In 2015 the Chinese dissident and artist Ai Weiwei was invited to turn the Alcatraz prison into a giant art installation. The show “@ Large” consisted of several installations, of which “Traces”, 180 portraits made of Lego bricks, was a centerpiece. The individuals so portrayed are all considered political prisoners, incarcerated in different countries around the world. Their portraits, most of them found on the internet, were pixelated when upsized. The pixilation was then covered with Lego blocks, each block matching one pixel’s colour. The Lego portraits were placed on the floor in a section of the prison. The abandoned prison was filled with prisoners again.

This image shows the head of a colorful paper dragon, an installation actually titled 'Dragon', created by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei for an exhibit at Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, itself titled, @Large: Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz. The image was shot on April 20th 2015.; source: Anita Sagastegui

A giant Chinese paper dragon was hovering in the air inside the building. The dragon, Ai explains, is usually the symbol of the emperor. But in this case it symbolises the spirit of the individual. The message being: “One cannot incarcerate ideas.”

In a video introduction to the exhibition Ai states that: “It’s a duty of the artist to fight for and to protect the freedom of speech.” This credo has a dramatic backdrop in Ai’s personal story. In the 30’s his father, Ai Qing, was arrested by the Kuomintang and sentenced to jail for his artistic work. Later he became a famous poet and a member of the Communist Party. But as the cultural Revolution took hold, Ai Qing fell out with the communists. The writer did not endorse the idea of burning books. And so he was purged again in the 1950’s. His former comrades accused him of being “rightist”; which means “enemy of the people”.

Of this reason Ai Weiwei’s parents were both deported. His father, the poet, was prohibited from writing for several years, ordered instead to clean the public toilets in a little village in Mongolia. After the death of Mao Tse-Tung he was rehabilitated.

Anyone who follows Ai Weiwei’s art are struck by the intense critique of the Chinese Communist Party it conveys. Communism as the destruction of culture and civilisation. This attitude eventually led to Ai’s own incarceration in 2012. For 81 days he was imprisoned, but never formally accused or sentenced. For years the Chinese government confiscated his passport. Today he lives in exile.

On this background the idea of the duty of the artist is rational. The artist must engage in politics so as to make sure it is possible to make art. But it is also a humanitarian agenda. The artist takes on himself a responsibility for society as a whole. Without freedom of speech there can be no other freedoms either. The faces on the floor of the Altcraz are hidden away, in some cases nobody knows where, in the prisons of the world’s dictatorships. Many of them, Ai reckon, will never be seen again. The role of art in this context is to establish attention, keeping memory intact, address inhuman policies. But also to provide hope.

In recent years exhibitions and artists has come under increasing attacks for being “right wing”. The accusation implies a number of assumptions at the same time. The most fundamental of which is that the artist is not really an artist, and consequently: the works in question are not works of art, but tools of political communication. The critics enrol the artists into their political struggles. This phenomenon is double sided. First it claims it is fighting against fascism. And at the same time it attacks freedom of speech in the same way as the authoritarian power it claims it is confronting. The duty of the artist is thus expanding. From Ai Weiwei’s struggle to keep memory of imprisoned dissidents alive to fight to save the field of art itself.

The interest in the political observation of the artists can be hard to understand. No political party ever embraces an artist to promote itself in the eyes of the voters. And even if it was so, what would be the problem? Of course, artists are not accused and condemned for trying to prevent climate change or for encouraging the end of nation states and borders. Artists under attack is accused of promoting illegitimate agendas. But neither neo nazis, revolutionary socialists or fanatical islamists – to name a few examples of such actors - cares about art at all. So it looks like a mystery how the problem arises in the first place.

The key to understand it could be Secularism. In the secular society God is absent and other symbols thus replaces him. Culture is the secular replacement of the Church: the space where our moral judgements and considerations takes place. When this happens the artist becomes a carrier – a living symbol – of moral values. Good and evil will be written onto individuals. The process by which this happens is as complex as the monetary valuation of artworks.

There is a need for the basic moral characters; for good and evil. In secularism some living persons shall take the roles of saints and demons upon them. An artist can be a very suitable victim of a scapegoating process since the person is a public figure but without political power. An artist that does not fight back and has no network by which he or she can launch counter measures is preferred. And even more so: a rebel artist may seek and enjoy this kind of fighting. Since this after all provide the artist with a huge amount of attention.

The duty of the artist is to fight for freedom of speech. Which is equal to fighting for freedom to speak the truth. The truth about some event in history, about individual disasters, about flaws and corruption. Art is under attack for doing so. The accusations are always the same. “Some see racism.” But what would be racist in a piece of art? This would imply that the work consisted of a definite statement – and hence would not be a piece of art, but of communication.

The most common attacks on art is based on a negation of art as art. The works are misrepresented and so, consequently, are the artists. The idea of “rightist art” is clearly, with intention or not, a deception.

I prefer to think of it as an unintended situation, even though this could be due to my own comfort. But from this angle at least some innocence is reached. Culture and art as a surrogate language filling the empty space left by an absent church certainly has some power of explanation. And this leads to a development of Ai Weiwei’s position. The artist’s duty is not only moral but existential. Since art itself is increasingly woven into the political battlefield, the task to protect freedom of speech presupposes the ability to produce art and to present it. The current phenomenon “cancel culture” is a negation of both. And as the story of both Ai Weiwei and Ales Pushkin shows, “cancel culture” is found in democracies as well as in dictatorships. Ai’s dictum was formulated in 2015. His work “@ Large” was evidence to the ability of art to escape an authoritarian state’s limitations.