This is an archive of the ArtCat Zine, 2007-2009. Please visit our new project, IDIOM.

On the Olympics and Representation in China

Ma Zhensheng: Standing Firm on Production Work, Chinese Propaganda Poster,1966 via The Art Newspaper

Arriving as a sort of coda to America's own eight-year odyssey of partisan incompetence and the accompanying, similarly interminable, right-wing ideological fashion show, the 2008 summer games in Beijing have provided a particularly concentrated reminder of just how ham-fisted and silly a State's representational output can be. That governments lie all the time is not news, and indeed, one worries that the upshot of the People's Republic's rather flagrant canoodling with hi-tech mendacity will be further distraction from certain local orgies of deceit still awaiting punishment. That said, to paraphrase any number of overmatched announcers, China really has taken the propaganda competition to a new level. First there were the fireworks, made digitally diesel for the benefit of the broadcast. Then the adorable nine year old, lip-syncing because the actual, seven year old singer had crooked teeth, "The audience will understand that it's in the national interest," said the ceremony's music director. In the more recent case of its prepubescent gymnast, the hosts at least had the decency to make something up. And all this against more typical instances of forced labor, tossing elderly protesters in jail, and censorship.

All of which is to say that, what has been so striking about these instances, is the attitude of naked insturmentalization towards the mass media, past even the point of absurdity. No one would have found the opening ceremony any less impressive had clouds been allowed to obscure some of the fireworks, yet Beijing was not willing to take that chance, and further, made apparently little to no effort to conceal its actions. It is easy and wrong to see this as a contrast to the United States, and not simply because of Fox News' continuing to function as the administration's personal blog. It is wrong because the extent of China's integration with our own market forces us to consider their conditions of production as of a piece with our own. If it is the case, as has been said, that the American working class now lives in China, then the ways and means of the Chinese government are bound up with our continued dependence on their industrial output. In this sense, any contrast between our respective state-sponsored representational catalogs reflects not the relative level of tyranny or freedom of a given State, but instead the differing relationships to media and authenticity authorized by distinct segments of the capitalist world system. The Beijing Olympics, then, considered from the standpoint of a history of representation, are perhaps best approached as a sort of counterpoint, several decades on, to the Congress for Cultural Freedom's international prostitution of abstract expressionism as a weapon of the cold war. These games are a group show designed, sure enough, to showcase the best of one country and yet they contain enough instances of manipulation and trickery to reveal something a great deal more disturbing about the status of our international stage.