On April 3rd, 2011, acclaimed international artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing airport and held for two months before being charged with a crime. Protests and petitions for the artist’s release quickly began, with the Guggenheim initiating a petition for Ai’s release that ultimately gathered over 140,000 signatures.
While some called for his release, Dan Keegan, the Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, stirred controversy in an article by Mary Louise Schumacher published on June 6th in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal by saying that he didn’t think the protests were “particularly effective and I don’t know how [the protests] will change anything.” These comments came under fire, particularly as the Milwaukee Art Museum kicked off its “Summer of China” series of exhibitions that included the major traveling exhibition “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City,” an exhibition that required working closely with the Chinese government. On June 22nd, 2011, Ai was released from prison on bail, with stringent conditions that prevent his travel and free speech.
The exchange below began on June 8th between artist and ArtSlant writer Erik Wenzel and myself to discuss Dan Keegan’s comments in particular and Ai’s situation in general. Erik and I don’t always agree, and our conversation evolved from its beginning point. With the release of Ai I hope this is one of many conversations that will continue about contemporary Chinese art.
Erik Wenzel, June 8th, 2011:
I sort of agree with the director that really, protests make little difference. At least in this case. What does all the protesting and petition signing do other than say, "We all agree on something we knew we all agreed on"? A real protest would be the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) canceling the show, saying, "We cannot support cultural exchange when you jail your intellectuals and ban free speech." MAM is actually in a position to do something and take a stand against China's cultural war. [While other artists across the world have joined the protest] the artists of the Forbidden City could care less; they are all dead. What really interests me is the idea of having a panel that presents the “Official Position of China” vis-à-vis Ai Weiwei.
And finally, to educate the director a little: protests are only meaningless in countries that allow them. Ask Egyptians, Iranians, Libyans.
Abraham Ritchie, June 9th, 2011:
I consider the petition a complete success because Change.org was targeted by Chinese hackers. It irritated someone in a high level of power, somewhere, and China took notice and action.
As to MAM, of course pulling the show would actually be a high-level protest, but realistically they're not going to pull the show, they have too much money and time invested.
The real problem is what the director said. If he doesn't have the courage to stand up, then he can’t look down his nose about those that do. And I disagree with you about the value of protests. Protests can accomplish a lot (Civil Rights march anyone? I’d say recent gay rights victories are the result of long, sustained protest). A part of a museum's job is to critically interpret current events in order to foster public dialog and understanding. It seems to me that the Director is hanging on to the last gasp of Modernism's autonomist legacy where the art floats in a vacuum of aesthetics, unmoored from the historical context where it was created. Ai's artwork is fundamentally tied to China's history and how they deal with that history.
Additionally, the comments coming out of Milwaukee, particularly those from the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s Julia Taylor, back a highly problematic moral relativism. Just because China is an older civilization doesn't mean that natural and universal human rights do not apply. That justifies stifling artistic expression, unlawful imprisonment, and totalitarianism. That logic also justifies the oppression of women in Islamic countries, the persecution of homosexuals in Africa, all under the banner of some weird strain of misguided liberal multi-culturalism.
Let’s look at this from a historical perspective, in 50 or 100 years are we going to look back and say, “Yeah the MAM Director was right, we had no ground to speak on Ai,” or are we going to look back and say “This was a moment when a Director backed oppression and we lost a great artist?” I don't think history ever looks kindly on those who say go slow on human rights issues or tolerate and excuse oppression.
Erik Wenzel, June 25th, 2011:
There's a lot to respond to there, especially in light of Ai's release on Wednesday, June 22, 2011. In Ai Weiwei's Blog (MIT Press, 2011), the artist chronicles the harassment he and his family suffer from various authorities. The last post on the day his blog was entirely deleted by officials (May 28, 2009) closes with: “It’s the same old saying: don’t come looking for me again. I won’t cooperate. If you must come, bring your instruments of torture with you.”
My point about protest is that once allowed, it loses effectiveness. Of course the Civil Rights marches were meaningful. The demonstrators faced not only imminent harm from civilians, but most importantly from the police and National Guard. This was also the case at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Stonewall Riots (1969) and at Kent State (1970). The authorities were acting as arms of the state, the object of protest. So opposing and disobeying them was disobeying and opposing the government as a whole. To be repressed by the authorities was to be oppressed by government. This blunt display of power roles is really what demonstrators demonstrate. What has changed is that now police actually are there to maintain order and most of the time people behave peacefully. There is no threat and no risk, which to enact a paradigm shift seems necessary. The oppression of a people by their government must be literally demonstrated publicly. The only riots we see are sports related. As a matter of fact, the last time I think a meaningful public display took place in this country was the violent action against the World Trade Organization in November of 1999.
The sit-in at the Wisconsin State Capitol earlier this year was meaningful because it involved lawmakers on the lam and thousands of people refusing to leave the capitol building—actions that while non-violent flirted with anarchy through civil disobedience. But for the most part it was pretty tame.
We just don’t see large-scale demonstrations as much in the West as in non-democratic nations. I think this is because Western governments have learned letting people assemble and speak their piece is an anticlimactic nonevent and is thus not a threat. The media has learned this doesn’t make much of a story, and so if it does report at all, it is in the most general and brief way. This is the most effective way to deal with social unrest and maintain the status quo because it pantomimes the idea of free speech. The general public and authorities alike can point and say, “Look: this is democracy in action,” and leave it at that. It also portrays those that exercise it as foolish. As an average citizen it is a lot harder to take an unwavering stance when you generally lead a comfortable lifestyle. You have to have something to fight for that is worth risking all the things you have.
This is a very different story in places like Iran, Egypt and Libya. Demonstrations are not allowed at all and are put down quickly, violently and forcefully. When things reach a point where a majority is so disenfranchised that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain, it becomes a lot harder to silence the people.
In China it seems different still. When all the revolutions were cascading through the Middle East earlier this year during the “Arab Spring,” Chinese activists were calling for a “Jasmine Revolution.” China’s censorship and surveillance is much more sophisticated than in the Middle East, and most countries in general. Governments are constantly being compared to [George Orwell’s] Nineteen Eighty-Four, but as the texts in Ai Weiwei’s Blog attest, China seems to have almost literally achieved this. So before people can gather en masse, instigators are taken into custody. But again, what gives the actions of dissidents in China teeth is risk.
In China tweeting statements critical of the government or the names of children killed by shoddy workmanship gets your skull bashed in, imprisoned or worse. In the West no one really cares what people have to say because anyone can say anything. So that is why to me the online petition and the big sign on the Tate Modern are largely empty gestures, almost comical and pathetic in their unimaginativeness. It seems a lot like fandom. Ai Weiwei is actually acting. Not commenting on history, but participating in it, making it. Meanwhile most political art just kind of mimes it or speaks from the sidelines. The art world seemed like the impotent desire of a kid pining after a sports hero’s achievements through a poster on their bedroom wall.
While it is very good that Ai Weiwei has been released, it hardly seems like a victory. Really, it was the Chinese government that ultimately decided to let him go. He cannot travel or speak to the media, worst of all he cannot tweet. This highlights the biggest contrast between East and West. Over here where we actually have the freedom of speech, we tweet about banal minutiae or cause sensational but fleeting scandals. Over there, everyday people organize regime change.
Will the world lose interest now that a celebrity is free? We’ll stop making such a big deal and overlook all the countless other dissidents, intellectuals and activists that have and continue to be disappeared. That is probably what China hopes. And what is to become of Ai, now that he has been in Room 101?
Abraham Ritchie, June 27th, 2011:
I’m going to leave aside your attitude and claims about Western protests as I don’t agree with your assessment at all and any debate will take this already long exchange further afield.
Obviously it was the decision of the Chinese government to release Ai Weiwei; it’s not like he was broken out of jail by James Bond, but I think it’s a mistake to discount the pressure that the protests and petitions exerted on that government. These actually motivated the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to urge China to free Ai and other government critics. The hacking of Change.org by China, and in no small way the hacking of Google, motivated another official in the State Department, Dan Baer, to press for Ai’s release. These petitions did result in and motivate official government support of the highest order, they also motivated the forces of censorship; but they were not ultimately “empty gestures” as you call them. And that’s to say nothing of the pressure that European governments and organizations brought to bear as well.
I do agree that the release of Ai seems like only a kind of victory, as his natural rights and freedoms have been curtailed quite significantly. Sadly I think you may eventually be right about the scores of other dissidents who are imprisoned and unknown; certainly Ai’s profile helped his situation. Of course the struggle for human rights in China must continue. I was glad to hear just today that the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is holding an event expressly for those unknown Chinese artists and for free artistic expression.
With the release of Ai and moving into the future, it’s important to remember the words of Catherine Baber for Amnesty International: “It is vital that the international outcry over Ai Weiwei be extended to those activists still languishing in secret detention or charged with inciting subversion.”