The excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) have been on my mind lately. The Cultural Revolution still stands today as witness to harm caused by collective hysteria and fear. This was a moment that may have started out with promise and hope, founded on ideals and images of a utopian future, but for many (not all) it quickly changed. It devolved into violence. It aimed to silence the voices of creative people like the wonderful writer Lao She. He died because of that hysteria and fear. Thinking people were especially vulnerable.
The violence cannot be put down entirely to a Lord of the Flies style of young Red Guards trying to save themselves by battling those who raised questions, or by battling those who had the courage to speak out when they saw wrong being done, or eventually, by battling each other. It was validated by people in positions of authority.
In the end, it imploded.
Gao Xiaohua’s 高小华 oil painting Why? (Weishenme? 为什么?) very precisely captures a moment of reflection towards the end. It was painted in 1978, two years after Mao’s death–two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. His painting is not all that different from any propaganda picture from the previous twelve years. And it is absolutely different.
It’s a rectangular canvas. There are four young men and two guns. They sit or lie on newspapers covering a curving street curb. The picture is cropped, as if we are standing that close to them. But none of them look towards us, or towards each other. They are instead integrated into a group by the darkness of their clothes, their exhausted poses, physical proximity. The figure at the centre commands the most attention, partly because of his white bandaged head, partly because his body is at the apex of a compositional triangle. Below to his left is a darker figure and a machine gun on a diagonal line. Below to his right is a line created by the diagonal of his rifle and the light and shadow falling on the stone. Both lines lead towards his slack jaw and a face covered with an expression of resignation.
The painting is dark. It depicts a moment after a battle. Putting it next to propaganda posters on the face of it would seem wrong. For one thing, the posters are examples of communist kitsch. The great Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera famously asserts that kitsch is an aesthetic ideal “in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist.” He’s not just speaking literally here, but about all the bad, disgusting, negative, violent, depressing things in the world. “Kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.”
Another critically important thing that makes communist kitsch kitsch is that you don’t have to think about it. The pictorial formulas used in propaganda posters made that thinking irrelevant. You see it. You get it. Pictorial reductiveness makes it easy to understand in a flash. Take, for example, a poster showing Mao floating above representatives of the three revolutionary classes. Notice the triangular composition made with their bodies, how all lines lead towards the soldier’s face (or maybe it’s Mao’s little red book that he holds in his left hand to which our eye is directed). The message: We are powerful. Mao is great.
Gao’s painting makes a simple point: talk is rooted in talk. The screaming, the untruths, the sloganeering of the Cultural Revolution—all are present in the formulaic composition. In other words, language itself structures the painting. Gao’s commentary on that kind of propaganda emerges from the way it has been darkened (those blacks and grays, and dim red of the tattered flag) and made human (the nearness of the bandaged boys).
The painting slides into a less linguistic register through the watch on the tanned wrist, the untied shoestring, the pack of playing cards. These are the details that bring us closer, that give our encounter with the injured figures an immediacy. They are so ordinary as to be banal. But that banality nonetheless disturbs. The very ordinariness of these things in a scene which is anything but ordinary creates channels of feeling. Which is to say, the power of the painting to stay with us can be put down to the emotion limning those details, the detritus of reality, the revealing marks of who these young men really were. For me, the feeling is one of sadness. But I think we all linger because we are drawn into something that lies beyond the angry words used to incite and cause harm, or even Gao’s considered response to those words. The power of the painting to change us–and I would dare to say, the power of any high-order art–lies where words cannot touch it.
Still, to circle back to words, there is another object lesson: like Gao Xiaohua, we must confront the people who rely upon the language and art of political kitsch that causes so much harm. Take a deep breath and think.
Kundera, Milan. 1984. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Tr. From the Czech by Michael Henry Heim. New York: Harper. See esp. pp. 248-261.