Upon reading de Botton’s The Art of Travel: “On Eye-Opening Art,” I’ve come to realized how art has influenced my perception of China. de Botton states that “perhaps the most effective means of enriching our sense of what to look at is by studying visual art.” He conveys a message that visual art gives our thoughts context and structure to things we may see as we travel. Art has informed my senses while shaping my perception and deepening my experiences in Shanghai.
A couple weeks ago, I visited the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. Having done no prior research on my spontaneous trip, I was expecting to see a museum-like building that’s front face was similar to that of an Apple store–huge panels of glass windows and everything–with three concrete white faces for the expected rectangular prism building. So my Didi driver brings me into a residential area, drives for a bit and then stops, telling me I’ve reached my destination. I looked outside and still saw apartment complexes everywhere, but I figured the museum was around the corner. I leave my Didi and started walking looking for the museum. I wasn’t able to find it. I used the Baidu navigation system to find the propaganda museum. It led me straight into a location with multiple buildings of the same apartment complex. I was confused, so I asked the security guards located at the gates were the museum was. They told me it was the basement of Building Block B, and gave me a little map to help me navigate through all the similar buildings. Once I arrived to Block B, I took the stairs and down to the basement.
Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre wasn’t what I expected. It was small, and the lighting was dim. However, it was packed with a huge collection of 20th century propaganda posters. To my Western mind, I thought the propaganda posters were humorous. A good deal of the posters celebrated Chairman Mao. Some posters trashed Western countries like the USA and England, others supported republican sovereigns like the USSR and Cuba, or both. Some posters attacked foreigners like Americans, while others demonstrated friendship of all minorities united under the republic. One of my favorite poster demonstrated the friendship between a Russian man and a Chinese man. Doves were flying and fruits were ripening as they held hands and wrapped an arm around each other’s shoulder. Another favorite depicted a Chinese women playing pingpong with an African women, the title along the lines of ping pong is the ball of friendship, or something along those lines. It was an amusing experience seeing all the different posters that convey the meaning.
When I first came to Shanghai, I would view things at a superficial level. I would see all these pictures of Chairman Mao, but never understood why Chinese nationalists revere him to such a degree. However, the posters, along with art works from other museums, allowed me to see the context as to why Chinese nationalists love him. The posters showed how lower class civilians struggled through daily life, and how Chairman Mao helped them acquire a better life. The posters demonstrated women power as they were able to receive a higher education and work following Chairman Mao’s rise to power. It’s amazing yet scary how Chinese reverence for Chairman Mao and the republic may have stemmed from propaganda. Yet, it demonstrates how art can influence our perception and enlighten our experiences.