- Registration time
- Last login
- Online time
- 914 Hour
- Reading permission
Bears Repeating... Part 2
Into the Cultural Elite|
A premature dead-end is certainly no reflection of his own career. His family was pardoned with the economic reforms at the start of the Deng Xiaoping era. After being branded a reactionary bourgeois poet, his father Ai Qing saw his reputation restored in 1979 as the lyrical voice of Mao's Yanan-based resistance to Japanese military occupation and a democratic intellectual who had selflessly supported workers' uprisings against the dictatorial Nationalist Party in the 1930s. His rejection of the family name "Jiang" or Chiang, in disgust at the brutal tyranny of Kuomingtang chief Chiang Kai-shek, was again hailed as an exemplary act of moral integrity.
Just a year before his father's release, from exile Ai Weiwei was enrolled in the Beijing Film Academy, alongside illustrious classmates Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who soon became China's leading filmmakers. Quickly he, too, was welcomed into the nation's cultural elite, as a younger member of the avant garde movement known as "The Stars."
His alienated generation felt burning anger toward the anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution. Before long, however, many including Zhang Yimou came to terms with the governing populist ideology and joined the upper echelons of the arts establishment. As China's "commanding" film director, Zhang took the political position of accepting the historical necessity of national unity, as depicted in his film "Hero" with the would-be assassin's ultimate decision not to execute the emperor.
Ai Weiwei, in contrast, rejected what he saw as the shallow and self-serving mantle of "national representative artist", denouncing Zhang Yimou (and Stephen Spielberg) for producing the mass-exercise performance at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. His reaction was one of "disgust" at "anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment." Consistent with his iconoclasm, Ai repudiated his own participation in the architectural design team for the Bird's Nest Stadium. The son, like his father, demonstrated extraordinary courage and stubbornness - though under far different circumstances.
Before heaping praise on Ai Weiwei as a champion of freedom and democracy, Western artists should ask themselves if they have ever taken the same stance against their own involvement with corporate or government sponsors. Has any one of them refused all funding from grants, exhibitions and seminars? If any such uncompromising artists do exist in the West, they can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.
The Clubbing Incident
His reputation would have been enshrined forever had Ai Weiwei remained a lone artist in the footsteps of a Vincent Van Gogh or a solitary dissident like novelist Aleksander Solzhenitsyn. His self-righteous refusal of emoluments, however, did not extend to foreign governments. He gladly received cash awards, including the overtly political Prism of Reason from the city of Kassel, Germany, and another from the political science faculty of the University of Ghent, Belgium.
An inconsistent stance toward state sponsorship at home and abroad undermines his existentialist principles. As with his friend and ally Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel laureate for literature, his sensational acts of dissent appear to be aimed at currying favor from foreign sponsors rather than toward enlightening his compatriots.
Especially insensitive was his showing up in the wake of the Sichuan earthquake, video camera in hand, to expose the corruption behind the poor construction of public schools that killed many local children. The problems related to countryside schools are no state secret, especially to the grieving parents, but were already taken up as a serious nationwide discussion, including among the state-run media. A discussion of such gravity in a neo-Confucian society, which accords the highest esteem toward education, the school issue had to be handled with utmost propriety and rationality, and not as a controversy-stirring art statement aimed at foreign audiences.
In a consequent incident, the physically large artist pushed a local policeman, who responded with a light warning tap from a billy club to the assailant's head. Soon the artist's skullcap showed signs of swelling. Instead of going to a clinic in China, Ai Weiwei flew to Munich for treatment. His flight abroad, which risked a contusion from low cabin pressure, raised medical suspicions with a Hong Kong physician who told me that the brain swelling might have been symptomatic of a recreational vice from his bohemian lifestyle.
Father, Son and the Ghost
Ai Weiwei is no Surrealist revolutionary or Dada radical assaulting bourgeois sensibilities since he is firmly ensconced in the upper bracket of the cultural establishment. His artistic appeal to wide sections of the capital's elite lies in his ability to invoke a nostalgic longing for the old days when everyone was equal in common poverty, before economic reforms split the Chinese into rich and poor, privileged and exploited, and educated and benighted.
Better to be together and crushed under, his works tell the viewer, than to find yourself alone at the top. As contemporary China's "greatest artist," he knows what it means to be top dog.
Whatever innate talents he may possess, his successes are based on the easy access opened to the son a rehabilitated comrade. Since university, his career advancement was constantly favored over other less-connected rivals in compensation for the unjust punishment that had been meted out to his father. Other banned "rightist" intellectuals never lived to see redemption, perishing in the outland with reputations cast to the winds like ghosts. Meanwhile his old schoolmates and childhood friends were left behind, unrecognized in the provincial dust and grime.
Ai Weiwei is perfectly right not to give thanks to hypocrisy. Yet all the fawning favoritism with its inherent unfairness to his peers must have fueled self-doubt. He never had to earn and really struggle, for everything was given to him by his father's admirers who pulled the strings. How less compromised, how much more honest, how purer it would have been to remain unforgiven. A condemned man has nothing but his pride, but to be forgiven is to silently bear the shame. What Ai Weiwei likely suffers psychologically is an angst that drives his rage and rebellion: the guilt of the forgiven.