A Defense of the Propaganda Poster

They’re framed in Manhattan lofts and hip college dorm rooms. Nary a Western visitor to Souvenir Street who doesn’t stop to wonder at them. The Chinese propaganda poster, like pyramid paintings and Greek urns, has lost most of its symbolic power. Nonetheless, it retains cultural force, tempered from lava fire to an amber glow.

The propaganda poster most often draws laughter from the foreign beholder. The laughter commingles condescension and awe at the bold simplicity with which a poster sends its message. But few admit it. It’s camp – a stylish reminder of how sophisticated we’ve become – that’s what we tell ourselves.

It’s not camp; not for us. Camp resonates with an apposite, earlier element of native popular culture. In America, camp is currently the music and films of the 80s. Then whence comes our sympathetic resonance with the propaganda poster? We all recognize the elements, the conflict between public orders and private dreams. It’s a drama that still exists today. The drama is more sophisticated, but the conflict is not, and so we laugh.

Who can cast a clear eye on the early days of the Republic, an eye unsullied by visions of the ten year strife to come? In 1949, the sons of Han had every reason to feel boundless hope for their China United. As a youth may set off on a journey without his parents, China was now on the path to self-sufficiency, their glorious leader a shining compass. Unlike the stiff-necked Semites 3,000 years earlier, this would be an orderly passing to Canaan. ‘Orderliness’ requires orders, by definition, thus taking orders was the imperative for those who would help China along the path. This meant living, working, and playing together, the private life a stumbling stone. Taken in this light, conceivable yet naïve-in-retrospect, the work of the first communal artists shows the true beauty of Red. Let us enjoy it in this measure, 80% art and 20% context, like true admirers of painting, pottery, all the good that is left after the curtain closes on the drama.

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