Art and Politics in China

In another in his series of book reviews of works on China, Kosmas Tsokhas reviews The Phoenix Years: Art, Resistance and the Making of Modern China for JCA. Published by Allen & Unwin, the book is authored by Madeleine O’Dea.

In his review, Tsokhas begins with O’Dea’s discussion of the emergence of the “Stars” who, in the late 1970s “as the beginning of contemporary Chinese art in opposition to the official socialist realism of the Cultural Revolution.” By 1989, as avant-garde art was gaining momentum, the bloody Tienanmen crackdown put the brakes on.

But the artists returned and were joined by younger artists who were critical of the regime. Yet for all of this, Tsokhas detects appropriation at work:

by positioning avant-garde artists against the restraints imposed on them by the Communist Party, even though it was difficult to inject propaganda into their work, it is arguable that from time to time O’Dea underestimates how the promotion of this art, the ambiguities and implications of which were not really understood by the Communist Party’s leaders, could be appropriated by an opportunistic government agenda to disown the Cultural Revolution through the overthrow of socialist realism.

Tsokhas appreciated O’Dea’s work and her prose, stating:

In an age of global capitalism, O’Dea could have elaborated analytically on the complex issues around how Chinese artists integrated cultural identity and individual identity as both historically Chinese and contemporaneously cosmopolitan.

Even so, his observations of the relationship between art – of all varieties – and the state and capitalism are worth further contemplation.

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