political icons (and art)

political icons (and art)
Political figures, artists, intellectuals and unruly elements have readily used emblems, icons and cultural paraphernalia both to express themselves and to claim, or generate, cultural capital.
Sometimes the commercial sector has treated Party icons as considerably less than sacrosanct, but in ways that were anything but hostile. Indeed, this commercialization of Party icons has played on the fact that many people feel comfortable with the icons—and it is this sense of familiarity, driven home through the new commercialization, that indirectly reinforces of political legitimacy.
Since the Cultural Revolution the Great Wall has been promoted as an ancient artifact and symbol of Chinese resilience. Although the present wall is a late-dynastic creation, it has been used to epitomize variously the solidarity of the masses and the strength of the People’s Liberation Army. The creators of the 1988 tele-series River Elegy used the wall as a metaphor for China’s inward-looking, landlocked recidivism, while for neo-patriots in the 1990s it was emblematic of continuity, strength and diversity in unity. The artist Xu Bing decided to beat the problem, literally, by making rubbings of the wall into avant-garde art. Xu is also famous for having created—with the help of dedicated artisans—a majestic artwork out of hand-carved nonsense characters. His Book of Heaven is a gibberish testament to the semiotic turn popular among some practitioners of contemporary Chinese art during the 1980s.
Others have preferred more embodied icons. In the early months of Red Guard agitation in 1966, the Monkey King (Sun Wukong, or Houwang)—the much-loved upstart hero of the Wu Cheng’en’s novel Journey to the West (Xiyou ji)—was used as a symbol of rebellion, and in the reform era the lovable rascal has been a popular figure among manufacturers and consumers alike. Mao Zedong, the politician who authorized the contemporary valence of the Monkey King, having famously compared himself to the fictional character, has also been transmogrified into a public icon that has repeatedly been re-branded since his demise in 1976. After taxidermy successfully solved the problem of the Great Leader’s physical remains, a sanitized version of Mao was claimed by the Party-state as a patriot and statesman. But his is an unquiet ghost that appeals to different constituencies. In the new, mass Mao cult of the early 1990s, his image featured in a plethora of popular and garish guises (on T-shirts, in talismans, on cigarette lighters, and so on); meanwhile, from the 1980s non-official artists found in his image a daunting inspiration (Li Shan), a lingering spectre that had to be exorcized (Wang Keping, Zhang Hongtu, et al.) or playfully celebrated (Wang Guangyi and Yu Youhan), and their remade images of the Chairman readily found an international audience, and buyers.
Dal Lago, Francesca (1999). ‘Personal Mao: Reshaping an Icon in Contemporary Chinese Art’. Art Journal 58 (Summer).
——(2002). ‘Images, Words and Violence: Cultural Revolution Influences on Chinese Avant-Garde Art’. In Wu Hong (ed), Chinese Art at the Crossroads: Between Past and Future. Hong Kong: New Art Media.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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