Ai Weiwei, a very high-profile Chinese artist and dissident, was accosted in a government crackdown last Sunday, April 3. Two days later, New York Times columnist Holland Cotter championed Ai Weiwei as a hero standing up against an oppressive regime. What could have been an exhausted and hackneyed argument was redeemed when Cotter presented Ai Weiwei as the proponent of both Western and Chinese ideals. Cotter depicts Mr. Ai not only as a bohemian artist who pits himself against the system for the sake of beauty, but also as a Chinese intellectual who outspokenly criticizes corrupt rulers for the sake of morality.
I am not going to contest the recent apprehension of Ai Weiwei. I am also not going to attack the bulk of what Cotter said in his piece, “An Artist Takes Role of China’s Conscience.” I am, however, going to contend with six sentences in his column.
First (and most importantly) how can a mere six sentences provide the historical justification for his ground-breaking thesis, that Ai Weiwei is the “embodiment of a cultural type” that dates back to Confucius? Alas, if only the entire scope of Chinese intellectual history could be encapsulated with such brevity!
If Cotter is being true to history, there are only two traditional “cultural types” of dissenters to which he could have been alluding. These are the “scholar-gentleman,” or the “literati-artist.”
Ai Weiwei is neither.
It’s true that Confucius encouraged councilors to maintain moral integrity in the face of corrupt rulers, but even in the face of the vilest form of authority, Confucius still insisted that criticism be administered on the grounds of respect. Unfortunately, Cotter conflates this “respect” with a “self-sacrificing honesty” that allows the scholar-gentleman to escape royal retribution (which they rarely ever did, and we can look to the Qing and Ming dynasties for concrete evidence). But even if we accept Cotter’s analysis, does Ai Weiwei actually possess a “self-sacrificing honesty” when he has conscientiously fashioned himself into a darling of Western media?
The scholar-gentleman was facing a very real death, with his legacy to be determined by the court historian. Ai Weiwei is smarter than that; he has already assured his legacy as a martyr in Western media. He may be sacrificing himself to the wrath of the Chinese government, but Holland Cotter has described his strategy well — as one of “calculated personal risk.” Far from a “self-sacrificing honesty,” he has already calculated that he stands to gain much more than he risks. After all, if the Chinese government has any intelligence, they will not begrudge him the glory of becoming a martyr.
Ai Weiwei’s not being allowed to attend his exhibition’s opening in New York on May 2 will only add to his populist martyrdom, exacerbating problems for the Chinese government.
But I’m getting beside the point. Confucius did not care for martyrs. He was much more interested in what people did with their lives than their postmortem testament. Confucius would have been appalled at what Cotter champions as a “noble Confucian model” — the Chinese philosopher condemned indulging in “unnoble and relentless insistence,” and disapproved of “single dramatic confrontations.”
In one particularly entertaining story, a Prince of Chen and his ministers were wearing items of a courtesan’s underclothing, presumably because they had all slept with her. Their morally-grounded councilor admonished them for setting a bad example for the people. Cotter would expect the Prince of Chen to be overcome with gratitude for the councilor’s “self-sacrificing honesty,” but if he did, he certainly did not show it. The Prince of Chen had him promptly executed.
Confucius does not comment on the lewd behavior of the ruler and his ministers. Ironically, he only questions the actions of the councilor. He even laments, “Xie Ye (the councilor) died for no good reason!” In no way a moral relativist, Confucius nevertheless maintained that councilors should be more tactful than stubborn, and more pragmatic than idealistic. Confucius would rather Xie Ye have lived as a moralizing presence than died as a moral imposition on the court.
Clearly, Ai Weiwei is not the Confucian ideal of the “scholar-gentleman.”
What about the other category? Cotter doesn’t talk about the category of “literati-artist” explicitly, but this is a more plausible category for Ai Weiwei to belong to. Often recluses from intellectual and scholarly backgrounds, these artists were known for lacing their artworks with politically subversive messages.
However, Ai Weiwei diverges from this archetype in two important ways.
First, he is just not as subtle as they are. Although there are many reasons for this difference, the most compelling involves audience. In literary China, there was a common language of motifs and allusions grounded in a shared intellectual foundation. The literati painters were painting not for museums or for the public, but for themselves, friends or others who would be able to understand and appreciate the subtlety of the embedded messages.
On the other hand, Ai Weiwei’s paintings are to be appreciated not by a literary Chinese audience, but by an international public. Only, his audience is far too geographically and culturally diverse to share as intimate a visual language as the literary Chinese. What this mass public can universally understand, however, are tropes like what Cotter refers to as “aesthetic tradition-busters,” pieces like painting Coca-Cola logos on ancient Chinese pots, breaking up classical Chinese furniture and photographing himself making rude gestures in front of iconic buildings.
More importantly, the literati-artists painted with a vision to restore — never to revolutionize. During the Yuan and Qing dynasties, they yearned to return to the days when China was under the rule of the Han people, and the subversiveness of their paintings was colored by a conservative nostalgia for the past. Ai Weiwei has no such respect for the past. As Cotter so conveniently enumerates, much of Ai’s artwork vandalizes artifacts from Chinese art history, which is then repackaged as a statement of conceptual, contemporary art.
Ai Weiwei doesn’t like the current government, but what does he want to replace it with? Does he really have a vision for the end goal? It is much harder to construct a building than it is to tear it down. Sure, I’ve seen his calls for freedom of speech, but it is one thing to see those rights and freedoms established in the Constitution, and another entirely different to see them enforced. No vision of freedom or progress can ever be viable without a vision for an order that will preserve and protect it. So, Mr. Ai, where is this vision? And Mr. Cotter, how can you claim that he inherits the Confucian ideal when he has neither the retrospectively nostalgic character of the literati-artist nor the respectfully reform-minded character of the scholar-gentleman?
The only thing that irks me more than the Chinese government manipulating Confucian doctrine is Westerners attempting to do the same. At least with the Chinese government, I know it is not a feat of ignorance. When we correct for such ignorance by going back to the sources, it becomes clear that Ai Weiwei is not the rightful inheritor of the Confucian tradition.
But then again, neither is the Chinese government.
A good government justifies itself — Confucius would say that a government confident in its moral standing would have no need to trifle with someone like Ai Weiwei.