China, in 1968, proletarian artists created a collection of clay statues. These sculptors depicted the violent exploitation faced by the peasants. Titled Rent Collection Courtyard, each sculptor revealed a bit of the existential and physical horror endured by farmers under the heel of the dreaded landlord Liu wen-tsai of Tayi County, Szechuan Province.

The goal of the project was to depict the inhumanity of the exploitation; children clinging to their parents, elders contorted in pain after hauling their rent many miles, and people of all creeds torn in anguish over whether they would be able to pay their rent in full, or face the tortuous machinations of the landlord’s brutes.

The value in a project like this is that it delineates space; more aptly, it re-articulates spaces which, formerly, were subjected to exploitation and re-imagines them as spaces for communal advancement precisely through the uncovering—the depiction of violence—which exists just underneath the surface. Because history is sediment and is layered in succeeding levels as time proceeds, uncovering those previous layers is an exercise in revolution. In short, it takes both study as well as creativity in order to create the art projects which, like Rent Collection Courtyard, aim to help raise class consciousness; study for discovering (or remembering, if someone is of age) specific acts which occurred during specific times, and creativity for how to depict the act which was uncovered (what materials the artist will use and so forth). In true Maoist practice, neither can be divorced from one another as long as the artist expects a revolutionary outcome.

But, because of our present degree of distance from when this art piece was made and displayed, and because of the cultural and historical difference, this abstract and any extrapolation concerning it, will focus less on the specific aspects of this particular project, and more on what can be learned from interpreting similar spaces of re-articulation. Meaning, I will be exploring not merely certain aspects of how this piece relates to Chinese history and art, but how other projects similar to it, can help the revolutionary artist come to grips with how to interpret the physical space which surrounds them and how to use that space in bringing attention to class based ideas of emancipation.

For the PDF of Rent Collection Courtyard, see here: http://www.bannedthought.net/China/MaoEra/Arts/Sculpture/RentCollectionCourtyard-1968.pdf



Near the concluding sections of Talks at the Yenan Forum of Literature and Art, Mao speaks of political positions which prevent communist cadre from fully engaging in critical-artistic practice. He says that since they are still confused or uneducated, they tow an incorrect line of engagement.

Mao makes many solvent points. Moreover, the points he makes are, I believe, crucial to correctly understand. All of his points I have seen ad nueaseam in literature; although this is hardly surprising when one reads bourgeois literature since, ideologically, such literature is fundamentally directed toward legitimating counterrevolutionary ends. The issue, however, is largely only relevant to communists. So, as a principal of criticism, the radical critic would do well to remember Mao’s sentiment, sentiment which I will now attempt to delineate while using concrete, recent examples:

In the first political statement, Mao says:

“The theory of human nature.” Is there such a thing as human nature? Of course there is. But there is only human nature in the concrete, no human nature in the abstract. In class society there is only human nature of a class character; there is no human nature above classes. We uphold the human nature of the proletariat and of the masses of the people, while the landlord and bourgeois classes uphold the human nature of their own classes, only they do not say so but make it out to be the only human nature in existence. The human nature boosted by certain petty-bourgeois intellectuals is also divorced from or opposed to the masses; what they call human nature is in essence nothing but bourgeois individualism, and so, in their eyes, proletarian human nature is contrary to human nature. “The theory of human nature” which some people in Yenan advocate as the basis of their so-called theory of literature and art puts the matter in just this way and is wholly wrong.

What is important here is to realize that Mao’s attack is two-fold. On one hand, he is attacking the fallacious idea of ‘human nature,’ and ideology which serves fascistic ends, while on the other hand, he is replacing human nature with class nature. To Mao, human nature only exists in the sense of class dynamics; it is natural for the landlord to behave the way he does because it is demanded by his class and class interests. Said again, the landlord’s actions is historically driven by the social-material forces which surround him; it is only under a mode of production—agrarian capitalism—that the landlord acts the way he does, just as the feudal lord behaves with violent impunity due to his position at the top of the social hierarchy.

For literature, this holds a great deal to remember because it is all too often we see characters, protagonists at the bottom of their alcoholic dripped selves, lament so-called human nature; it is expected that when things ‘go south’ the protagonist and company will blame the simple nature of humanity, to wash away the troublesome actions of a former-friend or antagonist, the failure of a great bit of social engineering on the ‘natural’ inclinations of humanity.

Of course, this is absurd and only strengths the reactionary artistic-regime. When the character Snowball in Animal Farm, for instance, flees the farm, it is not because of his ‘natural proclivities’ but because of his anti-proletarian nature—because of his class nature; he flees not because he is born selfish, rude, or inherent evils drive him to reject his friends but because his class interests, that of the bourgeoisie, demand he flee since he cannot imagine collective action undertaken without exploitation as the prime mover.

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In Talks at the Yenan Forum for Art and Literature, Mao asks the audience to examine their relationship between the artistic fields and revolutionary work. Ultimately, he speaks of attitude and remarks that

“The problem of attitude. From one’s stand there follow specific attitudes towards specific matters. For instance, is one to extol or to expose? This is a question of attitude. Which attitude is wanted? I would say both. The question is, whom are you dealing with? There are three kinds of persons, the enemy, our allies in the united front and our own people; the last are the masses and their vanguard. We need to adopt a different attitude towards each of the three.”

His words are wise and they deal with how to build a base of support in the revolutionary movement among elements which are not revolutionary. In quickly paraphrasing his sentiment, Mao maintains that when you deal with the enemy, you should expose their duplicity and cruelty and indicate their inevitable defeat; when dealing with those in a united front, the policy should be of alliance but criticism; while the attitude toward friends, should be one of sustained engagement and patience as they advance to a higher revolutionary level.

But attitude is not enough, for we must also think of audience. In a geographic arena, there is different classes and sub-strata of those classes for whom pieces of literature will have different resonance. When this is expanded to include art more generally, then the textual consumption becomes further muddled since one does not need to be literate in order to consume spoken poetry or an opera.

Attitude and audience are joined. We must think of the attitude we adopt toward the audience we face. We must know and understand our audience in order to adopt an attitude; though it should be said, that in order to know our audience an initial engagement must be held. So we see that there exists a dialectic of practice between engaging with your audience and shifting your attitude as you come to understand them, for otherwise, you run the risk of adopting an incorrect attitude and position, and become unable to win any over to the revolutionary struggle.

Ultimately, what comrade Mao illustrates is for the artist and author to refrain from becoming increasingly reified from the masses; what is needed is to strive toward a ‘mass style,’ one which fuses with the masses and becomes one with their own ‘language’ and drop pretenses of having godly airs alien to the masses. A Mass Style, obviously, is not academic writing (though this is not to demonize academic writing, merely to illuminate that it is not the language of the masses).

Mao goes on to talk about the issue of problems:

“In discussing a problem, we should start from reality and not from definitions. We would be following a wrong method if we first looked up definitions of literature and art in textbooks and then used them to determine the guiding principles for the present-day literary and artistic movement and to judge the different opinions and controversies that arise today. We are Marxists, and Marxism teaches that in our approach to a problem we should start from objective facts, not from abstract definitions, and that we should derive our guiding principles, policies and measures from an analysis of these facts. We should do the same in our present discussion of literary and artistic work.”

I believe this is a very sound statement and something we should argue. Indeed, the textbook definition is often reactionary and prone to dissemination of a bourgeois conception of art’s worldview. Practice demands that we investigate new artistic movements for ourselves and in relation to what has existed before the emergence of said movements; to have automatic recourse to textbook based definitions is to revoke investigation and instigate a flawed method of mass engagement. Such a method ultimately negates the search for a mass style.

Such a policy is sound. Furthermore, it highlight the nature of the struggle. Of how bourgeois art values quantity over quality and refuses to educate the people; hence, the task of revolutionaries is to figure out how to join art to the revolutionary message, how to ensure that it is part of the revolutionary machine in a complimentary manner.

All though Mao’s statements are valid and hold much water, they are worrisome in the sense that they reproduce a sort of suture to what Alain Badiou calls a ‘philosophical condition.’ When this happens, the condition becomes distorted and falls prey to a revisionism which fails to contribute to an eventual stage. In other words, though it is tempting to reduce revolutionary artistic practice to a party function, it is perhaps not wise to do so less one becomes mired in party machinery and becomes susceptible to counterrevolutionary infection. If we consider the role of the masses and Democratic Centralist model of the Vanguard Party, then this is a wise facet to avoid; instead, perhaps we should think of Marxist criticism oriented toward literature in the same manner which the masses oriented toward the capitalist roaders which had nestled them within the party apparatus. (This, clearly, demands an entire piece to investigate.)

This relates again back to practice and how criticism is wielded. To what end does one criticize? This is an important matter to consider: especially so because is one’s literary practice always criticism? To answer this we need to touch upon what class of literature we take aim at; which class, or class interest, does it serve? In delineating the class line on literature, one also delineates an attitude, which relates back to your audience and your role within that audience.

Mao does not speak a lot on criticism itself in this piece. He talks a great deal about practice and how to view art, but in terms of criticism itself he says only the following, expressed through an engagement with a slew of incorrect slogans that had been expressed in the Yenan region during the artistic cadres engagements with the masses.

Mao remarks that criticism must be of a dialectical materialist nature; it needs to reject Idealism, which stresses motive but ignores effect (Think: your friend’s motive was to make you happy with a surprise going away party, but its effect was to make you sad at remembering everything you would be leading behind), while also rejecting mechanical materialists nature of stressing effect and ignoring motive (Think: the president’s economic policy resulted in the creation of five million new jobs, but it was originally intended to create those jobs by mass expulsions of minority populations). So Mao’s stress lays on the unity of the two, of effect and motive being fused— Think: “The motive of serving the masses is inseparablely linked with the effect of winning their approval. “ What is judged is not the literary critic’s intent but what their societal effects bloom.

Mao then goes on to reject sectarianism but it is a rejection alien to our present time and conditions; Mao rightfully opposes those pieces of artistic creation which hinder the anti-Japanese war of resistance. He goes on to comment on needing to unite and elevate those bourgeois artistic elements which can be won over but on a careful, pragmatic basis and only when it is not harmful to the nation, science, and the cohesion of the masses. So Mao upholds social practice and its effects over subjective intention or motive. As he should, but in his own time and day, this says little about what we need to do today, in the imperialist centre.

Mao then goes on to emphasis much of the same unity in regards to the political criterion and artistic criterion. He maintains that there is an unchangeable political and artistic criterion: that because the bourgeoisie shut out all great works of proletarian art, so must the proletariat do the same to the bourgeoisie. Specifically, he writes “The proletariat must similarly distinguish among the literary and art works of past ages and determine its attitude towards them only after examining their attitude to the people and whether or not they had any progressive significance historically.” Ultimately, this means a isolation of the progressive from the reactionary and an acknowledgment that “Some works which politically are downright reactionary may have a certain artistic quality.” This is because during such time where progressive art has been shut out, or unable to articulate the socio-historical contradiction of the period, reactionary art—with its emphasis on class decay, pessimism, decadence, and nihilism—filled the void with a particular artistic movement-form.

Mao writes that it is common for art of the exploiting classes to lack unity between their reactionary political content and their artistic form. Meaning, that it is often the case that pieces of art which foster an exploitative ideal, can either be seeped with counterrevolutionary ideology, but crude in how it is expressed, or be highly refined in its expression but whose reactionary ideological message is crudely elucidated: “Therefore, we oppose both the tendency to produce works of art with a wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the ‘poster and slogan style’ which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power.” So once more, literature and art must be united in struggle.

From here, the piece goes on to speak of how “Both these tendencies can be found in the thinking of many comrades. A good number of comrades tend to neglect artistic technique; it is therefore necessary to give attention to the raising of artistic standards.” Mao’s belief is that, at his present moment, the political side was more of a concern; that, essentially, the reason why the communist party’s artistic campaign in Yenan had faced difficulties was because the comrades participating in the work may not have had a full education on the political content of some of the art.

This point forward, Mao then goes through a list of political questions which influence art and criticism; these points, in order and briefly summed up, are: (1) human nature exists only in the concrete, as part of class relations. There is no human nature above class; (2) Love as an idea of objective practice. “There is absolutely no such thing in the world as love or hatred without reason or cause.” This means that love in the abstract, in the liberal formulation, has not existed since the formation of class society as it is impossible to practice under exploitative conditions and cannot bloom until classes have been eliminated; (3) “Only truly revolutionary writers and artists can correctly solve the problem of whether to extol or to expose. All the dark forces harming the masses of the people must be exposed and all the revolutionary struggles of the masses of the people must be extolled; this is the fundamental task of revolutionary writers and artists.” In other words, it is important to find a balance between the bourgeois practice of ‘literature of exposure,’ which serves to cast one into perpetual doubt as to what reality constitutes by virtue of its incessant exposure, and between socialism realism, which upholds the struggle without exposing. The revolutionary artist needs to find a balance between exposure and upholding; (4) Criticism of the masses should be handled within the people’s own ranks. Describing the people as ‘born fools’ and the revolutionary masses as ‘tyrannical mobs’ is the course of the counterrevolutionary. “For revolutionary writers and artists the targets for exposure can never be the masses, but only the aggressors, exploiters and oppressors and the evil influence they have on the people.” Regarding the people, it is an issue of struggling alongside them and raising their consciousness, not counterproductive slogans of hostility; (5) Satire must be used carefully. Revolutionaries are not opposed to satire as “Satire is always necessary. But there are several kinds of satire, each with a different attitude, satire to deal with our enemies, satire to deal with our allies and satire to deal with our own ranks. We are not opposed to satire in general; what we must abolish is the abuse of satire.” Said again, one must be careful in expressing satirical interactions and to be sure to have such interactions guided by correct practice, attitude, and audience orientation; (6) Revolutionary policy should be to eulogize the working people, never the bourgeoisie. Meaning, those proletarian artists should be celebrated as the reactionary as defamed. People who refuse to engage in eulogies are bourgeois individualist only interested in upholding themselves. As such, “Persons of this type are merely termites in the revolutionary ranks;” and so, the masses have no need for such a person; (7) The issue of ‘Stand,’ as it relates to motive and intentions, is of importance insofar as “A person with truly good intentions must take the effect into account, sum up experience and study the methods or, in creative work, study the technique of expression. A person with truly good intentions must criticize the shortcomings and mistakes in his own work with the utmost candor and resolve to correct them.” Hence the need for self-criticism. Someone who rejects self-criticism, who refuses to study the summing up of experience, method study, the technique of expression and how their own actions (intent notwithstanding) effected the campaign, then they cannot be worked alongside as they believe their practice to be infallible and above reproach; (8) Dogmatic Marxism is anti-Marxism. “To study Marxism means to apply the dialectical materialist and historical materialist viewpoint in our observation of the world, of society and of literature and art; it does not mean writing philosophical lectures into our works of literature and art.” One should aim for a dissemination of ideology, not pale simulacra of the pulpit pounder’s rants. This means that Marxist criticism should aim to ‘destroy mood’ and those “feudal, bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, liberalistic, individualist, nihilist, art-for-art’s sake, aristocratic, decadent or pessimistic, and every other creative mood that is alien to the masses of the people and to the proletariat.” Moreover, alongside this destruction something new needs to be built so as to replace the outdated bourgeois forms of art. So it is not merely an issue of correct application of Marxism to art, but of simultaneously erecting something new in its place.

And so we see overlap—dialectical, practice based, overlap which becomes inseparable from the resolution of contradictions. So, we must utilize a dialectical materialist analysis in our criticism in order to determine our role in encouraging synthesis; which, hopefully, will assist in orienting our attitude in regards to the audience and party; all of which, of course, takes place under a historical materialist perspective on rendering obsolete the bourgeois forms of art and legitimating the proletarian.