Today in the Times... what PS can learn from Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei's latest projects

I first encountered Ai Weiwei's work at the Tate Modern in London. I walked in and found his giant pile of sunflower seeds. I balked. "Modern art is so lame sometimes," I thought.

But then I read the description of the project, and the attention that had gone into the creation of it. I watched an interview with the author and those who participated in the creation of the project. And I marveled. And I fell in love with Ai Weiwei. The work captured the subtle forms of resistance of those who live under authoritarianism. The sunflower project highlights the ways that authoritarian symbols can be re-purposed and given new meanings by subjects.

Today the NYTimes has a review of some of his latest work (see link at top of page to see the pics). The pieces attempt to capture his time in detention under the Chinese authorities in 2011. The scenes depict Weiwei showering, eating, and sleeping under the watch of two guards. I think they are a brilliant illustration of life under authoritarianism.

The article touches on a few very important issues:

1. The effects of authoritarianism on individuals:

“China is still in constant warfare, with destroying individuals’ nature, including people’s imaginations, curiosity, motivations, dreams,” Mr. Ai said. “This state’s best minds have been wasted by this high ideological control, which is fake. Even the people who are trying to use it as a tool to maintain power or stability know that this is a completely fake condition.”

2. Similar to Political Science, art itself can abstract to the point that it obscures:

“Can political art still be good art?” Mr. Ai said. “Those questions have been around for too long. People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle, but rather use high aesthetics, or so-called high aesthetics, to try to separate or purify humans’ emotions from the real world.”

3. The article also alludes to the difficulties of defining the boundaries of what is art:

"Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said in general, “Weiwei has been looking, in the years since his detention, for a way to use art to talk about social issues in a way that still codes and functions as art.” The metal rods from Sichuan, he said, are “a good example of his search for this middle road between overtly political and purely formal.”

In my own experience, political science theories about authoritarianism abstract to such a degree that it becomes possible to forget that real people live under these systems. Authoritarian subjects experience fear, paranoia and rage that must be silenced. One of my long-term goals is develop a syllabus on the politics of authoritarianism that marries recent scholarship with other art forms that capture day to day life under such a system and adds more texture to what can become a sterile study of a system of horrific abuse. I am planning on including some of Ai Weiwei's work.