How political can a painting be?
“The Art of the Enlightenment” exhibition in Beijing is off to a very rocky start. The arrest of Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, a denied visa and a disappointing visitor turnout have sparked debate in Germany.
Everything started out so well: The three biggest German museums were hailed for their major exhibition titled “The Art of the Enlightenment” in the Chinese National Museum in Beijing.
After long preparation, the show’s directors had a simple response to questions about the relationship between Enlightenment art and a country known for restrictions on expression. “It’s not our job to be political,” they stated just before the opening on April 1.
The exhibition showcases masterpieces from an era in which many viewed art as a force that could shape society and other people.
Then things started going south. Chinese authorities denied a visa to German author and Sinologist Tilman Spengler, who was to take part in the official opening of the exhibition. Spengler had previously held a speech praising Nobel-prize winner and Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo. Then came the arrest of famous Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei in Beijing on April 3.
The Chinese government’s actions surrounding the exhibition have set off a debate about cultural politics in Germany, with feuilletons pondering whether it wouldn’t be best to close the show as a sign of cultural boycott.
Protesting Ai Weiwei’s arrest by ending the planned yearlong exhibition early is the wrong solution, argued Roberto Ciulli, head of the German-based Theater an der Ruhr, which travels often to perform in countries where artists face government oppression.
“Every boycott – no matter what kind it is – ends up hurting citizens and not the regime,” Ciulli told Deutsche Welle. “It’s absurd to boycott a country culturally that’s led by a dictator. With theater, museums and exhibitions, we reach the people themselves.”
A balancing act
Sometimes, the walls of a theater can even shield alternative discourse about life from government suppression. For instance, Director Ciulli was able to dodge Iranian censors and stage Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” in Teheran with local actresses. The work is an outcry against religious and social oppression.
Many artists and audiences are hungry for culture from the West, Ciulli pointed out.
But negotiating the cultural landscape in countries with high levels of censorship is inevitably a balancing act. It places demands on organizers that Bernd Scherer, head of the House of World Cultures in Berlin, knows well. Being able to maintain a clear conscience when choosing partners is of great importance in his work, he said.
“I think the absolute first question is whether to conduct a dialogue at the official level,” Scherer explained. “As soon as I come into direct contact with state power and am no longer just working at the level of the artists themselves, the dangers involved in influencing politics are much greater.”
Hiding behind diplomacy?
How to deal with other nation’s policies toward culture and art is also a central question for the Goethe-Institut, which serves as Germany’s largest and most significant player in foreign cultural policy.
Björn Luley, director of the Goethe Institute in Damascus, said itt is acceptable to indulge foreign regimes’ desire for international recognition by sponsoring exhibitions and other events in their countries – but with an important caveat.
“Those events should give the countries sponsoring exhibitions a chance to make statements about the values they embrace and live out at home,” commented Luley. “And you do that by standing up for those values – not by hiding behind a bunch of diplomatic gestures.”
But some say Germany has been too diplomatic and polite in its response to the arrest of prominent Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei. Nevertheless, Luley argued that withdrawing from difficult countries misses the point and can even be counterproductive.
“I don’t think the possibilities we have for putting pressure on other countries are all that significant, but I think that with some imagination and some humor, along with a strong network of partners in the host country, you can achieve quite a bit,” Luley added.
That’s why the Goethe Institute focuses on establishing contacts within local cultural scenes and undertakes long-term, often difficult groundwork. Money should be invested in creating sustainable developments rather than eye-catching cultural exports, which can be misappropriated by authoritarian regimes in certain instances.
In some ways, the debate about cultural policy is beside the point when compared with how economically intertwined Germany and China have become, theater director Roberto Ciulli pointed out.
“While we’re debating about the extent to which culture can be manipulated or used, we’re forgetting that business deals are taking in place in all of these countries that involve a lot more money than that which goes into any cultural projects,” he said.
“But the opposite should be the case. We need to take a stand in favor of many more opportunities for culture and investing much more money in these countries, so that we can be more of a presence there,” Ciulli added.
However, as the Enlightenment exhibition shows, a big monetary investment is no guarantee that a project will catch the interest of residents in the host country. So far, a disappointing average of 200 visitors on weekdays and 400 on weekends have headed to the Chinese National Museum to view the approximately 500 works on display.
Author: Aya Bach / gsw
Editor: Kate Bowen