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