Lego U-turns in freedom of speech dispute

Lego of my face! Ai posts a Lego selfie to his Instagram. © Ai Weiwei/Instagram

The toy company has gone back on its refusal to sell bricks for use in political artworks. Campaigners are claiming a victory for freedom of speech. Are they getting carried away?

A manufacturer of toy bricks versus the world’s most famous dissident artist: as disputes go, it is a curious one.

Ai Weiwei is no stranger to conflict. An outspoken critic of China’s government, the Chinese artist has faced censorship and harassment in his home country. Yet he continues to make large-scale political artworks with a range of materials, including Lego bricks.

Which brings us to his latest controversy. Last October, Ai asked Lego to sell him a mass shipment of bricks for his new exhibition, which is themed around human rights. The company refused, stating that Lego is about having fun, not political campaigning.

Ai lashed out, accusing the company of censorship and discrimination. He alleged that it had acted out of fear of reprisals from the Chinese government. To show their support, fans offered to send him their private Lego collections for use in the installation. The hashtag #legosforweiwei began to trend.

Then, on Wednesday, Lego relented. In a dramatic U-turn, it changed its bulk buy policy, saying that it would no longer turn down orders or ask purchasers what they intend to use the bricks for. The artist celebrated by posting a photo of himself with Lego bricks clipped to his face on his Instagram account. He later hailed Lego’s decision as a ‘small victory for freedom of speech’.

Was he right? Ai’s critics point out that Lego had never censored the artist in the first place, as it had not banned him from using bricks that he got elsewhere; it just wanted to avoid associating itself with a political stance by supplying the bricks directly. But others argued that on the contrary the choice not to endorse Ai’s artwork is in itself a political stance.

As this shows, high-profile corporations like Lego cannot avoid politics entirely. Even when they claim to be neutral, they are accused of taking sides. Realising this, many are now keen to be seen to champion good political causes. Is this for the best?

Bricks of the trade

Certainly not, say some. If individuals are allowed to support – or not support – what they please, so are companies. Lego’s main concern is to make money. If it thinks that aligning itself with a controversial artist will harm its profits, it has the right to steer clear. The company should not have U-turned on this issue.

That is disingenuous, counter others. Large corporations are too powerful just to stand by. They must use their influence for good, by supporting worthy causes. Ai is a prominent advocate of human rights; Lego should have jumped at the chance to back him. Instead, it gave the impression that it disagreed with his campaigning. That is just irresponsible.

You Decide

  1. If you had as many Lego bricks as you wanted, what would you build?
  2. Was Lego right to U-turn?

Activities

  1. Design a toy for children, making clear what it is for, what it is made of and how much it costs.
  2. Choose a political work of art that you admire (it can be anything: a novel, a film, graffiti…). Give a short presentation in which you explain its message, and why it conveys it well.

Some People Say...

“The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.”

Milton Friedman

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t Lego just for kids?
Mostly – but in 2010, the company reported that 5% of the bricks it sells are used by adults. There are conferences where grown-up Lego fans meet and compare models.
Cool. But is Ai Weiwei the only artist to use it?
Nope. Lego sculpture is a growing art form: for example, American artist Nathan Sawaya has attracted attention with his epic humanoid statues.
Have there been any other controversies?
In 1996, Polish artist Zbigniew Libera built a concentration camp out of Lego. The company had sold Libera a bulk shipment, not realising what it would be used for. This may explain their reluctance to help Ai out.

Word Watch

New exhibition
For the exhibition, Ai made portraits of 20 Australian human rights campaigners – but in the end he used fake Lego.
Reprisals
Not only does China have a huge consumer market, but also it was recently announced that a new branch of Legoland – a Lego theme park – will open in Shanghai. Ai implied that Lego did not want to put its business in China at risk.
Freedom of speech
The right to express any opinions without censorship. Freedom of speech is seen as a basic human right in many societies, though in China it is often restricted by the government. Despite the name, it is not limited to speech: it covers all kinds of expression, including art.
Good political causes
There are many examples of companies launching ‘do good’ initiatives, from Starbucks’s Race Together campaign against racial discrimination to Ikea’s pledge to spend €1bn on renewable energy.

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