Reading and Writing about Visual Experience: Weapons of Mass Seduction: Modern Chinese Encounters with Propaganda
Monday | Wednesday: 5:00 - 6:30pm
Propaganda is often dismissed as obvious and heavy-handed political messaging that suppresses individual expression and artistic creativity in the name of a violent regime. Today, it is hard to take Chairman Mao—whose rhetoric turned culture into a weapon—at his word when he proclaimed in 1956, “Let one hundred flowers bloom!” calling on the Chinese people to openly participate in politics and culture. The brutal suppression of the Anti-Rightist campaign of the next year suggested instead that political expression meant mindlessly toeing the party line. Closer inspection, however, reveals modern Chinese encounters with propaganda to be complex and multifaceted. The twentieth century saw Chinese consumers of propaganda exposed to imperialist, fascist, capitalist, communist, and postsocialist ideologies, and the visual cultures associated with each regime are layered together in propaganda objects. From the devastating encounters with the machinery of modern empire and warfare in the early twentieth century, to the Cold War of the mid to late century, and China’s contemporary “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” Chinese propaganda engages with the dialectical aesthetics of sensuality and violence, the needs of politics and the demands of business, and the ideologies of the right and left. We will look beyond these easy dichotomies and ask how propaganda works—in other words, how it threatens and charms when operating in a media ecology that includes its close cousins, popular culture and advertising. We will study the image regimes of the Qing and Japanese Empires, the dynamic print world of Republican China (1911-1949), the cross-straits cultures of the Cold War in Mainland China and Taiwan, and the afterlives of authoritarian propaganda as soft power and kitsch in the hands of contemporary bureaucrats and artists.
Throughout the course, we will encounter a variety of texts, objects, and images that were themselves propaganda or worked in concert with the propaganda programs of various Chinese regimes. We will peruse the Chinese print archive and Maoist badge collection at the East Asian Library, watch a contemporary Chinese film at the PFA, and learn together how to critically read images that are actively trying to seduce us. Through frequent in-class writing and visual analysis, students will develop skills that will allow them to produce close readings of art objects. We will also read historical and theoretical texts to understand the context in which these images were made, and how scholars and theorists build arguments based on evidence. Taken together, the skills we accrue throughout the semester will allow students to produce a sophisticated 10-12 page final research paper attendant to the history and complexity of the Chinese propaganda image.