The MTA, Marx, and a Shen Yun Epoch

Does anyone else miss the subway ads with word searches?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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By Stefanie Chen

When I was little, the subway was the first place of the day for me to practice art criticism. Sitting on an orange seat on the way to school, the time I couldn’t spend playing Doodle Jump on my dad’s phone was just as enjoyably wasted trying to decipher the advertisements I had to crane my neck to see. They were strange: a stock image of a woman’s torso with hands bracing oranges in front of her was unsettling, if only for how depersonalized it felt. I had to think, “Yes, but where’s her head?”

These days, I step into train cars that feel like jungle gyms with how I weave my way through the laser-like arms and immovable columns of passengers. The reading comprehension I’ve mustered since then runs up short when faced with baffling recruitment ads for Washington, D.C.’s police force. The MTA’s Arts and Design Branch commissions local artists as part of former Mayor Ed Koch’s 1982 Percent for Art program, which sets aside one percent of the city’s construction project budget for public art. I wish there were more. On the lucky days when I get on a train car with a poem written on its walls, I might reunite with Iman Mershal’s “Morning Bell” and feel my 7:30 a.m. grogginess reflected back at me, but artfully, reassuringly. 

It feels like the MTA wants more art, too, from the way immediately recognizable posters with vivid colors that sear flashes of billowing fabric into weary commuters’ minds have flowered up again. 

Shen Yun. I can hear myself in elementary school asking, all those years ago, “Why does publicity for a show, one that takes place over a little more than a week in April, grace the frames of countless subway cars throughout the entire winter season, mirroring subway maps as if with equal educational value? If we weren’t already preoccupied with the unpredictability of train service changes, we might even ask for more variation in the way we’re advertised to.”

I’m just kidding. I was more curious to know, “What’s communism, anyway?”

The dance performance has a clear answer: in the 2019 show, communism is depicted as a (un)natural disaster. In a New Yorker article about crossing the threshold from an unconcerned and maybe bemused unawareness of what the show’s messages are to actually seeing the show, Jia Tolentino describes a memorable moment:

“[...] the city in the digital backdrop was obliterated by an earthquake, then finished off by a Communist tsunami. A red hammer and sickle glowed in the center of the wave. Dazed, I rubbed my eyes and saw a huge, bearded face disappearing in the water. 

‘Was that . . . ?’ I said to my brother, wondering if I needed to go to the hospital.

‘Karl Marx?’ he said. ‘Yeah, I think that was a tsunami with the face of Karl Marx.’”

Shen Yun’s political nature, however, is not at all what should discount it from being advertised in New York City, of all cities. After all, the advertisements don’t even directly reference Falun Gong, the fabled and even more ubiquitous organization that Shen Yun’s show works to defend and raise awareness for. But the argument that Shen Yun advertisements are harmless if the majority of people have no intention of learning what claim the show is actually making feels like a slippery slope. New Yorkers, and even residents of cities that identify as completely anti-communist, deserve more in their public spaces than the promotion of a show that asks you to feel empathy for a movement that lobbied political support for Donald Trump. 

If an enigmatic Shen Yun poster holds phrases to raise eyebrows (“China Before Communism” has a certain reductive feeling to it, as if it were trying to label an entire country in its current state as “doomed”), Falun Gong’s claim that it rejects the Chinese Communist Party for its religious persecution, a very well-founded accusation, becomes ultimately entangled and diluted by the harm that Falun Gong itself carries out.

The Epoch Times, a right-wing media outlet owned by Falun Gong and regularly used to promote positive press about Shen Yun, has headlines in their news articles that sound like parallels to The Onion’s from another, more hellish dimension: “Climate Scientists Say We Should Embrace Higher CO2 Levels,” “Why Can’t I Speak Up for Marginalized Young Men?” and “NYC Mayor Says Illegal Immigrants Contributed to ‘Robbery Pattern’” are an extremely volatile few. In fact, Facebook banned advertisements from The Epoch Times in November of 2020 after the news outlet spent $2 million on pro-Trump ads: more than any organization other than the Trump campaign itself. It’s arguable that MTA has a similar responsibility, if less flexibility, to look to other advertisers than those for an affiliated show that says, “Atheism and evolution are deadly ideas.”

The posters didn’t appear by magic, even if the show itself has fantastical elements.

 How did it all happen?

The MTA’s conscious decision to flood train cars with the same exact advertisement makes passengers feel like they’ve been subjected to some sort of unfunny prank, symptomatic of the level of influence advertising campaigns can have on an underfunded public transit system. But it is, more importantly, a sign of the willingness to abandon the principles of public safety and comfort in the name of advertising revenue. It’s also a sign that the MTA is able to survive on the assumption that people won’t be bothered by things they’ve learned they have little control over. This is worrying. Especially worrying when considering the context of a rise in violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community after a racist response to COVID, because ultimately, Shen Yun feels like a show that exoticizes aspects of traditional Chinese culture while iterating, in every aspect of its presentation, that it does not identify with China as it is today. 

Suddenly, it does not become so surprising that the Epoch Times has such vitriolic and hateful views on immigration.

The MTA does have a set of guidelines for what it can and can’t accept as an advertisement. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, they are vague, allowing the most leeway possible to secure advertising revenue from the most dubious sources. 

The MTA only feels obligated to ask a “reasonably prudent person” to cross-check their advertisements for the potential for harming a group of people but doesn’t specify any criteria for choosing this person nor evaluate their relevance to a community. Knowing this, it makes more sense that, despite having a clear ban on advertisements that “predominantly advocate or express a political message, including but not limited to an opinion [...] regarding disputed economic, political, moral, religious or social issues or related matters,” our public transit system is rife with a publicity campaign for a show that, though marketed as dance, condemns gay rights and is connected to propaganda against immigrants. Even if Shen Yun is not explicitly political in its advertising, it’s clear that this apoliticism on paper ultimately helps it fund actions that are strongly political. 

When dance professionals are consulted in articles outside of Shen Yun’s sphere of publicity, they consistently question Shen Yun’s claim that it is the only place to view the traditional Chinese dance they call suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party. Reviewers have found Shen Yun’s dance to be more a blend of acrobatics than a dance you can see nowhere else, which raises questions about Shen Yun’s depictions and advertisements contributing to political polarization and fascination with Orientalism. In so few words, the posters bring out a multitude of contradictions. It becomes hard to tell: does the advertising message of Shen Yun being “reborn” into something palatable to an audience, a predominantly non-Chinese group that surely will not catch creative liberties taken with the traditional dance, foretell something ominous about how marketed experiences related to culture need to be packaged and presented? Why is it that a performance meant to be a window into a part of another culture has to be marred with assertions of American patriotism and a rejection of values that don’t seem American? 

The MTA knows that it is underfunded and that it has to show, as they might put it, slightly unscrupulous ads that the MTA doesn’t want the public to think reflect their beliefs. But if Shen Yun ads are nearly ubiquitous in the system, is that not an endorsement?

Maybe some things never change. Maybe it’s Maybelline! For a dance troupe that seems to be against the ideas of censorship, Shen Yun has no scruples about covering entire subway cars in New York City with messages about communism’s tendency to spoil what it touches. It’s unrealistic to demand any nuance from their advertisements, but the MTA has left its passengers feeling ambivalent about something meant to convince them to spend their money. We must hope, still, that the MTA has not lost its sense of irony.

Often, we learn to be apathetic to what we see on the subway. Sometimes, we have to be. But we react to everything nonetheless, and just as the knowledge that the voice of “please stand away from the platform edge” belongs to Bernie Wagenblast, a trans woman, adds a quiet strength, it could do much to see small businesses get their own little window of space onto subway cars. The MTA should let us know how to get to an affordable lunch. If the MTA really doesn’t have morals about how it conducts its advertising, why not sell ad space to the highest bidder of a bubble tea store, with the incentive that the posters will have Ryan Gosling saying, “It was an extraordinary experience for us and the children,” just as Cate Blanchett said about Shen Yun? Are we the city that never sleeps because we’re left lying awake at night, unable to answer the question we ask ourselves, “What is Shen Yun, actually?” or are we New Yorkers seen to be unkind on the subway because when we step on a train car, we’ve lost that childlike wonder? Be brave, MTA! Your own poems tell you to try what is different and new through Heather McHugh:

I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t stay home

where the big dipper rises from, time

and again: one mountain ash.

And I wouldn’t have thought without travelling out

how huge that dipper was,

how small that tree.