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Behind the Ban of Warhol&#146s “Mao” in China: Purging the Chairman&#146s Presence

When I traveled to China two years ago, my group’s first stop was, of course,Tiananmen Square, where one can see one of the few publicly displayed portraits of the formerly ubiquitious Chairman Mao:

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Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I learned when I was there that the very mention of Mao to many Chinese has become taboo. In a turnabout-is-fair-play scenario, he has become almost a non-person in his homeland, just as he had sanitized history to suit his own ends.

So when Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, expressed puzzlement (in comments to Bloomberg News) over the China Ministry of Culture’s decision to purge Mao’s portraits from the Beijing showing of his institution’s Andy Warhol: 15 Minutes Eternal, he was missing the point.

In suggesting to Bloomberg‘s Frederik Balfour that the censorious Chinese may have wrongly believed that Warhol was “being disrespectful” to Mao, Shiner was missing the point. Once an object of cult-like veneration, Mao is now regarded as the emblem of an era that the Chinese—particularly the descendants of the many who were harshly treated by him—want to put behind them. Glorifying a discredited figure as a celebrated Pop icon is something they want no part of.

It’s a tough call as to whether the Warhol Museum should take a stand against this politically motivated editing of its exhibition. I think that the value of cultural exchange, in this case, outweighs the relatively minor diminution of the show’s content due to national sensibilities.

In today’s China, Mao’s very prolonged “15 minutes” is no longer “eternal,” as the show’s title would have it.

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Warhol, “Mao,” 1972, Andy Warhol Museum

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