I saw these two street posters, known as “dazibao”, at the private Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center, which is housed in a few lower-level rooms in a scruffy apartment building. Dazibao were hand-written denunciations posted on city streets during the Cultural Revolution, with rebuttals quickly, illicitly scrawled on top overnight. Yang Pei Ming, the propaganda center’s founder, and the only person to preserve this poster genre, thinks of them as the first examples of contemporary art in China, citing their links to calligraphy, politics and history. I’m not sure I follow his reasoning, but dazibao do share many features with radical Western art since the 1960s: A rejection of fine craft and figuration; a privileging of text and content; an aesthetic that is built around allover compositions and a monochrome palette and, most of all, an extreme, high-stakes interactivity. It strikes me that Yang’s claim for these posters is also a classic contemporary gesture – taking something not originally meant to be art, and insisting on its artistic potential.
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