In a column for Artnet, veteran art critic and grumbly curmudgeon/cheerleader Charlie Finch responds to Ai Weiwei’s recent house arrest with an ultimatum: the art world should stop having anything to do with China. He calls for a boycott of the country, Western art galleries abdicating their Beijing spaces, auction houses to cancel Asian sales. Here’s why Finch is wrong.
The critic rightly recounts that the trials Ai Weiwei has undergone are entirely too much to bear and are pointlessly absurd as they are ineffective. But to so essentialize the Chinese government with the Chinese people among whose ranks number the writers and artists whose mistreatment Finch decries is a short-sighted mistake. To Finch, to stop interacting with China means to stop supporting a corrupt political regime. This is partly true, but to boycott China also means to boycott its artists and its people, those who have no say in the government’s actions.
Let me spell it out: Arne Glimcher, show some balls and get Pace out of China; Christie’s, cancel your Hong Kong sales; Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum, cease all curatorial relations with the Chinese elites.
Ceasing “curatorial relations” or removing galleries from China isn’t just ceasing contact with a problematic government, it is ceasing contact with an entire society of artistic actors, an entire race of culture. It’s not just the Communist Party official who likes to go to classical concerts, it’s also the art punk who likes going to see foreign bands and internationally famous artists. It’s not just the corrupt bureaucratic cog, it is the professor who depends on Western institutions for their expanded world view.
In his column, the critic commands, “our art elitists need only to cancel their elitist deals with China to free the courageous Ai.” This is false. Ai is not imprisoned and harassed because of his influence in the international community; rather, it is because of his actions’ impact on the Chinese people, a connection that would not be severed if the Western art world were to depart the country. To remove Western cultural presence in China would be to forsake the very people whose cultural freedom Ai protests for and leave them in isolation, rather than in Finch’s immediate, magical state of emancipation.
Western galleries are the most flexible and most visible outlets of visual artistic culture in the Chinese art world. They have the resources and the critical awareness to mount shows, such as Pace Beijing‘s recent Great Performances, that hold historical importance for the Chinese contemporary art scene, exhibitions that would not otherwise exist. International galleries are economic and social centers for a still developing Chinese art world that would be entirely worse off for their absence. The situation is more complex than Finch sees it.
As a final gambit, Finch pulls out the big guns:
Incrementalism with regards to the Chinese Communist elites is about as effective as incrementalism with the Nazis: to wit, appeasement endorses further repression, not freedom.
Fighting for the presence of Western cultural institutions in a non-monolithic China rather than allowing them to disappear hardly constitutes “incrementalism.” Building on the progress these galleries and museums and individuals have made is the only way to proceed in bringing an outside perspective to the Chinese cultural community and developing a greater sense of cultural openness, as well as the stability inherent in doing so.