The title of this post might seem a little heavy handed… and I guess it is. But after my little adventure today the idea that propaganda has always been a means to shape how people (who are the objects of propaganda’s political and social aims) see themselves stands out to me. It makes sense that propaganda would provide a positive view for people to buy into; it needs to use that angle in order to work at all. I guess I knew all this years ago in the first years of my undergraduate education, but seeing it up close in a major museum in China was interesting.
I began the day attempting to see two significant art museums in Guangzhou, one of which is close to our hotel and one that’s a 20 minute drive away. I was given advice by a local that I could walk to the first one, but my efforts proved futile. It was an interesting hour and 15 minutes getting myself more and more disoriented and more and more lost in a strange city.
Eventually I found myself in a large train station with thousands of Chinese people and got into a line at the taxi stand. Once in my cab I gave the driver a slip of paper that a well-meaning woman at the hotel had written out for me in Chinese. After one failed attempt to get to the closer of the two locations, I gave him another line about the more distant museum and we made it there after 35 or 40 minutes.
The Guangdong Museum of Art on Er-Sha Island is a part of a large museum campus system on a beautiful island in the Pearl River right in downtown Guangzhou. The collection is primarily traditional-based semi-contemporary work. Most of what I saw was painting, printmaking, and large figurative sculpture from the 30s through today. They have significant holdings on display from the 50s, 60s, and 70s.
Just one aspect that I focused on during my 3.5 hour tour of the museum’s three floors was the way women were depicted in the propaganda era works on display. As you’ve noticed, I’m posting a number of details here to illustrate my point.
I am by no means an expert in Chinese art during Mao’s time, but I am aware of a variety of aspects of it. Getting to see these works in their country of origin and within their own context was a great experience. There was, to a piece, excellent craftsmanship in the work itself. The woodblock prints and oil paintings in particular were fantastic examples of the genre and time. I am sad to say that they were not all presented well, however. The framing was inconsistent – sometimes downright baffling (dozens of prints were matted with foamcore) – and many of the walls were scuffed and marked. In some rooms the arrangement of works seemed somewhat scattershot. But none of that can make one mistake the energy and physical presence of the best of the works on display.
These works were designed to present a powerful, healthy, vigorous and virtuous people. Look at the faces of these women I’ve posted: In one a young mother runs out to work in the early morning before dawn, implement in hand, her baby strapped to her back. In another, two women - stern-faced and sharp-eyed, look determined to defend their way of life… machine guns rest against their bodies. In perhaps the most recent example, three young women rest in dappled sunlight beneath the massive tires of some piece of heavy machinery; their labors afford them peaceful - and aesthetic - rest.
These propagandistic images succeed on a number of levels – they are expertly crafted illustrations, and so it makes sense that they utilize the visual language of illustration so well. They are illustrations of the regime’s aims and means. They functioned as didactic projections; they were the stained-glass window training centers of a new era. Yet they did more, as all propaganda does.
Artworks such as these offered viewers both a prescribed view they were conditioned to believe and a perspective that plays into what every human being wants for themselves. We want signifigance. We want inclusion. We want meaning. We want to be noble. In spite of the pernicious and sometimes evil ends to which propaganda of all kinds has been used I think we can agree that part of the reason that it works is that it gives an image of self-virtue that the human animal craves. In light of these things, can we blame any people of any time for buying in? I see the faces of these women and I have to wonder what their lives were – or are, if some of them are still living - really like. I can, at the very least, absolutely affirm that they were valuable, they were meaningful simply as human beings. The lives they lived, their loves, their sorrows, were all knit together into a weaving of the human consciousness in time and space. They were beautiful and strange, and they tried to believe in something beyond themselves that was, in fact, unified with all that they were. We all seek this, and we all want to know that it’s real.
The horror of propaganda is that it uses our own innate desire to be embedded in a broader truth against us.