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Art and power are inextricably linked. An odd couple, they complement and fight each other, defying social transformation and political change throughout time and space. While power is subordinated to the tight rein of transience, art, once in a while, can escape impermanence to strive for eternity. This seems to be part of the reason why power intuitively seeks the vicinity of art.
In the People's Republic of China (PRC), this relationship long since became institutionalized—art has not just been some sort of preservative for power but bluntly put into its service. In general, most socialist countries never made a secret of clearly limiting art to a servant's role and Lenin's memorable metaphor of [End Page 251] "cogs and screws" in the revolutionary machine made this point unequivocal. Art was to be produced by cultural workers under the leadership of an enlightened Communist Party. In recent Chinese history, this exploitation of art for the sake of (re)consolidating political power saw its culmination during the turbulent decade of the so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Richard King's Art in Turmoil: The Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-76 is a collection of nine new interpretations on the arts of the Cultural Revolution. All essays take different perspectives to revisit visual and performing arts that transcended their times. Despite their multidisciplinary approaches, all individual articles explore the changing meaning of the CR arts from the time of their formation up to the twenty-first century. To enable the reader to relate easily to the art works discussed, all articles offer illustrative visual images. The key issue of the book revolves around politically inscribed and ideologically contaminated arts of the CR that became transformed and appreciated in different sociocultural contexts decades later. The authors set out to ask obvious although seldom asked questions: What does it mean when visitors to contemporary exhibitions of Chinese art (which recently are enjoying great popularity) are bombarded with iconic images of the Cultural Revolution? What happens in people's minds when they are transported back to the Cultural Revolution and, simultaneously, to a country that has fundamentally changed in the meantime? What meaning can ideologically laden arts, when turned into consumer goods, offer to a Chinese and/or to an international public today? How do artists whose careers have been shaped by the Cultural Revolution look back and how do they perceive of themselves and their works nowadays?
The overall presence of recycled Mao-time artifacts such as Mao badges, clocks, and wristwatches, propaganda posters, and the Little Red Book tend to make us overlook how strange the notorious persistence of CR art really is. How come it has not been consigned to the dustbin of history but is now widely, once again, appreciated? It is, indeed, amazing that Chinese contemporary art again and again appropriates iconic images from the Cultural Revolution and that its arts saw several furious comebacks, despite the fact that Western reception of the CR as a cultural desert echoed Chinese artists' and intellectuals' scorn and derision of CR art.
Embedded in a systematic historical and cultural background, Richard King and Jan Walls trace the curious resurrection of the CR arts in their introductory essay. They state that because of China's rapid transition from socialist austerity to capitalist consumerism, CR art started its sentimental journey and swept the market as short-lived kitsch providing an income for China's emerging entrepreneurs in the early 1990s. For the more sophisticated consumer in the West who prefers to indulge in a little radical chic, images and icons with an ironic or satirical postmodern twist became desirable commodities. Andy Warhol's philosophy of "making money is art" easily comes to mind. Apart from transforming CR art into [End Page 252] profitable consumer goods, some pieces of art tell yet another story. Comparable to the...