“If you play a chess game but after two or three moves you can change the rules, how can people play with you? Of course you will win, but after 60 years you will still be a bad player because you never meet anyone who can challenge you. What kind of game is that? Is that interesting?”
Ai Weiwei interviewed relatively briefly by Time. Time the magazine, not the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. Some interesting observations in it, including the one above in which he’s referring to the Chinese government although to my mind it could easily also apply to the art world’s elites and authorities, who play a similar game of movable goal posts and neutralising obfuscation with artists. There is a huge value in being challenged, but the art world rarely does anything but toy idly with the idea of being challenged. If the art world really embraced challenging ideas, art and people, then nobody in the art world would be terrified of speaking out of turn or getting a reputation for being critical.
On the contrary, most artists who live in the supposedly free and democratic world (and have much less to fear) wouldn’t say boo to a goose and don’t have a fraction of Ai’s bravery and honesty; bravery and honesty, moreover, that’s been genuinely put to the test and found to be strong enough to have a pretty good stab at defying the Chinese government. But his pusillanimous counterparts in the West don’t dare, because they know that talent and merit are not as important as just keeping your mouth zipped for fear of going on some neurotic, insecure gallerist’s or art world oligarch’s private blacklist.
I was also struck by his observation about the knee-jerk criticism thrown at anyone progressive or internationalist in China being that they’re “Westernised”, i.e. a traitor, tainted by the Western ideas that the Chinese authorities find inconvenient (e.g. democracy) but which come as part of an indivisible package along with the ones they do want (e.g. the internet). I observed this first hand when I was in China, and I wrote about it in Career Suicide.
Again there’s an art world analogy that I’m sure Ai’s aware of: when you start speaking up about problems, they quickly make sure it gets turned around and you become the problem just for talking about it. There’s never any question that they might be wrong. Or rather, they know perfectly well there’s a problem and that’s exactly why they must make sure that you are portrayed as being the problematic one. But what are we artists for, if not to say the unsayable and show the things that other people can’t or won’t see?
Also: “writing is the most admirable skill”. Yes, artists, if you won’t listen to me then listen to Uncle Weiwei: learn to write and express yourself clearly so we don’t need to have any more of this art bollocks nonsense. This alone would go a long way towards rescuing the reputation of artists amongst the general public.