I love propaganda art: the chiseled soldiers, the grotesque caricatures, the black-and-white world view.
So I was thrilled to find the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. And I do mean find… it’s in the basement of an apartment building, which we only reached with the help of a friendly local and a curmudgeonly security guard.
Wall after wall of artwork portraying the inevitable greatness of Mao’s China and the laughable sham of the West, mostly the United States.
While I bring a healthy dose of ironic distance to this display, I wondered how the museum’s owner intended it. It’s not exactly complimentary to the government, judging from verbiage about “the mistake of the Great Leap Forward.”
Wait a minute, signs disparaging the Great Leap Forward… in China? I started to feel like guards might burst in at any moment. Sure, it’s current information that the government fears- hence blocking Facebook and YouTube- but Mao’s cult of personality is alive and well here, too. No wonder this place is in the basement (it’s also in the guidebook, so it’s not a particularly well-kept secret).
Scattered amid the glowing Maos, I noted a rather clever technique in China’s Sixties-era anti-American campaign: using popular unrest in the US as a tool.
China was making the point that even Americans don’t like American policies, while ignoring the fact that Americans have much more freedom to protest government policies than their Chinese counterparts.
Of course, one person’s propaganda is another’s truth. Is an idealized Norman Rockwell scene propaganda for white, middle-class values? Do you label something with the p-word based on its intention, or how its intention is perceived, or its affect on an audience? These are questions I love to grapple with: thinking about people telling me what to think.