Sunday 7 July 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The question is: what to do when you like an artist but strongly dislike her/his political naiveté? Or when you agree with their political stand but don’t rate them highly as a creative power?

I was musing over this dilemma recently after I chanced upon a column by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His subject was the recent NSA scandal and how, in his opinion, the US was beginning to behave like China. I wrote about that subject myself a few weeks ago and in my opinion Ai Weiwei should change that “beginning to” with immediate effect. The West has behaved like the totalitarian regimes it criticises whenever it has been convenient for its interests.

But that’s not the point I am trying to make. The point is that Ai Weiwei’s article was well-written and balanced. I was not surprised about it. I have read similar features by him about his homeland in the past and he always comes across as a very rational and intelligent person.

Would you like some art with your seeds, please?
I can’t, however, say the same about his art. I know that this is my personal opinion and that art is subjective most of the time. Nevertheless, whenever I am confronted by one of Ai Weiwei’s pieces or installations my initial reaction is one of froideur. The one exception was a couple of years ago when I went to see his “Sunflower Seeds” exhibition at Tate Modern. Though befuddled at first I got the concept fairly quick. The “seeds” were nothing but unique, small porcelain works, that sought to explain, through their similarity, the notion of the “Made in China” phenomenon. Here was a strong, social message. Just like his articles. I, too, liked his Remembering installation. This work was made up of 9000 children’s rucksacks with the caption on each of them “She lived happily for seven years”, a quote from the mother of one of the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.  Fair to him, most of Ai Weiwei’s artistic output is focused on China and its domestic problems. But would we pay attention to his writing if his fame as an artist (he has had exhibitions in Australia, Europe, North and South America) didn’t precede him? That’s the key issue for me. It’s not whether an artist has or hasn’t got the right to debate difficult topics, especially when they have first-hand knowledge of them, but whether the public would value their opinion if it were not supported by a fine reputation as creators.

At least Ai Weiwei concerns himself with China mainly. Bono (no need to explain who he is and what he does) wants to change the west’s attitude about a whole continent: Africa. But the way he is going about it makes it hard for pragmatists like me to believe him. Here’s a man whose music with his band U2 I worship, especially the earlier albums. However, ever since he became missionary-Bono, saviour-of-Africa Bono and new-Jesus-in-town Bono, his stand as a musician has taken a knock, in my view. He still fills up stadiums, of course, but those who come to U2 for the I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and Sunday Bloody Sunday melodies feel let down by this change of trajectory. The problem with Bono is that he has lent credibility to statesmen who had lost theirs. For instance the architects of the invasion to Iraq, George Bush and Tony Blair. Bono has made corporate power cooler and funkier (it even wears shades). Unlike Ai Weiwei, who finds very little resistance to his stand against the Chinese government (except for the actual Chinese government, obviously) from those who also admire his art, Bono has polarised his followers. There are those who think that his patronising tone towards Africans has done more harm than good, yet still rate him as a very talented singer. Others believe that his role in raising awareness of Africa and its problems has been vital. I belong to the former camp.

Perhaps I am being a tad bit unfair on the U2 frontman. After all, we know from what we see on telly during the BBC Children In Need’s donathon that if celebrities don’t endorse a particular cause, it’s unlikely the public will cough up for it. In that sense Bono is useful. Furthermore, the flipside of a famous artist campaigning on behalf of a nation – or continent – is an egocentric, dumb celebrity for whom the world of news is only the one that revolves around them.

So, what to do when you like an artist but strongly dislike her/his political naiveté? I focus on what made that person notorious in the first place. In the case of Bono, it was U2, its music and its power to convey a message that was primarily musical and on occasions, social. It makes it less difficult to ignore his sanctimonious attitude (and don't even get me started on his tax affairs). How about when you agree with an artist’s political stand but don’t rate them highly as a creative power? I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. Most of Ai Weiwei’s art still leaves me cold, which means that paradoxically, I look at him as a social activist first and as an artist second. I have never spoken to Ai Weiwei but I reckon he would like me and others to flip that view around. His writing, however, remains incendiary. And may it continue to be so.

© 2013

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 10th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. 28 por aqui y se espera que suba a 30. La final de Wimbledon en un par de horas y yo le voy a ir a Murray. Vamos Escocia!

    Gracias por el comentario. Para mi el arte conceptual a veces tambien me deja helado. Con Dali la coneccion fue inmediata. A mi me encanta el surrealismos.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  2. interesting thoughts in this...i try to split into sections - i like the artwork - i don't like their political view - i like their poetry - i don't find them interesting as a person - i think they do an excellent political work but their family life is chaos - if that would be a friend, it would matter to me - if they're people outside my reach, it is like it is but i certainly do appreciate, respect or like them for what i think they're good at

  3. Dejarte mis saludos con tu buen dilema, un abrazo

  4. must you respect the artist to appreciate their makes for an interesting conundrum...i think i can appreciate the art over the artist, but i am unsure if i can reverse it...

  5. hmm i will muddle this a bit and get back to you...smiles.

  6. The dilemma is only a dilemma because we separate the man from his context. Would you have the same dilemma with other professions? Say, the priesthood? Teaching? A person is all he does and all he thinks. Liking or disliking just one part is an artificial exercise. The art these folks are producing comes out of their philosophy/essential character. You just have to accept that they have complexities and some of these are hard to accept.

  7. That is fascinating dilemma. I try to separate the art from the creator when judging his/her work, but I had a problem buying Twilight by Stephanie Meyer for my daughter, knowing Meyer gave money from book sales to a political group that was fighting gay marriage.

    Part of the reason I don't blog much on politics (although I made an exception when gay marriage was in the polls in my state or on local environmental issues) was I don't want to alienate blog readers or clients who share my love of books and art but not my liberal politics. A professional should draw a line between public and private and ideally clients should do that too, but life blurs those lines.

    What is nice about blogging is we interact with people who don't share all our beliefs and learn from that discussion.

    Sorry to be so slow to visit - I've been offline for weeks and am hopelessly behind on life. I've missed your blog.

  8. Don't think you have to, can hate a person and still like what they create. can hate what they create and still like them. All tastes.

  9. Most of life, to me, is a matter of degrees and compromise, but ....

    If an artist more-or-less falls under the pompous ass category or is sort of a harmless idiot, I find no difficultly in buying his music, reading his books, seeing his films or complimenting him on his paintings if they appeal to me. But, I will pay absolutely no attention to what he promotes in a political or social sense.

    If an artist tends to be a demigod, a front-line fanatic or even a simple true believer in a particular cause or belief which does not blend with my worldview, my viewpoint then approaches "expletive deleted" in terms of anything and everything he is associated with no matter how appealing I might find his "art." I might even actively campaign against his positions.

    I suppose this is because art and artistic talent do not approach the pinnacle in the hierarchy of life and living for me. Art is important, but secondary in the scheme of things to me -- if for no other reasons than because it is subjective in nature and often faddish.

    Another fascinating post from the pen of CiL .... thank you ....

  10. I always take the view that artists are just ordinary people, and if they achieve fame by one means or other, then that gives them a platform for whatever views they happen to have.

    I think modern artists are often famous because of their "image" and that includes the kind of person they are. Ai Weiwei Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin spring to mind. The actual art they do is a bit less important, usually, although I do happen to think that Grayson P is a genius.

    So I think good luck to them unless they have vile political views, their lives have given them the chance to be heard, unlike the rest of us.

    Personally I tend to shun the art of people with horrible views, but whether that is because of their views or whether it's something in their personalities that puts me off, I don't know. Wagner's music always made me feel slightly sick for instance, even before I realised what horrible personal views he had. I just couldn't get over how he had had the statue of Mendelssohn taken down in Leipzig because Mendelssohn was a Jew. That makes me feel just as sick as his music does. But I wouldn't quite draw a "cause and effect" line!

  11. Impresiona leerte cuando presenta ese dilema. Me ha gustado mucho

    un abrazo


  12. That is something to ponder...I know I can appreciate the artist if I'm not in line with their views, but I can see where their views can sometimes get in the way of their art. You always get us thinking....
    enjoy your week :)

  13. A very interesting article. Of course, I know Bono, but I don't really know his music well. I am so outside of most popular culture! It is always , as you say, when celebrities, or artists, are involved in politics, as their talents do not necessarily lend a political sophistication. But there is also something laudable in trying to tilt publicity to a purposeful channel. A super interesting inquiry. k. (This is Karin from Manicddaily on Wordpress).

  14. I think I'm one of the lucky few who will simply ignore a good artist's political viewpoints, which for the most part are seriously skewered towards whatever the media deems is apporpriate and don't really deal with facts and/or listening to both sides of the situation.

    As for artists I don't like, I'm simply not going to like their political viewpoint, simply because it isn't what most of the country respects, but what most of the media respects.

  15. I agree with Pat's comment - I don't think it's inconsistent at all to like someone's art or creations and not like them personally.

  16. While I was working on my Art/AIDS project in Manhattan, the (hanger-on starving-)artist I liked the least~he was weak, filthy-mouthed, envious & self-destructive... told me he was the sole voice of rationality. Well, hate to admit this, but damn he was a fantastic Cubist painter. I can gawk at his artwork for eons, but if I see him coming I skidaddle. ~Mary

  17. beautiful music today.

    Sorry I can´t comment on your writing. Know nothing about it. :(

  18. really is a dilemma but like Pat sometimes we love a music but we dont love the artist maybe id like I say sometimes nobody is perfect:(

  19. Many thanks for your kind comments. My opinion of Bono has changed considerably over the years. Especially because he is being used to promote an agenda that stands against many of the things he campaigns for. I think that the guy's been on an ego trip for a long time.

    Greetings from London.



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