Ai Weiwei & Mo Yan on Publicity and Responsibility

In an interview and a recent speech, respectively, artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel-winning author Mo Yan expressed sharply different attitudes towards public exposure and social and political responsibility. From Bernhard Zand, talking to Ai Weiwei for Spiegel Online:

SPIEGEL: How have you been lately?

Ai: In general I am fine; my situation is as good as anybody else’s. It is still difficult but that’s because I want to put up a fight. I could have a more comfortable life if I gave up on this, and so could my relatives, my friends and state security.

SPIEGEL: Why don’t you want this?

Ai: Because I can’t feel comfortable if I have to give up my — and other people’s –rights for that. If I have to ignore injustice that I simply cannot ignore. My world is so connected to the world of others, how can I pretend I don’t know about those things? […]

SPIEGEL: Outside of China you are not only known for your art and your tweets, but also because you frequently speak to foreign journalists. How would you describe your relationship with the Western media?

Ai: Journalists are professionals. They look at the truth the way doctors look at it — not like a patient. As an artist I try to maintain the truth on a level where it can be more easily shared and accepted. Art has to be innocent. Journalists have to make judgements. That’s why they covered the tragic Boston attacks widely, but didn’t cover the 122 Tibetans who have immolated themselves over the past months. And that’s why many of you write about my struggle but not about the struggle of others.

SPIEGEL: Do you think you are getting too much media attention?

Ai: It certainly raises my responsibility. […] [Source]

Ai and Zand also discuss Ai’s participation in the Venice Bienniale in June, his personal circumstances in China, and why “if I was a Western politician, I probably would like dictators, too.” The artist has recently branched out into bad hairdressing and, like the Ministry of Public Security, is also taking aim at China’s repeated milk safety scandals. Meanwhile, his Sunflower Seeds have returned to London in an unofficial exhibition of seeds stolen from previous showings.

At Tea Leaf Nation, Shi Yunhan reports Mo Yan’s professed hope that the Nobel spotlight will soon fade, allowing him to return to writing in relative obscurity. Shi quotes from Mo’s recent speech at the 2nd Sino-Australian Literary Forum in Beijing:

Whether or not I deserved the Nobel Prize, I already received it, and now it’s time to get back to my writing desk and produce a good work. I hear that the 2013 list of Nobel Prize nominees has been finalized. I hope that once the new laureate is announced, no one will pay attention to me anymore.

[…] The prize money does not come out of taxpayers’ pockets, so I don’t have such responsibilities. I hate partisan politics and how people gang up on opponents based on ideology. I like to come and go on my own, which allows me to look on from the sidelines with a clear mind and gain insight about the world and the human condition. I don’t have the capability or interest of becoming a politician. I just want to write, quietly, and do some charity work in secret.

[…] It is not surprising to hear Mo Yan point out that a Nobel laureate has no technical obligations for increased social activism. Even before he won the Nobel Prize, Mo Yan spoke negatively on the public duties that can come with literary awards. It is also in line with his pen name, which means “don’t speak” in Chinese. The phrase refers to an ancient saying calling ordinary people to refrain from speaking out in public, especially on state affairs. However, now that he is China’s first officially acknowledged Nobel laureate, his sincere desire for a low-profile openly runs against his adoption by the Chinese government as a national symbol and source of pride. [Source]