A book arts colleague, Emily Speed, tweeted yesterday that her “favourite word of the art world 2012 so far seems to be Agitprop”. She said that been to talks and seminars in the UK in the past two weeks and it has been mentioned at each event at least twice. All I knew about the term was that it is a literal combination of the words ‘agitation and propaganda’, initially coined by the Russians. I’ve heard it only a few times before in relation to art, specifically modern and contemporary art…and surprisingly I’ve never heard it in relation to contemporary Chinese art…but then my research does not focus on the political side of contemporary Chinese art discourse. Therefore, not knowing its full history, I looked it up…thinking about it in terms of contemporary Chinese art and its recent history.
“Agitprop” was applied to the department responsible for the campaign of cultural and political propaganda mounted in the years after the 1917 revolution in Russia. Called отдел агитации и пропаганды (otdel agitatsii i propagandy), it was part of the central and regional committees of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The agitation (speech) and propaganda (literature, drama, art and music) did not bear any negative connotation at the time. It was seen as the positive “dissemination of ideas” and very simply favoured communism, used to influence public opinion whilst achieving political goals. The term made its way to the West (Europe and the USA) from the 1920’s onwards because of key political uprisings, and due to the rise of “agitprop theatre”, which held a similar definition. However, in the 1980’s, it achieved negative connotations in the UK as socialist elements of the political scene were often accused of using “agitprop” to convey an extreme left-wing message through TV programmes and theatre.
In Chinese, “agitprop” translates to 煽动与宣传(shāndòng yǔ xuānchuán)…incitement (to move to action, to provoke, to urge) and propaganda. Similar to the Soviets, it was initially used without negative connotation, however, I would argue today that it is not seen so positively, that it is related more towards censorship, and the control/withholding of information, something that, today, the individual in China, like myself, cannot avoid through means such as the Internet or the daily musings of the TV and newspaper media. It is obvious that the “agitprop” campaign material produced during the Mao era has fundamentally influenced artists coined as part of the “political pop” movement. They are somehow “ironically-agitprop”, mocking the contexts and ideologies of the original material, such as Wang below.
As for its current definition, “agitprop” is, in my view, multidimensional, where culturally specificity changes its meaning and positive or negative effect. According to Emily, it “seems like it’s getting back to a positive thing again – tied in with the occupy movement and citizen as activist…and the rise of being political generally…it makes sense that it filters into art too.” In that respect, the “citizen as activist” notion is a fundamental part of China and the contemporary Chinese art scene today, especially in relation to online media where individuals have more of a chance to voice their opinion, to contemporary Chinese art where Ai Weiwei has become an international example, and in literature with the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Lu Xiaobo. Therefore, is Ai Weiwei the “agitprop” of the 21st Century…bringing it back into a positive light? Or is “agitprop” a global movement, with different definitions in different global contexts? Note to self…another area to research.