Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Ai Weiwei, Bob Dylan and freedom of expression

April 15, 2011 by Karen Gross


The month-long Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts debuted last week, bringing with it a Parisian-inspired slate of cultural programs—including the National Constitution Center’s Spring Fling: Freedom of Expression through the Arts from April 14-17. Yet, as we celebrate the arts in Philadelphia, it’s worth noting that not every artist enjoys freedom of expression safeguarded by the First Amendment.

Photo by Flickr user Stoned59As reported extensively by The New York Times, Chinese artist and outspoken government critic Ai Weiwei was recently taken into police custody after trying to board a flight for Hong Kong.

One of China’s most provocative personalities, Mr. Ai is most famous for his work on the "Bird's Nest" national stadium for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing—which he later denounced as a “feel-good whitewash on China’s repressive, market-hungry government,” noted Times reporter Holland Cotter. He has a long history of combining his politically conscious, cross-disciplinary artwork with social media savvy—as well as a history of tension with Chinese officials.

Artistry and activism are in his DNA; his father, the well-known poet Ai Qing, was denounced and exiled during the Cultural Revolution for his political leanings. Mr. Ai’s detention comes in the midst of a flourishing international career. Last year, he created the Sunflower Seeds installation for the Tate Modern in London. His 12-piece public sculpture installation, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, is scheduled launch a world tour this spring—with its first exhibit from May to July at the historic Pulitzer Fountain near New York City’s Plaza Hotel.

Ai Weiwei, image: Wikipedia

With Mr. Ai’s future still uncertain, the arts community has petitioned for his release. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. government was “deeply concerned by the trend of forced disappearances, extralegal detentions, arrests, and convictions of rights activists for exercising their internationally recognized human rights, including freedom of expression and movement.”

This past weekend, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took singer Bob Dylan to task for performing in China—and reportedly agreeing to a censored set list—despite Mr. Ai’s detention.

The case of Ai Weiwei calls to mind singer/actor/athlete (and Philadelphia resident) Paul Robeson, who was investigated by the FBI and called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for his outspoken political views during the McCarthy era. Decades later, the U.S. government cracked down on controversial artists including late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the “NEA Four”—Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes—whose proposed National Endowment for the Arts grants were initially vetoed due to subject matter.

On the other hand, American voices of protest have flourished and, in some cases, influenced our national conversation. Protest singers, for instance, have provided a soundtrack for political and social movements, from the 19th-century Hutchinson Family Singers (who promoted abolition and women’s suffrage) to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and yes, Dylan, to Rage Against the Machine and Ani DiFranco.

What are other powerful examples of protest art? And when has America limited the freedom of expression? We encourage you to voice your opinion below.


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