Ai Weiwei's art should have a clear, direct purpose: agitating the Chinese people and protesting against the Chinese Government.
But, after visiting Ai's show "According to What?" at the Brooklyn Museum, I had to ask: what exactly is Ai trying to tell the Western world?
It's clear that the show functions as American propaganda.
American anxiety about Chinese national success grows daily: According to What? shows us the superiority of Western ideology. The art show gives us a curated look at a catastrophically dystopian China. Despite economic/political turmoil in the US, we are told, at least we don't live in China.
Ai, like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, is a protagonist carefully constructed to appeal to a Western audience. He is the exile, the misfit who brings freedom and individualism to a land of oppression. We can view Ai as an archetypical Cold War dissident, a rare beacon of light spreading the word of Western ideology.
And Ai himself is committed to the Western art-world's deified institutions. His blend of minimalism, conceptualism and performative work deliberately caters to a fine art sensibility -- a desirable and accessible social currency.
In this sphere, by necessity, his primary audience is wealthy white folks.
But given Ai's lofty political aspirations, Ai presents his work as though it were solely for the Chinese people. According to this story, we expect that the Chinese people should take one look at Ai's pieces, feel oppressed, then inspired to demand change from the Chinese political party.
When shown in a Western art world context, these supposedly political artworks lose their activism--all that remains is aesthetic value and the novelty of making political artwork in a politically unstable world.
Consequently, China - its culture, its people, and its governing ideology - is sacrificed to Ai's international acclaim as an artist: because the more tragically China is depicted, the better received the work is in America. We--Americans--can feel all the more satisfied with our own ideology, economics, and politics. Essentially, Ai offers China up as fodder for ideological masturbation.
When we consume Ai's artwork, he does real damage: the population of China is presented as herds of passive sheep. There is, of course, cowardice and conformity everywhere: but there are also many with enough critical sophistication to notice that Ai is putting on an exotic performance. From afar all we see are the herds of sheep and the big brother shepherd who controls them all. China is used as nothing but a tool to validate western ideology.
So, Mr. Ai, this is my question to you: Are you creating American propaganda in the disguise of art? If not, what is it you wish for us to see?