Monday, September 10, 2012

Ai Weiwei and China's Art World

In a typically bold move, Ai Weiwei has declared that "China's art world does not exist." What he appears to mean is that when the government prevents artists from expressing dissenting views, that it is not possible to have any true art, as this hinders all but the most commercial, sanitized, non-controversial works. Efforts by the western world to present Chinese artists are therefore inauthentic, as the work that is presented fails to address the serious issues in Chinese society today. Ai Weiwei states:

I am very familiar with the work of most of the artists in the show. Their work is certainly Chinese but, overall, the show casts no critical eye. It is like a restaurant in Chinatown that sells all the standard dishes, such as kung pao chicken and sweet and sour pork. People will eat it and say it is Chinese, but it is simply a consumerist offering, providing little in the way of a genuine experience of life in China today.

Is the problem that the work itself is artificial or is the problem that the work fails to address political issues? It appears that Ai Weiwei sees the two as interdependent. It is by failing to address political issues that the art is rendered inauthentic. That these artists are billed as representative of the Chinese art world no doubt plays a role in this assessment. He states,

 But any show curated without respect for the people's struggle, without concern for an artist's need for honest self-expression, will inevitably lead to the wrong conclusion. Anything that calls itself a cultural exchange is artificial when it lacks any critical content. What's needed is open discussion, a platform for argument. Art needs to stand for something.

Ai Weiwei, having experienced considerable persecution in trying to express his own criticisms of the Chinese government, clearly has first hand experience with having his own self-expression restricted. It is hard to deny that a repressive regime greatly hinders artistic (as well as intellectual) advancement, but can we go so far as to say that there is no art world? This rests on a fundamental belief, one which has always made me a tad squeamish, that "all art is political." Here, it seems, that it's not just that art is restricted, but rather that it is impossible, since art robbed of political content is mere consumerism.

It's not my intention to deny the influence of repression on art, but rather to question the thought-provoking and admittedly controversial claim that the art world of China can't exist due to repression. If it's the case that art is inexorably linked to its political context (which the politicizing of art appears to do) then all art is fundamentally historical. I don't mean historical in the broad sense (as all art is, to some extent) but tied to the most significant political events and conditions of the time and can't be appreciated or remembered outside of the political conditions existing at that point in time.

Yet, while that seems to be the case in some situations, do we want to say that work that doesn't reflect this political orientation is consumerism? Can a sharp line between politics and consumerism in art ever truly be drawn? For example, Diego Rivera's work was overtly political and he is still seen as an icon for the working man, due to his depiction of laborers. Edvard Munch (as Jay A. Clarke points out in his book, Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth) can be traced to having capitalized on the popularity of paintings portraying anxiety and melancholy, and his work had a striking similarity to similar works of art from that time. Even if we wanted to attribute a lesser status of artistic expression for Munch, can we really rob him of status entirely?

 First, the line between commercial artist and artist/activist will thin with enough time and notoriety. It is an admittedly small consolation price that the artist persecuted under a repressive regime inadvertently attracts international art world attention, not just to their political situation, but to themselves as significant artists. At the same time, even the artist with commercial aspirations cannot be entirely separate from the influence of the collective. This is not asserting the impossibility of originality (a position I abhor) nor is it asserting that the collective is explicitly or exclusively political. Rather, that there are certain influences in the over-arching society that the artist can not help but be influenced by, and that these influences can be personal and subjective or they can be overtly political or both.

Let's return to Munch for a moment. Okay, so let's say that Munch really was heavily influenced by the art world and was not seeking cathartic self-expression so much as commercial success. Even if that's true, we must ask ourselves: why this theme? Why was it that emotional states such as anxiety and melancholy were popular and why was it that Munch sought to capitalize upon them? At the time when Munch began the various versions of The Scream, it was roughly half a decade after the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Anxiety yet still a few decades before the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, introduced Angst in Being and Time. The very themes that Munch latched onto had risen to collective status, a fundamental part of artistic, philosophical and literary movements at the time. His intent aside, his work was a unique part of his era and his location.

I would argue that artistic movements are not inherently political, but they are inherently collective. In other words, while political expression ought to be allowed and supported, they are only one manifestation of creative expression and that underneath all forms of artistic expression--be they political, commercial or self-referential--lies a collective spirit unique to geographic and temporal locations which molds the manner of expression and gives it a distinctive quality. We can criticize the Chinese government on ethical grounds but we can't deny the validity of the Chinese art world since every form of self-expression is uniquely tied to the distinct era in which the artist finds herself. Distinctions between "critical" and "commercial" works miss the underlying current which is a fundamental part of the artists' psyches and which, decades from now, will make itself apparent exactly what everyone was trying to say. 

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