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Disputations: Mao as Art

The Guggenheim's interim director debates the museum's recent Chinese art exhibit with TNR's art critic.

In his article on contemporary Chinese art (“Mao Crazy,” July 9), Jed Perl is critical of the Guggenheim Museum for hosting a mid-career retrospective of the artist Cai Guo-Qiang, which he views as part of a “globalized political whitewash job” of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. Perl misreads Cai's work and words.

The Guggenheim Museum’s mission is to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, primarily of the modern and contemporary periods, through exhibitions, education programs, research initiatives, and publications. In 2006, the Guggenheim appointed its first curator of Asian art, Alexandra Munroe, and formalized its commitment to Asian art which began in the 1990s with several exhibitions including Japanese Art After 1945: Scream Against the Sky (1994), China: 5,000 Years – Innovation and Transformation in the Arts and Dawn: Early Chinese Cinema; and A Century in Crisis: Modernity and Tradition in the Art of Twentieth-Century China (1998). With this curatorial appointment the Guggenheim furthered its commitment to addressing how Asian art can be effectively integrated into the dominant Euro-American discourse of international modern and contemporary art. Munroe brings rigorous perspective and analysis to our understanding of the particular experiences and intellectual histories of modernity, modernism, and globalization in Asian countries.

The Guggenheim offers to play a critical role in defining the relevance of Asian art within contemporary art historical dialogues. That said, the Guggenheim has no political agenda, nor does it believe that the work of Cai Guo-Qiang would be worthy of international attention if it were simply an emblem of “Red Guard chic” -- or a polemical disavowal of the artist’s upbringing and education in China under Communism, which is presumably what Mr. Perl proscribes. The Guggenheim chose to undertake a retrospective of Cai Guo-Qiang’s art because he is a sophisticated artist who effectively addresses the complex legacy of Mao Zedong among contemporary Chinese artists and intellectuals. For Cai’s generation, Mao is as much a force of social violence as he is an agent of tumultuous cultural change. Cai's use of gunpowder, i.e. of violent transformation, to create his art work is a nuanced metaphor for these historical processes, not, as Perl asserts, an endorsement of totalitarianism. Contrary to Mr. Perl’s understanding, the disintegration of Cai’s ephemeral sculptural tableau, New York’s Rent Collection Courtyard, 2008, represents the obsolescence of belief in Maoist ideology and yet acknowledges the lingering sense of attachment that many Chinese still feel to Mao Zedong, whose persona, philosophy, and policies are inextricable with their modern national consciousness. In the West, we easily condemn Mao for his atrocities, as Mr. Perl rightly does---and yet, for those who grew up during Maoist China, Mao’s legacy carries a more complicated and often ambiguous set of emotions. Cai’s art is not a celebration of Mao, but rather an expression of this conflicted perspective. In presenting his work, we at the Guggenheim believe we fulfill the museum’s mission to educate viewers and share with them a diversity of international perspectives.


Marc Steglitz

Interim Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Chief Operating Officer, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation


The basic problem is that the Guggenheim has no artistic agenda, at least none other than serving the needs of a money crazy art world, in which Cai Guo-Qiang is a major player. As it happens, this money crazy art world is now just crazy about Mao, and Mr. Steglitz, who is surely a decent man, can’t think of a way to wiggle out of a very uncomfortable situation, except to say that “Mao’s legacy carries a more complicated and often ambiguous set of emotions.” I wonder if he would dare say the same about Stalin’s legacy? Contrary to what Mr. Steglitz believes, I have no interest in Cai offering “a polemical disavowal of the artist’s upbringing and education.” I don’t tell artists what to do. And I doubt that Cai would be capable of doing a substantial work of art, anyway. As for my suggesting that the Guggenheim might have a “political agenda,” I merely quoted some of the astonishing statements by Cai and curator Alexandra Munroe, all of which are to be found in the Guggenheim catalogue. If Mr. Steglitz is uncomfortable, it ought to be on account of these outrageous assertions, which the Guggenheim believed were fit to print.

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By Marc Steglitz and Jed Perl