The art market is the largest site of money laundering in the world, or so an artist told a group of students last year. What better place then, or so this guy's argument went, to raise awkward political points. While such artists may syphon off the excess of ill-gotten gains, any complicity is denied. The artists 'political' work counter balances the bad deed of their patron, like an ethical equivalent of carbon trading.
This is just the kind of self-serving statement art students can expect from successful visiting artists. The power structures that be, mean that while the students may quietly disagree with such false reasoning, they will know to keep their mouths shut - too much happens here by dint of friendships and social networks - (or more accurately social climbing) - for real open discussion and questioning to take place. What happens instead is that savvy students raise their hands to ask questions that simultaneously flatter the speakers, while subtly showing the student's grasp of art theory. Woe betide those who treat visiting dignitaries as equals, whose work deserves to be scrutinised in much the same way that they would their own. This institutionalisation of an abusive power dynamic, does not serve the interests of education. It allows for a kind of sloppy thinking that is dominant throughout the art world and the work of Ai Weiwei is a good case in point.
For his retrospective at The Royal Academy several 'behind the scene' type videos are on display. These are presented as artworks. "Straight" documents the thinking and process behind an artwork that saw 200 tonnes of rebar salvaged from the remains of the shoddily constructed schools that collapsed and killed many children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. For this work the rebar was collected and taken to Weiwei's studio to be painstakingly straightened by a team of employees. These newly straightened steel bars have been laid on the floor of the RA in some kind of reference to minimalism. As with the video that accompanied the sunflower seed piece at the Tate Weiwei can be observed, hands in pocket, overseeing the whole process, checking on the labour of his workers, and occasionally taking a photo - no doubt for his endless stream of social media posts. All the while looking suitably friendly and photogenic. The sunflower piece presented itself as a kind of relational aesthetics: Weiwei employed over 1600 people to make porcelain sunflower seeds in Jingdezhen, a city that used to make vases for emperors. It is hard to know what to conclude from such exercises, as employees are filmed weighing the fruits of this repetitive labour. Clearly this is piecework.
Making political artwork is tricky, which is not to say it shouldn't be done. The question is, when does art add something and when might it be better for issues to be raised in other formats? The problem here seems to be the name or brand of the artist. Solo artists' trading on the lives of others is inherently problematic: one group of people is absorbed, subordinated under a single artist's name. Weiwei's list of the children who died in the earthquake, is an efficient illustration of this point - it is his name that we remember. Where a documentary film puts the thesis at stake first, the potency of an artist is understood to be their unique vision and it is this vision that trumps all. Here claims for concern over a group, person, or issue can seem disingenuous especially when it is not clear how the subjects of the artwork benefit. An art audience, even at the much visited RA or Tate, is exceedingly limited. Salient political points are neutered, transformed into consumable and unthreatening commodities.
If "making art politically" involves employing scores of people to do boring and dangerous work, what makes what Weiwei does significantly different from countless industrialists? Finding ways to air serious political concerns without simultaneously undermining the potency of the politics, is a challenge when making art. But if artists are to produce work that is more than glib one-liners, or a self-congratulatory play at politics, they must ask something of themselves and the coherence of their work. This could be good. All art is political, and as Andrea Fraser notes there is no art world distinct from the real world.
But what makes seemingly apolitical works, different from those that happily trade on the bodies of others in the name of 'politics'? In both contexts it is the artist who reaps the financial or cultural rewards. Aren't these 'political artists' just shrewd cynics? Nominally political work can only hope to redeem itself, by the scrutiny demanded by its dedication to ethics. This would demand an internal logic, where medium and message meet, and thereby produce work that would have have all the beauty of a good piece of art.