“Agitprop” – a new Chinese definition?

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.

Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism, 2005

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.


  1. Really like this – not just because I’m of a generation which remembers agitprop from the 60s and 70s context, but also from what I’ve been thinking as I’ve I’ve been looking at contemporary Chinese art over the past few years on trips to Beijing.

  2. I think these could be a new area in the development of contemporary Chinese art for sure…it really got me thinking. It would be interesting to hear how you perceived “agitprop” then and how you think it works in the context of China as you have the socio-historic experience. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Because the 60s was what it was, one of those periods in time when people do actually believe major social, political, economic change is possible, and do things towards that end, I’d guess that anyone living through that era and thinking about those issues would have known what agitprop meant, though not necessarily have known the origins and etymology of the term. For me, I think it came out of awareness of new ways people were using theatre and performance. The bit about agitprop in this describes that: http://david-porter.suite101.com/political-theatre-is-a-major-performance-artform-a230608.
    But this is an interesting article, too: http://newsgrist.typepad.com/culturalpolitics/2009/05/carrie-moyer-united-society-of-believers.html#more.
    You couldn’t go through any sort of 60s and 70s political activism without having a smidgeon of awareness of Chinese agitprop of that era, and because I was more than averagely interested in Chinese culture and history, I remember a lot – including seeing posters, etc, brought back by people from visits there.
    Going to China myself decades later, I then started to see how the Chinese themselves were developing their art, including their own take on the work done in all the decades since the early development of Chinese communism, and I’ve found loads of work really interesting.
    I first went to 798 in Beijing maybe in 2006, and the fact that it’s actually in the physical environment it is in, makes you start thinking along agitprop lines about everything you see there. Let alone when you see the various sculptures around the district, and some of the work in galleries there.
    So do we mean anything more than agitprop being art which is overtly political? Given years of involvement in feminism in the 70s, I’d say all art is political – western or Chinese or from anywhere. Can you have a-political art?
    For it to be agitprop, must it be leftwing or socialist in its politics? Is all advertising rightwing agitprop? I’ve thought that when I’ve been looking at some of the contemporary advertising in China.
    Ai Wei wei is definitely agitprop. In spades.

    1. Thank you Jennifer, it’s really interesting to hear your perspectives on this and you raise some very interesting questions at the end of your response. I specifically like the question about whether any art can be seen as being “a-political”…it’s true!

      1. It’s funny you should say that…below is an excerpt from an interview I did with Chinese artist Xu Zhen…

        RM: I want to ask now about the support given by Lorenz Helbling (ShanghArt) and how that helped your development as an artist initially, and has that influenced your development of MadeIn? Has it been a teaching and supportive process?

        XZ: It was a bet that was successful and also I realised we could get a lot of money out of it. He first invested in an artist and then he became a company.

        RM: Did you learn from Lorenz and use what he did as a construct?

        XZ: Yes. He has to bet as well. He had to learn how to gamble. Everyone, all these people are very clever, the thing is as to whether you dare or not to gamble, and it is also a problem of judgement and to have a good eye.

        RM: I think that also applies to exhibiting contemporary Chinese art in the West that for Western curators it is seen as a gamble, we do have fear that we can’t do it justice.

        XZ: Yes its true and now Chinese people are not so much willing to gamble anymore because by the end it is really a matter of trying to adapt to this kind of rightness that the curator might be aiming for…so its always like a type of curatorial war, but some new things will come out of it. I really think its like a war and you are like a soldier coming here, but you didn’t bring a gun with you…It is really a war, by the end of the exhibition the war is over. If there are no solution, for example, you like red, I like green, but by the end we decide what colour would be chosen. It is really a matter of power.

        RM: Does that mean power relations have to change here or change globally? Can I ask, would you see, say if I’d lived in China for say 10 years, would I still be seen as coming in here as a soldier?

        XZ: If you come to work in the company, then it would be like an internationally army, like a united army.

        RM: So is that what MadeIn is? Your army?

        XZ: If you ask the Director of Google whether his company is an army or not…like you get what you need and accomplish what you have to do. Everyone is a soldier but the soldier doesn’t want to become a general. That is not a good soldier. Do you want to become a general? Do you want to become a curator? A critic?

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