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US Cultural Cowardice: Art World Condones Chinese Censorship of Art

….from the Wall Street Journal:(excerpts)

And what is the art world doing about China’s imprisonment (of world famous artist Ai WaiWai)? Not much.

“We are aghast that this has happened and intend to protest as best we can,” Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.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. ….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.”

…. Julia H. Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee(chirps in). “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.

…..”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 tteachout@wsj.com.


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