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.

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5 responses

29 05 2011
mrtaurus

Hi there! Thank you for that post. Brilliant just brilliant.

I am actually curating a project in London for Ai Weiwei’s capture-awareness and release. It is called The Chinese Art Project, http://wp.me/p1yUbw-15, and I am looking to do an exhibition using art as a symbol of unique interpretation and freedom of expression. Hopefully I’ll have 25 peices of art to exhibit from 5 unique artists. You’d be so welcome to come! I guess it’s about pulling together and standing for our rights. Especially in an age of social media power. I’ve put a project video plan up here http://www.youtube.com/ChineseWhisperProj it would be great if you could find an outlet to let readers know.

Many thanks! Keep up the good work.
Mr Taurus.

p.s. i’m on twitter: ChineseTwhisper
p.p.s. I’ve added your blog to my links on the site

31 05 2011
asiansart

A couple of us went to the Berkeley Art Museum over the weekend and noticed this: on the lower level, amidst the exhibit of abstract paintings from BAM’s extensive collection of Hans Hofmann, sits a lone porcelain sculpture by Ai Weiwei (I think it’s called Porcelain Cube).

There is a wall statement about the exhibit Hans Hofmann: Nature into Action by BAM’s chief curator, and a rack of laminated info cards for visitors to carry as they take in the paintings, but no mention in either text of Ai’s work. Other than a wall tag listing authorship, date, medium, and so forth, we found no documentation of the Ai Weiwei piece in this exhibition.

Since it seemed random and out of place, we inquired at the front desk. We were told that since the museum has one of his pieces in their collection, and because of “what’s going on”, they thought it would be a good idea to display it, and that location was deemed the most suitable for it. (It’s worth noting that, at least for the time being, there’s a lot of floor and wall space not being utilized right now, especially on the large main exhibition level.)

The problem is, there is no written acknowledgment by the museum of “what’s going on”, much less any statement of support for the detained artist. Just a piece of his on display in the midst of a Hans Hoffman “push-pull” painting exhibit, without explanation.

As a gesture to recognize what is truly going on with this artist right now and as a reflection of a public museum’s role in the matter, it struck both of us as less than half-hearted and not very thoughtful. It resonates with what critic Teachout had to say in the WSJ column cited above about caution versus cowardice.

2 06 2011
asiansart

Via ArtsJournal

Beijing Art Show Closed, Artists Disappeared After Ai Weiwei Protest

“On Thursday morning, the curators of the show, the Incidental Art Festival, were forced to close their doors and dismantle the exhibit, which included photographs, video and conceptual pieces by 19 participants, many of them performance artists. What’s more, three organizers of the festival, including Mr. Lin, seem to have disappeared.” The New York Times 06/02/11
Posted June 2, 2011 08:59 AM

20 06 2011
ModeratorChris

Very interesting post. Thanks for your comments on our blog

21 06 2011
asiansart

ModeratorChris refers to our comment on the University of Leicester’s Leicester Exchanges blog, a place which welcomes informed debate with some of the UK’s leading academics and opinion formers.

Prof. Janet Marstine’s essay “Demonstrating the Social Value of Museums: Human Rights, Ai Weiwei and the Public Funding Debate” prompted Majime Sugiru to join the debate and become part of a healthy dialogue.

Dr. Marstine’s thoughtful response surprised us not only with her familiarity with (and kind words of appreciation for) our work, but by letting us know that our project is detailed in a new volume she edited: Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum (2011), in an essay by Christopher Steiner titled “Museum Censorship.”

To quote Marstine:
“While Sugiru is correct in suggesting that only a handful of art museums and galleries have protested Ai’s detention in the highly visible way of Tate Modern and the De Cordova—hanging banners and signs, I would argue that museums’ activism in signing petitions and organizing relevant exhibitions, programming and performances on Ai’s behalf is also robust and meaningful, rather than ‘passive’, as Sugiru charges. Together these actions create a powerful debate, like Sugiru’s Asian Art Museum intervention did, on the freedom of artistic expression.”

To join in informed debate on a range of topical issues, visit:
http://leicesterexchanges.com/

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