After W.B. Yeats disappeared in the dead of winter, Auden told us: “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Given the frigid weather, the looming war and the passing of one of the century’s great voices, a degree of pessimism may be forgiven. But was Auden right?
As I walked through the celebrated and well-attended Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy last week, Auden’s words floated back to me. Expanding the sentiment to include not just poetry, but painting, music, novels, and the world of art more broadly, is it fair to classify them as an indulgence, things of beauty and entertainment, but not an engine in the world?
Christopher Hitchens – who wielded his own pen like a weapon – certainly didn’t think so. Speaking of Wilfred Owen, a poet who wrote less and lived less than Yeats or Auden (killed a week before Armistice Day in 1918, aged 25, four poems published), Hitchens said: “He has conclusively outlived all the jingo versifiers, blood-bolted Liberal politicians, garlanded generals and other supposed legislators of the period. He is the most powerful single rebuttal of Auden’s mild and sane claim that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’”
Certainly these days, outside of the silliest of films, war is rarely glorified as a noble thing in and of itself. This must partly be attributed to the iconic, visceral images of Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est, its evocations of white eyes writhing in a gassed face, the froth-corrupted lungs, as well as to All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughter House Five, Dr. Strangelove and the rest of the vast volume of 20th century cultural output, which poured as a torrent into the collective psyche – and continues to do so – excoriating war as stupid, wasteful and cruel.
Of course, the actual experience of millions of normal men and women being put through the wringer of war, witnessing shrapnel scythe down their friends and fire consume their towns and villages, may have also gone some way to dampening the martial spirit, but it cannot have been sufficient in itself. There was nothing new about that. It has been the fate of the bulk of humanity from the dawn of time to be herded into combat, pillaged, plundered and raped. Far from being uniquely violent, World War One is not even proportionally one of the most destructive events in the human narrative. What distinguishes it is a highly artistic, sensitive contingent of combatants who were ready to attack it through creativity, and then to transmit this anti-war sentiment to a large, receptive and literate audience back home. Saturated in messages of peace, the Western mind began to lose its pugnacity.
Which brings me back to the Royal Academy, in 2015, at the Ai Weiwei exhibition. In room after room, relentlessly, Ai underscores the brutality, the venality, the sheer monotonous, crushing authoritarianism of the Chinese state. We see 96 tons’ worth of rusting steel rods smoothed into something undulating, almost beautiful, only to read that it was salvaged from schools which collapsed in the Sichuan province earthquake, killing more than 5,000 students. Local authorities stole much of the budget allocated for schools, leaving children sheltering beneath inferior materials that were nonetheless heavy enough to crush them when the ground shook. The name of each student is recorded on the walls of the gallery, sucked back for a moment from anonymous oblivion.
Later we witness the wanton caprice of politicians in Shanghai, who, after requesting that Ai build a tremendous new studio outside their city, and indeed after paying for its construction, come along without warning and demolish it in a day. Ai records the diggers at work, smashing and crushing, the silent faces, the absence of explanation. None is needed.
Finally, we come to a room with a set of installations entitled S.A.C.R.E.D., six cubes that recreate Ai’s 81-day illegal detention in a secret location back in 2011. After being arrested at Beijing airport on the way to Taipei, he was kept in solitary confinement, alone except for two guards who stood mutely beside him, day and night. When Ai was released, he was forbidden to talk about the incarceration. He has done far more than talk about it.
The cubes are opaque, and can only be peered into through small windows, most of which are positioned on the ceiling. In each cube we see an example of Ai going through the basics of living: he washes, he defecates, he sleeps, he eats. The recreations are half life-size. In each scene the uniformed guards stand in silence, cold and alien-like, radiating sterility, determined to break him without physical violence. In a particularly poignant cube, entitled ‘Doubt’, we see the guards marching, and Ai beside them, hesitating as to whether he should fall into step, take the path of least resistance and march with them. But of course he doesn’t, because he is a born rebel, because to march is to surrender, and because “once you’ve tasted freedom it stays in your heart and no one can take it.”
I found myself leaning against the wall of the gallery and observing how others reacted to the cubes. I was particularly interested in the responses of Chinese visitors. And there were many of them, of all ages, but particularly the young, perhaps students. They moved in small groups, standing quietly before the introductory boards that described the ‘brutality of Mao’, the shackling of speech in China, the coercion of dissidents. They paused before the nameless bones of an intellectual who died in one of Mao’s labour camps. I tried to read their faces. They whispered to each other. They walked slowly up the little ladders propped against the cubes and peered in through the windows, watching Ai’s prostrate body on his bed as if on a mortuary slab, his guards, long and thin, leaning over him, violating all his moments. Sometimes they laughed nervously, conferred at the footsteps of the cubes, ascended again to reevaluate. They moved on and saw Ai in the shower, sponging his back, his guards crowded in with him, rigid as planks, demeaning themselves more than their captive.
As I watched these people absorb their surroundings, I asked myself whether it would be possible to walk through such an exhibition and not come away knowing that authoritarianism is wrong. Can people witness the crushing of the human instinct to freedom and not come away feeling deep in their bones that it is wrong to do this to people? Rational perhaps, if you’re a Chinese politician. And expedient. But wrong. And this manifest wrongness matters, because even as the human is a rational, self-serving creature, it is also a moral one.
So can art stoke this morality in a person? Will the Chinese students and tourists who attend this exhibition carry a sense of indignation home with them? And can they convert others? Who then convert others? I think they can. And tyrants agree with me. Think about this: if art and artists don’t matter, then why is it that the name Ai WeiWei cannot be typed on a Chinese computer without the whole sentence vanishing? If the arts don’t matter, then why do tyrants burn books? It isn’t to keep themselves warm. It’s to prevent a far greater conflagration. The ignition of the people.
An awful lot of historical ingenuity has been expended on keeping populations separated from disruptive art and ideas. But now the world has a new weapon, and one Ai WeiWei is adept at using: the Internet. Much attention is paid to technology’s ominous potential as a tool of repression: the CCTV cameras, the trawling of emails by government agencies, humankind supplanted by robots. But perhaps we’ve got it the wrong way round. Perhaps it is the great liberator we’ve waited for. Ai Weiwei, who knows more keenly than most what repression feels like, says: “The Internet is uncontrollable. And if the Internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that.”
The fact that Ai has come here, mocked his masters, and lived to tell the tale, suggests that he may be right. As he has said, in his father’s generation people died “just because of one sentence, or even word.” Certainly for a miniscule fraction of what we saw at the Royal Academy. By letting Ai come to London and say what he has said, the Chinese government, even if it doesn’t know it, is accepting that it’s the beginning of the end. You can’t allow a little mockery. It’s too contagious. And there you have it. Art and technology, hand in hand, making things happen after all.