Richard Bernstein: The moral dilemma of turning Maoist propaganda into camp décor

Roundup: Talking About History

Among the vintage French liquor and movie advertisements, the British Empire posters, and the American publicity art on display at an annual show in New York last week, you could see a rarity from China that, to me at least, summoned up one of the moral paradoxes of our time.

The print, from 1960, shows a line of workers and peasants marching under a giant red banner. Underneath is a caption that brought a kind of chill: "Oppose Rightist Tendencies," it reads. "Arouse Enthusiasm; Continue the Great Leap Forward."

The poster is one of the more expensive ($1,000) on sale at the East is Red booth within the poster show - East is Red ( being the avocation of Dwight McWethy, an American business consultant who lives in Beijing and sells memorabilia from China's Cultural Revolution and other political movements, mostly to foreigners.

But why the chill? Certainly there's nothing wrong with collecting memorabilia from China's Maoist revolutionary period, which, despite the horrors it caused, certainly produced many arresting images and slogans - the Great Leap Forward, which was actually a horrific slide backward, among them.

The country's best artists were required to make Maoist propaganda, and some of them managed to make extraordinary works out of the mandatory acts of visual fealty to Mao.

In fact, a group of those paintings is now on display at a remarkable exhibition at the Asia Society in New York, entitled "Art and China's Revolution," bearing the message, among others, that propaganda can be art.

And yet there's something funny, a sort of willed amnesia, in the idea of collectors in New York buying revolutionary art from the radical Maoist days, turning it into a camp kind of décor....

comments powered by Disqus