Why Aren’t American Museums Protesting Detention of Ai Weiwei?

28 05 2011

Brought to our attention by ArtsJournal . . .

In his Sightings column in the Wall Street Journal on May 27 (“Have Our Cultural Stewards Abandoned One of Their Own?“), the Journal’s drama critic Terry Teachout notes that the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art is the only major museum in the United States to mount a protest of the imprisonment of internationally renowned artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei by the Chinese government.

“What’s more, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are preparing to open exhibitions of Chinese art organized in cooperation with the Chinese government. To date, Mr. Ai’s plight has not led either institution to alter its plans,” notes Teachout.

After giving voice and consideration to several perspectives on the debate over what the Milwaukee museum should do, he continues:

It strikes me that instead of being “cautious” not to “impose” American values on a foreign culture, the museums of America should acknowledge that they have a unique responsibility to speak out on behalf of Mr. Ai. They are, after all, trustees of the cultural heritage of mankind, which makes them by definition guardians of the universal values of civilization. Yet most of them are carefully looking the other way while China thumbs its nose at those same values by unlawfully imprisoning an artist. That’s not caution, it’s cowardice.

Teachout concludes with an important question, which can be read here, along with the entire column.

[Update:  continued on new post, Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei China?  6/21/11.]

[Note:  Let us not forget that the problematic practice of trading away the civic responsibilities of cultural stewardship for the rewards of a major exhibition in cooperation with the government of China has a precedent at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, with the hotly contested summer blockbuster, Tibet: Treasures from the Roof of the World in 2005.  In order to exhibit exquisite Tibetan cultural treasures, many of which were for all practical purposes stolen from the Dalai Lama and people of Tibet, museum management agreed to demands of the Chinese government to censor all mention of this historical and political context, and forbade any imagery of or reference to His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself.  Needless to say, the exhibit served the soft power needs of China while drawing box office returns for the museum from unknowing audiences sympathetic to Tibet, at the expense of the Tibetan people themselves and their ongoing struggle for liberation.]

Related:  Robert Buergel, a curator responsible for inviting the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to Documenta in 2007, thus helping him achieve international fame, speaks out on why most Western artists “are glad to be rid of Ai Weiwei”, Speigel Online International, May 9, 2011.