A new law on Danish immigration and refugees has spurred controversy, both nationally and internationally. It is a law that led Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to withdraw his works from Denmark, from Faurschou Gallery in Copenhagen and ARoS Museum of Art in Aarhus. This new legislation makes it possible for authorities to seize money and valuables from refugees, as well as prolonging the waiting time for family reunification. Indignation inspired a reiteration of Weiwei's Study of Perspective, this time addressed to Denmark, in the form of a boycott of art institutions.
Through his art and social presence, Ai Weiwei has become the fearless poster boy of international artistic activism. His critique of social and political issues is planted in his art, which is always a form of intervention, an isolation of injustice, and a disruption of comfort.
Ai Weiwei makes the best of what art as an institution has to offer, using the medium to influence social structures and challenge conventions. Through aesthetic engagement, the artist reinforces and expands the power of political dissidence, becoming relevant beyond geopolitical lines.
Art activism turns hostility and difference into starting points for dialogue and creative expression, in the attempt to affect palpable social changes. Art practice, therefore, becomes essential beyond the art world. It equips society with honesty, it provides a way to reclaim freedom, it influences the way individuals talk to each other.
The purpose of artistic boycotts remains muddied, despite the fact that they may be a way of manifesting ethical approval, informing a type of freedom. British critic J.J. Charlesworth, for instance, notes that boycotts rest on the necessity of censorship, setting in motion a defective binary of us versus them, harming dialogue.
Ai Weiwei's boycott of Danish art institutions seems to follow this dualism, by applying a rhetoric of endorsing presence versus critical absence. By withdrawing his artworks, the artist institutes a moral high ground and creates an inside and outside of protest, which results in the establishment of an imperative – other international artists should join this boycott, since it holds the moral upper hand. Their immediate reason for boycott would be to place themselves on the 'good' side of this issue – the side of those who oppose the decision and call for change.
The nature and increased frequency of boycotts in the art world speak to a contemporary need for renegotiating the power balance. The boycott often takes the form of a critique of neo-liberalism, and of its consequences on the production and consumption of art. To be legitimate, a boycott in the art world needs a certain level of spectacle, an urgency of visibility, which capitalises on refusal, discord, imbalance – all profoundly incompatible with any artistic commitment to the exploration of truth, beauty, and meaning.
Words: Elena Stanciu