Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and dissident, has been barred from leaving China since his arrest last year for "economic crimes." He was accused of tax evasion (to the tune of $2.4 million) and incarcerated in a case that outside observers view as state harassment in retaliation for criticism of the Chinese government. Ai spent two and a half months in jail on the charge, which remains unresolved.
Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, reports on a meeting with Ai at the artist's home in Beijing. The home is under the constant gaze of security cameras and is visited by the police regularly. Once a week, Ai is taken to the police station--for education.
In 2010-2011, Ai's installation of porcelain sunflower seeds was exhibited at the Tate Modern in London. (The artist discusses the creation of the exhibit, which includes millions of hand-crafted porcelain sunflower seeds, in a brief documentary on the exhibition website.) In China, the sunflower seeds have become a symbol of freedom. People have written to Ai asking for some of the porcelain seeds, and he has responded by giving them away. In return, many people have sent money to Ai to help him challenge the tax evasion charge. Osnos reports that people discuss the seeds in China's heavily censored online forums in a way that makes them a proxy for the artist. Ai states: “They talk about seeds and it moved like a wave. They couldn’t talk about me and they couldn’t talk about the government, but when they talked about seeds, nobody could do anything about it, because they aren’t talking about anything--just sunflower seeds!”
Ai's story is told in a documentary by Alison Klayman, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, that has been featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Ms. Klayman was interviewed about the documentary on The Colbert Report last May.
Art has the potential to prompt reflection, to raise questions, and to generate conversation--even about politics and structures of repression. As Ai puts it in the Tate Modern's documentary, "I always think art is a tool to set up new questions." For this reason, among others, the cultural rights that some Americans consider even less worthy of defense than economic rights, are important. They are a part of what it means to have freedom of conscience and freedom of expression. The suppression of art (and artists) stifles society as surely as the suppression of political speech.