“Agitprop” is a word I never learned in my art history classes, despite the fact that there has pretty much always been political art. I guess the term sounds too Communist for the classroom. Historically, political motivations were generally seen in portraiture, monuments, and materials, with artwork intrinsically linked to wealth, power, and faith. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, artists have increasingly found ways to create politically charged artwork that speaks for the oppressed rather than the privileged, often moving into the public sphere with poster campaigns, performances, protests, and press.
The instinct to collect may be a basic part of human nature; we acquire and amass and stockpile a variety of things, be it nostalgic keepsakes, artistic treasures, emergency snacks, or cherished memories. Parents hold on to their children’s baby teeth, bibliophiles fill their houses with books, sports fans hunt down memorabilia from their favorite teams; my own mother dutifully collected Longaberger baskets for a good ten years. I myself collect all manner of things, often to the level of hoarding, but that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps this shared tendency is why the work of Joseph Cornell strikes a chord within so many, as I have yet to meet anyone who dislikes his thoughtful and intricate assemblages of found objects.
Between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the People’s Republic, China experienced a wave of social and political change that at times resulted in an identity crisis as Chinese citizens were sandwiched between centuries-old traditions and an influx of Western trade and influence. Commercial art and design of this period- especially magazine and book covers- reflect this duality, as experienced by many Chinese artists fighting for a new modern aesthetic that maintained a recognizable national flavor. Aimed at members of the growing urban middle class in the 1920s and 30s, these designs reached a greater and more diverse public than traditional painters showing their works in galleries, art schools, or private collectives.