Amateur Art Practice and the Everyday in Socialist China

This essay examines amateur art practice during the socialist period in China. It argues that socialist amateur art practice not only changed the class and labour relations that had previously defined the fine arts, but also converted the expert and professional cultures of the fine arts into a grassroots practice of the everyday. Originating from small art study groups at industrial and agricultural sites, amateur artists met to create images depicting their labour and lifestyles. The result was a practice that challenged the art academy as a legitimising site of training, evacuated concepts of artistic genius and technical accomplishment, and embraced media primarily oriented toward the public, as opposed to the market.

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Aesthetics of Socialist Internationalism

Lenin Films in the People’s Republic of China

In the twenty-first century, Lenin’s image in cinema exists as floating textual references to a Maoist collective memory that is sutured to a post-revolutionary existence governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Scholars including Geremie Barmé (2009), Guobin Yang (2003), Ming-bao Yue (2005), and others have identified the ways in which appropriation of revolutionary culture for […]

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Can the Creative Subaltern Speak? Dafen Village Painters, Van Gogh, and the Politics of ‘True Art’

Migrant workers’ artistic aspirations develop within the broader tension between Art as a high-brow, big-money, critically-endorsed global enterprise, and art as the creativity of the everyday. As shown by the case of Dafen village’s worker painters, in today’s China the creative subaltern has become the focus of celebratory state-promoted narratives and investments and, more critically, transnational media and academic investigations. However, despite this newly-acquired visibility, this kind of creative work remains largely excluded from global art circles, as well as the industry’s cash flow and critical appraisals, and continues to be defined by the condition of the artists as localised migrant workers.

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Towards a Partisan Aesthetics: Zhou Yang, Chernyshevsky, and ‘Life’

This essay seeks to excavate a Maoist politics of ‘life’ as the grounds for a new, proletarian aesthetics and as a counterpoint to the biologisation of life under authoritarian state formations. It does so through a reading of Mao Zedong’s 1942 Yan’an Talks and their demands that intellectuals immerse themselves in the life of the masses via the theoretical role of Zhou Yang. In doing so, it seeks to suggest answers to the question: how might we conceive of a non-fascist life under late capitalism?

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From Rebellion to Erasure: The Rise and Fall of Urban Folk Rocker Li Zhi

In the summer of 2019, underground rock subculture became an overnight sensation in China through a talent show called ‘Summer of Bands’ (乐队的夏天). What is notable about this resurgence is the role that the Party-state played in it. The quest of the Chinese authorities for soft power and cultural legitimacy, aimed at ‘[winning] the hearts […]

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World Factory

The decade from roughly 2005 to 2015 might one day prove to have been one of those distinctive periods in Chinese social, political, and cultural history—one with clear demarcations marking its before and after, a time of possibilities explored and foreclosed, when other futures could have been imagined. Unlike the 1980s, with its burst of […]

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Poetry after the Future

In this essay, Sorace reads migrant-worker poetry alongside Marx to index the trace of a different future in the exploitation and alienation of the present. Worker poets write about lost youth, severed fingers, irregular periods, and labour congealed in commodities for export. The future promised by communism has been erased by a seemingly eternal capitalist present. To dream again requires new acts of poetic and political imagination.

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A Proletarian Nora: Discussing Fan Yusu

In 2017, migrant worker Fan Yusu became an overnight sensation in China after publishing her memoir online. Despite the fact that she has produced several more literary works, her artistic production is seldom considered from a literary perspective. To fill this gap, this essay endeavours to analyse some of the main elements that shape Fan’s output, arguing that it is an exemplar of contemporary working-class literature.

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Risk: The Hidden Power of Art Creation

Performance artists have been subjecting their bodies to physical ordeals, risk, and even the possibility of death. In this essay, Cai Qing introduces famous examples of performance art in China and abroad that entailed violence done to the body. Under China’s authoritarian model of capitalism, the body is subject to numerous cross-cutting disciplinary forces; to invent something new, the performance artist must jump into the unknown.

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How Does the Phoenix Achieve Nirvana?

In the spring of 2007, at the first meeting of the Asian Council at the Guggenheim, while introducing his works Chinese artist Xu Bing mentioned Joseph Beuys and Mao Zedong. Beuys is an object of emulation for China’s ‘85’ [1985] new art movement. When Xu first arrived in the United States and heard a recording […]

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