Portrait of the Artist … as Fed-Up Follower

The differences between the Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and the Chinese painter, sculptor, and photographer Ai Weiwei are great – but not so great as the similarities. They include:

• Both men’s claim to fame is as an artist – and as a political dissident.
• Both men railed against the Communist systems of which they were an inextricable part.
• Both men were for brief periods tolerated by their otherwise autocratic and even dictatorial governments.
• Both men were for far longer periods persecuted and even imprisoned by their governments.
• Both men interwove art and protest in a way that made the one indistinguishable from the other.
• Both men were – in Ai’s case are – courageous in ways the rest of us can scarcely contemplate.

More, arguably, than anyone else, Solzhenitsyn exposed the cruelty of life under Stalin, in particular the life of the gulag, a system of internal exile, incarceration, and forced labor that from the 1930s to the early 1950s brutalized some 14 million Russians. In 1970 Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – “For the ethical force with which he pursued the indispensible traditions of Russian literature.” What more precisely is this “indispensible tradition”? One in which the writer serves as voice of the people – a people oppressed by their government, whether led by tsar or commissar.

Ai Weiwei is probably the best known of a number of Chinese artists that in the last decade or so have played the role of gadfly, or political dissident, or fed-up follower. In the West certainly, Ai has been an object of interest for several years – as political artist and as artful politician.

But now, as a result of what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl calls his “spectacular retrospective” (October 22) at Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum, Ai is under renewed scrutiny. Since in his review of the exhibit, Schjeldahl skillfully weaves Ai’s work as an artist with his work as a political protester, I quote him directly.

“Ai could not attend the show’s opening, because his passport was impounded by the Chinese authorities last year, when he was jailed, without charge, for three months. He has braved periods of house arrest, a beating that caused a brain hemorrhage, prosecution for tax evasion, the shutting down of his popular blog, the revocation of his design firm’s license, the demolition of his newly built studio in Shanghai, and around–the-clock surveillance. Does admiring his work enlist you in his struggles? And if you consider him a victim of oppression, should the works’ quality even matter?”

The artist as bell-ringer is a theme to which I will return. For now suffice it to point to these two men, so different yet so similar, each an artist who carried fed-up followership to a heroic extreme.

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