Counter Arts
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Counter Arts

Counter Arts Book Club

1,000 Years of Surveillance and Censorship

Book Review: Ai Weiwei’s 1,000 Years of Joy & Sorrows

Photo by Denny Ryanto on Unsplash

I struggled with the general tone of this book. Still, I believe it to be an essential read given the increase in privacy trespasses, surveillance, and our general disposition towards censorship and mob thinking in all countries.

The book sometimes feels difficult to get through because I found the tone self-indulgent and its line of reasoning sloppy at best and contradictory at worst.

The author spends too much editorializing his work and talking about how much everyone loves him and not enough time on the violation China’s government is infringing on its citizens and those of the world. Also, there were very few parallels drawn between what China is going through and what the West is experiencing through its increased censorship.

I rolled my eyes when he criticized American society as a whole when one of his friends was killed by a man in New York. It was hard to accept that he left the country disillusioned because of an isolated event of violence when he spent more than half of his book talking about the horrors the Chinese communist party inflicted on the bourgeois and intellectual classes.

He also spent quite a bit of time covering how cruel and punitive this same government had been on him for expressing his dissent with domestic policies.

However, weirdly, I get the tone. I understand it. You must have that inflated sense of self to carry on the critical battle to demand freedom of expression and dissent without censorship and surveillance. You need that ego to carry on a struggle that, in his case, is destined for failure.

The veiled threat of an open economy with an authoritarian government

Quote from the book. Made by the author with Readwise.

The Chinese government and its communist party already have too much momentum to stop, too much power, and too much money; to be stopped.

But the loss of freedom of the Chinese is a reminder to the rest of the world that censorship hurts society. It steals us from the discourse and debate necessary to find solutions that benefit the whole community and not just one political party, which is what the western countries are experiencing right now by a militant left and a Christian Right.

And second, a reminder that will make me sound like a conspiracy theorist. We should be terrified of China. We must stop romanticizing the country because it has embraced looser trading and economic practices. This country is still an authoritarian government that traded its military boots for tailored suits. They still are an oppressive government and a militaristic one at that.

China oppresses its people to achieve what it wants. The pandemic and the unjustified Russian invasion of Ukraine have spotlighted unfair labor and market practices. These pivotal crises have shown the world that as much as we talk about the betterment of society by using fair labor practices or clean energy, we are not doing any of that. We are just shipping that responsibility overseas to a government that couldn’t care less about its citizens.

Quote from the book. Made by the author with Readwise.

Relationship between dads and sons

It is tough to like Ai Weiwei’s dad. A man with no regard for family or any responsibility for his numerous spouses or kids. When it came to relationships, he did as he pleased, guided by his lust.

It is hard not to see why Ai Weiwei liked him. If it weren’t for his continuous moving on to the next relationship, he wouldn’t be here since he was born out of Weiwei’s final relationship. I think whether or not it was a reaction to the times and the cultural oppression of Chinese society.

But then you also see in him a man who expresses his opinion even when in danger. He spoke against Mao when it wasn’t wise to do so.

It is hard to say whether it was stupidity or bravery, but he did it nonetheless, and it always got him in trouble.

Then there is the appeal of him taking all his punishments without complaining. If he were sent to a remote village in China with inclement weather to clean latrines, his latrines would be the cleanest in this communist republic. That valiant effort reminded me of the successful entrepreneurs, researchers, and scientists in Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged who, after being punished by collective hysteria, would take to work menial jobs quitting on society but also doing those jobs with pride and earnest dedication because they knew no other way of doing things. Of course, Rand would’ve repudiated Ai Qing because he was a communist.

Commentary on Art

Quote from the book. Made by the author with Readwise.

My favorite part of the book was when Ai Weiwei would talk about his art installations and the thoughts that went into them. It was fascinating to see this established and highly renowned artist talk about what art meant to him and the role of art.

There is almost a hint of self-doubt in his writing which was refreshing because it showed me that all artists are not only worried about their art but also about what art in general means.

I appreciated his counter-cultural approach to art and his thoughts on how it was meant to highlight social issues. This, of course, is somewhat sanctimonious because art should be whatever people want it to be.

Still, I agree with Ai Weiwei.

If there are so many issues in the world, then why spend any time in our imaginary worlds when we can create art to advocate for the fair and equal treatment of everyone?

Ultimately, I couldn’t help but feel for Ai Weiwei, a man who feels too much for everyone. In the middle of his anger and outrage, I can’t understand how he doesn’t burn out? How does he keeps fighting even when his loved ones are in danger and when he is seen as a public enemy of the highly invasive state in which he lives?

He mentioned how in his last imprisonment, he came up with the idea for the book. This book reflects on feeling like a permanent migrant and dissident and how this experience connects his father, his son, and him. These reflections and the words of explanation make this book worth reading for anyone interested in learning more about Ai Weiwei’s work, inspiration, and artistic formation but also to anyone interested in learning about the censorship and dissent suppression in the behemoth that is the Chinese communist republic.

Quote from the book. Made by the author with Readwise.

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Carlos Garbiras

Storyteller sorting out the deeply ingrained neurosis of a topsy-turvy upbringing in Colombia.|| garbiras.me || Unequivocally Ambiguous Cultural Critiques