The exhibition “Political Art” generated more than 100 articles all over the world, but very few of them relates to the actual art works presented in it. Even before the opening the exhibition was accused of “promoting” political agendas. On a closer look one will find that the accusations directed against the exhibition are identical to smear usually directed towards the Polish government. This illustrates the artist’s double position: In one sense the artist is articulating and sharing with the public experiences, emotions and ideas; and the works can, in so doing, be critical of power.
Jon Eirik Lundberg, Bon triage
In another and opposite sense the artist can be used by power to discipline the public.
In Denmark the media reception of the exhibition has been characterized by the latter approach, modelled around a story that the exhibition was “ordered” or at least “authorised” by the ruling party, PiS. No kind of evidence has been provided to back these claims. That is because their agenda is not actually concerned with the exhibited art, but with political power. The critics claim that the Polish government discretely uses art as a certain kind of communication.
At the same time the critics are using the exhibition precisely as a means to communicate their political opposition to the government. There is a delicate twist to this: The accuser is the one acting in the manner of the accused.
Ai Weiwei has made this kind of experiences himself, as he eventually fell out with the Chinese Communist Party. This happened after he rose to world fame by co-designing the “Bird’s Nest” sports stadium for the Olympics in Beijing (2008). Ai had always been extremely critical at the Communist Party, not least due to the fact both his parents were incarcerated as “rightists”. Ai was arrested and spent more than eighty days in prison but were never formally accused. After he was released the authorities refused to return his passport, denying him the possibility to travel. It was during this period he created the exhibition “@ Large” in the Alcatraz prison (2014). The message of the exhibition was: “You can’t incarcerate ideas”.
In his early years Ai Weiwei belonged to a group of dissidents publishing illegal magazines. “Publishing” not so much in the ordinary sense, as they had no access to copy machines. Instead they nailed their magazines up on a wall so that people could read them standing in front of the pages. Even though the group counted no more than 80 individuals “the wall” became so infamous the Communist Party denounced it and started arresting the writers. It was at that time Ai Weiwei moved to the US.
This makes up the background for Ai Weiwei’s statement that “art is innocent”. Still the sentence can be rejected. “The artist wants to have an impact”, some could say. And hence cannot be innocent. But this scope of innocence is too narrow, in my opinion. True observations articulated in pieces of art can certainly lead to consequences in reality. But the artist cannot know whether or to what degree someone will pay attention to the work, or how it will be interpreted. And can take responsibility for neither. It must lie beyond his or her sphere of influence.
The tendency to place guilt on artists is about something else.
As mentioned, the artist is situated in a double position between power and the public. In one sense the artist will contribute to the making of “a public sphere” through the act of producing art, making exhibitions, stirring debate, etc. In the other sense power may choose to discipline the artist as a symbolic figure in order to address all of the public sphere at once. This goes not only for autocrats against their population, but also for autocrats addressing audiences in other countries. Terrorist attacks on artists has such a function.
When artists like Lars Vilks are put under full time protection from Al Qeida, it disencourages artists from following the same path.
The autocrats are the first to claim that artists are responsible for the trouble “caused by their works”. This blame is part of their disciplination of the masses. The manouver is called “victim blaming”. And as far as they succeed, the public opinion will follow suit. When that happens people will say that the artist “has the freedom but not the duty” to deal with this or that “controversial topic”. And since the artist had the choice to do nothing, doing something equals guilt.
In this view innocence becomes synonymous with passivity. If being passive and saying nothing was innocent, then the silent servility of the many, which makes political criminality possible, cannot be blamed. And so by placing guilt on the artist the ordinary man can both conform to power and clean himself of historical guilt of the crimes performed by this power. Which was in part made possible by the same passivity.
The silent alliance between power and the public in democracies becomes visible through the artists. In their works, of course, but also, and maybe even more so, in their fate. When the public adopt the views of autocratic power – when one can hear the same accusations from both – then there is good reason to stop and reflect deeply over how that can be.
In Scandinavian countries basically anything that is moving beyond a radical left position can be branded “right wing” by default. The term is not, as some people claim, pointing at a position on a parliamentary axis. Instead it carries the same meaning as in China or in Belarus. “Right wing” means “enemy of society”. Courageous artists, dealing with “controversial issues” are isolated and constantly attacked. Especially the media is quick to label them “right wing”, without ever asking them about their political orientation.
“Right wing” or “rightist” means guilty of some sin. But of what sin precisely? Ai Weiwei’s works are often critical of the CCP, the crimes of which are part of recorded history. Lars Vilks’ “Roundabout dog” is an exercise of the freedom to perform blasphemy. Blasphemy is in Western countries not a felony. The forces threatening him counts the most repressive movements and regimes on earth. The states branding Vilks a criminal allow the trading of African slaves, to this very day. Even on a scale larger than at any earlier point in History. So according to what law is art “criminal”?
Vilks, like Rushdie, breached the rules of Sharia law, their perpetrators claim. Which, they must claim in addition, applies universally all over the world. In the autumn of 2020 the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty was killed by a Chechen terrorist connected to the IS in Syria. It has ever since been said the attack was “a punishment” for breaking this law. It is, however, not ‘a law’ in the ordinary sense of that term. First, it does not apply in France; and second, the countries promoting it says it was coined by an eternal being in the beyond
The roles of the actors involved in the attack are thus reversed. The artist is accused of committing a terrible sin; the killers are said to “make justice”. It is here we find the innocence of art; the accusations referring to works of art serves as excuses for purging the artist. And by purging the artist the power will set an example for the broader public. Even if the art work should carry some liability, unimaginable as that might be, the purging of the artist is not about power interfering the artist’s work. The subject for the accuser is the public – not pieces of art.