“Who’s afraid of Ai Weiwei?”
But as the role and responsibility of museums in protesting Ai’s detention become the subject of increasing international debate,
“Are strong words enough to support dissidents?” The Art Newspaper
“The art establishment needs to make its support for Ai Weiwei visible,” Guardian
and ever harsher criticism domestically,
U.S. Museum Directors to Ai Weiwei: Drop Dead [Update: dead link / pulled after Ai’s release, the day after it was posted; remnants here and more here],” Wall St. Journal
“Ai Weiwei and the cowardice of Virginia’s political class,” Washington Examiner
“Have Our Cultural Stewards Abandoned One of Their Own?” Wall St. Journal
we can’t help but wonder if the question to be asking our beleaguered stewards of culture isn’t
“Who’s afraid of China?”
The question arose in observing how, with few exceptions, major museums in the US have done so little to respond to the Chinese government’s repression of Ai Weiwei. With the artworld paying lipservice to the importance of Ai Weiwei as an artist, and museum directors and curators willingly adding their names to a Change.org petition, why aren’t the museums they work for doing more to respond?
A Fire in Whose Belly?
The obvious counterexample is the strong wave of reaction from art institutions, big and small, across the country in response to the Smithsonian’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly video from the National Portrait Gallery’s show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” last November.
As a violation of freedom of expression, the censorship of one short video, while important, hardly measures up to the severity of indefinite detention without trial or even formal charges. One museum director has compared Ai’s detention to “the equivalent of Andy Warhol or Jasper Johns being arrested without charges and then being accused of tax evasion or something like that.” But only after they’d suffered a life-threatening police beating and had their studios demolished by government order.
So where are the same museums now? What’s behind the apparent double-standard?
Questions we’ll be exploring further, so please stay tuned.
For now we’ll leave you with Ai’s own words, spoken in a video he secretly recorded for TED:
(In China) Society sacrifices its environment, education, and moral stance just to try to become rich.
Even internationally, all the Western nations are trying to kind of tolerate what is happening in China today. I think this is very shortsighted, and will not help China to become a modern society.
[Update on 6/22/11, the Day of Ai’s Release: Overview of the outstanding questions and issues by Evan Osnos at New Yorker. Note that while he has been released on bail from detention, Ai Weiwei is not free: his freedom of expression is still denied through gag order, for “One year, at least.”]