Through a historical study of national art exhibitions held in Beijing at the National Art Museum of China, which first opened to the public in 1962, this thesis explores how the concepts of the professional artist and the masses were used to successively define and redefine the purpose and practice of socialist art during the 1960s and 1970s. During the Mao era, all professional fields were confronted with the party-state’s attempt to secure technical expertise while simultaneously characterising professionals as ideologically deficient. Denying that professional artists could access the ideological sentiments of the masses produced specific tensions, as the party-state required that artists apply their creative abilities to express and arouse the emotional energies of the masses. The characterisation of the professional artist and their role in socialist society was inherently paradoxical; the party-state entrusted professional artists with the important political task of giving visual expression to the “thoughts and feelings” of the masses, while asserting that professional artists lacked these thoughts and feelings themselves.
This thesis examines attempts to resolve this paradox, exploring how cultural bureaucrats developed and promoted methods of productive cooperation between professional artists and the masses. In order both to ensure that the creative facilities of professional artists found full expression and also to address their ideological deficiencies, cultural bureaucrats often turned to the methods of artmaking itself, prescribing forms of creative practice that involved greater party control over subject matter and inserting the masses into professional art practice as agents of ideological transformation. This thesis argues that these prescriptive methods were more than simply a means of exercising control over artists; they were also used to generate meaning in artistic practice. As a result of the party-state’s obsession with the role of the professional artist, their ideological transformation, their relationship to the masses, and the reception of their work amongst audiences, the meaning of artworks resided as much in the processes of creation and reception as in the form and content of the image itself.
For the most part, cultural bureaucrats demanded that professional artists and the masses build the new socialist artistic culture cooperatively, through both professional artistic work and amateur art projects. But during the early period of the Cultural Revolution, the inherent paradox of entrusting the creation of a socialist culture to a group that was deemed to be ideologically problematic erupted into violence.
Accompanied as they were by an outpouring of written commentary, national art exhibitions were valuable occasions for illustrating how professional artists and the masses were each to contribute to the socialist cultural project. Through a detailed analysis of the rhetoric captured in sources such as theoretical treatises, artists’ statements and exhibition reviews published in professional journals, newspapers, and Cultural Revolution periodicals, as well as the recollections of artists, both professional and amateur, who participated in national art exhibitions, this thesis contributes to our historical understanding of how the culture of the Mao era was moulded by deliberations over the value of professional expertise and creativity, the needs of the masses as audiences, the potential role of the workers, peasants, and soldiers in cultural production, and the viability of productive cooperation between professionals and the masses.