Mao in Manchester: inside the Whitworth Art Gallery.

An art exhibition in the Whitworth Gallery has underlined the way in which the towering figure of Mao Zedong continues to have a considerable impact on the artistic and philosophical world. For Chinese dissident artists, Mao was simply a tyrant, a key part of a state with totalitarian aspirations. They particularly deplored the cruelty associated with the Cultural Revolution.

One of their number was even directly inspired by the work of Andy Warhol. In 1971, the exponent of Pop Art had claimed that Chinese people: “don’t believe in creativity. The only picture they ever have is of Mao Zedong.” The complex irony of being inspired by an advocate of such a dubious position is self-evident. None of the artists in the show have chosen to present a nuanced picture of life and struggle in Mao’s China.

The philosopher Alain Badiou has articulated a different perspective on some of the worst excesses of Maoism, viewing the Cultural Revolution as an anti-bureaucratic move against corruption:

“So the Cultural Revolution was important because it was the last attempt within that history to modify that in a revolutionary manner. That’s to say they made an attack on the communist state itself to revolutionise communism. It was a failure but many interesting events are failures.”

Perhaps more time is required before artists and philosophers can come to terms with the triumphs and disasters connected with the political life of Mao.

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