Tristram Besterman

Support Ai Weiwei

Tristram Besterman, Issue 111/06, p17, 01.06.2011
When does engagement become appeasement?
Whether or not they visited his Sunflower Seeds installation at Tate Modern, London, few people in the UK are unaware of the peremptory detention by the Chinese authorities of the internationally acclaimed artist and political activist, Ai Weiwei.

Detained without charge since April and with his whereabouts uncertain, the chorus of condemnation has been sustained and worldwide. Fellow artists, cultural institutions and the media have kept his disappearance in the headlines.

Museums across the globe have lent their names to an online petition calling for the artist’s release.

In May, Anish Kapoor dedicated to Ai his work Leviathan when it opened in Paris, and called on museums and galleries worldwide to close for one day in protest.

Ai’s absence from the subsequent opening of two exhibitions of his work in London further highlighted the artist’s unlawful treatment at the hands of the Chinese authorities.

So, how should other museums react when a much-exhibited individual is silenced by a paranoid regime that fears him for the very principles of openness and accountability that he champions?

Is the systematic abuse of human rights by a foreign power the legitimate concern of museums (and how can it not be if you do business with China)?

Where is the line drawn between the polemical and the political and why does that matter when a museum crosses it? When does constructive engagement become cultural appeasement?


Is the abuse of human rights the legitimate concern of museums?

Given the negative reaction of the Chinese authorities to external “interference”, is pressure from overseas counterproductive? The British government is playing it long in investing in its relationship with the world’s emerging economic super-power.

Toeing the business-as-usual line, the British Council warns against cultural boycotts, and advocates dialogue as “better than isolation”.

Making common cause to protest publicly against the detention of Ai is a matter for individual museums to decide. Following Tate’s principled lead, I’m sure that the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum trustees will be thinking hard about their participation in the UK Now exhibition that opens next year in China.

Socially-engaged museums cannot be apolitical, and playing the cultural diplomacy card ups the ante. Museums may or may not feel connected to unfolding events in China.

At least they are free to wield such influence as they have in a manner that echoes, however modestly, the courageous stand taken by Ai Weiwei himself. In his name museums can and should hold China to account.

Tristram Besterman is a freelance adviser
and writer on museums and culture.


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
22.06.2011, 17:22
More on Ai Weiwei - Anish Kapoor has released a statement about his release:

“I am absolutely delighted to hear the news about the release of Ai Weiwei and wait to hear about further developments. I hope that he will now be given a fair trial so that he can answer the charges that have brought against him. While I am thankful that he has been released, I do not think that artists should present their work in China until the situation has been resolved.”
22.06.2011, 16:00
A result of international attention on his case? The Guardian is reporting that Ai Weiwei has been released on bail:
21.06.2011, 19:45
I applaud Tristram Besterman’s insightful discussion of museums’ social and political responsibility with respect to the plight of Ai Weiwei. By protesting the detention of Ai and creating a forum to engage human rights issues, art museums and galleries are asserting moral agency.—their responsibility to help create a more just society. This concept is central to twenty-first century museum ethics. Not surprisingly, artists are driving museums and galleries to take an ethical stand. Artists often serve as the conscience of the museum sector and have been inspired by Ai’s powerful institutional critique. For more dialogue on Ai Weiwei and museum ethics, and to post your comments, see Leicester Exchanges
21.06.2011, 15:27
Museums are of/in this world. We can't ignore what goes on in the world AND say we are relevant to everyday life.