Essays

Should Museums Protest Ai Weiwei’s Arrest?

by Kyle Chayka on June 8, 2011

Ai Weiwei protest in New York City (photo by author)

Dan Keegan, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, has recently been shoving his foot farther and farther into his mouth with statements about museums’ role in politics. Namely, he thinks that museums should be apolitical, and he has stated that his museum’s decision to collaborate with Chinese museums and show Chinese do not have any relationship to China’s arrest and detainment of artist Ai Weiwei.

According to Keegan, protesting China’s detaining of Ai Weiwei, an internationally regarded artist, is not only ineffective, but wrong. “We don’t do protests…I would say very emphatically that we should not protest ever,” the director said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Mary Louise Schumacher. In an international situation such as Ai’s arrest, can museums avoid being political? Can they avoid caring about the well-being of the artists they support and show? I would argue that art institutions have to be political, and the protesting, far from being wrong, is exactly what museums should be doing.

It is Keegan’s aggressive apathy and willingness to turn an entirely blind eye toward his museum’s relationship to China that is the real transgression here. Though I don’t feel that museums need to be canceling their China-oriented exhibition programming in reaction to Ai’s arrest, Keegan’s claim that the Milwaukee Museum of Art’s China programming is totally apolitical is unsupportable.

Other institutions (and artists and writers alike) have not been so unwilling to embrace their own role in the international art world, where every action has a reaction, like it or not. Staying agnostic is very hard, and Keegan has already failed at doing it gracefully. Keegan claims any protest will be “ineffective” at resolving Ai’s situation, but I ask readers to look at the examples, to look at what actions have already been undertaken, loudly, without restraint, in support of Ai Weiwei. Are they useless and wrong? I don’t think so.

Protests For Ai Weiwei

The Tate's protest sign (image via @robbiesharp)

The strongest gestures of support for Ai Weiwei have come from international museums. London’s Tate was the earliest out of the gate, with a mammoth “Release Ai Weiwei” sign posted on the facade of their building. At the time, The Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall was playing host to Ai’s Sunflower Seeds project, a mammoth carpet of porcelain trompe l’oeil sunflower seeds. The museum has since decided to keep the seeds on display even after the installation closes, showing a cone of the seeds in their galleries.

The Kunsthalle Marcel Duchamp in Switzerland is now displaying the seed piece as well, in a smaller format. Their press release shows an understanding of the situation’s politics and doesn’t shy away from making a statement: “The exhibition is dedicated to [Ai’s] fearless campaign for human rights and freedom of expression. We all hope and pray that the Chinese government will see reason and set Weiwei free.”

New York City art organization Creative Time produced the city’s first major protest for Ai, with a sit-in event outside of the Chinese consulate that was a reference to the artist’s own “Fairytale” work that brought 1000 Chinese nationals to Documenta. Along with an international group of art world figures, the Guggenheim led the launch of a petition to free Ai Weiwei that now has over 140,000 signatures. Museum after museum have made formal statements decrying Ai’s arrest, the most recent being the DeCordova. The city of New York even gathered contemporary artists in a statement of support at the unveiling of Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac fountain pieces in the city.

Beyond museums and institutions, artists have also embraced this need to keep people talking and thinking about Ai’s arrest. Ai Weiwei street art has been omnipresent in Hong Kong and all over the world, from New York to Berlin. Cuban artist Geandy Pavon projected Ai’s portrait on the Chinese consulate in a project that went viral. Free Art & Technology has released an internet piece that adds Ai’s upraised middle finger to websites, echoing the artist’s photo series of him flipping off famous landmarks. Freeaiweiwei.org has been tireless in documenting recent news of Ai’s arrest.

Speaking out and thinking freely, not being afraid to say Ai’s name and call for his release, is a form of protest. All of these actions are keeping an open dialogue over Ai’s arrest, keeping the artist in the news and in the public eye. Even the Milwaukee Museum of Art is hosting a July 7 panel on Ai’s arrest, “the collision of art and politics.” Keegan fails to acknowledge the efficacy of any of this protest, and doesn’t provide much of a logical backing for his ignorance.

Why We Protest

Ai Weiwei street art (image via dearie.me)

Curator and writer Okwui Enwezor writes in a contentious Artforum essay, “While petitions have shone a harsh light on the arrest of Ai Weiwei in China and on the dismissal of Jack Persekian in Sharjah, UAE, these events cannot be easily separated from the intolerant censorship occurring in the United States and Europe.” Enwezor compares Ai’s arrest to the censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s work from the Smithsonian’s Hide/Seek exhibition. We need to be sensitive of political context, the curator emphasizes, and understand that conditions aren’t going to be so friendly to art as they are in the West.

“To believe in the blanket immunity guaranteed by freedom of expression while flouting clear political proscriptions against deploying sensitive religious imagery seems to me extremely naive,” Enwezor writes of the decision to excise some work from the Sharjah Biennial, after curating that was a little too open for the United Arab Emirates. Yet it seems to me that Ai’s case is different from cases of exhibition censoring and the limiting of artistic expression. Ai’s arrest has destroyed and silenced artistic expression on an international level. We shouldn’t allow China’s political proscription against artistic expression to stand; it must be flouted.

Enwezor believes, in a much more nuanced argument than Keegan, that protest is irrelevant and wrongheaded. Yet if we don’t protest, what are we to do? Fake that we understand and empathize with the Chinese government’s need to silence its detractors? Enwezor writes that we ignore “the fact that censorship is an occupational hazard that all dissenting and radical forms of art must face, whether under liberal or illiberal political systems.” Just because the danger of censorship exists doesn’t mean we, as the international art world, should stand for it.

Related:

  • Philip Bishop in the Guardian writes that “a curator’s signature on an online petition is not enough” to support Ai Weiwei, calling for museums to be more vocal about the artist’s arrest and continuing detainment.
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  • http://twitter.com/rustik rustik

    How much of his opinion was based on cash> ?
    It’s no secret China is spending money like it’s going out of style.

  • http://twitter.com/AbrahamRitchie Abraham Ritchie

    This is one of the best responses to the value of protests, it may not get Ai released, but we will continue to advocate for basic human rights.  It is too bad that the Director of the Milwaukee Art Museum will not advocate for them.

  • http://twitter.com/artstuffmatters Artstuffmatters

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I definitely agree with
    you that protest can lead to social change. In the U.S. we have a long history
    of civil obedience leading to transformation. Because of the international
    nature of Ai Wei Wei’s detention, the protest measures need to be sustained,
    collaborative, and supported by governmental agencies. Initially, I heard of
    some government officials in the U.S. and Germany calling for action. However, I
    haven’t heard much more about those efforts.

    I also read the Enwezor article. However, I interpreted it
    somewhat differently. Enwezor does questions the efficacy of petitions and
    protests and discusses the Ai Wei Wei incident in terms of censorship. But I
    didn’t feel that he demeaned the severity of the detention. I think that
    Enwezor’s intent was to expose how the art world, in general, engages in unfair
    practices and limits freedom of expression.

    Hopefully, the continued attention to the Ai Wei Wei
    detention in publications will prompt art museums to promote discussion.

  • Anonymous

    i can’t know all what’s in keegan’s head regarding his free choice to remain apolitical but i doubt it’s ignorance.

    i support the protests and the artist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1481821325 Marion Callis

    It is unrealistic to expect cultures very different from ours to embrace free speech as we enjoy it, but I don’t believe it’s a lost cause to make our culture’s reaction to Ai’s detainment known, and I applaud the Tate & others for speaking their values.  Mr. Keegan may be voicing the position of his museum’s governing body; rarely can a museum director take an individual stance on controversial issues and expect to keep his job.  Still, to state that museums should be apolitical shows ignorance about the history of art.  If all art with political content (and the other hot button, religious content) is removed from museums, how interesting is what’s left? 

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