Opinion

Ai Weiwei’s Photo Reenacting a Child Refugee’s Death Should Not Exist

I see this image and I wonder. Questions flood to mind. The decayed state of the art world from the United States to India to China smacks me in the face.

Why was this image created, and why is it circulating? I recognize the international figure as you also do. It’s the celebrated activist and artist, Ai Weiwei, shedding light on the plight of Syrian refugees, and I wonder.

Is this what a bleeding heart with privilege thinks activism or political art looks like today? Is what I am staring at in amazement of its stupidity simply a failure of imagination, an attempt to use one’s privilege strategically in the struggle for social justice gone terribly wrong?

I recall the words of Gayatri Spivak: “history is larger than personal goodwill”; and “conscious raising is bogus … it is a way to avoid doing homework”; and “top-down philanthropy is not much of anything.” She helps me to look at the image and ponder better questions for Ai Weiwei and our community of artists.

Then I anticipate the artist’s freedom of expression and creative license contention, and I wonder whether I should I say more, or not waste my time further. The burden is on me now that I say this image should not exist. Ai Weiwei should apologize, depending on the reasons leading to its creation, which could include any number of things:

– It was an impulse.
– I do not know better.
– I did it for the money.
– I did not have enough time.
– This is not art and it’s not documentation of activism.

Maybe this is not ‘activism’ per se, but ‘political art,’ as if these categorical distinctions were helpful here. You walked on the beach with a photographer, who took a plane to take your picture, where you reenacted a death of a child and that was then edited and printed to be displayed in the commercial India Art Fair. Images circulate on social media and in articles by CNN and other media outfits, and I wonder, again. What do you consider the role of the artist in making political art? One surely must ask, as Grace Lee Boggs once did to remind us of political art worth seeing and experiencing: “What time is it on the clock of the world?”

Have you wondered what is a refugee when there is no nation-state? This question is being asked all around the world today. Is the Syrian refugee crisis not connected to the Arab uprisings, the change in climate, the geopolitical shifts in the Middle East and North Africa region, the continued colonization of Palestine and redrawing of the maps by the West there?

Your ‘art’ falls so flat in the face of all this, and it hurts to see that in the name of art and in the name of activism, the role of the artist remains stagnant and unchanged — a part of the whole, a cog in the machine of this neoliberal capitalist art world that contributes to maintaining the status quo. A world that passively observes us move from crisis to crisis, as if each were unconnected and unrelated, helping to make war and refugees, and displacement, dispossession and climate disaster, neo-colonialism and white supremacy, and crushing debt that knows no borders, all the more palpable … but that is the state of art. I have said before in “#OCCUPYWALLST: A Possible Story“:

Art as we know it is corrupt, exhausted and weak. We see works of postmodern masters sold to bankers for millions of dollars as signs of cultural capital and objects of financial investment. We see shimmering edifices of cultural wealth erected on the backs of hyperexploited labor—the pyramids and coliseums of the twenty-first century. …. We see so-called “social practice,” the well-funded bureaucratization of alienated people’s desire for community. And we see theoretically savvy “discursive platforms” that speak of radical democracy, militant ecology, and even communization, while recoiling at the prospect of deploying their considerable resources, skills, and potentials for the purposes of building a movement. This is no longer acceptable.

We strike art to liberate art from itself. Not to end art, but to unleash its powers of direct action and radical imagination. Art does not dissolve into so-called real life. It revitalizes real life by making it surreal. …. We strike art as training in the practice of freedom. And imagine a never-ending process of experimentation, learning and undoing, resisting and building in the unexplored terrain of an historic rupture.

You want to help refugees. There is no helping without being in tune. You are not in tune. In the words of poet and theorist Fred Moten on solidarity, whom you should read urgently, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

You know?

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