Aug 20, 2008

China Refuses Loans

Pictured here is a Chinese poster from the Cultural Revolution which states "We'll destroy the old world and build a new one". Notice the worker is smashing a Buddha, Chinese classics, and a crucifix. This paints a much different picture than the one China has tried to portray during the Olympics, particularly Zhang Yimou's remarkable opening ceremonies.

Perhaps that's why China has made the troubling decision to refuse to loan works of art to the Asia Society which will focus on Chinese art from the 1950s to the 1970s. Robin Pogrebin in the NY Times, and Jason Edward Kaufman for the Art Newspaper both report on the decision.

Kaufman says the show "Art and China's Revolution" "surveys three decades of Chinese art following Mao Zedong’s establishment of the republic in 1949, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when the government controlled artist production. Exhibitions of photographs and posters have explored the politics and propaganda of Maoist China, but none has assembled ink and oil paintings, sketchbooks and prints by both underground and official artists, including the “model” paintings on which millions of social-realist posters were based."

The art produced by these cultural shifts, through propaganda, often has tremendous impact and is highly sought after decades later. Such is the case with Mikhail Kalatozov's 1964 film I Am Cuba (which is examined in some detail by Scott Tobias at the Onion AV Club). Works of art continue to be powerful political and cultural forces even after the impetus for their creation has diminished.

China perhaps has good almost realpolitik reasons for not deciding to allow these loans -- they want to portray their nation in a much different light now. Individuals and States have a lot of reasons for wanting to restrict themovement of works of art. Some of them are sound (to prevent looting of archaeological sites for example) others are open to criticism (hiding or minimizing history).

This is a very good example of the detrimental impact of strong national control of works of art. James Cuno has been roundly criticized for many of his views -- and for good reason in some cases. But in this situation, I think his main thesis is on point: works of art are often political tools for nations. The idea of cosmopolitanism can allevieate Chinese reluctance to show art from this period, and in fact some of the other private loans are doing just this. Of course art isn't just used for political goals either, as Kaufman notes "It has been a decade since the Asia Society’s major exhibition “Inside Art: New Art from China” helped spur the boom in Chinese contemporary art. Will the present exhibition have a similar effect on the market for art of the Cultural Revolution?"
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