Artibus et Historiae no. 69 (XXXV)

2014, ISSN 0391-9064

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PAN YAOCHANG - The Posters of the Mao Era: A Perspective of Art and Society (pp. 289–304)

In 1942, Mao Zedong delivered a speech at the famous Literature and Art Forum of Yan-an, that afterwards was published as the official guidelines of the Party’s policy on art and literature. Like his many contemporary enlightened thinkers, Mao Zedong also regarded art and literature as a means to saving the country. Mao agreed with Lenin’s viewpoint that literature should be a part of the proletariats’ enterprise, that it should form “the gears and screws” of the huge social democracy machinery run by the vanguard of the proletariat. In Mao’s view, art and literature had to enlighten the masses. Mao, however, contrary to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment in France, wanted the enlightenment not of the middle classes, but of the people who formed more than ninety percent of the Chinese population, namely the workers, peasants and soldiers. In order to propagate the Party’s political aims and enhance the cultural level of the people, certain domains of art, especially the visual arts, were the best means to fulfil the task. The visual arts were supposed to infiltrate the masses with political content in images people liked to look at with easily understood message. Because many of them had little or no education at all and a great many were illiterate, the works of art that were to serve the Party’s purposes had to be popular, direct, easy to understand, with simple messages and easy to be copied in large numbers.

After 1949, when the new China was established, Mao’s speech at the Forum became the guide for the future development of art and literature all over the country, and posters, comic strips and woodcuts came to the front, with Socialist Realism, suitable for propaganda and popularization needs, as the official theory and method of artistic and literary composition. In the art history of China, Mao’s era is a typical period of duplicating and printing, so copying is the main method to spread the artist’s work. Although the art of Mao’s era is a kind of popular art, entangled in politics, there are still some artistic values in it which deserve to be remembered.

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