TaGQ: What responsibility do artists have to drive change?

I saw a film about the Chinese artist and dissident Ai Wei Wei yesterday. It was a beautiful and moving documentary, largely because the director/producer/cinematographer, Alison Klayman, succinctly captured his point of view and gave it context

It left me thinking about the role of artists/musicians/writers. We are often criticized for sharing too much, not sharing enough, or not sharing in a way that makes sense to anyone else. I’ve felt for a long time that an artist first and foremost has a responsibility to share her/his point of view, and if possible to also reflect a society back to itself. As it goes with an individual so it goes with a larger community: when we know ourselves better we can be better.

I was struck by Ai’s understanding of the implications of even the most simple activities and his ability to challenge the hidden assumptions present there. At one point during the film he met supporters for dinner and they ate around an open table in front of the restaurant. Local police arrived with a camera to “document” the activities and further harass him. They asked him several times to eat inside, and when he replied that they were going to finish eating outside they asked “how long?” He repeated himself a couple of times, saying they would be done “when they were finished eating” before finally quoting them 30 minutes.

There were a lot of things packed into that moment that most people wouldn’t even think to address. Notably, the police weren’t trying to enforce any laws (eating outside isn’t a crime). They were enforcing the idea that they could reset the rules anytime they wanted, and that personal expression was controllable. This happens a lot in closed societies, where authorities constantly change goalposts. But they also constantly err in their desire to control.

And this is the crux of why I think Ai Wei Wei has chosen a different path than many artists, one that is fraught with peril and a lot less reward than others with his level of talent. At the core he seems to believe that an individual’s freedom to express their point of view should come above all other values in a society. When faced with the police officer who beat him, he says explicitly on camera “this is not personal” but I think it is. It’s personal because he values freedom of expression and he demands that everyone have the opportunity to do the same. While he may not hold personal animosity towards that police officer, it is what that person represents that he will never accept.

As artists if we are free to express our point of view shouldn’t we also expect the same for others? And if we do are we not compelled to both reflect the truth and act for change?


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