The new song by the Chinese artist Ai Weiei, “Dumbass,” seemingly has little in common with “Craftsmanship,” a talk given in 1937 by Virginia Woolf, a newly released recording of which is being touted as the only known imprint of the British author’s voice.
It’s fascinating, however, to listen to both recordings side by side.
Despite the fact that thousands of miles and nearly 80 years separate Woolf’s erudite and queenly-toned meditation on the power of words from Weiei’s gruff, a-melodious crie de coeur about incarceration, the two share one important thing in common — they are both essentially about freedom.
Woolf’s essay is a heartfelt plea for people to give themselves the license to use words with a sense of playfulness and abandon and to get away from the burden of British history and the tyranny of the English dictionary. There’s as much gravity and yearning in Woolf’s voice as there is old worldly poise in her desire to break away from the past.
Weiwei’s song (as published on YouTube with an accompanying article in The Guardian) is a hard-hitting diatribe against the constraints of the Chinese system. The single’s video, created by the renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle, reconstructs with literal deliberateness scenes of the artist’s 81-day incarceration by Chinese authorities in 2011. Weiwei’s approach to singing is a snarl. It’s tuneless but powerful in its directness.
In a sense, the enemy in both artists’ eyes is the British and Chinese patrimony. Both feel imprisoned and frustrated but have a different way of voicing their resentment. I think Woolf and Weiwei would have a lot to talk about if they could get together in a room today.