People’s Choice: Ai Weiwei or The Highway?

“Ai Weiwei Wraps the Columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 Salvaged Refugee Life Vests!”

I’m generally against aestheticizing human suffering (pace Picasso) in the name of politics: efforts other than revolutionary slogans scrawled by proletarian artists on alley walls seem patronizing and smug. Has expensive “conceptual art” ever adequately addressed crimes against humanity? I think any creative gesture that fails to make current world leaders run for cover is simultaneously collaborationist and a defence of the status quo. This “work” by Ai Weiwei will be of little comfort to surviving parents of drowned children, nor will it threaten or deter those responsible for the crimes it purports to address.

Ai Weiwei Installation at Konzerthaus, Berlin Image via Oliver Lang

Ai Weiwei Installation at Konzerthaus, Berlin
Image via Oliver Lang

But it will give succour to a layer of well-to-do aesthetes who imagine that daring “engagement” with the un-named enemies of humanity has been achieved on their behalf. “Speak truth to power” is sometimes their credo, their having failed to notice – despite repeated hints – that power doesn’t give a shit. The installation’s impotence as a political act is beneath measure, with appeal only to art-world toads who engage in a nihilist and self-referential “analysis” of such works. Radical protest at the plight of refugees is sorely needed, but this stuff is not it.

The worst thing about this expensive, media-celebrated installation is that it allows the ruling class and the rich to “own” public sympathy for the victims of the refugee crisis. “See?” says the art, “We’re all shedding tears together for the victims of this very troubled world.” The notion shifts the blame from the powerful – who are the authors of the crises that make people flee their homes and countries – to “our flawed common humanity.”

I’m thoroughly fed up with Weiwei’s public installations that, in the words of one apologist, “engage with policy.” Modest levels of a tepid  “Refugee Awareness” may result, but mass protests will be absent, because installations such as this help to dampen public rage. Given the daily crimes committed by the powerful class that rules us, can you honestly believe that they do anything but laugh at this fatuous “artistic” gesture? Hell no! They’ll even pay for it!

The installation’s intellectual-symbolic quality manages to insulate its elite supporters from accusations of genuine radical outcry, lest it tarnish their reputations and jeopardize their incomes. As for the German and international film glitterati who confront this “art” on their way into the Konzerthaus, I doubt that it has the slightest impact, other than engendering contempt for those who would remind them of their criminal collusion.

Appreciation of Ai Weiwei’s installation is predicated on belief that governments are working tirelessly to solve the refugee crisis and end war. But the opposite is true: immigrants are being permitted entry to host countries because capitalism wants cheap, non-union, thankful-to-be-here labour. War is great for business.

Does Weiwei’s installation express moral outrage and genuine sympathy for drowning victims? The act of hanging their life preservers on high pillars – the way medieval victors hanged bodies from battlements and heads on poles – can be interpreted differently. I suspect that in neoliberalism’s war on the poor and defenceless, the installation is emblematic of victory over ethical politics, humane standards, and the struggle for a just world.

But things are due to change. As we said in the 1960s, “Ethics is the aesthetic of the future.”


About Doug Williams

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