Revising the Breakup: According to What?

Speaking up for our values around the world invariably raises questions of hypocrisy and inconsistency, but it’s better to be an inconsistent advocate of democracy and human rights than to be a consistent advocate of nothing.

Nick Kristof

It has been over a month now since I returned to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, for the first time since I broke up with art, to see the Ai Weiwei exhibit titled According to What.  The intention behind my November day trip was to visit the museum again, solo this time, and give myself the time and space to explore how art and I were doing.

Because breaking up is hard to do.

My plan had been to budget myself time to write after that trip.  But although I had both the time and a comfortable laptop table on the train home, and many windows in my schedule since then, I’ve hesitated to start this post.

Funny.  Since I saw Ai Weiwei’s work at the Hirshhorn, I’ve caught myself feeling – and acting – scared, many times, about many things.

I am not seeking to create complete or perfect works.  I am doing what I must do.

-Ai Weiwei

A comparison, to start.  Something – maybe the only thing – that Ai Weiwei’s work and Douglas Gordon’s work had in common: both featured an animal in a prominent way.  But Weiwei’s metaphorical elephant in the room felt far more substantial than Gordon’s real one.  Snake Ceiling winds its way through a few rooms of the Hirshhorn gallery space.  It is made of hundreds of children’s backpacks.  In 2008, an earthquake devastated the Sichuan provence of China – killing nearly 90,000 people.  Government-erected school buildings collapsed – “tofu construction” was the phrase I read – and Weiwei photographed children’s backpacks scattered across the quake areas, their owners buried in the debris.

When parents of the dead and disappeared children spoke up to protest the shoddy construction, China’s government clamped down.  Weiwei took up the cause, and launched his Citizen’s Investigation Project.  Since 2008, he has been compiling over 5,000 names of the children who died – including their year, class, and gender.  These names are listed in a huge wall installation at the Hirshhorn, with background sound of internet collaborators reading the children’s names, one by one.  He tweets the children’s names on their birthdays.

Snake Ceiling appears to be modeled after a child’s toy – but the longer you contemplate it, the more provocative its commentary.

Snake Ceiling

Detail, Names of the Earthquake Victims - Hirshhorn

Detail, Names of the Earthquake Victims – Hirshhorn

Another work that left me gasping at the Hirshhorn exhibit was He Xie – comprised of 3,000 cast porcelain crabs on the gallery floor.  The craftsperson in me felt awed – even though Weiwei admittedly does not do most of the manual work involved in his pieces, he coordinates the attention to detail that struck me in this work.  As a work of craft, it’s striking on its own.

And then I read the tag.

He Xie means “river crab” – but it’s also a homophone for the Chinese word meaning “harmonious” – used in the slogan for the Chinese Communist Party, “the realization of a harmonious society.”  It’s become a catch phrase on the web for online censorship and the removal of information.  When the government threatened demolition of Weiwei’s new studio, he used Twitter to invite guests to a feast of 10,000 river crabs at his studio in protest.

Weiwei himself wasn’t able to attend the feast, though – he was placed under house arrest as a result of his actions.


Detail, He Xie

Art and I broke up because I could no longer accept what I perceived to be the artworld’s deliberate detachment from society.  I’ve been lucky to have some brilliant, passionate art history teachers who showed me how essential art has been to human history.  But Gordon’s Play Dead, Real Time was a symbol of how contemporary art can forcibly isolate itself in quiet, cool rooms, removing itself from any real societal function, and still claim success – or at least whatever success is endowed by exhibition in major galleries.

In August 2012, Richard Dare, the CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, published a Huffington Post essay far more eloquent than my own jumbled thoughts that had been ruminating since our breakup.

Human existence is real and art needs to address that: 47 million Americans currently live in poverty. That means 22% of all children in this country will go to bed hungry tonight. 2.2 million family homes are in foreclosure this week with another 9 million or so expected to go under soon. We are the murder capital of the developed world. The United Nations ranks our education system 21st best (watch out Cuba, we’re gaining on you). And our healthcare is the most expensive on the planet, but only the 37th most effective … for those who can afford to buy it.

Art and music need to address these realities. It’s not enough anymore to wait until a disaster occurs then play the memorial concert or erect another scarring monument to our collective loss. Art should instead lead the way in a real community conversation about life. Culture needs to get real.

-Richard Dare, “The Scandalous Failure of Art and Music”

We certainly have a lot of substantial “real” material as starting points to make art.

Getting “real,” though, is scary – and I think that maybe it is this fear that draws the artworld in on itself.  If artists get “real” enough and bold enough to confront the realities of our world, art becomes even riskier business.  For one thing, artists who are confronting reality run the risk of inconsistency and inaccuracies, of eliciting criticism beyond the pages of the art review.  If an artist addresses science, for instance, she needs to be as intimately familiar with the scientific facts and research behind her theme as those for whom science is a full-time practice.  If she misinterprets or skews the facts supporting her work, she risks invalidating it.  And thus, institutions of arts education would then have a profound responsibility to teach about so much more than technique and the artworld’s backstory.  Art conservatories would have to take on society in a deep and meaningful way, to support art students in figuring out how to channel their energies.  Another risk.  (It makes me very hopeful that schools like MICA and RISD are starting to confront this in a substantial way.)

Such risky depth is daunting.  Why branch out and address the challenges of a broader community when you already have an elite and culturally inbred support system?  When the tastes of elite collectors and art fairs make it possible to exist outside of the reality of a bigger world?  Richard Dare, again:

Too many cultural institutions have become inward focused, navel gazers, forever asking what constitutes art and obfuscating meaning behind overly complex explanations that do little to help the people they ought to attract and serve; turning our once great institutions into mausoleums for ideas rather than classrooms for exploring and managing life.

What can happen when one gets “real” is the story of Ai Weiwei.  In his December 30 OpEd, Nick Kristof notes, “China’s leaders have tried honoring Ai Weiwei and bribing him with the offer of high positions. They have tried jailing him, fining him and clubbing him so brutally that he needed emergency brain surgery. In desperation, they have even begged him to behave — and nothing works.”

Every work that Weiwei creates is provoking commentary on China’s handling of human rights, government cover-ups, societal changes, and democracy.  He is deeply involved and entrenched in the political unrest of China – he’s placed himself squarely in the center of it all, and now they won’t let him leave.  His work is the opposite of the isolated navel-gazing that made me so angry at the artworld.  And yet, he is dwelling in that artworld – even leading it.  He is overcoming the stereotypes that the artworld has attached to deep involvement with the real world – maybe in efforts at self-preservation.  In his catalog interview with Kerry Brougher, Weiwei writes:

In normal circumstances, I know it’s undesirable for an artist to be labeled a political activist or dissident.  But I’ve overcome that barrier.  The suits that people dress you in are not as important as the content you put forth, so long as it gives meaning to new expression.  The struggle is worthwhile if it provides new ways to communicate with people and society.

Visiting this exhibit solidified the conclusion that I’d already started to reach:  Art and I are going to be okay.  We might even continue to inspire each other, especially if Ai Weiwei is any sort of trendsetter in the artworld.  But my relationship with teaching art may be a little more uneasy.

Most of my students are not going to proceed in life as professional artists, but I’m in a position in which I’m shaping their early perceptions of what art is and the role it’s going to play in their lives.

Realizations like what I’m exploring here make that role a lot more weighty.

I think that I’ve been settling, playing it safe, avoiding those bigger questions of advocacy, inconsistency, and risk.

It’s easier to maintain a relationship with the artworld I’ve known since the beginning – the self-referential artworld that is comfortable with its insular audience.  Teaching this art thrives on technique and basic assessment.  Right now, my students develop technical skill, keep their work on the wall and on the table, and ask a few questions if I’m lucky.

But I want them to believe, as I do, that art should be far more connected to life than this.

This show, and all of its implications, leaves my teacher-self on edge.  Out with the old relationship… get past the breakup… in with the new.  Risky business, this, but so, so essential – precisely because most of my students aren’t going to be professional artists; they are going to shape the conditions to which the new artworld responds.

Weiwei, in his Hirshhorn catalog interview:

Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating.  If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.

And Nick Kristof concludes his OpEd with a final question to Ai Weiwei:

I hope the White House listens to how Ai responded when I asked if President Obama was doing enough to raise human rights concerns.

“I don’t know what they’re doing under the table,” Ai said. “But on the surface, they’re not doing enough.”


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