Shifting Ethos

Shifting Ethos


The Interplay of Ethics and Aesthetics in Chinese Art from the Cultural Revolution to Global Perspectives



In the annals of history, few events have so profoundly influenced the realm of art as the Cultural Revolution in China. This period, from 1966 to 1976, was marked by intense revolutions that extended well beyond the political sphere, seeping into the very fabric of cultural and artistic expression. The revolutions of this era sought not just to reshape China’s political landscape but to redefine the aesthetic and ethical boundaries of its art. Reflecting on this sociopolitical situation, I argue that the relationship between art and ethics is not only deeply intertwined but also highly subjective. Through a detailed analysis of this transformative period in Chinese art, this essay aims to demonstrate how changes in cultural and political tides profoundly influence the ethical and aesthetic evaluation of art. I posit that the perception and value of art are closely linked to the specific historical and cultural milieu in which it is created and received, and the recognition of this subjectivity fosters an open and multi-cultural sphere for artistic discussion.

From Revolution to Global Influence: Chinese Art During and After the Cultural Revolution

I will first examine Chinese mainstream art forms during and after the Cultural Revolution period, a time when art was deeply intertwined with political ideology. As Molly E. Reynolds elucidates in An Impossible Utopia: People’s Art and the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s 1942 Yan’an speech set the stage for a dramatic shift in Chinese art, emphasizing its role as a tool for the proletariat and marking a departure from traditional Chinese culture.1 The Cultural Revolution spurred a campaign against the Four Olds—old ideas, culture, customs, and habits—leading to the persecution of intellectuals and artists and a transformation in artistic production led by the state. The restrictions on professional artists, who were either commissioned by the government or sent to the countryside to engage with peasant art, led to a unique fusion of professional and folk art. This period saw the rise of 大字报 [Big character posters], blending traditional Chinese calligraphy with political messages to promote Maoist ideology.2 The integration of text and image in art from this era encouraged social participation and adherence to Maoist philosophy. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, also played a crucial role in directing artistic production, including the creation of model theatrical works,  a form of play whose “model works were to be copied and spread throughout the nation, with little room for local variation.”3 

In essence, the art of the Cultural Revolution was profoundly shaped by the prevailing political ideology, which profoundly influenced both the narrative and the visual elements of the artwork. This period viewed art not merely as a form of creative expression but as a potent medium for political communication and indoctrination. Artists were expected to align their creative materials with the policies of the Communist Party, emphasizing the need for their art to serve political purposes.4 This ethical framework was characterized by strict adherence to the Party’s directives, with the primary aim of shaping public opinion and reinforcing the socialist ethos. Also, the widespread use of vibrant and striking colors in depicting heroic proletarian figures was not just an aesthetic choice but also an ethical one, designed to stir emotions in line with the revolutionary ethos.5 These color choices symbolized the vigor and passion of the revolution, intended to inspire and mobilize the populace. Such depictions sought to embody the virtues of socialism, portraying characters marked by strength, resilience, and unwavering commitment to the Communist cause. This was a strategy to present an aspirational model to the public, steering them towards the socialist ideal. Furthermore, this era also witnessed a scenario where the individual creative liberties of artists were often overshadowed and constrained by the dominant collective ideology. Artists faced the ethical dilemma of aligning their work with the Party’s agenda, often sacrificing personal expression and creative autonomy. The cultural policies of the time enforced uniformity in artistic expression, where deviations were not only frowned upon but could lead to severe consequences. This environment created a unique artistic landscape where ethical considerations were predominantly influenced by the need to adhere to the political norms of the era. Therefore, the art of the Cultural Revolution bore the ethical responsibility of producing works that conformed to the aesthetic standards of the time while actively furthering the ideological and political goals of the Communist Party. This approach highlights the intricate interplay between ethics, politics, and artistic expression, illustrating how art can be a powerful instrument in shaping societal norms and values.

After 1976, with the Chinese economic and political transition and the huge turn in social ideology, Chinese youths, especially young artists, were thrilled and overwhelmed. With a public letter written by Pan Xiao named “人生的路呵,怎么越走越窄…….[Life’s path, narrows with each stride taken…],” a new artistic ethos began to emerge, one that was reflective of the personal struggles and introspections of the youth.6 Pan Xiao’s words captured a sentiment that resonated with many, articulating the feelings of confinement and longing for broader freedoms that characterized this transitional period in China. Her letter, and the art that followed, marked a departure from collective ideology to a more individualistic and introspective approach. Artists of this era began to explore and express the complexities of their own experiences, often delving into themes of alienation, self-discovery, and the search for personal meaning in a rapidly modernizing society. This shift was evident in the works of artists like Zhang Xiaogang, whose Bloodline: Big Family series portrayed the lingering impact of the Cultural Revolution on personal and familial identities. Another notable artist, Wang Guangyi, blended political imagery and consumer culture in his Great Criticism series, symbolizing the conflict between socialist history and the burgeoning capitalist reality.

From the daring performance of Xiamen Dada, symbolized by their radical act of burning artworks in exhibitions, to Zhang Xiaogang’s emotionally charged and surrealistic portrayal of Red Army figures in family photos, and Wang Guangyi’s innovative pop art interpretations of Mao Zedong’s portrait, the shift in social ethics during this era is palpable. This shift in the art world is characterized by a resolute move towards individual expression and autonomy, a stark contrast to the collective and ideological art of the Cultural Revolution. These artistic endeavors highlight a significant ethical transformation in this era—one where personal narrative, introspection, and critique become central to artistic creation. This shift signifies a break from the past, where art served primarily as a vehicle for state propaganda and collective ideology. Instead, artists now engage in a more nuanced exploration of themes such as alienation, disillusionment, and the search for identity, reflecting a deeper ethical concern with the human condition in a rapidly changing society. Through their works, these artists not only redefine the aesthetics of Chinese art but also reshape its ethical landscape, encouraging a more introspective and critical engagement with both the past and the present.

When putting Chinese modern art in the broader global context, it is often commercialized and treated as an orientalist spectacle. As was put previously by a famous Chinese art critic and curator, Chen Danqing, Western elites encourage Chinese artists to “sell their political experiences,” leading to the popularity of Cultural Revolution-themed artworks as a form of orientalist curiosity.7 The global art scene, dominated by Western ideals, places a premium on themes and symbols. In this landscape, the few cultural symbols from China that gain traction in the West, such as Mao and the Cultural Revolution, are amplified and commercialized, while other aspects of Chinese and Asian culture are unilaterally consumed by the West.8 This process of  commodification not only alters the reception of these artworks but also impacts the creation and curation of art. Chinese artists, recognizing the Western appetite for orientalist themes, may feel pressured to conform to these expectations, leading to a form of artistic self-orientalism. This dynamic demonstrates how the ethical values associated with artistic authenticity and cultural representation are intertwined with aesthetic considerations. The ethical dilemma here lies in balancing artistic integrity with commercial success, especially when navigating a global market that often values spectacle over substance. Moreover, the selective amplification of certain cultural symbols, such as Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, while neglecting other facets of Chinese and Asian culture, underscores a broader ethical issue in the art world. It points to a form of cultural reductionism and an imbalance in the global art narrative, where non-Western art is often valued more for its exotic appeal than its artistic or cultural depth.

General Position on Art and Ethics

By studying art pieces during and after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the transition of aspects from Chinese artworks to the global art market, I am led to a broader contemplation of the inherent values in art. I argue that (1) Artworks embody ethical values that influence the audience’s understanding of historical and cultural developments, thereby shaping their aesthetic appreciation of the work, (2) the extent of ethical value depends heavily on the audience, and therefore is subjective, and finally (3) it fosters an open and multicultural discussion for artists and audience. 

Now, I’ll elaborate on the argument based on the case study.

(1) The art pieces created during the Cultural Revolution were not only aesthetically significant due to their technical execution and visual impact but also because they embodied ethical values. These works were celebrated and appreciated in the mainstream as they echoed the collective ethos of the era, underscoring the idea that the aesthetic appreciation of art is strengthened by its ethical resonance. The formal elements of these artworks, such as vibrant colors, bold figures, and revolutionary themes, were not just visually appealing; they were also imbued with ideological significance. The interwovenness and mutual influence between ethical and aesthetic values aligns with  Berys Gaut’s argument in his The Ethical Criticism of Art, where he suggests that a morally reprehensible work is aesthetically defective, and a morally merited one is aesthetically effective.9

(2) However, differently from Gaut’s presupposition that the moral response is universal and normative, I argue for a descriptive ethical response that is highly subjective due to various elements including but not limited to historical context, personal experiences, and social ideologies. In the drastic shift of the Cultural Revolution, the originally praised ethical values were substituted by another set of social ideologies. This transition underscores the subjectivity inherent in the ethical appraisal of art. The change in societal values led to a re-evaluation of the artworks from this period, highlighting how ethical judgments in art are not static but are continually reshaped by the prevailing social ideologies. As new generations with different experiences and perspectives came to the fore, their interpretations of these artworks diverged significantly from those of the past. Also, shift in scope from a domestic Chinese perspective to the global market illustrates further how the change takes place. When Chinese art, particularly that themed around the Cultural Revolution, entered the global market, it encountered a new set of values and interpretations. Western audiences, detached from the direct historical and cultural context of these artworks, often viewed them through an orientalist lens. This resulted in a form of commodification where the artworks’ original political and ethical significance was often overshadowed by their exotic appeal and market value. The Western market’s fascination with Cultural Revolution-themed art often stemmed from a desire to consume and commercialize these pieces as exotic curiosities, reflecting a valuation heavily influenced by Western capitalist perspectives and market dynamics.

(3) Based on the subjective nature of the process of aesthetic appreciation and ethical understanding, recognizing a fluid and subjective ground of artworks promotes an open atmosphere for art analysis. It invites artists and audiences to engage with artworks from various vantage points, bringing their own cultural, historical, and personal experiences to bear on their interpretation and understanding. Some might argue that this sounds very much like ethical relativism, which could lead to a lack of moral basis and hence a unstable moral foundation.  Instead, I argue that it is free from that accusation, for the theory is not normative. Instead, it is an inductive and descriptive theory that highlights the subjectivity and provides an open ground in which both artists and audiences can reflect on the sociocultural context they are situated in and trace their own, unique ethics-aesthetics structure. Only through continuous dialogue, debate, and exchange of ideas, can artists craft truly inspiring works that not only mirror the social status quo but also enhance its aesthetic splendor. This dynamic interplay of perspectives fosters creativity and allows art to evolve in tandem with societal shifts, capturing the essence of the times while celebrating its aesthetic richness. Such a process is integral to the creation of art that resonates deeply with audiences, offering both a reflection of and a commentary on the world in which we live.


In conclusion, this essay’s examination of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its aftermath provides a vivid illustration of the dynamic interplay between art and ethics. It becomes clear that art is not a mere reflection of aesthetic ideals but also a powerful conduit for ethical discourse. The shifting ethos in Chinese art history, from serving political propaganda to expressing individual narratives, demonstrates how ethical considerations are inextricably linked to artistic expression. Art’s ethical dimension is highlighted by its ability to mirror societal values, challenge norms, and evoke critical reflection on prevailing ideologies. This relationship between art and ethics is neither linear nor uniform but is shaped by historical contexts, cultural influences, and individual perspectives. As art continues to evolve, navigating through diverse social and political landscapes, it remains a vital medium for exploring and understanding the complex tapestry of human ethics.

  1. Molly E. Reynolds, “An Impossible Utopia: People’s Art and the Cultural Revolution” (The Cupola: Scholarship at Gettysburg College, 2014), 2.
  2. Reynolds, “An Impossible Utopia,” 9.
  3. Richard Kraus, The Cultural Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions (Oxford University Press, 2012), 56,
  4. Hong Lu, “文革期间艺术家面临的问题情境” [The Contextual Challenges Faced by Artists During the Cultural Revolution],” Northwest Art: Journal of the Xi’an Academy of Fine Arts, no. 3 (1998).
  5. Lu, “Contextual Challenges.”
  6. Dylan Levi King, “Pan Xiao Open Letter Debate to Shekou Storm, 1980-1988, Part One,” CJK (blog), 30 Sept. 2022,
  7. BBC News, “文革艺术的今生:国际热卖现象剖析” [The Present Life of Cultural Revolution Art: An Analysis of the International Selling Phenomenon], BBC News, 15 May 2016,
  8. BBC News, “文革艺术的今生:国际热卖现象剖析.”
  9. Berys Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” in Aesthetics and Ethics, edited by Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 197, ProQuest Ebook Central,
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