Socialism Art Essay Example



About once every decade I decide to confront the issue of whether it’s possible to teach art or not. My immediate, passionate, and unexamined inclination is to say: yes, it’s possible. When facing our poor track record of producing good artists, I would say that this is because we still don’t know how to do it. It’s not a fault of the students but rather that of the teachers. I’m not referring to art teachers that only teach in an institution to subsidize their studio work and don’t spend time thinking about what happens in the classroom or in the student’s mind. I’m referring to the committed teachers aiming to change and tweak curricula to achieve more success, but yet who don’t get better results (or didn’t, as in my case).

A long time ago I figured that the main function of a thought-out syllabus was not to optimize anything but to minimize the damage caused by bad teaching. The effect has been, however, that good creative educators have become limited in their ability to adapt to particular students and to explore new innovations, and there are more limitations than curricula. Curricular development and revision are slow and sporadic, belatedly following perceived needs that by the time of implementation may no longer be current. Usually there are also ideas we take for granted and national directives buried in both ideology and funding requirements that, because we were educated within them, we accept without any challenge.

While I always opposed the notion of grades and credits, I never had gone as far as to challenge the ideology of meritocracy. I didn’t fully see the inbuilt contradiction of trying to develop the best in each individual while aiming to identify the best individual. Both PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) were very helpful in raising my awareness on these points. Education, especially in the U.S., is not designed to improve individuals, but to have the country compete with other countries and beat them. For that, it’s believed, one needs the best individuals. STEM’s intention, according to government rhetoric, is to prepare students to make the nation more powerful and achieve a leading position in the world. PISA measures national ranking and success in the endeavor. If all this is to serve the nation, it’s not clear why then students and not the nation have to pay for education.

With STEM came STEAM as a reaction, asking with the added “A” to also include the arts. It’s a corrective step and, at least for a while, I was sympathetic to it. STEAM seemed to redirect emphasis from national interest to the development of better individuals. I have now changed my opinion. I believe it’s lucky that the arts are ignored by both STEM and PISA. The arts, as long as they are still allowed to exist, remain an area for free thought. Once included in acronyms, that freedom will be lost.

I thought all these were very wise thoughts, but I never took them to their logical conclusion. Without noticing, by using certain words, “teaching” and “art” among them, my thinking was imprisoned. The word “teaching” is deficient because it assumes that knowledge can be taught independently from context and therefore easily transferred. With teaching, the student becomes a receiver or a trainee. With learning, the student develops a never-ending autodidactic ability and becomes a researcher and an experimenter. We should therefore talk about learning and not about teaching. Art, which is an autodidactic process defined by research and experimentation, actually shouldn’t be taught. Teaching art means transferring existing technical, aesthetic, or conceptual recipes. Teaching art therefore closes options instead of opening them, and defeats the whole idea of forming artists. Grading, a consequence of teaching, not only corrupts education by introducing competitiveness, but also is only capable of verifying if the recipes come out correctly. I think that if we intend to help in the formation of artists (or anybody else) the word “teaching” should be eliminated from our vocabulary and only “learning” should be used.¹

“Art” is the next problematic word because of its wide range of meanings. When we ask if teaching art is possible, what we mean is can we increase the number of successful artists through institutional education. Is there any difference in the results from teaching and, say, spontaneous generation? Institutions try to stack the deck in their favor by accepting only those they perceive to be promising students and then teaching them “how” to do things. The “what” part (and the “why” related to it), where art actually takes place, is presumed to be unteachable and left up to the students. Presumably the idea is that the better the entry filter, the better the school is at identifying any given prospective student’s potential to understand and develop the “what,” the better the quality of the graduates. Meanwhile, those who really need to learn are left out.

Accepting that the institutional quest is not to teach art but to identify future successful artists, what would happen if we change the question? Is it possible to learn to be a successful artist? Schools keep refining the process, but their rate of success, when measured statistically by those admitted and those who make it, is still dismal. The social task should not be to promote the best talent at the expense of those we decide don’t have it. We should make sure that everybody has equal access to good education, in art as in any other field, and that those who seem less promising are guided to find stimulation instead of being left aside because of snapshot information used as filters for admission. Obsessed with the creation of a national elite, what should be a comprehensive education system seems to forget that its mission should be the empowerment of individuals to function in a community and not in a nation.



I’m increasingly becoming more of an extremist in my views of society. I dream about a socialism of creation. It is something more urgently needed than any traditional socialism of consumption. Art focused on the elaboration of products creates traditional market relations and the consequent need for branding as well as respect for authorship and competition. Objects, knowledge, and ideas become labeled as “mine” instead of “ours,” and the distribution of power becomes unequal. Released from this focus on the product and the value of property, and with a reorientation toward art as a form of non-competitive cognition, a socialism of creation may have a chance to redistribute power towards ultimate equality and a better society.

Unfortunately we are drifting further away from this utopia. In the U.S. we seem to be entering a perverse version of neo-feudalism. An already stratified society is reaffirming class and wealth separation, and academia is complicit in the process. Yet art schools maintain some advantages for those that can afford it both in terms of tuition and the failed quality of life they can expect after graduation. Granted, art schools are elitist and guided by institutional greed. But in educational matters they also are imprecise and clueless enough to allow them to be the only free area in academia. By not teaching what art is or might be, students are at liberty to imagine, speculate, fail, and waste time. Wisely administered, these conditions provide a platform on which one may build something worthwhile.

One question then is: Could artistic success come by changing the education model rather than through tightening admissions? Since art schools intend to form professional artists, we should discuss the relation the artist establishes with materials, with the artwork, and with the public. In certain ways these relations are different forms of dialogue, and in this regard I like to speak of two dialogues. Dialogue 1 is the conversation the artist has with the work of art he or she produces. Dialogue 2 is the one that takes place between the object and the public. These two dialogues don’t exclude each other, but any predominance of one over the other has educational consequences.

Dialogue 1 started with negotiating the presence of the work of art as an exchange between artist and material. For a long time this was an authoritarian relation. The artist took the role for granted, but had to prove the ability to master materials to the point of virtuosity. The reference for evaluation was the precision in rendering, and the administration and editing of the information rendered. Visual information was processed and downloaded into the object. With this process ended, the public consumed what could be seen. All this led to the emphasis on craft training in art schools.

During the period of romanticism, the processing of information became more complex because it also included introspection. This meant that personal neurosis, suffering, and the feeling of being chosen all became part of creation. What was taking place could be described as an exploration of the personal “black box,” the unreachable mental areas from where our need to make art springs. Information was now processed both visually and emotionally, and was still downloaded through the material into the object. In schools the black box was left alone to do whatever it does, and except for occasional recommendations to meditate, the notion that art can’t be taught took a stronger hold than ever.

Later, with the modernist isms, things were taken a step further. It was clear that nobody knew exactly what art was, and the search for an understanding was extended to include an analysis of the components that make artworks art. This generated the variety of art styles that were constructed around singular qualities, such as space, movement, dreams, and expressions. The production of art objects as ends in themselves continued. It made sense to have formal art education prioritize craft, but a better knowledge of the history of art was also added. The elusiveness of the inside of the black box was accepted and referred to with words like “inspiration” and “intuition.” Assignments in schools started to focus on self-enclosed problems closer to design than to art. They were more teaching props than learning conditions.

Dialogue 2 coincided with the mid-’60s push to blur the distinction between art and life. From the art side it took the form of happenings, political activist art, interactivity, documentarism, and, more recently, social practice. From the non-art area there was a demand for thinking “outside the box,” lateral thinking and creative entrepreneurship. Maybe it was thanks to Claude Shannon’s writings about information theory, or to Marshall McLuhan’s ideas about media, or just to an awareness of the impact that mass media and advertising were having on our culture. Seeing art as information and communication brought the viewers’ “black boxes” to the fore. This shift became so strong that in spite of the embargo against Cuba, in 1988 the U.S. Congress declared Cuban art (in line with all art) “informational material” as opposed to commercial objects, and so allowed it to travel freely across the U.S. border.

The shift had both bad and good effects. Viewers were often patronized. Art became spectacular and the time needed for consumption was considerably shortened with the rise of visual one-liners. But art also became overtly recognized as part of cognition. The object stopped being admired merely for its execution or presence and started being read as the solution or response to a problem. The importance of the piece was judged on the problem’s interest and how well or elegantly it was solved. Execution became a matter concerning presentation, and generally the idea of quality had the possibility of becoming clearer for both artists and the public. That it isn’t as clear as it should be today is only because quality is still associated with maintaining the canon and not with the validity of the cognitive process.

Traditional education is based on a functionalist position where knowledge is dealt with as dis-embedded from context. In its dis-embedded stage, skills are highly simplified and are expected to transfer easily from situation to situation and to maintain their applicability. That is the pedagogical ideology that emphasizes the teaching of technical skills in their most basic and easy fashion, like reading, writing, mathematics, and logic. In art schooling one would include brushing, carving, photographing, and any skill before it becomes contaminated by any concrete application. The approach neglects to see that art, on its creative level, is clearly a fully context-driven activity. In the expressive phase of Dialogue 1, it’s the subjective context that both originates the work and serves as its resonance box. This makes art already a prime example for context-sensitive “situated learning.” In Dialogue 2,where the relation with the audience becomes part of the work, its context has to be included as well and, depending on the situation, will even override the artist’s own
authorial subjectivity.

Not all the results, however, succeed in expanding or generating knowledge, and often don’t go beyond modest hybrids, examples of applied art, or experiments in new media. In Dialogue 1, there was the possibility of an expansion of knowledge often categorized as “mystery,” and addressing the unknown was a personal task that drew energy from hunches. This is one of the reasons that inhibited the “teaching” of art. Teaching meant trying to get into the student’s “black box,” and nobody knows how to do that effectively. In Dialogue 2 it’s about exploring the limits of knowledge and helping the viewer/community to exceed them.

In the merging of art and life one would expect that art would benefit from contributions in other areas. Yet, mostly, art schools today are chaotic playpens with technical and behavioral instruction, and with an overlay of amateur psychology and sociology. The playpen environment is conducive to explore the unknown, but uncontrolled it also leads to mystification and self-indulgence and keeps artists in the Dialogue 1 mode. The addition of serious critical thinking, problem formulation, administration of information, presentation, social studies, and ethics, paired with rigor and responsibility, could make Dialogue 2 more socially effective. This description, however, applies not only to those who want to be professional artists, but to everybody. We all should stake out what we know in order to face the unknown, we all should play with connecting what supposedly cannot be connected, we all should challenge systems that order us, and we all should do this and communicate it rigorously and ethically. Maybe then we will start down the road to a socialism of creation.


  1. Coaching, a third term often used in the arts, is a hybrid concept taken from sports lingo and directed at honing presumed existing excellence.


Luis Camnitzer

Luis Camnitzer is a Uruguayan artist born in Germany in 1937 and has lived in the U.S.A. since 1964. He is a Professor Emeritus of Art, State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He graduated in sculpture from the Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and studied architecture at the same university. He received a Guggenheim fellowship for printmaking in 1961 and for visual arts in 1982. In 1965 he was declared Honorary Member of the Academy in Florence. In 1998 he received the “Latin American Art Critic of the Year” award from the Argentine Association of Art Critics and in 2011 the Frank Jewitt Mather Award of the College Art Association and the Printer Emeritus Award of the SGCI. In 2010 and 2014 he received the National Literature Award for Art Essays in Uruguay. In 2012 he was awarded the Skowhegan Medal and was a USA Ford Fellow. He represented Uruguay in the Venice Biennial in 1988 and participated in the Liverpool Biennial in 1999 and in 2003, in the Whitney Biennial of 2000, and in Documenta 11 in 2003. His work is in the collections of over 40 museums, among them Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Whitney Museum, New York; Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Sao Paulo; Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires; and the Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo de Costa Rica. He is the author of: New Art of Cuba (University of Texas Press, 1994/2004); Arte y Enseñanza: La ética del poder, (Casa de América, Madrid, 2000); Didactics of Liberation: Conceptualist Art in Latin America (University of Texas Press, 2007), and On Art, Artists, Latin America and Other Utopias (University of Texas Press, 2010).


Dorine, Barbara, Kathy

by Karen Archey

DEC 17-JAN 18 | Art

Before working at a large art institution, like many people I thought of museums as slow-moving machines that are slightly out of place in history; anachronistic titans that are too big to fail.

After Deadpan

by Marika Takanishi Knowles

JUL-AUG 2017 | Art

The French model of painting seemed prescient, because of its insistence that history and passion go hand in hand. Immediately following the election, I looked to French painting as a school of affect, a repository of figures whose emotions provided a series of lessons in how to behave as a historical agent and how to respond to historical events.

Socialist Realism was introduced into China in the first half of the twentieth century, and gradually became the main, overarching creative method of the revolutionary era, leading art, literature, theater, and other creative fields for decades. It is often seen as a highly politicized creative model that is the product of socialist, and particularly communist, political views. Over the past three decades, contemporary artists and art discussions often attempted to cast it off as an external form, positioning themselves in opposition to it in order to declare their independent, rebellious, free, and contemporary stance in their artistic practice. Many artists and critics have also engaged in a conscious rethinking of their socialist heritage within their artistic practice, either distancing themselves or avoiding it altogether, unwilling to admit Socialism’s direct connection to contemporary times as an artistic tradition or ideology. Such an independent, rebellious, and free stance appears to be the foundation of the contemporary legitimacy of art. At the same time, we have not engaged in adequate observation and discussion of its internal logic. The current ambiguity of articulation concerning contemporary issues in art criticism in China is largely due to the delay in carrying out deep research and analysis of this historical process. In this paper, we propose to address the subject of socialist realism as a fundamental issue, exploring the historic practice and complexity of its formation.

The Origins of Social Realism

Engels predicted in 1859 that socialist literature would possess profound conceptual and predictive abilities, as well as a perfected artistic form. He believed that realism “implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances.” That is to say, art reflects generalized reality rather than solely and simply a mimetic reproduction of a particular reality. It is a depiction that presupposes historical development and class struggle so as to “lay claim to a place in the realm of realism.” Socialist Realism is socialist first, not realist. The intellectuals, writers, and artists who were entrusted with the duty of changing and educating the working class had to accept communist utopia as the ultimate truth as well as the inevitability of the revolution. Once both were accepted, then romanticization, with its embellishment and exaggeration of heroes and various beautiful imaginings, would not be fabrication but an actual reflection of a reality to come.

Wu Yinxian, Hainan Province, 1976. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

As a creative method, Socialist Realism was not just a Soviet invention promoted by the Communist Party. Early in the twentieth century, progressive intellectuals introduced realism into the field of literature, its sense of intimacy attracting many authors engaged in the fields of literature, drama, and art. For some, realism in China allowed for an escape from Western invasion and appealed to Chinese national values, including its culture. Others saw Western modern art as reflecting the modernization of the nation and a way to help overcome its feudalist structure. These complex, intertwined sentiments of admiration and hatred for Western nations—as both industrialized states and colonialists—filled the Chinese intellectual realm. Socialist Realism appeared within this context and appealed to Chinese artists’ aspirations for the modernization of art. For intellectuals, it had a sense of presence in reality, and this in itself already proved quite alluring. Meanwhile, it fit with their deep desire to integrate their own ideals with their pursuit of change in reality and progress for the nation. An early definition of Socialist Realism accounted for this precedence, stating that Socialist Realism emerged

between 1932 and 1934 in the discussion of creative methods among artists and writers in the Soviet Union, proposed by writers and theorists and agreed upon by Stalin. Though the Socialist Realist creative method was established in the 1930s, its basic traits had already taken shape in the creative practices of some writers before it was theoretically defined.

In Russia, the First Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 established Socialist Realism as the main creative style for Soviet literature, noting that the artist must not just understand life as an “objective reality” but also a reality within the developments of the revolution. On this occasion, Maxim Gorky stated that Socialist Realist literature was directly connected to the proletariat, and its ascension in world history as an independent political force. Hence, British Chartist poetry, German proletarian poetry, and the French literature of the Paris Commune were to be located as the beginnings of this new literary form, which had to wait until the first Russian revolution to be able to affirm itself as the mature phase of this proletarian revolution.

Dong Xiwen, Thousand-year Old Earth has Turned Over, date unknown. Watercolor. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

The Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art

The Communist Party of China was established in 1921 as a branch of the Communist International founded by Lenin in 1919, with initial funding and guidance from the latter. A fracture arose when the Central Committee, controlled by personnel sent over by the Communist International, demanded that the Chinese Communist Party’s struggles use Soviet tactics and directly serve the Soviet Union. When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviet Union was too preoccupied to manage the affairs of the Chinese Communist Party and its Red Army, controlled by Mao Zedong and other local cadres. Mao Zedong took this opportunity to attack the internationalists within the party, led by Wang Ming, and coin a local Marxism—a “proletarian party” free from the control of the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of China was transformed from a subsidiary organization of the Communist International into a tight-knit, autonomous party with a solidified role for art and literature in its political policies.

After these developments, the Chinese Communist Party carried out party-wide Marxism-Leninism pedagogic movements in 1942, 1950, and 1957 to solidify Mao’s absolute leadership. As an important component of the Yan’an Rectification Movement, Mao personally hosted the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art from May 2 to 23, 1942. Over a hundred art and literary workers as well as officials from various departments of the party attended. The objective was to resolve the theoretical and practical issues that Chinese proletarian art and literature had encountered in its development, including the relation of the artwork to the overall work of the party, its public and its dissemination, as well as the unification of content and form, of praise and exposure. Mao Zedong’s opening and closing remarks that May were combined and officially published on October 19, 1943 in the Yan’an newspaper Liberation Daily, marking the beginning of the new era of integration between new Chinese literature and the worker-peasant-soldier masses.

In the Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art, Mao proposed:

The life of the people is always a mine of the raw materials for literature and art, materials in their natural form, materials that are crude, but most vital, rich and fundamental; they make all literature and art seem pallid by comparison; they provide literature and art with an inexhaustible source, their only source. They are the only source, for there can be no other.

This exposition has determined our later narrowness as we view contemporary art. Like Mao’s absoluteness in the orthodoxy of the Communist Party’s ruling and ideology in China, there is a tendency to exclude any different perspective and to recognize only one legitimate form, approach, and value, giving no space at all to diversions and differences. In the case of defining what is realist art for the Chinese art world, we often fall into the same logic of singularity, taking the biased view that content is the only testament to the continuation of the creative traditions of realism, while overlooking creations that engage in experiments with other aspects of a broader sense of realism.

Meanwhile, we narrowly define reality as that reality which exists before the eyes and in the lives of the masses. Despite the fact that the reality depicted by Socialist Realism actually includes subjective ideas and faces the so-called reality of communist ideals, Socialist Realism as a creative approach is far less definite than we have estimated and previously understood. Bureaucracy and censorship, as well as the resulting artistic views that arose in the 1940s around the principle that art should serve politics, have proven much more stable. After several decades of security, the various operations—from policies on art to art patronage projects, the Artist’s Association, the National Fine Arts Exhibitions, sponsorship, the censorship regime, and the art museum system—formed an unshakeable inertia. The art and discussions of art cultivated within this system have come to occupy more widely disseminated fields such as textbooks, mass media, and museums.

The Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art stressed:

All our literature and art is for the masses of the people, and in the first place for the workers, peasants and soldiers; it is created for the workers, peasants and soldiers … Once we have solved the problems of fundamental policy, of serving the workers, peasants and soldiers and of how to serve them, such other problems as whether to write about the bright or the dark side of life and the problem of unity will also be solved. If everyone agrees on the fundamental policy, it should be adhered to by all our workers, all our schools, publications and organizations in the field of literature and art and in all our literary and artistic activities. It is wrong to depart from this policy and anything at variance with it must be duly corrected.

This talk was established as the sole source for artistic and literary creation. It resulted in top-down orders that colluded to limit artistic creation to a narrow framework at the service of ideology, and determined that the ensuing artworks should, in content and form, be easy to disseminate. In the Talks, Mao particularly emphasized the “question of who art and literature is for,” pointing out that literature “consists fundamentally of the problems of working for the masses and how to work for the masses.” The reading public was endowed with intangible political rights and critical authority. Consequently, publications established sections for “letters from readers,” turning readers into important writers of art criticism, making for a unique critical method in magazines such as Fine Arts (Meishu).

Wu Yinxian, Hainan Province, 1976. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

Dong Xiwen and Wu Yinxian and the Beginning of Realism in China

Let us look back again on the early days of realism’s introduction into China. Its artistic properties held a strong appeal for the intellectuals, writers, and artists of the day. As the revolution progressed and the Communist Party further defined Socialist Realism, it gradually evolved from an artistic style into an ideology with clear viewpoints. It was the clothing of ideology, as well as ideology itself. This transformation of its role was total, because it began expressing powerful exclusivity and producing confusion. In order to fit with the political mode it represented, it not only expressed the ideology it represented, but also became that ideology itself, consolidating the mechanisms of that ideology. It put on its poker face, equating itself with correctness and singularity, through which it gained absolute authority. This is why the question of right and wrong began to emerge in these creations, with political views, goals, and functions coming to occupy the leading position in these creations. Creation itself began to follow political guidance. Its boundaries grew increasingly visible, and like a talisman, they came to regulate and define the range of artists’ thoughts and creations.

Today, most accounts of people like Wu Yinxian and Dong Xiwen go only as far as the political foundations of their creations, treating their work the same as that which purely served ideological ends. Few of Wu Yinxian’s contemporaries or successors had such a rich early education in Eastern and Western art, nor did they establish their later work on an artistic foundation—instead treating photography as a political task, an operation for the expression of political intentions. Even today, most photography services are run by photojournalists or even sports photographers. To summarily relegate the work of such artists as Wu Yinxian and Dong Xiwen to the category of ideological tools is to fall into the same absolutist and simplified approach to understanding as is applied in Socialist Realism.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the literary and art workers streaming into Beijing from the liberated zones brought revolutionary artistic ideas to the capital. In the spirit of the times, Socialist Realist painting came to carry the idea of the “nationalization of oil painting” advocated by many artists in the early days of the People’s Republic, allowing this European art form to constitute the most convincing medium for its entry into the realm of Chinese art at the service of political ends. The artists steeped in early Western modernism found political momentum for turning what they learned abroad into something Chinese. Placed on important platforms, they were, on the one hand, considered within the ideological framework. On the other, they were also able to refine and ponder artistic practice itself.

Dong Xiwen, Jia Ling River in Chong Qing, date unknown. Oil on canvas. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

Dong Xiwen, for instance, became a household name in China in the 1950s and ’60s for his oil painting The Founding of a Nation. Although he did not study abroad in Europe, Dong spent time in French-ruled Vietnam, where he studied at a French art academy. Between 1943 and ’45, Dong researched and copied the art of Dunhuang, whose depictions of the human form he “highly praised, … seeing the artists’ great ability to render smooth flesh and elastic color tones with simple lines and colors as worthy of admiration.” From the murals at Dunhuang he absorbed the aesthetics of traditional painting, and learned the traditional modeling techniques that were to constitute his aesthetics:

Through his research of the murals, Dong Xiwen deepened his understanding of the traditional art of his people, laying the foundation for his reverence for ethnic culture. It was this reverence that led him, when studying foreign oil painting, to consciously infuse oil painting with the forms and spirit of Chinese art, giving oil painting a Chinese style and artistic spirit.

Though there was overlap between Dong Xiwen’s pursuit of the “nationalization of oil painting” and the Communist Party’s demands that literary and artistic creation fall into the service of politics, the artist’s individual practice was not always entirely in accord with the nation’s political standards. In “Self-Examination,” published in Fine Art Research, Dong Xiwen confronted the influence of Western art forms and problematized his previous emphasis on style, individuality, and emotion. He wrote,

Though I criticize recent European painting schools such as Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, when I saw the original works, I was full of uncontrollable excitement. When the “double-anti” campaign began … I suddenly saw the capitalist artistic path I had taken over a decade ago, and that I still continued to follow. In the relationship between conceptuality and form, and on the question of political standards and artistic standards, I used the emphasis on formal appeal to dilute the primacy of the former. These capitalist views on art, still strong today, are clearly at odds with Chairman Mao’s path for literature and the arts, and Socialist Realism’s creative path.], Beijing Academy of Painting. Originally published in Meishu Yanjiu [Fine Art Research]] vol. 2 (1958): 256–257.]

The late historian Gao Hua wrote that China’s real proletarian cultural narrative was spread to China from Moscow and Japan. The narrative of class struggle emphasizes imperialism’s suppression of and encroachment into China and the Chinese people’s painful memories of it, while also providing an idealist vision for changing society. In theory, it is called communism, but in practice, it is actually “Soviet,” and that was basically the case for the left wing for ten years (1927–1937). Into the 1930s, the left wing added another appealing banner: “resisting Japan for national survival,” infusing the leftist revolutionary narrative with nationalist elements. From that perspective, the left occupied moral high ground in two places: anti-imperialist patriotism and egalitarianism.

Before 1949, leftist culture occupied a large space in Chinese intellectual consciousness precisely for these two reasons. China also had its own background, the tradition of “writing as the carrier of the truth,” a tradition of changing society through literature. In the early twentieth century, there was just such a movement for literature and art’s intervention and participation in social reform. The years 1927 to 1937 were China’s “red thirties,” a decade of literature and art intervening in society and social reform, when many writers and artists entered more directly into the social revolution. Born to a scholarly family in Shuyang County, Jiangsu Province, Wu Yinxian enjoyed a rich artistic upbringing. In 1919, he was accepted into the Shanghai Professional Academy for Fine Arts, a school founded by Liu Haisu, where he received standard training in the fundamentals of painting. During his studies, he bought an old American Brownie camera at a secondhand market, and began to use photography and film to document the suppression of the poor by the rich, the warlords, and the Japanese invaders.

In March 1933, the Chinese Communist Party Cultural Council established an underground film group run by Xia Yan, Qian Xingcun, Wang Chenwu, Shi Linghe, and Situ Huimin. They began contacting progressives in hopes of producing an anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist film for the masses and making use of realist expressive methods. In an atmosphere of unprecedented anti-Japanese sentiments and a surging patriotic movement, they firmly established the Communist Party’s status as the spokesman for the growing dissatisfaction.

In 1935, after Wu Yinxian and Xu Xingzhi’s work was displayed at the Photography and Painting Exhibition, Xia Yan approached Xu Xingzhi, suggesting that both photographers move from Unique Film Productions to the Diantong Film Company to film the movie Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm, with a script by Tian Han. Wu Yinxian accepted, and worked as the film’s cinematographer. Set against the backdrop of the Mukden Incident of 1931, it tells the story of an intellectual’s progression from hesitation to awakened struggle and revolution through the story of wandering poet Xin Baihua, reflecting the popular will to resist the Japanese invasion. Sons and Daughters in a Time of Storm was Wu Yinxian’s first work as a filmmaker, and was also:

An important part of Wu Yinxian’s transformation. He began the shift from being a patriotic youth with a sense of justice and national awareness to gradually realizing that only by throwing himself into the torrents of the people’s movement could he carry out his responsibilities to his people and society.

In the filming process, Wu Yinxian “pondered Xia Yan’s words, and came to feel the weight of his responsibility.”

After this, Wu Yinxian filmed Street Angel and the documentary Long Live China, which criticized China’s social inequality and praised the Chinese Revolutionary Forces in their efforts to resist the Japanese and save China. Nationalist Party censors derided Long Live China as “communist propaganda,” and destroyed all the negatives and copies—no footage of this film survives today. In the summer of 1938, Deputy Communist Party Military Commissioner Zhou Enlai invited Yuan Mu to travel to Yan’an, the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia border area, and the Northern China Rear Guard Zone to film a documentary on the Eighth Route Army under the command of the Communist Party. Yuan invited Wu Yinxian, who arrived in Yan’an in the fall of 1938, planning to return to Shanghai after filming on Yan’an and the Eighth Route Army was complete. But he was touched by the life of battle in the revolutionary stronghold, and decided to stay, joining the Communist Party in 1942 and continuing to work in party-related films, reflecting the political, economic, and cultural life in Yan’an. During these eight years, Wu Yinxian merged with his subjects, facing the tests of battle alongside those he photographed. Deeply influenced by Marxism, Leninism, and Maoist thought, he transformed from a progressive leftist youth into a “proletarian warrior who struggled for the photographic endeavors of the party with staunch resolution.” He founded the Northeastern Film Studio, and in the subsequent decades worked in the field and wrote a nearly one-million-word theoretical treatise on photography that became an important manual for the theory and practice of photography.

Wu Yinxian, Untitled, from the series Sailing Boat, 1949–1950. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

In 1955, Wu Yinxian travelled to Beijing to take part in the creation of China’s first higher education institution for film, the Beijing film Academy, where he served as deputy director and directed the photography department. When the Cultural Revolution began, Wu Yinxian and his fellow cultural workers were no longer able to openly engage in education and photography. He was required to take part in labor activities and write reports on his thinking. In 1969, Wu Yinxian wrote a letter to Jiang Qing, hoping to gain the right to continue working:

Comrade Jiang Qing: I would also like to report a personal matter. Though I am old, and unable to carry heavy cameras myself, I am free of disease, have good blood pressure and an overall healthy body. I very much hope to contribute my personal abilities to your filming of the revolutionary model operas, for instance helping the photography comrades, and exploring such aspects as composition, camera movement and lighting. I also hope that through my participation in the filming of the model operas, I can raise my own political awareness, becoming someone who can do more beneficial work for the party in the future.

In the later years of the Cultural Revolution, Wu Yinxian became one of the first academy administrative cadre members to be released from manual labor and suspension from work. At Jiang Qing’s request, the Beijing Film Academy and other art academies were dismantled, and the 57 Art Academy was built, with Wu Yinxian serving as deputy director. Because of this experience, Wu Yinxian was not immediately rehabilitated at the end of the Cultural Revolution, unlike many of his peers who had been mistreated during that period, and his position was not restored until he wrote a letter to Hu Yaobang explaining his situation.

In Unstoppable Concern: Intellectual Life and Politics Before and After 1949, Yang Kuisong writes,

In the recent era, Chinese political change has always begun in a violent fashion. Into the twentieth century, it became even more of a violent seizure of political power. Thus, gun barrels, rather than pens, became the main determining political means.

Within this brutal political reality and political logic, Wu Yinxian and other intellectuals and artists had to choose their areas, and to carry out their work in ways that politically benefitted those fields. Their work and values were often covered over by their political standpoints—examined and observed through the logic of revolutionary thinking. Even today, their creative achievements are overlooked and they are shunned according to the revolutionary values that still course through the blood of the majority of people.

Dong Xiwen, Spring Arrives in Tibet, date unknown. Oil on canvas. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

Still, Wu Yinxian, who was present at the Yan’an Conference and filmed the proceedings, never forgot in his later practice Mao Zedong’s exhortation to serve the people with art. After Yan’an, he always played a principle role in the party’s film and photography endeavors. His artistic insight, his research on the theory and practice of photography, never became dogmatic, mechanical, or devoid of his own viewpoints. To the contrary, the artist’s early education in Shanghai and his own independent studies retained their relevance.

A look at Dong Xiwen and Wu Yinxian reminds us that in approaching the creations of this period, we should not overlook the complexity of the creators while looking at the goals and viewpoints of these creations. Even when engaging in creations to carry out political tasks, there was still a dynamism to the art and thinking, and artists were able to exercise a certain amount of subjectivity. Even if the artist as an individual was working to express the political authority he served, his artistic experiences and aspirations still played a role in his work. In their creative processes, their pursuit of diversity in artistic forms and artistic tastes often clashed and contradicted with the powerful constraints placed on art by the political structure of the times, and these real experiences, the struggles and reflections of the artists within this process, and the results that emerged from these competing forces, came to form our experience of the artistic creations of the era. Within the internal party mechanisms for controlling speech and ideas, self-examination and self-criticism are highly effective methods. For instance, in “Self-Examination,” Dong Xiwen wrote,

The political and artistic aspects of art should be unified, nevertheless, political standards should come first, but in the question of conceptual and artistic, political standards and artistic standards, I still place great emphasis on the latter, while merely paying lip service to the former. Though I say that I believe the direction of Socialist Realism to be the correct one, I have always felt that our average artworks are monotonous in style and lacking in form, rarely possessing the personality and emotions of the artist.

Dong Xiwen used writing, teaching in the academy, and presenting artworks to continue progressing and practicing artistic experimentation in this political atmosphere and sense of self-contradiction, and thus added to the formation of artistic discourse. Around the time of the nation’s founding, the goals and directions of artists’ work were the same as those of the ruling party, full of duty and hope for the rise of the nation, and the pursuit of the modernization of art. In later years, even as individual artistic pursuits fell under government suspicion and became the target of criticism, the relationship between these individual artists and the government was an internal one. They never became opposing camps pursuing different political ends. Throughout this time, the government hoped to limit the boundaries of art and ideas, while the artists, in their work, always hoped to gain more, and because of this, they often collided with the limits of government tolerance. This collision was always the result of artistic demands, not political ones. This internal, parallel, but sometimes abrasive relationship can also be used to describe the later relationship between art and government, which was sometimes peaceful and sometimes not so peaceful.

Wu Yinxian, Island Militias, 1976. Image courtesy of Wu Wei.

The Superstructure for Art and Its Discourse

There are several characteristics and issues in our understanding and description of the creative trends that have taken place in Chinese contemporary art over the past thirty years. First, discussion of art has been profoundly shaped by two narrative types that have occupied a definitive position in modern Chinese history. These two narrative types are the “revolutionary narrative” and the “modernization narrative,” as described by art historian Gao Hua. Gao has made a profound yet simple analysis of the roots and lasting impact of these narratives:

The so-called “revolutionary narrative” arose from the 1920s to 1940s, and is the revolutionary history of the left. Various “organic” or “organized” new intellectuals such as Qu Qiubai, Zhang Wentian and He Ganzhi imported a series of concepts and categories from new leftist theories in the Soviet Union and Japan, constructing a system for leftist forces to apply to understanding the reality, past and future of China, with the core theme being the legitimacy and inevitability of revolution in China.

Socialist Realism represents the expressive methods of this system of understanding and interpretation. Gao believes that the “revolutionary narrative,” owing to its roots in an era of revolutionary struggle, is marked by strong tones of political mobilization. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the “revolutionary narrative” began a slide towards ossification and dogmatism. The “revolutionary narrative” engaged in an excessive pursuit of a “grand narrative,” establishing a standpoint before engaging in research and discussion:

Guided by authoritative descriptions or authoritative documents, it selectively cut and pasted historical material in order to affirm a certain authoritative description, simplifying the complex processes of history into an explanation of “inevitability” while covering over many rich and fresh historical layers.

The other main narrative model in modern history, the “modernization narrative,” was introduced into China in the early 1980s. The end of the Cultural Revolution is often viewed as the starting point for contemporary art, and the continued use of this chronology has led to the oversimplification of its complexity. By placing the beginning of Chinese contemporary art in 1976, and by placing contemporary art together with the universally described loosening of the social atmosphere, liberation of ideas, and the people’s strong desire to escape the past after the end of the Cultural Revolution, contemporary art and the contemporary art field have gradually been turned into symbols, and to a certain extent, this practice has come to hinder creative practitioners and art critics themselves.

This narrative uses the global and universal historical process that is modernization to describe the modernization process that China carried out under strong a influence from other countries, using it to expound upon China’s experiences and lessons from over a century of modernization. This narrative model views China’s recent history through the lens of close connections to the world, and has been applied to Chinese modern and contemporary art, particularly in the description of creative forms and artistic movements from the mid-1980s to the present.

Dong Xiwen, Kazak Shepherdess, date unknown. Oil on canvas. This plate is extracted from the book Views on the Route of Long March (长征路线写生集), 1958.

The weakness of this method is that it magnifies the universal applicability of the European and American modernization process, and fails to place the logic of China’s own modernization process in the proper light. The limitations of this narrative model led to many anxieties in Chinese culture and art circles in the 1990s regarding China and the West, how to construct a self-oriented history, and how to engage in a suitable self-narrative.

We believe that the trajectory of Chinese contemporary art, from creation to discussion, did not take place entirely removed from Socialist Realism, but that it has continued to follow Socialist Realism and the pursuit of modernity as its evolution was shaped by China’s political environment. Describing contemporary art as a “rebellious and progressive” set of ideas and actions is actually in keeping with Socialist Realism’s historical demand to present reality in creative work. In existing accounts, contemporary art’s birth after 1976 was to become the best “witness” to the openness of communist society, where “dissidents and rebels” had become integrated into the reality of society itself.


To be continued in "From the Issue of Art to the Issue of Position: The Echoes of Socialist Realism, Part II." This text was translated from the Chinese by Jeff Crosby.

Liu Ding is an artist and curator based in Beijing. His artistic and curatorial practice treats objects, events, and discourses of art history and the foundation of historicization both as materials and as the basis for critical reflection. He initiated the research and exhibition project titled Little Movements: Self-practice in Contemporary Art I, II, in collaboration with Carol Yinghua Lu. He co-curated the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennial, titled Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World. Publications written and edited by him include Little Movements: Self-practice in Contemporary ArtI, II, Accidental Message: Art is Not a System, Not a World, and Individual Experience: Conversations and Narratives of Contemporary Art Practice in China from 1989 to 2000.

Carol Yinghua Lu lives and works in Beijing. She is the contributing editor for Frieze and is on the advisory board for the Exhibitionist. Lu was on the jury for the Golden Lion Award in 2011 Venice Biennale and the co-artistic director of 2012 Gwangju Biennale and co-curator of the 7th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale in 2012. Since 2012, she is the artistic director and chief curator of OCAT Shenzhen. Lu was the first visiting fellow of Asia-Pacific at Tate Research Centre in 2013.

© 2014 e-flux and the author


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