- The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth Century China
This stimulating book explores the interpenetration of art and politics in modern China through the idea of the sublime. The sublime, a fundamental concept in the Western study of aesthetics, entered China at a critical moment early in the twentieth century. As China faced multiple national crises, such as poverty, foreign invasion, political fragmentation, and the erosion of cultural self-confidence, intellectuals wondered if their nation's gloomy sense of inefficacy might be resolved by recovering a sense of the grand and noble, the lofty and heroic. Wang traces thinking about art and the sublime from Wang Guowei and Lu Xun to Mao Zedong and Li Zehou, explaining along the way the surprising attention paid by the Communist Party, which installed the history of Western aesthetics into the curriculum of the Higher Party School in 1962. But the book is much more interesting than an account of the Chinese reception of Kant, Hegel, Schiller, and Schopenhauer.
We all know, says Wang, that China's art has long been "infected" by politics, often to its aesthetic disadvantage. But we are less mindful of the contrary influence by which politics has been made into an aesthetic experience. This sublimation of political activity into aesthetic forms is the major focus of Wang's analysis. Others have commented on the theatricality of Cultural Revolutionary politics, or on the public rituals of China's leaders as cultural performances; Wang moves back and forth in his analysis between politicized art and aestheticized politics, treating them as complementary aspects of the same phenomenon. Wang makes an important contribution to our understanding of how art and politics work together, perhaps to the detriment of each.
There are at least three advantages to Wang's approach. First, Wang opens up a window onto the modern Chinese experience, which is typically closed to outsiders. This book could probably only have been written by someone who [End Page 544] grew up in China, so steady is its concern for assessing the lived aesthetic experience there. Wang argues that art offers "emancipatory alternatives to an oppressive political structure." Yet the fact that the aesthetic can plumb psychic depths inspires the state to employ art to anchor its powers deep "in the sensibilities of its subjects." Many Chinese essayists and memoirists have reflected on the evolution of modern Chinese sensibilities, but Wang's is the only sustained analysis I know in English.
Second, Wang's account takes all Chinese art seriously, perhaps not always as great art, but as means of initially shaping, and then understanding, the distinctive subjectivities of modern Chinese cultural life. Because Wang does not dismiss even the most vulgar art as "merely" political propaganda, he helps us make sense out of the priority given to often unsatisfying works by both audiences and state sponsors. The normal Western reading is to presume the oppression of art by politics; Wang does not quite turn this on its head, but he presents the arts/politics nexus as a more interesting relationship. One implication is to explain the seriousness of "hack" artists and their aesthetically dubious ventures.
Third, Wang shows that we typically misread Mao as demanding the utilitarian subordination of all art to politics, when in fact art is not merely a means to achieve a political end; it must be made with skill and inspiration if it is to have an impact. This impact shaped the sentimental education of a whole generation of Chinese, and ought not be dismissed airily. Maoist political programs were "carried out not simply by political means but also by way of aesthetic experience and activities."
Wang is no enthusiast for the sublime; he grew up in China, just a little too young to be a Red Guard, and has had enough of "lofty" sentiments flowing from the heights of political authority. The book was sparked by his quest to understand why he was once moved to tears by a...