There are a number of topics on which I feel confident, if not competent, enough to be a dick. Art is not one of them. I am a big fan. The first thing I do when I visit a city is go to the art museum(s). If all I had to do was answer trivia questions about artists or explain different movements, styles, periods, and so on, I'd write something and not feel too much like an idiot. But I just don't have the smug confidence of the art critic that would allow me to describe in great detail, "This is shit, and here's why." I can spot said shit from a mile away, but I lack the vocabulary to explain its flaws.
That's why I'm glad someone else wrote a lengthy takedown of the artistic talents of Chinese political dissident/artist Ai Weiwei. In the same way that people tend to be sensitive about criticizing Israel for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, criticism of Ai has been largely verboten lest it be interpreted as criticism of his political activism. His willingness to speak out against the Chinese government is laudable, regardless of how effective it is. He was beaten nearly to death by Chinese police at a political protest in 2009. The guy is not a fake activist or some guy posting "F the System" on Facebook. But art galleries throughout the Western world have tripped over themselves to hold Ai exhibitions, and frankly his work often borders on sophomoric. Two good quotes from the lengthy article:
The Hirshhorn has recently purchased Ai's more than thirteen-foot-high Cube Light, which, with its row upon row of jazzily back-lit gold-toned crystals, suggests the retro-glam décor for an upscale bar or nightclub. While a wall label explains that Cube Light "interrogate[s] conventions of culture, history, politics, and tradition," it seems to me that the only reasonable response to this caramel colored concoction is to order a martini and make it extra dry. I confess that Ai lost me completely with Cube Light, part of what the people at the Hirshhorn refer to as his "celebrated chandelier series." The glitz of Cube Light reflects a side of his sensibility that some progressives will dismiss as high bourgeois kitsch, although at times it is unclear whether Ai is parodying a taste for swank Chinese porcelains and beautifully crafted wood furniture or celebrating it. The truth is that he may not be entirely clear about this himself.
Asked more recently about the project, Ai had this to say: "Because the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is animal heads, I think it's something that everyone can have some understanding of, including children and people who are not in the art world. I think it's more important to show your work to the public. That's what I really care about. When Andy Warhol painted Mao in the 1960s and 1970s, I don't think many people understood Mao, either—it was just this image that people knew, like Marilyn Monroe or somebody. So they might see these zodiac animals like that—like Mickey Mouse. They're just animals." Ai may be a hero when it comes to speaking out for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake, but when he talks about his art he is jeeringly manipulative. It is hard to have patience for an artist who justifies his work with references to Mickey Mouse.
I'm sure it's somewhat awkward to explain these concepts in a foreign language, but this sounds like the ramblings of a college sophomore. It points to a larger problem with the art world – Ai has been adopted by the jet-set as a cause célèbre/mascot alongside nonprofit/foundation favorites like the Dalai Lama, Sudanese child-soldiers and Aung San Suu Kyi – but also to a larger problem with all of us, as this is just another symptom of our lost ability to take anything at face value anymore. We live in a world in which any artist who can throw together something banal and sell it with a verbose, pseudo-intellectual cover story is considered Very Serious and Important. Even though it is for a good reason – art is subjective and we often lack the vocabulary to dissect it – it's very rare that anyone calls artists on these things. It amazes me that journalists can listen to statements like the above without saying, "I'm sorry, but what in the hell are you talking about?"
Now that we're willing to accept that anything and everything is art, we're susceptible to every manner of deception whether it's done by others or we do it to ourselves. We tell ourselves that the great political activist must be also a great artist, and that his work is an incisive commentary on the Chinese political system. We're reluctant to confront the possibility that the great political activist is an artist, albeit not an extraordinarily talented one.