Ai Weiwei’s new essay in the Guardian, is ‘China’s art world does not exist.’ That’s a little harsh. But, maybe not too harsh.
Twenty years ago, Chinese artists brought the human figure as art back from the dead. Since then, well, maybe he has a point. But, from Mr. Ai’s point of view, the same might be said of the highly commercial western art world.
Art for art’s sake, though, is not Mr. Ai’s point. His aesthetic requires that Chinese artists address China’s ‘…most pressing contemporary issues,’ or it’s not art. A limited but important stance on the purpose of art, but in China’s case, a very reasonable one.
Widespread state control over art and culture has left no room for freedom of expression in the country. For more than 60 years, anyone with a dissenting opinion has been suppressed. Chinese art is merely a product: it avoids any meaningful engagement. There is no larger context. Its only purpose is to charm viewers with its ambiguity.
The Chinese art world does not exist. In a society that restricts individual freedoms and violates human rights, anything that calls itself creative or independent is a pretence. It is impossible for a totalitarian society to create anything with passion and imagination.
I understand these points. But, for many years, Chinese art was the only art with imagination, if not passion. Instead of feeling this was impossible in a ‘totalitarian society,’ I was impressed that the currents of Chinese creativity ran so deep that a few decades of Communist rule buried but did not destroy them. From what seemed to be a standing start a couple of decades ago, Chinese artists started churning out exceptional and original work. Just not very polemical.
Mr. Ai contends that ‘[A]rt has to stand for something.’ sometimes,though, art is just art.