If anyone from the Chinese censorship office is reading this: 草泥马. The title of this post is meant ironically, and there’s a special place reserved for the likes of you. Forgive the unprofessional language, but you can go straight to Hell. What you do is evil, and the civilized peoples of the world, including most of your fellow citizens, will never forgive you for it. I know one Anglophone philosopher on the Internet means nothing to you, seeing as you have no scruples about silencing thousands of other voices, but there you have it: the truth, and nothing but.
For the rest of you, whom I have no doubt I like much more,* it’s time for radical philosophy, art, and odd curatorial decisions.**
I think that, after three posts (see here, here, and here) on Yves Klein, my love for the Hirshhorn should be pretty clear. Now, they have Ai Weiwei, a tax evader, traitor, and generally bad, bad man whom I rather like. Anyone who fights oppression through deliciously subversive art in ways I only wish I were talented and courageous enough to pull off myself gets my approval. While I’m not generally a fan of overly commercialized, mass-produced art (heeelloooo, Jeff Koons!) Ai actually has a point: growing up during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, in which China cast off the many thousands of years of its history, philosophy, and culture for . . . well, nobody’s quite sure what, except that it’s seemingly turned into a rather bland and authoritarian crassness, making new art that sometimes borders on the schlocky out of old cultural artifacts makes sense.
The Cultural Revolution was a violent and nonsensical time, filled with wanton destruction and an insatiable desire to ignore—indeed, destroy—the ancient history and culture of China. Books were burned, traditional ways of life were abolished, and priceless cultural artifacts were destroyed. Ai’s work seems to reference this constantly; the remnants of old temples are a common material in his work, especially when he wants to make a point about the long past of his native country. Antique furniture, often used in novel ways, makes its appearances,reminding us of ways of life that no longer exist, objects that no longer have uses.***
I should mention here that I’m a potter. It started as a way to keep myself sane while in grad school, but, as so often happens, became so very much more than that. Okay, I became obsessed. Fine, I am obsessed. All those entries on Asian aesthetics, all those references to Zen Buddhism, cha-no-yu, etc? Pottery research. So, when I see Neolithic Chinese pottery, I get excited.
And when I see it with a Coca-Cola logo stenciled across it, or bright industrial paint covering over the intricate ochre slip decorations, I get angry.
Those are cultural artifacts! Somebody, many thousands of years ago, made that! They put hard work, time and effort, into making a work of art, and YOU HAVE THE NERVE TO PAINT OVER IT????? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE??????
Okay, one of our most important living artists, but still. You think you can do better than the person who made that pot? You arrogant twit! You smash an ancient pot in the name of your so-called art, and keep us from ever seeing what the ancients put their heart and soul into! How could you, you Philistine!
Right, Cultural Revolution. People smashing pots willy nilly because they were old, because old ways held China back, because old ideas of beauty needed to die. Ai, dare I say it, might just be working politics into his art. Pissing off potters like me may be the point. Yes he’s destroyed the decoration of those pots forever, but, try as he might, the form is still there; you may cover over the surface of a culture, you may change the superficial aspects of a people’s way of thinking, but who they are? That can’t be changed. It’s still there, beneath that uniform, schlocky exterior you just defaced it with. Trading 3,000 years of philosophy for crass Western commercialism? Are those really your ideals? Is that what your glorious Cultural Revolution set out to do? That’s what it got you. That’s failure. Horrified at the destruction of priceless pottery? Good. You should have seen what Mao’s goons did. Nobody was photographing them. Not enough were shocked or horrified when they tried to destroy a nation’s identity. Where were you then, with your outrage? Content with you capitalist creature comforts, ignoring the destruction of a culture, the silencing of those who would fight it, and the deaths of half a million people?
There’s a dark message behind all that bright and glossy paint, isn’t there? You’re a bad, bad man, Mr. Ai, for destroying all those pots. Good on you.