The Backlash Against Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, “White House” (1999) (image via

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is still missing after his arrest over a week ago, so the story now turns around how the arrest is being discussed in international dialogue. US, German and French officials have called for Ai’s release, but others, including one German museum director and a segment of Chinese netizens, publicly disagree with Ai Weiwei’s personal political methods.

According to the European Sign and Sight, Martin Roth is a “mandarin of the German art scene and the head of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden,” the same museum that helped to organize the now-contested The Art of the Enlightenment exhibition in Beijing’s newly-renovated National Museum (the German government has called for the removal of loans and closing of the exhibition following Ai’s arrest). Yet Roth doesn’t agree — he considers Ai simply an obnoxious agitator in an art scene full of whiners.

In the weekly German newspaper Zeit, Roth is quoted as saying that Ai Weiwei “is so popular [with the Western press] because he is constantly pounding on the table.” “There are hundreds of artists like him, but no one talks about them, because they are not pop stars.” In fact, the German art scene has been particularly supportive of Ai, staging some of his largest exhibitions. Ai was even in the process of building a studio in Berlin before the arrest. Whether Roth’s attitude is just a hatred of contemporary art, a hatred of Chinese contemporary art, or the simply misguided thought that Ai deserved to be arrested, the comments are unexpected for any art world figure.

Martin Roth (image via

Sign and Sight argues that Roth’s comments endorse “a system of injustice and violence. Martin Roth has repudiated the world of German culture. He owes an apology. It is his duty to support the cause of Ai Weiwei.” It’s strong language and I mostly agree, but what bothers me with Roth’s quote is the derision of his tone, not quite the statement he makes: it’s true that many other artists are speaking out against the government, but they don’t get media play in the West because they’re not high profile or successful enough.

Even while Ai is enjoying strong support from within the Chinese art world, there are those that believe Ai is getting what he was asking for, if not what he deserved. Ai’s outspoken critiques of the Chinese government and his international visibility and celebrity in doing so has drawn criticism to the artist for being too much of a provocateur and an ineffective activist. In a response to New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos’s “Why Ai Weiwei Matters,” China blog China You Ren writes,

Many of us who (mildly) oppose all this Ai Weiwei fad don’t do so on the grounds of irrelevance, but for other more important reasons.  In particular, we fear that the disproportionate focus of Western media on characters like Nobel-winner Liu XB [detained writer Liu Xiaobo] or Ai [Weiwei] is counterproductive, and it can undermine the democratic dissidence in China.

The article argues that both Ai and Liu Xiaobo are extreme radicals, not representative of the majority of the Chinese people’s desire for pragmatism and slow, independent change. Ai and Liu are too Western-leaning for the nationalistic author of the post, and their artistic practices and political commentary too iconoclastic:

More crucially, both share a taste for expressing their views or creating “art” by means of destroying  the things that are dearest to all Chinese who love their country, communist or otherwise:  their history, their culture, their wounds of the colonial period … Neither of them should be arrested for their ideas. But this doesn’t qualify them as political models either.

Ai has lately been the target of a character assassination attempt similar in tone by state propaganda mouthpiece Global Times. Articles accuse Ai of plagiarizing ideas for artwork and being out of touch with the Chinese people, an irrelevant egomaniac and criminal. The claims in the China You Ren post and government propaganda are by no means true, but it’s important to remember that there’s another side to international perception of Ai that we should be keeping in mind as we wait for news from the Chinese government.

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