06 February 2013

Ai Weiwei: Creare & Fecere -or- Political Art: Political or Artistic?

New Republic | Jed Pearl | Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist

For Ai, there is not even a question as to whether the artist can simultaneously be a social activist, because art is not a separate arena with its own laws and logic. All actions, whether compiling a list of children killed in an earthquake or dipping Han dynasty vases in industrial paint, are related in that they are expressions of "creativity." Creativity, Ai explained in a blog post in 2008, "is the power to reject the past, to change the status quo, and to seek new potential. Simply put, aside from using one's imagination—perhaps more importantly—creativity is the power to act."
Don't over complicate things. Creativity is exactly what is says on the tin: creating things. Did you just cause something to exist that did not exist before? Congratulations, you just did something creative.

("Creative" is another situation where our language hobbles our thinking, leading to ridiculous-but-not-incorrect constructions like "creative creatives creating creative creative.")
What is lost in this talk about creativity and action is the ancient requirement that a work of art be realized in a particular medium. That does not seem to matter to Ai. Asked by an interviewer whether the millions of porcelain sunflower seeds at Tate Modern "relate[d] back to China," he argued that "mass production is nothing new. Weren't cathedrals built through mass production? The pyramids? ... Paintings can be painted with the left hand, the right hand, someone else's hand, or many people's hands. The scale of production is irrelevant to its content."
In this, I agree with completely with Ai. If you reject things like algorithmic art and insist that works be made by the artist's own hand, then you rule out all of architecture and most of design, not to mention creating vast fuzzy question marks over most bronze sculpture, most Renaissance paintings and carvings, etc.
The trouble with most critiques of political art is that they pay too much attention to the politics.
This is definitely true, whether the critique is positive or negative. I'm so borred seeing things in galleries or museums more because of the artist statements than because of the work.

If I'm ever talking about something I created and I use a construction like "my work questions the nature of..." or "this piece challenges what it means to be a..." direct a good strong footslap my way immediately.

All in all, I'm in agreement with Pearl and the title of this review. (Okay, Ai's not terrible. But "lackluster" would fit the bill.) If you want a good combination of Chinese dissidence and artistic achievement, check out the Gao Brothers.

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