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Rotten “Soft Diplomacy”: Ai Weiwei’s Plight and U.S. Museums’ Appeasement CLARIFIED and UPDATED

Virginia Meets China: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ director Alex Nyerges, second from right, and Governor Bob McDonnell, fifth from right, visit the Forbidden City, Beijing, to sign a cultural-exchange agreement with China.

My fellow AJ contributor, Judith Dobrzynski, has an important post today, pegged to the Milwaukee Art Museum’s (MAM’s) upcoming Summer of China (which is headlined by this major loan show
that recently appeared at the Metropolitan Museum).

CultureGrrl readers will not be surprised that I strongly agree with the view expressed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s arts writer Mary Louise Schumacher (seconded by Judith) that MAM’s China extravaganza “should not pass without an airing of Ai Weiwei’s case” (my link, not Mary Louise’s).

The same could be said about the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ recently announced “historic cultural exchange agreement” with Beijing’s Palace Museum.

The VMFA’s director, Alex Nyerges, recently said this to the Modern Art Notes blog:

On a practical level in terms of the staff, certainly Ai Weiwei‘s arrest
was a topic of conversation, but quite simply our partnership and
relationship with the Palace Museum has nothing to do with the Ai Weiwei
situation whatsoever.

Similarly, Milwaukee’s director, Dan Keegan, told Schumacher:

The political situation is extremely complex and the Museum is sensitive
to the discussion that Ai Weiwei’s detention has created and we are
obviously concerned for his well being. To that point, I
think that our “Summer of China” can play a role in expanding
understanding and forwarding the dialogue between cultures.

In a brief conversation before we took our seats at Metropolitan Museum’s recent press lunch, curator Maxwell Hearn and I discussed the Met’s stance regarding this issue. Hearn, who on July 1 will become the head of the museum’s Asian art department, alluded (like Keegan) to the complexity of the political situation in China, noting that much progress has been made there and predicting that there will be continued, albeit gradual, movement towards greater openness and tolerance.

Hearn touted the beneficial effects of cultural exchange in promoting international understanding and, like several other museum officials, suggested it could be counterproductive to attempt to interfere in China’s handling of its prominent dissident artist.

I felt let down by Hearn’s apparent willingness to avert his eyes from this injustice, especially because I had previously admired how he had subtlely undermined the party line, during the Met’s recent showing of The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty. His catalogue essay for that show tellingly highlighted Chinese artists’ “opposition to the new order of ‘barbaric’ conquerors,” and he had mounted a concurrent exhibition, Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change, drawn largely from the Met’s own collection, that demonstrated how “Yuan literati painters…used painting as a vehicle for self-expression” which “took on political or personal overtones.”

I saw Hearn in a better light after hearing the Met’s director, Tom Campbell, run through the list of upcoming exhibitions during the press lunch: I discovered that indirect but pointed commentary on China’s current political situation was again on the schedule: The Art of Dissent in 17th-Century China, curated in New York by Hearn, will demonstrate how “former Ming subjects turned to the arts…to assert their defiance and moral virtue.”

[CLARIFICATION: A reader (not Campbell) interpreted the first sentence in the previous paragraph to mean that I regarded Hearn “in a better light” than I regarded Campbell. I had, in fact, intended to express my APPROVAL of the presence of the “Dissent” show on the schedule, as reported to us by Campbell. No invidious comparisons between the director and the curator were in any way intended nor, I hope, implied.]

The first gallery in the “Dissent” show will feature “Ming Martyrs.” Ai, sadly, may come to be regarded as a modern-day martyr. Drawn from a non-profit Hong Kong public collection that was assembled by the late Hong Kong collector Ho Iu-kwong, this show had previously been displayed at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

What I interpret as Hearn’s inclination to make a strong political statement through indirection is a very Chinese strategy—notably employed by Ai Weiwei himself and by his late father, the renowned poet Ai Qing, who was jailed for his political activities.

I like this suggestion by one of the commenters on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s article:

MAM should sponsor a concurrent exhibit of Ai’s work, and that of other dissenting voices in China. People interested in Chinese culture could experience ancient art and modern art—and understand the context of what is happening. In this way, MAM is promoting dialog about what is going on in China, without choosing sides or getting too political.

American art museums cannot in good conscience take a see-no-evil approach to
the detention of one of China’s most celebrated artists, which was very
belatedly and inadequately explained by the Chinese authorities and has been characterized by
complete lack of due process, even under China’s own
legal standards. Saying that the situation is “complex” and that speaking out against injustice could backfire is simply playing by China’s rules. This craven deference to totalitarian sensibilities is
contrary to the mission of cultural institutions to champion artists and
freedom of expression.

Silence, in this case, is not golden. Signing a petition is not enough. Speaking of which: Why isn’t Tom Campbell’s name on the petition’s list of lead signatories?

UPDATE: The reader referred to in the above “clarification” also noted that Tom did sign the petition as an individual and posted this statement supporting Ai on the Met’s website.

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