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What is the Relationship Between Art and Authoritarianism in China?

The time has come to return to the vexatious relationship between art and politics, which was both catnip and quicksand for thinking people during much of the twentieth century. China’s ever-higher profile as global arbiter of matters artistic—commissioning major work from international architectural stars; giving the nod to a booming market in contemporary Chinese art; and all the while drastically restricting the freedom of artists and writers—leaves us honor bound to explore the tangled old alliances and misalliances between artistic power and political power. And who would not hesitate before plunging back into that history? The giddy Leftist dreams of Malevich and El Lissitzky and the rest of the Russian avant-garde were crushed many generations ago. The question of the artist’s place in society haunted European writers and thinkers, from Gide, Mann, and Malraux to Pasternak and Brodsky. And in America these same shattered hopes and enduring questions shaped the thinking of the intellectuals who gathered around Partisan Review.

Don’t get me wrong. The cultural community and the press have been fantastically eloquent in defense of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed author and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, of Ai Weiwei, the artist recently released from detention but still threatened by serious charges of tax evasion, and of Liao Yiwu, the writer who only last week was granted asylum in Germany. Individuals in dire circumstances demand immediate, specific attention. But more amorphous questions about the use and abuse of the arts by authoritarian (and even non-authoritarian) governments demand answers, too. Authoritarian governments are well aware of art’s prestige. So are human rights activists. And where does that leave the arts? I found myself wondering about this the other day, when the New York Times presented the strangest juxtaposition of stories about cultural life in China. In the front section was an article about Liao Yiwu under the headline: “Dissident Chinese Writer Is ‘Ecstatic’ After Finding Freedom In Germany.” In the arts section, the Times architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, offered the latest in a series of articles about new work in China by internationally renowned architects, in this instance Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Koolhaas was quoted by Ouroussoff as saying “I was aware of negative developments there, of course.” But—as Ouroussoff explained—Koolhaas, at the time of the 2008 Olympics, “was fascinated by Beijing’s mix of ancient hutongs, Stalinist-era workers’ housing and 1960s megastructures. And unlike New York, an aging city that was becoming increasingly nostalgic, Beijing was in the midst of a major modernization push.”

Some would say there is no need to reconcile Liao’s flight from China with Koolhaas’s embrace of the country, and perhaps that is true. Should creative people never work in the context of an authoritarian regime that is unfriendly to some forms of expression and has declared outright war against some of its own citizens? Mies van der Rohe has been castigated for working for the Nazis. So where does that leave Koolhaas? Or Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid, whose new Chinese work was the subject of earlier reports by Ouroussoff? Which is not to say that all these cases are parallel or that there are not various ways to understand Mies’s situation in Germany in the 1930s. And what about the energetic modernization one sometimes sees in authoritarian societies? Isn’t that what the Futurists loved about Mussolini? Are we prepared to say they were right? I cannot speak of work I haven’t seen, but these new buildings by Koolhaas, Holl, and Hadid may well fall far below the level of architecture that really matters. Some might even argue that what critics call their grand ambitions reflect the authoritarian grandiosity of the host country. But of course great works can be produced by abominable societies. That is a conundrum Lionel Trilling confronted more than half-a-century ago in his essay on Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima, where the radical Hyacinth Robinson, in Venice and witnessing the painterly glories produced by a corrupt society, is “torn between his desire for social justice and his fear lest the civilization of Europe be destroyed.”

People can disagree about all of these matters. What strikes me as fascinating is how intractable the questions are, and how little willingness there is to reengage with them now, although Boris Groys’s interesting book Art Power, published in 2008, certainly establishes some of the groundwork. Trilling—and others in the world around Partisan Review, including Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg—knew that it was not only authoritarian regimes that had a paradoxical relationship with what many moderns wanted to see as the freestanding power of art. Intellectuals have their own ways of using art and sentimentalizing art. In the 1930s and 1940s, many thoughtful people mistook the novels of Malraux and the murals of Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco for masterpieces, because these unquestionably significant works gave artistic authority to values that happened to be their own. Something similar may now be happening with the art of Ai Weiwei. His mix of minimalist aesthetics and Duchampian ironies can strike Western observers more powerfully than it really deserves to, because museumgoers find some consolation in Ai’s critical response to China’s rapacious free-market authoritarianism. Which is, of course, not to say that Ai is not a heroic figure and an extraordinary force for good in China today. But the question of how to reconcile one’s feelings about somebody’s art with one’s feelings about the same person’s politics has led to some fairly formidable arguments, at least in the twentieth century. You can like the person and dislike the art. Or vice versa. Let us not forget the controversy that raged in 1949, when Pound, who had broadcast anti-Semitic rants for the Fascists in Italy, was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress for The Pisan Cantos

As for the West’s cultural arbiters and their reactions to what is going on in China, perhaps the time has come for somebody to do for the new capitalist People’s Republic what Gide did for the Soviet Union in 1936 with his Return from the USSR. Although it now reads as quite mild, Gide’s critique of Stalin’s Russia electrified and outraged Europeans in the 1930s, because this Leftist aesthete dared to suggest that the great experiment was not what many of his friends and even he had imagined it to be. Sometimes an artistic spirit provides a particularly deep insight into the political spirit of the times. Gide certainly did. He experienced the power of art so strongly that he could not but try to make sense of the relationship between art and other forms of power, including political power. Some of the grandest minds of the twentieth-century tried to parse that relationship. Nobody ever finally succeeded. China forces us to confront the old questions anew.

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.