Is All Art Political? Definitely.
Here's what I learnt from China's biggest contemporary artist Ai Weiwei
I used to struggle with this question of whether all art is political. What about art that doesn't have any obvious political subject matter? What about abstract art? What about the lovely little landscapes of Cornwall that my aunt paints? What’s political about those?
It wasn’t until I really understood the work of the Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei that the penny finally dropped. He is one of the most influential artists in the world, and he’s also a human rights activist. He uses his art to raise awareness of human rights abuses and the restrictions of political freedoms around the world.
If there’s ever an artist whose life experiences are embedded in their work, it’s Ai Weiwei. He was born in 1957, in communist China when Mao Zedong was the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and leader of the People’s Republic of China. And by this stage Mao had become more unhinged and extreme in his leadership and policies.
Weiwei’s father, Ai Qing, was a member of the communist party and was a leading intellectual in the 1950s. He was a poet.
But in 1957, the year that Weiwei was born, Ai Qing was denounced by Chairman Mao and was sent into exile with his family to what is essentially China’s version of Siberia. And that's where the family stayed until Mao died in 1976.
Their living conditions were dire. Weiwei has described how the family lived in a hole in the ground covered by brushwood. He didn’t have much in the way of education, which during the Cultural Revolution consisted of learning the writings of Karl Marx and Chairman Mao. Ai Qing had had to burn his books.
So Weiwei had an unusual upbringing and a knowledge of the realities of what happens to you when you’re an individual thinker living in a totalitarian state.
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In his adult life as an artist Ai Weiwei has been very outspoken against the Chinese government. It led to him to being arrested in 2011 on trumped up tax-evasion charges. He was imprisoned and tortured for 81 days.
His response to this incarceration was a work called S.A.C.R.E.D., which consisted of six dioramas representing his memories of the experiences he had in the prison cell, with two guards just 80cm away from him at all times.
But his imprisonment only made Weiwei more resolute in his effort to raise awareness through his art of human rights abuses, not only in China but around the world. And here’s an example of that. Back in 2014 he was invited to make some site-specific artworks on the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco bay. Alcatraz was for many years a prison and was decommissioned in 1969. Today it’s a tourist site, and thousands of people visit every year.
Through the artworks he installed there, Ai Weiwei challenged the 5,000 daily tourists to think about the idea that human rights are not a given. And to think about the sacrifices that individuals around the world make to fight for everyone’s freedoms.
One of the artworks, called Trace, consisted of six large carpets of lego blocks depicting the portraits of 175 prisoners of conscience, both past and present, from all around the world. There were famous people like Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. But also less well-known political prisoners, journalists, writers and civil rights activists. Accompanying their portraits were their personal stories so that people could find out more about why they had been imprisoned.
Visitors were then invited to write messages on postcards which would be sent out to political prisoners all over the world. Thousands of these postcards went out. Some of those postcards undoubtedly never got to the prisoners. But many of them did. And the messages those prisoners sent back and the stories that they told about how they felt when they received those messages of support were very moving.
Ai Weiwei knew what it was like to be imprisoned for speaking out for your rights and freedoms, and he wanted to activate people to be aware and to show solidarity for those who are brave enough to lead the fight.
Everything that Ai Weiwei creates has a purpose that is about questioning and challenging systems of power. And it’s not surprising when you think about his life experiences. His childhood, what happened to his father, his imprisonment by the Chinese authorities.
Ai Weiwei argues that it’s not possible to separate art and politics: artists who are able to express themselves in whatever way they want to without fear or risk to their lives - including my aunt painting her Cornish landscapes - demonstrate (consciously or not) a political freedom that artists don’t have in countries like China, Russia and Iran.
More art projects from Ai Weiwei:
Ai Weiwei makes art in lots of different forms - installation, performance, writing, sculpture, architecture and film-making. Here's a link to his website where you can watch his documentaries.
The story of the Alcatraz project is the subject of a new film documentary: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ai-Weiwei-Yours-Truly/dp/B08CXTWMFS It's free to watch with ads.
Another interesting recent project from Ai Weiwei called The History of Bombs at the Imperial War Museum in London: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/ai-weiwei-on-history-of-bombs
His most widely known artwork in the UK is The Sunflower Seeds project, installed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2010:
The politics in abstract art
Back in 2017, at a time when American public discourse took a really toxic turn under President Donald Trump, the American abstract painter Julie Mehretu was asked what it meant to paint abstract landscapes in that political moment. Julie Mehretu is a queer black woman based in New York. Her family fled the political turmoil in Ethiopia in 1977 and settled in the USA. This was her response:
There are a couple of things she said that stood out for me:
There is no such thing as just landscape. The actual landscape is politicized through the events that take place on it.
Everything that has taken place this year in my personal life, with my children, what has happened politically, all of that is immersed in these paintings.
Essentially Mehretu is saying that there is no escaping politics in art because it is a representation of the thoughts/feelings/ideas of the artist. The personal is political because we all live in a society where power circulates and impacts on each of us in different ways. The subject matter of the art does not have to be overtly political.
As always, I’d love to know your response to these artists, artworks and issues, so please do add your thoughts in the comments.
I didn't know Ai Weiwei's work very well before you explained it in this video. His upbringing explains so much about his work now doesn't it. The prison project is fascinating. I love how he used this old building and site with so much history about imprisonment to draw attention to the issue of political prisoners. It's inspiring to see how so many people have stood up to be counted and have enabled our freedoms. Art projects like this I think are really powerful even if they are not beautiful to look at.