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Ai Weiwei and Sharjah Biennial 10

Tate Modern, London, April 11, 2011. Photo: Jeff Blackler/Associated Press.

IN THESE DAYS of the Arab Spring, paradoxically hovering between revolution and repression, there is much hand-wringing in the global art world. Protests and petitions against arrests, dismissals, censorship, and labor rights have erupted, targeting countries and societies that the Western art establishment feels should be better apprised of the avant-garde tradition of artistic autonomy and liberal notions of unfettered intellectual expression. It is as if a beehive had suddenly exploded and stung the previously passive moral lions of the field, waking them from their unreflective slumber. From architects to museums, curators to collectors, art fairs to galleries, art advisers to auction houses, everyone has been feeding at the trough of surplus capital emanating from regions where consumption of art is tolerated so long as artists steer clear of political and ideological pronouncements and keep their swords of critical relevance safely in their sheaths.

The question was always how long the romance between illiberalism and hypocrisy would last. In mid-March, a group of artists, mostly from the Middle East, fired off a petition aimed at the branch of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum under construction in Abu Dhabi. The petition, which highlighted the ignominious treatment of migrant laborers working on the museum in the gigantic urban project of Saadiyat Island, projected a sense of moral clarity and ethical purpose, but it left unquestioned the artists’ own ambiguous and complicated relationships to the region’s art market and other institutions. Why stop with the Guggenheim? Is it because, as a global colossus with an insatiable appetite for money and branding, the Guggenheim makes an easier target than the Louvre, New York University, and similar institutions building branches on the island? Why even stop with museums and universities? Why not produce a petition that is broader, that raises questions for everyone involved: artists, curators, architects, dealers, galleries, etc.?

More petitions have followed. Not a day has gone by in the past two months without one encountering an urgent appeal from someone, somewhere, to sign a petition, most of them directed against censorship and appealing to freedom of expression. Censorship should, of course, be vigorously deplored wherever it threatens the open flow and exchange of ideas, and freedom of expression is the sine qua non of global art practice. But what is striking to me about these appeals is their utter refusal to examine the complicity of the entire global art system and its tacit acquiescence to the illiberalism of autocrats and despots. Nor do they acknowledge that what we are witnessing in China and the Gulf States is part of a larger development across the world. While petitions have shone a harsh light on the arrest of Ai Weiwei in China and on the dismissal of Jack Persekian in Sharjah, UAE, these events cannot be easily separated from the intolerant censorship occurring in the United States and Europe. The recent removal of David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video A Fire in My Belly from an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, following the demands of the Catholic League and a few members of Congress, may appear an aberration from bygone days, but it is in fact a quite common phenomenon in the West. In 2008, the eminent curator Corinne Diserens lost her job at the Museion in Bolzano, Italy, for showing a Martin Kippenberger work that the Vatican considered offensive. More recently, Andres Serrano’s 1987 Piss Christ was vandalized by religious extremists in Avignon, France.

If the events in China and Sharjah are only part of this broader manifestation, however, they seem to have shocked the global art world out of its complacency. In April, four days after Ai’s arrest, Persekian—the highly respected artistic director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, which organizes the Sharjah Biennial—was abruptly dismissed for permitting an installation by artist Mustapha Benfodil that wantonly violated the legal codes and religious taboos of the conservative emirate. The installation was removed from the biennial, and the cry of censorship immediately ensued.

Persekian, it should be noted, had performed a minor miracle in Sharjah. Over a period of six years, first as curator of the biennial and subsequently as the foundation’s artistic director, he transformed a provincial institution into an important arena for forward-thinking discourse, production, and exhibitions. But was his dismissal about censorship? What undid Persekian, I would argue, was actually a confluence of forces: the irreconcilability of the ambitions he held for the Sharjah Art Foundation as it grew, his supporters’ false impression that Sharjah was no different from any other cosmopolitan city, and the narrow space he had to navigate between transgression and conformity that his patrons had allowed him. In the end, he could not serve these conflicting constituencies.

Detail of T-shirt with text from Mustapha Benfodil’s Maportaliche/Ecritures Sauvages (It Has No Importance/Wild Writings), 2011. Photo: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie.

But little of this was evident as the clattering, rusty machinery of the art world, largely out of practice in ideological and political battle, suddenly creaked back to life with its stuttering, lugubrious missives. Variously authored by museums, disenchanted curators, artists, critics, and others, these petitions shared the easy illusion of the universal ideal of freedom of expression—willfully ignoring the fact that censorship is an occupational hazard that all dissenting and radical forms of art must face, whether under liberal or illiberal political systems. In pressing the Condemn Censorship button and extolling the virtues of freedom of expression, these missives exposed their authors’ callowness and displayed an utter lack of ideological and political imagination in such matters—an imaginative deficit that itself poses a grave threat to art, ideas, and individuals. Is there no other type of pressure that could be brought to bear on behalf of Persekian or Ai than a meek petition or sign?

The case of Persekian is complicated, of course. A petition is an act of solidarity, a message sent as much to the persecuted as to the persecutors. It is a remarkable document, a social contract. But the petition on Persekian’s behalf was combined with the strange business of the former director’s disavowal of the very support solicited on his behalf. Making matters even more confusing was the statement he released, in which he did not defend the artwork removed from the biennial. Instead, he blamed the size of the exhibition and a lack of time in which to vet the offending work. Persekian tacitly acknowledged that he would have prevented the work in question from being presented. But does that make him a censor? Or does it reveal, rather, that he properly understood the social compact and artistic contract in which the biennial operates in its religiously conservative context? Unfortunately, the petition on his behalf, laudable as it was as an expression of solidarity with a beleaguered colleague, did not address the complexity of the situation, with respect to both the artist and Persekian. Might one not ask the reverse question, that of the responsibility of the curators and the artists to observe the rules of Sharjah, however oppressive they might be according to Western standards? To believe in the blanket immunity guaranteed by freedom of expression while flouting clear political proscriptions against deploying sensitive religious imagery seems to me extremely naive. And at a certain point, naïveté and the unexamined idealism that comes with it—which is to say, the blithe rejection of any pragmatic considerations of context—shade into critical bad faith. Can this charge of bad faith ever be levied against artists, in addition to those who administer the presentation of art? In my opinion, yes, and in Sharjah, most definitely.

“April is the cruellest month”: Thus begins the unforgettable opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Despite the poem’s appearance nearly a century ago, the chill of its imagery, and the desolation that lies at its center, echo this year’s April of arrests, dismissals, and vandalism that have snapped the art world into a state of naked self-awareness. Eliot’s poem seems not only apposite but persistent amid the Arab Spring’s “heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water.”

The universal cries of liberation heard on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi, Damascus, Sanaa, and elsewhere, have in no small measure awakened the global art world to the intricacies of the transitional politics of which it had studiously remained oblivious. These are interesting times, in which artists, curators, and institutions may be compelled to choose sides. The question is, Which side? To my mind, the several petitions that have been circulated in the past months have failed in one striking respect—namely, their inability to engage the larger complexities of the geopolitics of art, much of which they seek to smooth away. If the capacity for critique and defense of the ideals of free thought is to remain the bedrock of all serious art, then we must submit statements proffered on behalf of art themselves to scrutiny. The paradox is that while the long Arab Spring continues apace, setting off tremors that have terrified even China, something in the opportunistic response of the art world to recent events feels decidedly autumnal.

Okwui Enwezor is the Director of Haus Der Kunst in Munich.