Creating a problem for China: art and music

Outspoken artist Ai Weiwei has disappeared in China, where Bob Dylan has been forced to play a censored list of songs. The regime fears they are giving 'a voice to the voiceless'.

The singer Bob Dylan played in China for the first time yesterday. He is famous for expressing the political unrest of an entire generation in the 1960s. But for the Beijing gig, this legend of American folk and rock music was not allowed a free choice of songs.

Dylan's Chinese fans are overjoyed that the concert has been allowed, after last year the Communist state's authorities banned the singer from playing at all. On this occasion they have asked him to agree a list of acceptable songs in advance – famous titles like 'The times they are a-changing' and 'Chimes of Freedom' might have given hope to opponents of the regime.

Chinese musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou hailed Dylan as the 'most gifted and talented folk and rock musician of the 1960s.'

'He was sharply critical of the government and he saw rock and roll musicians as being the voice of the weak and of the lower classes.... I am very thankful of the influence he has had on me.'

It is exactly this influence that the authorities fear.

On Sunday, this same Zuoxiao was questioned by police in connection with the detention of his friend, the artist Ai Weiwei. His disappearance after being detained last Sunday comes as part of a crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists.

In the UK, Weiwei is best known for his installation at Tate Modern last year of 100 million sunflower seeds, each one made in China of hand-painted porcelain.

His father was also an artist, and the young Weiwei grew up in a labour camp because the family had fallen foul of the state. He says from a young age he understood he should 'speak out for the people around me who are afraid.'

Now he uses a blog and Twitter to spread the 'creative ideas and creative mind' he finds lacking in his own country, and to promote his campaigns against Chinese state secrecy and repression.

For example, he created an artwork to protest the refusal to name children killed when badly built schools collapsed in an earthquake.

Times a-changing?
Weiwei has long been seen as a troublemaker in China. Many Western performers other than Dylan have been barred from giving concerts. Before his arrest, Weiwei said a new era of openness and reform is as inevitable as the march of history:

'It's come to a point where everyone in society understands that China cannot continue in the same way. The game is over.'

But yesterday the regime insisted 'the law will not concede before "mavericks" just because of the western media's criticism.'

How far can artists, however outspoken, succeed against such a determined regime?

You Decide

  1. 'If Ai Weiwei wants to live in China he should obey its rules'. Discuss.
  2. All art should be at least a little bit dangerous. Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Read the lyrics to Bob Dylan's most famous song, The Times They Are A-changin'. Can you adapt them to today's global issues?
  2. Imagine you are a wealthy patron of the arts. How would you spend your money? Choose an artist or singer to promote and write an appreciation. Ideally, make it someone who needs a leg-up!

Some People Say...

“Self-expression is just self-indulgence.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So are artists always independent voices?
The relationship between artists and those in power has changed since the days when patronage was the only way a painter, musician or poet could make a living.
Patronage?
During the Renaissance, you had to be on a powerful person's payroll and producing pretty much what they wanted to show off to their friends. There was no room for politics then.
What changed?
In the modern era, art has become much more about personal self-expression and becoming a successful creative business. Neither Bob Dylan nor Weiwei have trouble earning a living.
So now it's less about using artistic skills to serve the powerful.
Yes, but there are always some artists happy to use their art to celebrate a government or regime – some of it is pretty good, some embarrassingly slavish.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.