Alright, a radical shift away from Vietnam/America politics, to a discussion of mid-century to contemporary Chinese culture and art. These chapters from The Party and the Arty will appear out of order. Kraus spends this chapter writing about the uses of, and the controversies over nude art in China in the latter half of the 20th century. Most of the analysis is of the time just after the Cultural Revolution (late ‘70s) and the early 1990s. A crucial point seems to be 1989, the year of the Beijing Massacre—but also a focal year for art exhibitions including the nude figure (usually female).
The main point of the chapter is to suggest that there was a trajectory in the purpose of nude art—from (ostensibly) criticism of the work as obscene, to an only nominally contested and mostly accepted art. This occurs not as a smooth progression, but in fits and starts, with quite a lot of backtracking.
This chapter provides an interesting contrast with some of the same issues occurring in America at the same time. Though I’m sure that whole books have been written about nudity in American art over time, and response to it—I would not be terribly inclined to read them. What might be nice is a slim chapter like this one, with which to compare it.
China’s nude art seems to have reproduced power structures within gender and ethnicity in almost exactly the same way as the west has for hundreds of years. That is to say that even amid communist-inspired gender equality, the model in nude art is female, passive, and maligned . . . and the artist is male. Furthermore, the model is often either an ethnic minority (non-Han Chinese) or a western woman. Here there are elements of exoticism, power relations between the Han and ethnic minorities, and the sense that Han women would be violated somehow by being the subjects of nude art.
The politics of the displays of nude art seem remarkably similar to American controversies. Some of the comparable events I thought of were these . . . there was the famous statement of Justice Potter Stewart about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” This appears to have been the Chinese model for decades. Local officials, the public, and artists themselves seem to have applied inconsistent standards based on general consensus at the moment—or even personal judgments. Similarly, I’m reminded of the controversy over public funding of “Piss Christ” (you remember that). Some of the natural comparisons that I made between China’s understanding of obscenity versus artistic nudes, and America’s political relationship with art and obscenity segued nicely into the next chapter about censorship.