One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is our inability to be shocked by art. It has been almost 100 years since Marcel Duchamp submitted a stock urinal to an art exhibition as a work he called Fountain. Ever since, artists have struggled to replicate the effect it had of a grenade exploding in an innocent culture, but with little success. Sure, there are stray ripples of outrage, but whether it is the intimacy and sexuality of Tracey Emin’s My Bed or the theo-scatological juvenilia of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, the public generally just shrugs and goes about its business. As a result, we have become complacent about art, in particular about its capacity to challenge authority and upend the status quo. But for artists looking to transgress the boundaries, they might take a bit of inspiration, and a great deal of caution, from what is going on in China.
In early May, the Chinese performance artist Cheng Li was sentenced to a year of “labour through re-education” and sent to a prison camp for the crime of disturbing the public order. Cheng was arrested after he and a female partner had sex on a balcony in front of a crowd of patrons at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Beijing. Cheng billed the performance piece, entitled Art Whore, as an indictment of the “popular trend of commercializing art.”
In North America, public sex is about as banal as art gets. When a Northwestern University professor staged a live sex-toy demonstration for his human sexuality class last month, the school responded to calls for his dismissal by…cancelling the course next year. As for the idea of art commenting on its own commercialization, that’s one of the oldest (and most lucrative) tricks in the book. The prankumentary Exit Through the Gift Shop by the shadowy British street artist Banksy might have grossed only $5 million or so, but it served as a fantastic advertisement for Banksy’s own works, which sell at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But over in China, this sort of stuff is actually considered dangerous. At the beginning of April, the artist Ai Weiwei was detained at the airport in Beijing, and was not heard from until May 16, when his wife was finally permitted to see him. Meanwhile, Chinese officials have publicly accused him of a laughable mess of crimes, including plagiarism, tax evasion, pornography, and “inciting subversion of state power.”
The 53-year old Ai is one of the most famous artists in China—he helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics—and his arrest coincides with new exhibitions of his art in both London and New York. But Ai has long used his work and status to engage in political activism and social criticism, especially regarding human rights abuses and government corruption. Since 2008, he has been beaten by police, repeatedly detained or placed under house arrest, and had his Shanghai studio demolished by local authorities. It has been a very long time since any artist in North America has had anything close to this sort of impact. The key, though, is to recognize that the political impotence of our artists should not be seen as a failure: instead, the reluctance of anyone to get riled up by art is a sign of its complete success.
The theory that underlies the various forms of countercultural art—Dadaism, the situationists, shock art—is that our system only works through strict social conformity. The authorities maintain control by enforcing cultural norms, especially those relating to sex and religion. The job of the artist is to create works that expose the coercive nature of the system. But the effect of a hundred years of subversion has been to inoculate us against this sort of iconoclasm. Every now and then, some enterprising young artist puts bags of fresh feces in a gallery or smears elephant dung on a painting of the Virgin Mary, but it has no lasting impact. It has got to the point where the only way an artist can get a serious rise out of the authorities is to do something manifestly illegal, such as the three Ontario College of Art and Design students who, a few years ago, tortured and mutilated a cat on videotape.
But things are different in a country like China, where social order actually is maintained, in part anyway, by official control of the culture. There, challenging authority through art can still be an effective way of serving democratic values. It is mere playfulness when Banksy spray-paints a stencil of two police officers making out against the wall of a police station; when an artist calling himself Cpak Ming projects an image of Ai Weiwei onto the wall of the Hong Kong barracks of the People’s Liberation Army, it is an act of revolution. Indeed, what seems to have set Chinese authorities against Ai for good was something he posted on his Twitter account in February, in support of the recent protests in China that were inspired by the “Jasmine revolution” in Tunisia.
For better and for worse, the fate of Ai Weiwei is now tied to the fate of the movement for political reform in China. The great mass of artists in the West who have spoken out on his behalf and who stand in solidarity with him can only look on, with an uncomfortable mix of envy and trepidation.