It’s been a bad week for artist-government relationships. First came China’s reactive detention of the artist Ai Weiwei for “economic crimes,” a euphemism for anti-regime agitation. A few days later, a proposed meeting between Justin Bieber and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell through. The rendezvous seemed to have been poorly planned, and the reasons for its failure aren’t entirely clear. Mr. Netanyahu certainly bears some responsibility — he made a needlessly manipulative public offer to invite children from towns that have been suffering Gazan rocket fire. But whatever decisions were made, the fact remains that the failed meeting was construed seriously and politically. A rather alarmist New York Times headline declared a “Diplomatic Breakdown Amid Bieber Fever in Israel.” A peeved Bieber Tweeted, “i want to see this country and all the places ive dreamed of and … being pulled into politics its been frustrating.”
But despite the angry tweet, Bieber has accidentally embroiled himself in political debates before. In an interview this past February, he confusingly suggested that abortion in the case of rape was wrong because “everything happens for a reason.” And people cared — indeed, like it or not, people had to care. When the world’s most famous Canadian espouses a fringe view, albeit on something he is entirely unqualified to speak about, attention must be paid.
While Bieber’s flirtations with political controversy tend to the accidental and ill-advised, Ai Weiwei has deliberately played a high-risk double act for much of his career. Though a consultant for the design of the 2008 Beijing Olympic stadium, Ai denounced the artistic integrity of those who helped choreograph the vast opening ceremony. In 2009, police brutalized him for his investigations into student casualties of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. This past January, his studio was demolished under the pretext of “zoning regulations” — the real boundaries broken had been those of outspoken dissent. Many have speculated that only extensive family connections have kept Ai from a Liu Xiaobo-style permanent detention; whether those will help him now remains to be seen.
While it may seem flippant to connect the ominous arrest of a high-profile dissident artist with the snubbing of a 17-year-old by the busy leader of a embattled nation, it’s worth thinking about the different standards we impose on our artists. On the one hand, there are activists whose voice is amplified and emboldened by critical acclaim: Think Dylan circa 1960, not the same man who bowed to Chinese censorship on his recent tour. On the other are the apolitical purists — those who would rather just create, and find it “frustrating” to be “pulled into politics.”
Paradoxically, a climate of tell-all interviews and 24-hour tweets fosters a strange class of apolitical artists whose political views are broadcast and dissected around the world. Some would claim that Bieber’s mere presence in Israel is a political statement — Elvis Costello and Santana, among others, have refused to perform there while the IDF’s occupation of Palestinian territories continues. But I would challenge anyone to find a sliver of social conscience in Bieber’s work — and watered-down Christian revelation doesn’t count. Is it a cause for concern that the loudly discussed politics of the self-avowedly unengaged drown out those of the truly committed?
If there’s a strong political art scene at Yale, I haven’t noticed it. The most charged artistic moment of this semester was probably BelieveInPeople’s Anne Frank mural, and the politics there were more about context than content — is there a less polarizing 20th century figure than Anne Frank? This year, even the annual rite of Spring Fling soul-searching (think Ying Yang Twinz) is focusing on monetary concerns, rather than lyrics. When “Speak Truth to Power,” a fierce piece of political theater, was produced last weekend, its review was given the snarky News headline, “‘Speak’ has plenty of ‘Truth,’ lacks in ‘Power.’” I didn’t see the show, so can’t comment on the appropriateness of the quip. But I do think that the art scene here privileges armchair aesthetes over engaged artists.
Why? It may have something to do with our academic approach to artistic criticism; with our love of specialization; with the political superficiality of our age; or with a reaction against the unabashedly political art of our parent’s generation. Plenty of us listen to the old Bob Dylan, but we tend to cite the poetic brilliance of his lyrics or the singular and rough-hewn beauty of his performance — not the strength of his activism.
Whatever the cause, I wonder what we should draw from the increasingly visible sacrifices of political artists around the world. In Iran, filmmaker Jafar Panahi is serving a six-year jail sentence followed by a 20-year ban on creative activity; in Russia, Andrey Erofeyev is undergoing trial for his political and religious irreverence; now Ai Weiwei’s arrest has shown that nobody, however high-profile, is safe from repression in China.
We must reshape the relationship between depicting society and changing it, while we still have the chance.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.