V is for Vase Vandal

| May 1, 2014
Apart, we    are together…ai weiwei

Ai Wei Wei by Shepard Fairey


This portrait print of Ai Wei Wei by artist Shepard Fairey, best known for his Obama “Hope” campaign poster, is currently on view and has been donated to the Brooklyn Museum (as part of the museum’s retrospective exhibition, “Ai Weiwei: According to What?”). It seems a good example for further considering artistic agency and its relationship to ostensibly non-aesthetic issues, as Fairey states his intent in creating it as “a tribute to Ai Weiwei’s art, his courage to be outspoken, and in support of his ongoing political struggle with the Chinese government. I hope the image will help raise awareness and advance dialogue that might lead to permission for Ai Weiwei to travel freely and continue to express himself.” (Wei Wei was jailed for 81 days and has subsequently been placed under house arrest for his outspokenness of Chinese Government practices and doing things like this

to ancient Chinese pottery).

The familiar and apparently growing appeal to the arts from those hoping to foster change in their worlds and using the arts to shape our societies rests on a tacit recognition of how the arts have shaped our selves. This transformative agency is written deep into our self-understandings, it is something we know unthinkingly, art has agency.

What I continue to find compelling about it is that it explains the untutored descriptive certainty concerning artistic agency. It does not require theoretical conceptualization or practical capacity, its proponents need neither be philosophically nor art­istically inclined. And yet, perhaps for this very reason, such certainty seems so often to undermine itself in hasty application. That is, I feel that we consistently underestimate the delicate work involved in transitioning from such descriptive certainty concerning artistic agency to some prescriptive likelihood. Within such efforts I find there to be a crucial absence of theoretical underpinnings that might help to structure the relationship between art and its non-aesthetic concerns, or, more broadly conceived, the relationship between art and its societies – to try and clarify what we are talking about when we talk about artistic agency, to understand as precisely as we can what such agency is made of, and to gain some insight into the necessary conditions by which it might be engaged.