Monday, 16 May 2011

Through a Maoist looking glass

This astonishing poster is called: “In Following the Revolutionary Road, Strive for an Even Greater Victory.” Can you call it beautiful? There’s the enigma.
As a visual statement it’s electric and mesmerising. As visual documentary – a frame excerpted from history – it is... what? The talisman of a terror, totalitarian and mendacious?
We know nothing about the mind behind the brush beyond a date, 1970, and a workshop: Shanghai Revolutionary Publishing Group. Was she or he idealist or cynic? volunteer or conscript? Committed, socialist genius? artist with nowhere to go but “revolutionary” art? and what did the original audiences think? and if we could possibly answer any of those questions, would it (should it?) affect our perceptions?
The poster is part of a superb Chinese archive held by the University of Westminster. An exhibition, Poster Power: Images from Mao’s China, Then and Now, has just opened at the University’s buildings in Regent Street, London W1B 2UW, and runs until July 14.
If you can get there, do. I spent my journey back home on the C2 bus revolving all the antimonies that the exhibition provokes.
Alien to our celebrated British taste for the oblique, the ironic and the understated are the very titles of Chinese propaganda posters. Here are seven of them:

Produce more without waste
Pay attention to culture
Promote excellent quality goods, wholeheartedly serve the people
Work as hard as possible
Get rid of selfishness and develop public spirit
Make a greater effort to get ahead
Study hard and prepare to devote your efforts to socialist modernisation

And yet, sitting in a meeting room this week, I turned away from a wretched deck of PowerPoint slides, tuned out of a numbingly dogmatic presentation, and found myself confronted by a poster on the wall which was headed “Meeting Etiquette” and prescribed the following list of what are now called “behaviours”:

Prepare Carefully
Be on Time and Ready to Go
Clarify Purpose and Objective at Outset
Stay on Topic and Keep to the Point
Encourage All Persons Present to Contribute
Let People Finish Their Sentences
Minimise Secondary Discussions
Respect Different Points of View
Conclude Clearly with Next Steps and Actions
Follow Up on Your Actions by Agreed Date

The same poster was on the wall behind me, and appeared in miniature form on a table-stand. Its insistent capitalisations and suppressed definite and indefinite articles seemed to me to be borderline Maoist. Unimaginable, I think, that such exhortations would have appeared in a British meeting room even 10 years ago.
In Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, a female artist, Sabina, assays the world of “totalitarian kitsch” with which she finds herself involved in Soviet Russia; kitsch being propaganda which refuses to admit that there is ambiguity or shit and that ambiguity perplexes and shit happens.
“Whenever she imagined the world of Soviet kitsch becoming a reality, she felt a shiver run down her back. She would unhesitatingly prefer life in a real Communist regime with all its persecution and meat queues. Life in the real Communist world was still liveable. In the world of the Communist ideal made real, in that world of grinning idiots... she would die of horror within a week.”
A world of grinning idiots in which even the grinningly idiotic point of view is solicited and respected, although dissent may, after all, constitute a secondary discussion to be minimised?

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