China locked up its best-known artist nearly two months ago. Ai Weiwei, who is both a widely admired conceptual artist and a fearless human-rights activist, has been on the bad side of the Chinese government for years. Officials claim that he was imprisoned for tax evasion, but given China’s notorious intolerance of dissent, it’s an ultrasafe bet that his real “offense” was that he dared to criticize the tyrannical bureaucrats who run his native land, not just once but repeatedly. “I want to have a purpose, to protect the dignity of life,” Mr. Ai told the Journal in January. “I feel it’s ridiculous to live in a condition where people cannot access their rights.” Those who say such things in China can end up behind bars—or worse.
And what is the art world doing about it? Not much.
To be sure, numerous protests have taken place since Mr. Ai and members of his staff were imprisoned on April 3, one of which was mounted by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. “We are aghast that this has happened and intend to protest as best we can,” MCASD director Hugh Davies told artblogger Tyler Green. But no other major museum in the U.S. has taken a similar step (though several museum directors have individually signed an online petition circulated by the Guggenheim Museum that calls for Mr. Ai’s release). What’s more, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts are preparing to open exhibitions of Chinese art organized in cooperation with the Chinese government. To date, Mr. Ai’s plight has not led either institution to alter its plans.
Dan Keegan, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, isn’t giving interviews on the subject, but he did send an email to Mary Louise Schumacher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in which he offered the following “explanation”: “The political situation is extremely complex and the museum is sensitive to the discussion that Ai Weiwei’s detention has created and we are obviously concerned for his well being. To that point, I think that our [exhibition] can play a role in expanding understanding and forwarding the dialogue between cultures.”
You think? Well, here’s what Ms. Schumacher had to say about that:
“The exhibit places MAM in an uneasy spot and raises ethical questions.
Should the museum join many of the world’s other cultural institutions in signing petitions and speaking publicly? Would China pull the show? And if they did, would MAM lose the exhibition fee, presumably in the millions? If MAM is mum, however, will it run the risk of the appearance of appeasement?”
Those are damned good questions, and Mr. Keegan is in no rush to answer them. But Julia H. Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, is happy to oblige. “Americans tend to want to impose their own values,” she told the Journal Sentinel. “Chinese culture has been around for over 5,000 years, so I think we have to be somewhat cautious in dictating the approach that this older culture should take.”
I invite Ms. Taylor, Mr. Keegan and the art-museum community as a whole to take part in a thought experiment. Peter Fonda called President Obama a “f—— traitor” at the Cannes Film Festival last weekend for the way he handled the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year. Said Mr. Fonda, who is an executive producer of “The Big Fix,” a film documentary about the spill: “I’m training my grandchildren to use long-range rifles. For what purpose? Well, I’m not going to say the words ‘Barack Obama,’ but…” Yes, that’s boneheaded talk from a washed-up actor—but if the U.S. government had responded to it by throwing Mr. Fonda in jail, can there be any doubt whatsoever that filmmakers and film studios from coast to coast would have demanded his release?
That’s how our “younger culture” handles dissent. Anyone who thinks that China’s way is equally meritorious needs a refresher course in Human Rights 101.
In situations like these, of course, it’s worth recalling the precept that every budding doctor learns in medical school: “First, do no harm.” It might well be that the Milwaukee Art Museum would plunge Mr. Ai into hotter water by protesting his imprisonment—but it’s hard to see how that could make his situation any worse. On the other hand, such a protest might also persuade China’s leaders that they can’t expect to keep on doing business as usual with the U.S. unless they release Mr. Ai forthwith.
It strikes me that instead of being “cautious” not to “impose” American values on a foreign culture, the museums of America should acknowledge that they have a unique responsibility to speak out on behalf of Mr. Ai. They are, after all, trustees of the cultural heritage of mankind, which makes them by definition guardians of the universal values of civilization. Yet most of them are carefully looking the other way while China thumbs its nose at those same values by unlawfully imprisoning an artist. That’s not caution, it’s cowardice.
“I believe that no matter what happens, nothing can prevent the historical process by which society demands freedom and democracy,” Mr. Ai wrote on his blog in 2009. (The blog has since been shut down and its contents purged from cyberspace by the Chinese government.) Perhaps. But his captors are both ready and willing to prevent him from making art. Are America’s museums as willing to stand up for an artist whose life may be on the line?
—Mr. Teachout, the Journal’s drama critic, writes “Sightings” every other Friday. He is the author of “Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.” Write to him at [email protected]