Épater la bourgeoisie. Scare the rich and powerful until their pips squeak. That's always been a healthy drive for anyone with a democratic bone under their flab, and one that turned me into a London punk back in the day. Another guiding principle is that no-one should be locked up for thought crimes. When you crush ideas, the energetic vanguard that expands our society's possibilities, you crush humanity's potential for growth.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo certainly strained my inner Voltaire once I'd read what this unpleasant cheerleader for Nato's wars had actually written. No wonder you couldn't find in-depth pieces expounding his worldview in the Western media. As Tariq Ali revealed in Counterpunch:
Liu Xiaobo has stated publicly that in his view:
(a) China's tragedy is that it wasn't colonised for at least 300 years by a Western power or Japan. This would apparently have civilised it for ever;
(b) The Korean and Vietnam wars fought by the US were wars against totalitarianism and enhanced Washington's 'moral credibility';
(c) Bush was right to go to war in Iraq and Senator Kerry's criticisms were 'slander-mongering';
(d) Afghanistan? No surprises here: Full support for Nato's war.
As much as I recoil from another laughable Nobel Peace Prize that goes, in the tradition of Henry Kissinger's award, beyond satire, I defend Liu's right to say those things, just as I reserve the right to blow raspberries right back at him.
However, Ai Weiwei is another case. He's not just a very bright and talented artist: he looks the kind of guy you'd like personally and would want to have a beer with. Witty, gutsy, principled, original, courageous and entertaining: not for him vapid decorative art. Ai picks on the powerful and the bullies, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. When children died in school-buildings so shoddily constructed with illegal 'tofu' cement that they collapsed in the Sichuan earthquakes, he made this scandal a feature of one of his works.
Instead of the authorities taking this as a kick up the rear to do their job and prevent corruption resulting in such devastating consequences, they added this to the list of his 'crimes'. Who is it who's defending the Chinese people in this case? It's certainly not the time-serving bureaucrats who are persecuting Ai.
If only the Britpop art pack could claim such a powerful raison d'etre.
Ai's mischief with intent has a cultural precedent in Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, whose adventures have delighted and inspired Chinese children for hundreds of years since the classical tales of Journey To The West were written in the 1590s. A cross between Prometheus and Tigger, the irrepressible Monkey King upsets the balance of heaven and experiences various adventures and punishments on his path to enlightenment. In doing so, he takes us along with him.
Heaven – in the form of the Communist Party – is certainly upset now. Stung into retribution by a man who refuses to accept his place in the hierarchical firmament, they've gone a bit nuts in their lashing-out. Even the UK Chinese who usually steer clear of the politics of the mainland are openly derisive about Ai Weiwei's mile-long charge sheet. 'The Chinese authorities are desperate and are throwing everything at him,' said one UK Chinese local politician in London. He's been accused of everything from tax evasion to plagiarism, a ridiculous notion considering this is a man on a mission burning with fresh ideas. I suspect that the artist who designed the beautiful Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, and who gave us millions of hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern, doesn't need to steal from anyone.
It's not as if China is in a state of crisis, a fledgling state seeking equilibrium in its early days. A state will use any means necessary to protect itself, just as Great Britain did during its world wars when its population were warned continuously that walls have ears and paranoia was seen as a sensible defensive measure. China is set to be the biggest economic power of the 21st century, with its luckier natives too busy making money to care about politics. If it's not feeling secure now, when will it ever?
With the banning in America of Tony Kushner and other playwrights critical of Israel, the West can't crow over any absolute right to freedom of speech. At least Peter Kosminski was only excoriated for his brilliant four-part Channel 4 drama on the history of the Palestine conflict, The Promise, and not banned here. However, it took a Twitter campaign to challenge the secretive superinjunctions in the UK which protected the moneyed hypocrites who espoused family values. Left to their own devices, the politicians proved inadequate to the task when the judiciary decided what we could and couldn't know, and it was the collective spontaneity of an 'I Am Spartacus' blizzard of tweets that may have, for once, checked our draconian libel laws.
The Chinese should be proud that they now have a society which can produce such a challenging character, because we have none here any more. They should be nurturing people like Ai Weiwei, and treating him like the national treasure that he is. On second thoughts, that might kill his fight impulse with kindness, so ultimately, their persecution is probably the best thing that could happen to his art. If this latest incarceration since 3rd April hasn't extinguished his spark and destroyed the human being, it will be a very angry man who emerges from imprisonment, and I look forward to seeing what he produces.
And the authorities will have only themselves to blame.
Ai Weiwei's work will be on display at the Lisson Gallery from tomorrow until 16th July.
52-54 Bell Street, London, NW1 5DA
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Ai's Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is on exhibition at Somerset House from tomorrow. Free entry but the series of talks to accompany the exhibition are £10 each.
Police, Party and Punishment in China
Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern