The Party and the Arty in China:
The New Politics of Culture

By Richard Curt Kraus

Reviewed by Matthew D. Johnson
MCLC Resource Center Publication (January 2009)

Richard Curt Kraus The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman and  			Littlefied, 2004. 264 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7425-2719-5 (Hardback); 978-0-7425-2720-1 (Paperback)

Richard Curt Kraus
The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture. Lanham, MD: Rowman and
Littlefied, 2004. 264 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7425-2719-5 (Hardback); 978-0-7425-2720-1 (Paperback)

Richard Curt Kraus’ whimsically-titled book has been around for several years now. Yet like his previous studies of middle-class cultural taste (Pianos and Politics in China) and elite calligraphy (Brushes with Power), The Party and the Arty in China is bursting with insights that are at odds with nearly all conventional (read: journalistic) wisdom concerning cultural and artistic life in the People’s Republic. As Kraus himself states, one goal of this new work is to counteract “idealist myths … of the artist as a heroic figure, locked in constant struggle against repressed and repressive authority” (p. 2). Using perspectives from political science, sociology, and history, he draws together observations accumulated during extended academic residences in Fujian and Jiangsu to demonstrate how “politics” has sustained cultural production from 1949 onward. Indeed, one key argument is that politicization of the cultural realm has created an immense community of artists whose livelihoods are now threatened by Dengist economic reforms. Another is that state institutions continue to shape artistry in ways unappreciated by most Western observers. Kraus’ central claim–that authoritarian governance has diminished since Mao–will find few opponents. Yet does the loosening of controls over civil (minjian) arts organizations indicate that “a Chinese version of civil society” (p. 233) will make artistic professionals (zhishi fenzi), rather than state and market, the ultimate arbiters of aesthetic norms? Both the question and its answer provide ample material for reflection, and debate.

In its conception, The Party and the Arty is less concerned with transformations in aesthetic form per se than with artists’ evolving relationships to two massive and intertwined structures–the cultural bureaucracy and the cultural marketplace. Unlike many previous scholarly discussions of Chinese professionals, Kraus’ narrative does not track these changes in terms of intellectual freedom. Rather, his methodological focus is on institutions of patronage; that is, the state and non-state forces that define, disseminate, and compensate creative labor. Chinese history, Kraus proposes, betrays a “distinctly illiberal intimacy of art and state” (p. 3). While some artists may buck the system, many are, unsurprisingly, deeply involved in personal quests for social status. Kraus argues that although intellectual suffering was undeniably a consequence of Maoist populism and paranoia, state patronage of the arts was far more widespread than under Deng. Forced to turn to the marketplace for economic support, post-Mao artists are thus far more likely to turn their talents to other pursuits, which may also be inimical to state orthodoxy. The result is a fundamental transformation of China’s political system. Once “possessing an important dimension that is essentially aesthetic” (p. 4), state power must now compete for cultural hegemony with the very commercial forces its reforms have unleashed.

Examining Maoist and Dengist politics from an artistic patronage perspective allows Kraus to break new ground by demonstrating the tenacity of propaganda institutions even after the opening of markets to foreign, private, and semi-official interests. In “Cultural Reform as an Afterthought,” the book’s first chapter, he focuses on writers, opera performers, and musicians, detailing how these professionals have experienced a more ambivalent relationship to state power than Manichaean, June Fourth-centric narratives of intellectual oppression have allowed. Despite Communist Party anxiety about “nonmaterial changes” (p. 30) in artistic production, Kraus characterizes the reform period as one in which “striking public discussion of aesthetics” (p. 28) has flourished. Kraus is somewhat off the mark in crediting Deng Xiaoping with ending “mass-mobilizing political campaigns” (p. 29)–1983 witnessed the first of several nationwide efforts to curb so-called “spiritual pollution” and the subsequent self-criticism of longtime propaganda minister Zhou Yang.[1] His assertion that ideological domination is no longer as “easy” under Deng as it was under Mao, however, rings true. “The Waning Authority of the Chinese State as Patron of the Arts” (Ch. 2) provides an insightful overview of arts bureaucracies in the People’s Republic, drawing attention to the little-observed role of the People’s Liberation Army as a patron of state culture well into the post-Mao era. Whether central Propaganda Department tolerance for apolitical art and private sector patronage necessarily connotes a “weakening” of the state institutional apparatus, however, is another question. Internet and gallery surveillance, campaigns against obscene materials, and even the effective foreclosure of individual artistic careers (e.g. actress Tang Wei) can all be pointed to as evidence that an apolitical mainstream culture can coexist with routine media strictures. While these phenomena cannot be called Maoist, not do they necessarily suggest frailty.

If art is becoming less salient in modern Chinese politics, this has not stopped artists from pushing the political envelope. “Normalizing Nudity” (Ch. 3) provides an important case study of post-Maoist ambiguity in the regulations governing individual self-expression. By tracking state responses to nude art and depictions of nude human figures, Kraus argues that local responses to national campaigns betray a perfunctory conformism first observed by Daniel C. Lynch in After the Propaganda State (1999). Reassertion of patriarchy has accompanied the gradual creep of a “bread and circus public culture” (p. 98), with the state allowing artists and intellectuals to satisfy their erotic interests in exchange for political quiescence. “The Chinese Censorship Game: New Rules for the Prevention of Art” (Ch. 4) advances Kraus’ claim that markets have further encouraged this moderate risqué sensibility by reducing the penalties for sexual or obliquely transgressive references. Tempting official denouncement has, since the 1980s, become its own marketing scheme. Yet except in rare instances, artists only engage in such behaviors on an inconsistent or even inadvertent basis. Jia Pingwa, Mo Yan, and Zhang Yimou have all profited by playing both sides of the “censorship game” (p. 130), while ultimately tending toward–or even redefining–the mainstream of their respective media. And why, Kraus asks, should this be surprising? Arguing that Americans concerned about censorship of public art would do well to look closer to home, he takes issue with Western critiques of “limits to freedom in China” (p. 134) that fail to account for the ubiquity of cultural controls in all human societies. Kraus rejects what he calls the “Godzilla model” of the Chinese arts scene, which portrays artists as free-spirited idealists and state power as brutally malevolent. Instead, he suggests that both sides are motivated by the pursuit of professional and economic security.

“Artists as Professionals” (Ch. 5) and “The Price of Beauty” (Ch. 6) address these two themes in full. How have artists attempted to maintain their institutional privileges in the post-Mao era? How do they make money? In answer to both questions, Kraus suggests that researchers must begin from the premise that Chinese artists, taken as a class, have few inherent qualms about mixing art with politics. Market and media change, however, have created a climate in which “all artists feel they must often hustle in ways that are corrosive and demeaning of their artistic integrity” (p. 187). Although income data is sketchy, Kraus seems to be suggesting that economic inequalities are a far more galling reality under Deng than under Mao. Certainly anecdotal evidence and slashed budgets for state cultural institutions suggest as much. Yet if Kraus’ analysis belies nostalgia for any particular period, it is the relatively free-wheeling atmosphere of the 1980s, before painters could make “a fortune manufacturing machines to read credit cards” (p. 195). The perception of China’s arts scene as impoverished by the growing cultural marketplace is a familiar one; certainly more aesthetically innovative works emerged prior to the painting boom of the past decade, for example. In “The Hands that Feed Them” (Ch. 7), Kraus seems to argue that it is exactly the banality of market-oriented mass production that most threatens politics’ preeminence in the post-Mao cultural sphere. The “Chinese version of civil society” that he proposes is ultimately a field of corporatist associations in which state actors play a controlling role, in part because artists themselves seem unlikely to take common cause with “ordinary citizens” (p. 232). Thus, the more important question posed by The Party and the Arty is: Whether political or not, can art become truly socialized, and thus humane?

This book deserves to be read by any serious scholar of late twentieth-century artistic production and state cultural policy. Indeed, Kraus repeatedly and provocatively engages readers with comparisons between China and other post-socialist societies, China and France (with references to Pierre Bourdieu), and China and the United States. Within the field of Chinese studies, The Party and the Arty joins works by Perry Link, Julia F. Andrews, Geremie Barmé, and others who have traced the transformation of painting and literature across political divides. Kraus’ new book may touch upon other cultural forms, but ultimately its author is interested in artistic practices whose histories are measured in millenia. The result is a work rich in anecdotes, witticisms, and candor, with a dash of intellectual history thrown in as well. Readers may not always agree with Kraus’ conclusions, but they will know where he stands.

Despite claims to address China’s “new politics of culture,” however, The Party and the Arty contains extensive, but not noticeably revelatory (with the exception of the odd rumor), discussions of artistic politics under Mao. While these may be of interest to scholars unfamiliar with cultural production during the 1949-1976 period, they do not compare in nuance or in depth of research with Kraus’ coverage of the Dengist era. There are other limitations. Just as “China” is confined to the People’s Republic, the “new politics” are ultimately those of the 1990s. As a guide to institutions of artistic patronage after 1949, the book is eminently useful. However, by focusing on cultural workers in a narrow range of fields–receiving little to no coverage are film, acting, theater, “folk” (minjian) arts, photography, and other professions recognized by the Chinese Federation of Literary and Art Circles (CFLAC)–there is much concerning contemporary propaganda and censorship practices that goes unmentioned.

Another question concerns the book’s central claim: What evidence exists for a comparatively high incidence of cozy state/intellectual relations throughout Chinese history? I do not dispute that significant institutional (the examination system) and autocratic (persecution of the Donglin faction) factors may have silenced overt intellectual dissent from the late Ming dynasty to the 1911 Revolution, for example. But numerous twentieth-century events, including breakdown of central governance, prolonged conflict with Japan, and geopolitical pressures resulting from East Asia’s status as a Cold War “hot spot” have surely done more to transform state-society relations than imperial precedent. While scholars may accept on faith that the Chinese state has possessed considerable capacities in the cultural realm, this truism could do with more systematic evaluation than readers will find here.

No single monograph can do everything. But until these issues are addressed, scholarship on intellectual and artistic production in the People’s Republic will likely remain locked in a “transition to democracy” paradigm. Such accounts may impassion, but they do not explain. What The Party and the Arty does explain, with seasoned verve, is how a new constellation of artistic patrons has emerged in Dengist China as official subsidies have diminished. Wealthy individuals, corporate “angels,” foundations, foreigners, and part-time private employment all enable artists of various stripes to hone their craft apart from official institutions. Intended or unintended, these reforms have created real consequences. Yet while Kraus amply documents the gradual downsizing of the state patronage system, he does not necessarily account for ways in which propaganda and surveillance are being reconstituted in other areas. Reports of the state’s waning authority, though partly true, may also turn out to have been greatly exaggerated.

Matthew D. Johnson
University of Oxford


[1] Merle Goldman, “The Intellectuals in the Deng Era,” in Michael Ying-Mao Kau and Susan H. Marsh, eds., China in the Era of Deng Xiaoping: A Decade of Reform (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1993), 305-306. Goldman credits Deng’s comments at the October 1983 Second Plenum of the party’s Twelfth Congress with providing a crucial opportunity for conservatives Deng Liqun and Hu Qiaomu to target and criticize a group of cultural rivals including Zhou, Hu Jiwei, and Wang Ruoshui. The campaign against spiritual pollution was revived again during the mid-1990s, as reform of state-owned enterprises foundered.