovial and glad to see us. Altogether five hundred workers produce “30 boxes of film per year”: cartoons, puppet films and paper-cutting films. Since the Cultural Revolution they have produced some two-hundred films, all by hand. (A ten-minute film takes over 8,000 pictures and many of their films are features over an hour long.) Mr. Wong, the director, remarked that “working conditions are not so good. The buildings are old and the equipment is old.” We could not disagree. The whole country is poor and the arts are no exception.

Workers at scarred, wooden school desks in open carrels were drawing from little plaster models of “Snowboy and the Rabbit”—heroes of a short directed by a cheerful woman. Under the glass of each desk were a few family photographs, scenic views, sometimes Mao or Zhou. Drawings made in one room were transferred to acetate in another. Here, as in every other factory or workshop we visited, the workers never missed a stroke of their extremely intricate work despite our breathing down their necks with curiosity and cameras, though they smiled up at us occasionally. The backgrounds for the animation are watercolor landscapes and Mr. Lei, one of the older directors, is proudly referred to as a “famous watercolorist.” The tableaux for the puppet films are also constructed here; the one we saw was a beautiful miniature of the ornate temples we’d been visiting; the story was about a forced marriage in the bad old days. The lacy papercut figures were especially fascinating, extraordinarily complex and hinged at every conceivable joint for movement—wonderful works of art in themselves.

When we had seen each section, we were led back through the freezing hallways and open courtyards and shacklike buildings past the ubiquitous badminton nets and piles of wood and concrete. (Everything in China seems to be undergoing delayed construction; materials lie around like a museum of good intentions.) In a drafty screening room (no plush seats), we were offered four films, but to our guides’ disgust saw only two because the sickest among us were about to die of the damp cold. The first was a feature we saw advertised on billboards all over Shanghai—Nor Tsah Troubles the Sea. It was the story of a mythical boy hero born from an egg brought to his tyrannical father by a crane. At an early age he takes on the four evil dragons living under the sea—demons of flood, fire, snow and wind—who are persecuting the people. (We could recognize the Gang of Four but probably missed endless other political innuendoes in word and image.) Although forced to kill himself to save the people in his first life, Nor Tsah is reborn, returns, and finally conquers. (Perhaps he represents Deng, also miraculously resurrected despite the four dragons?)

I am not a great fan of animated film but this one was exquisite, influenced by the early Disney and full of a uniquely oriental grace and vitality unknown to Walt. It incorporated the decorative styles of Tang and Indian art and even at his most cutesy, the boy hero had the appealing dash of an Errol Flynn. The art, far more convincing than so much of the professional Traditional paintings we saw, made the old scroll paintings come to life. My favorite scenes were those in which the dragons were on the rampage, tearing around in fire and storm with virtuoso displays of movement like Ch’en Yung’s famous 13th-century Dragons of Mist and Torrent.

The other film was called Little Tadpoles Look for Mummy, and was made by Mr. Lei and Hsu A-Da in 1963 after the historical painter Chi Pai-Shih. It was one of the loveliest translations from painting to film I’ve seen. The brushed images, mostly blacks and grays with touches of brighter colors, floated on a white ground; the cast of frogs, ducks, crayfish, turtles, hens, et al., was, like the narrative, both witty and touching.

As usual, we had to leave before we could find a way into any meaningful conversation, but a few of us went on with Lei and Hsu A-Da to an exhibition that turned out to be one of the most interesting of our Chinese art experiences. It was held in a big old stone second-floor hall, on a main commercial street, which turned out to be a sort of temporary “alternate space.” Usually a Boy Scout hall, it had been rented by eleven artists from the animation studio for an independent exhibition (though the work itself did not seem very different from what we had seen officially displayed in the modern Art Gallery). There was an entrance charge, and quite a few people were there in the late afternoon, some buying black-and-white souvenir snapshots of their favorite works. Nothing was for sale because the show would travel to Peking and Nanking. A critic was to write it up in the weekend paper, and the gate was to be divided between the artists after expenses were paid. The state, so far as I could make out, was not involved.

The art itself—lots of it—was small and varied, a hodgepodge of extremely skilled conventional water colors in both Chinese and Western styles (Mr. Lei’s among the best), amateur imitations of same, popular decorative work with vaguely propagandistic subjects, calligraphies, prints, a few portraits. Landscape was the most popular theme and politics the least. One drawing seemed clearly Picassoid and almost abstract. A handsome landscape showed a cityful of smokestacks against a gorgeous display of polluted sky. My favorite (no photo available) was Hsu A-Da’s semi-abstract black on white pattern of trees in the snow, which he said was seen from a train window; it stood out in its directness and almost geometric simplicity. Each artist displayed work in at least two styles. The lack of emphasis on the individual seems to leave the individual free to do whatever s/he wants, and there is certainly something to be said for that kind of freedom.

The fact that we were so amazed to find an artist-organized exhibition recalls our confusion about another “free” show. Before we left America we had read in The New York Times about a “dissidents’ exhibition” in Peking which was closed down because it showed too much freedom of expression, including satirical treatments of party leaders. Our hosts at the academy in Peking laughed hilariously when we timidly asked if they had seen the “dissident show.” They had not only seen it, but had helped find it an indoor space because “the side of the road is no place for art.” They said it was a show of amateur artists, some of whom were their students, and that they had helped and advised the organizers.

After I got home, I read a fuller account of this episode.13 Apparently, the unlicensed outdoor show initiated by a group of young artists associated with the Democracy Movement had indeed been broken up, but then permission was given for a two-week show at the Museum of Art; it was titled “The Single Spark” (from Mao’s “A single spark can start a prairie fire”). The group had published an unofficial magazine that featured such Western-sounding statements as: “The world provides the artistic explorer with limitless possibilities, and the artist should constantly be offering new surprises,” and “We take Kollwitz as our model and Picasso as our pioneer.” Gittings says that many of these young artists were Red Guards; while they are entirely disillusioned with the Cultural Revolution, they continue to protest and satirize the bureaucracy, which has clamped down on freedom of expression even more since this show last November. I only wish we could have met with these artists. Among our frustrations was the knowledge that we knew so little and didn’t know where to go for information.because so little seems to have been written on the visual arts.

Lei and Hsu came to our hotel the next morning, and Hsu brought me my first Chinese artists’ book: 64 pages, 31/2^ by 101/2-inches, horizontal format, consisting of full color “frames” of a film called One Night in an Art Gallery. It is immensely inventive about how to transfer film to book medium, with each page edged at top and bottom in black so the pictures appear to be on a screen. The story is about censorship, good guys (school children who live in the gallery’s pictures) versus bad guys (a hat and a club who represent the cigar-smoking bureaucrats; they drive up in a limousine and censor every picture). Kids and pictures fight back and the villains are vanquished along with their little green informer friend, after various chases and shenanigans. This is, then, a political artists’ book, or propaganda, with a lesson to be learned amid the visual fun. It would seem to satisfy the criteria for literature and art offered in November 1979 by Deng: “Literary and artworkers who are responsible to the people should take into consideration the social effects of their works. All creative workers should give the people education and enlightenment and esthetic enjoyment . . . weeding through the old to bring forth the new.”14

The mixture of “high” and “low” culture in China raises some fascinating issues for anyone who is dissatisfied with the way in which Western contemporary high art has cut itself off from the popular, or low, arts, and thereby from its audience. There are some parallels to be drawn between our Pop Art (in which exploitative mass media were incorporated into elitist esthetics) and the current Chinese notion that art’s prime goal is to “give pleasure to the people” (in which elements of kitsch are also channeled into an aristocratic tradition). “The aim of Socialist production is to satisfy the needs of the people.” But which needs? As in the West it is sometimes doubtful who has been consulted. “We have only a few abstractions because the masses don’t like it,” we were told; then another person remarked sensibly that it was all right for an artist to do what s/he wanted since “everybody doesn’t like everything anyway.” We never had the sense that abstraction was being suppressed (although it certainly wasn’t being taught) so much as that no one was particularly interested in it.

Larry Rosing reported from the last New York “artworkers” tour, in January 1978, that from their discussions with Chinese artists they gathered that abstraction was merely considered “decoration”—which sounds familiar. They were asked if the rise of Photo-Realism in America “implied that American artists had come around to the Chinese way of thinking about subject matter.” But when they met with four of the “professionals” from the Shanghai Institute, they were told that the difference between the Husian County Peasant Painters and their own work was that the Institute painters “thought of form first while the Peasant Painters thought first about subject matter.”15

The line between a would-be Photo-Realism and pure academicism is not very clear. The “handicraft” embroideries which are photos transferred by grid into another medium could be the former, but perhaps the best example we saw was a “Photo-Realist” portrait being executed in the street in Foshan by, I presume, an “amateur,” though perhaps an amateur who had trained in the Western Painting section of some art school; in every art school we visited, realistic portraiture in charcoal was a major focus. Then, of course, there is the Chinese view of modern photography, which is another essay in itself.16

Certainly the blurred distinctions between what we in the West see as “high” and “low” art would not encourage any apparent move away from accessibility and communication. Chinese professional artists are in the enviable position of seeing their art become public almost as a matter of course. It is true that the top echelon painters at the Shanghai Art Institute did not make propaganda posters nor work in a factory, but the sculptors there were making official statues, and the “famous watercolorist” at the animation studio made propaganda . . . in the form of extremely popular cartoons carrying political messages, as well as his own “fine art.” And there are other “masters” who are respected artists but still work either as commercial designers or skilled artisans or at some unrelated job during the day. In Guilin we even encountered the free art market—a number of young men squatting on the mountainside, trying to keep their perfectly competent brush paintings of the overwhelming landscape around them from blowing off the cliff and into it. Their work was for sale, cheap by Western standards, although not so much cheaper than that at the Shanghai Institute.

When two Minneapolis artists were in Guilin last summer, they found “sixty paintings of incredible sensitivity, beauty and competence done by sixty amateur artists from a work brigade in a nearby towel factory.” Yet when they tried to buy some rice paper to try the technique themselves, they found the materials were unavailable in Guilin; they were told that the “non existence of art materials was an effort on the part of the Communist government to stop the sale of paintings on the mountainside. When a medical doctor earns only two hundred dollars a month and a school teacher seventy dollars a month, an artist engaged in free enterprise selling drawings at ten dollars each constituted a crime against the people.”17

There may only be a “back door” market for independent artists, but there is definitely a huge market for chatchkas, or what we condescendingly call kitsch or schlock art. These things are much cheaper than the “good art” being produced at the Institute and therefore, just as in the West, more available to the masses. At the same time, the mixture of high and low culture is far less self-conscious than in the West. This could be seen in the exhibitions we visited and also in magazines. One, for instance, consisted mostly of revolutionary and historical comics, but also included an article on Leonardo’s drawings; there was a cartoon on the front cover and Mona Lisa on the back.

At the Shanghai Art Gallery, where a vast span of contemporary art was hung, I kept noticing the introduction of a “feudal” goddess of mercy or “lotus-faced lady” into scenes of “modernization.” For example, one gouache showed a laboratory/factory in which smiling young women in white coats extracted pearls from huge shells; each pearl was accompanied by a tiny “pearl goddess” aristocratically coiffed and dressed in flowing robes; several of these little goddesses were lined up like specimens in a glass case in the foreground. The figure appears to be a protectress of women workers; in another painting she was wafting around a microscope wielded by a healthy young woman on a mountainside. She seems both ubiquitous and anachronistic. (The sinuousness and elongation that often repelled us in the depiction of female and elderly sage figures is actually a hardy survivor from the history of Chinese art—what Roger Fry remarked in the ’30s as “the emphatic continuity and flow of the contour”18—now exaggerated and cheapened by overuse or mass production.)

In Foshan, near Canton, we visited the Shihwan Fine Arts Ceramic Factory. It turns out endless exquisite replicas of gray-faced old sages, more of these lissome mythical females, water buffaloes and teensy-weensy boats and teensy-weensy sages playing Go with pieces the size of pin heads—all mass produced by hand, though with division of labor. (No one person was responsible for every aspect of a figurine.) In the Handicrafts Research Institute in Shanghai—another dark, cold, formerly elegant mansion converted into a quasi sweatshop—we watched designers make the prototypes for the lurid tapestries reproducing Gainsborough and gamboling kittens we saw at the Industrial Trade Fair. They worked from post cards and color photographs cut from travel brochures. Some were making extremely skillful, if saccharine, figurines after ancient Buddhist sculptures by peering at blurry two-dimensional images. Others made needlework patterns from photographs of tourists’ sights and of people—some commissioned by overseas visitors. (After seeing a Japanese businessman in blue serge and tie being transformed for woolly posterity, two of our group wanted their portraits done, but it turned out to be expensive—as well it should be, considering the time involved.)

At the same place we had a delightfully nonchalant demonstration of the art of paper cutting by the senior artist in that section. With a pair of rounded scissors he produced in mid-air a bird, and then a pig of astounding intricacy. Another man modeled for us a child doll from play-doughlike, colored plasticine. He too was amazingly skillful; tiny hands, button eyes, rosy cheeks and bright clothes rapidly and magically appeared. I was so impressed by the technical control that I’ll never be able to look at these things the same way again. But the final image remained nauseatingly unconvincing in its confectionary cuteness. (Who am I to talk? I collect the “tasteless” creations of English ladies who stick shells in plaster over old plates and cold cream bottles, and I genuinely liked the Chinese computerized silk weavings in gray and black that imitate newspaper photographs of important personages such as Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Engels, Mao, Zhou and sometimes Norman Bethune—but never Agnes Smedley.)

In any case, the notion of art as entertainment rather than as education alone, or political arousal, has penetrated the “high” traditional arts as well as the handicrafts. At the provincial but also prestigious and academic Seal Society on the famous West Lake in Hangchou, artists proudly displayed and demonstrated, along with marvelous calligraphy19 and virtuoso landscapes, a kind of calendar art done, or overdone, in traditional styles. We saw the same kind of thing at the elegant Shanghai Institute of Traditional Painting, I don’t know whether this is the influence of “modernization” or of Western art polluting the simplicity of Chinese watercolors, or whether it is simply the inevitable decay of a style weakened over centuries. Either way, one of the most appalling aspects of the mixture of aristocratic tradition, Madison Avenue, and the Rockettes, in which Chinese popular art seems to be wallowing at the moment, is the watered-down ethnic imagery we found. The numerous “National Minorities” incorporated by the predominantly Han population are used in Chinese art in a manner reminiscent of the “they-got-rhythm” brand of American racism. A great fuss is made over the minorities keeping their customs, diets, costumes—and racial stereotypes—intact. (One local guide told us that the Han race wanted to “stay pure.”)

The murals in the foreigners’ dining room at the newly opened Peking airport feature, as do many theatre presentations, the colorful Dai group, a quasi-Malaysian jungle culture that allows depiction of the women topless and nude. (Nudes are still rare in puritanical China, though we did see some curiously modest and dispirited Western realist ones in the academies.) Racism and sexism tend to go hand in hand. A woman artist at the Shanghai Institute and the man at the Hangchou Seal Society were both innocently painting what seemed to me to be tasteless hootchy-kootchy girls, far better endowed and more enthusiastically, if coyly, sexual than the academic nudes—while intending to eulogize the national minorities. This image was evident in all the arts, as well as in the handicrafts, in advertising and in public posters.

A similarly retrograde style of entertainment was found, to varying degrees, in the modern “singing and dancing” shows we attended. The ballet in Shanghai had a certain polyglot charm. It was actually some twenty different skits, each announced in the classic theatrical falsetto by a highly made-up, school-girlishly dressed actress. My favorites were a revolutionary romance (more romance than revolution) where the young couple is married and murdered on the battlefield; and an art piece where actresses in traditional costumes did astounding things with their 20-foot long scarves, simulating to perfection the popular depictions of those mythic goddesses swirling in cloudlike loops. Acrobatics (surely “low” art) was incorporated into some of the “ballets” (high art?).

In Guilin, on the other hand, the nightclub aspect took over completely. The acting was coy and mincing, the endlessly changed costumes sleazy and revealing, the image of woman as voluptuous slave girl or passive doll hideously contradictory to the relaxed and natural looks and behavior of the real Chinese women surrounding us. This particular shot of “normalization” seems to be introducing into Chinese culture all the worst the West can offer. I was enraged by it and told Gu vehemently that this was false culture, not worthy of the achievements of the Chinese people since the Liberation, and so forth. Politics may be out, but does real life have to go too? She also had a “criticism”—of the music: it was a pastiche—but was clearly disappointed when all of us left at intermission. The 200-year old Peking Opera was something else—robust and brilliant in movement, color and sound, utterly foreign, too long, and the best theatre I’ve seen for ages. We saw it three times in three very different settings, but the high point was in Shanghai, in a huge, dirty hall jammed with workers and their children—an audience quite different from the more genteel one at the ballet and in Guilin. As the Chinese themselves admit, China is not yet a classless society.

It is, however, the closest to one I have ever seen, and one can only admire the downright miraculous achievements of the Chinese People in the last thirty years. It was at the Workers’ Cultural Palace in Shanghai that this was most strongly conveyed in regard to the arts. A huge multi-storied building resplendently red and gold on the outside and worn and cavernous inside; its halls, workshops, exhibitions, game rooms and cafés were thronged with people. There is no night life in China—no bars except in the foreigners’ hotels, a limited number of theatres and cinemas; restaurants are geared to the work shift ending at five P.M. and are empty by nine. So the cultural “palaces” are ironically where “the people” dally—or at least the men; the women were presumably home dealing with the second part of their double day.

After playing a doll hockey game and ping pong, and seeing an exhibition on safety in the construction industry that included an intricate model of a tall building surrounded by the inevitable and picturesque bamboo scaffolding, we ascended to a warren of small rooms upstairs where people were studying and discussing, making and practicing their arts. I was immensely touched by the shabby little library filled with earnest blue-clad backs hunched over precious books20—an impressive microcosm of the struggles this country has had to educate and inspire in almost a billion people the respect for arts and learning. I was even more exhilarated by the time we had visited in rapid succession the practice sessions, or performances, of several different musical groups, ranging from an ebullient mixed chorus to a plaintive folk group; an ensemble playing ancient instruments was led by a beautiful and accomplished young woman who had risen from the Children’s Palace to the Youth Palace to this apogee. A full orchestra played a symphonic version of “Oh Susannah” in our honor, and a team of nine acrobats—post people by day—did amazing things with a bicycle. Finally we got to the cartoonists’ group where disaster awaited us. They were mostly young and middle-aged, all men, very enthusiastic, crowding around to show us their work. It was the only art group we met in a wholly informal situation/without the benefit of a Brief Introduction, but we were too exhausted after a day of sightseeing to take advantage of it. They had no leader, and set to work collectively on the same sheet of paper, drawing effortlessly two tokens of Chinese American friendship which they gave to us. When they insisted we make something in turn, our Shanghai guides shook their heads woefully. By now they didn’t think we were proper artists at all. Aghast, we huddled to figure out what to do. Of our four genuine fine artists, two were absent and the others “don’t draw.” One non-artist could draw frogs and another volunteered to try a cartoon out of desperation. Then someone had the bright idea to do a collective “exquisite corpse”—folding the paper to make a composite figure Surrealist style. However, when faced with a huge piece of paper and a tiny fine-lined pen, we made such a mess of it that we had to cross it out and apologize. The cartoonists, disappointed, were nice about it, while our critical guide Chen snarled to me under his breath, “That is not painting. That is a tourist game.” The next day our absent draughtsman made a small drawing and we sent it to the cartoonists through the guide.

This humbling experience in some ways epitomized our Chinese tour. I think we learned a great deal from it, painful as it was. We met as a group that night for the first time, and discussed—also for the first time—our responsibilities to each other and to our hosts, especially to Gu. Our Shanghai guides were to some extent right in judging us “not serious” about art. I knew that I, for one, had not done enough homework. Frustrating fragments from a graduate school minor in Oriental Art kept floating to the surface, reminding me how little I remembered about Chinese traditional culture. We had not, of course, realized how important such an understanding would be because we had pictured the art as still more or less Culturally Revolutionary. (Since few of us would have shared the political convictions then, we probably would have been just as patronizing about this as we were about the traditional “kitsch.”)

So we were not well prepared. We had done a good deal of reading in history and politics and neglected the arts, figuring that we could depend on our own skills and instincts. In fact, we should have pored over press clippings and four years of China Reconstructs and the Beijing Review before we left, rather than while we were there. At the same time, the Chinese, despite all the foreign books and catalogues we and surely other groups had brought, were equally unprepared to ask us “the right questions.” Yet over this abyss of mutual ignorance I think we all managed to convey much good will and a longing to communicate. There was a lot of smiling and excitement to replace the intellectual lacunae.

It took us a long time to internalize the crucial differences between our culture and theirs, and by that time we had also internalized the rather condescending tone which I fear pervades this article despite my consciousness of it and my political sympathy for Chinese Socialism. Taste is taste, and insidious. Our conditioning as Western “high artists” was ineradicable. Our specialized group got more out of a weird breed of pig at a commune, the amazing street life of the old town in Shanghai, the visits to factories, schools, workers’ homes and glimpses of private lives than from the art itself. The Chinese are wise to introduce foreigners to all facets of their society.

Because I have spent a lot of time over the last few years thinking about populism and art, I probably felt guiltier than most about rejecting the “kitsch” (in itself a term that raises class barriers), about lacking the background to understand the traditional art, and being unable to respond to the mixtures-the same mixtures I hope for in my own art context. Accustomed to collective work and discussion, through techniques feminism has borrowed from the Chinese, I missed these in our own group and with the Chinese artists who were so professional, so warmly welcoming, so hungry for the same things. The fact that these dialogues never came off was nobody’s fault, though at one point I tended to think it was ours. There was never enough time and it was very cold and we were sick a lot. Yet I have never seen and learned so much in such a short time. The whole trip was hard work, physically and mentally exhausting, utterly fascinating-and above all, moving. I am convinced, like Liu Binyan, that “art and literature should interfere with life.”21 Now it remains to be seen what we can learn from the successes and failures of “people’s art” in China.

Lucy Lippard is a feminist art critic who is a member of The Heresies Collective.



1. It was a vaguely specialized tour of “art types”—a motley crew of 17 people, 13 women and 4 men from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, ranging in age from twenties to sixties: a painter, two sculptors, a “draw-er,” a photographer, a graphic designer, a textile designer, two dealers, three collectors/museum trustees (one a lawyer and builder as well), an art consultant, an art bookkeeper, two freelance critic/curators and an art historian who had been to China before and organized the tour. We arrived in Peking January 10th and left through Hong Kong January 26th and in the interim went to Shanghai, Hangchou, Guilin and Kwangchou (Canton), as well as a few smaller towns along the way. In each city we visited places that had something to do with art in the broad sense and in Peking, Shanghai and Hangchou we talked to the “professional” artists at academies and societies. We were accompanied from the beginning by our “whole journey guide”—a 28-year-old woman named Gu Yang who, aside from working for Luxingshe (the government tourist bureau that provides all itineraries, guides and accommodations) had been a farm worker and a barefoot doctor, is a member of the Communist Party, and translates science fiction from English. Gu was intelligent, curious and relaxed, while never losing her authority. She answered our endless and often rather prying questions with patience and honesty and had many of her own in return. She pored over the books we had brought with us and used the trip as a quick course in Western modern art. She herself was the best advertisement we met for increased intellectual freedom in China.

2. John Gittings, “China’s New Set of Plugs,” The Guardian, London, April 12, 1980, p. 9.

3. Jean Esmein, The Chinese Cultural Revolution, Anchor Books, New York, 1973, p. 9.

4. Deng Xiaoping quoted in Chi Hsin, The Case of the Gang of Four, Cosmos Books Ltd., Hong Kong, 1978, p. 152.

5. Mao Zedong quoted in ibid, p. 187.

6. Tsao Yu interviewed in “Playwright Discusses Modern Drama,” China Reconstructs, February 1979, p. 27.

7. Quoted by Seymour Topping in “China’s Long March into the Future,” New York Times Magazine Section, Feb. 3, 1980, p. 75. Topping also mentions a group called the “black painters,” impressionists who were banned by Jiang Jing; perhaps these were the people we met at the Shanghai Painting Institute, but we never heard them called this.

8. Quoted by Ling Yang in “The Last Three Years: Discussion on Major Issues,” Beijing Review, Dec. 28, 1979, p. 14.

9. As an example of how seriously such images are taken; Gittings (op. cit.) says that Jiang Jing during the Cultural Revolution denounced an old master who specialized in birds because he produced “a gloomy eagle.”

10. This is not a direct quotation from Reinhardt, just what he said in various ways all along. In his writings, he also adopted his numbered lists and flowery titles from the Chinese, using them sometimes as satires on officialdom and sometimes approvingly, as in his writings about the “new academy.”

11. An anonymous Chinese quoted by Gittings, op. cit.

12. I identified myself at each Brief Introduction as a critic particularly interested in the work of women; this was always greeted with mild amusement. Although women’s roles and lives have obviously changed drastically since the Liberation, the patriarchy is still alive and well in China. In all the places we visited only twice was a woman in charge of the introductions and only once was she in a position of real power. The few women artists on the art school staffs were decidedly in the background: sometimes they served tea. Much of the work we saw by women seemed rather sweet, an all too recognizable symptom of conditioning equally common in the West. “Women’s Lib” is considered a bourgeois phenomenon and my attempts to communicate the concerns of a Socialist Feminism were received politely but without much interest. I missed one session the whole trip—a bamboo factory—and in the introduction, I was told, the male director delivered a long feminist speech.

13. Gittings, op. cit.

14. “Vice-Premier Deng on Literature and Art,” Beijing Review, November 9, 1979.

15. Larry Rosing, “China: Art 8 Artist,” Art in America, March–April 1979, p. 1011. (See also brief articles by others on that tour in the same issue.)

16. Most of the photography we saw was either neutrally documentary or rather pallidly imitative of painting. Gittings (op. cit.) describes a photography show by Yuan Lianmin in a Shanghai park, which consisted of 100 pictures of the same famous mountain, all of which imitated, in various techniques, ink and oil paintings.

17. Julia Barkley, “A Trip to Asia,” WARM Newsletter, WARM gallery, Minneapolis, Fall, 1979, p. 3.

18. Roger Fry, “The Significance of Chinese Art,” in Chinese Art, B. T. Batsford Ltd., London, n.d. (second edition, c. 1945) p. 3. Fry also remarked that the Chinese handle figures differently (and without the Western interest in the human body) and, “when we Europeans refer to plasticity we talk, naturally, in terms of planes, but I doubt if the Chinese artist has ever conceived of this method of handling plastic forms. I do not know what language he uses, but I suspect he would, even in speaking, refer shapes to cylinders, spheres and ellipsoids” p. 4.

19. The calligraphy we saw demonstrated and exhibited in Hangchou at the Seal Society, and the exquisite books of the seals and chop marks in which they specialize there were by far the most attractive art we saw to western modernist eyes. Elsewhere we leapt on a Pollocklike black-and-white ink on paper work only to be told it was where the artist cleaned his brush.

20. Concerning the scarcity of books in China, see Lloyd Haft, “What The Chinese Are Reading,” the New York Times Book Section, April 20, 1980, p. 3, 32.

21. Liu Binyan, quoted by Ling Yang, Beijing Review, op. cit., p. 13.