Saturday, November 20, 2010

Art, Derivation, and Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei is a Chinese political activist and artist, probably most notable for his part in designing the 'bird's nest' stadium that hosted the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. A slightly less famous 'work' of his was on 'display' at a New York museum that consisted of thousands upon thousands of handmade porcelain sunflower seeds spread out on a floor.

Needless to say, he's a modern artist. I must confess to hating modern art, mostly because to me art is supposed to convey some kind of meaning or expression to the viewer, and it seems to me that the modern artist must be fairly self-absorbed to think that any viewer can divine what he meant from such expressions, or else he actually had nothing to say at all. If he were really interested in conveying something to the viewer, he would choose a different way of expressing himself. Traditional art is an intercourse -- while modern art seems like, um, an individual pursuit.

Anyway, that was exactly my initial reaction to these two pieces. Then I encountered this interview with The Economist.  It is a brief but fascinating critique on the Chinese situation well worth the time of anyone interested in the question.

I think he makes some extraordinary observations. Most of the ideas of Chinese political agitators I have encountered tend to bang the democracy and human rights drum in a way almost identical to Western agitators about Chinese policy. My own view is that democracy is a process, not an outcome, and would ask any would-be salvation-through-voting philosopher exactly what would be voted on, what the choices would be and how the votes would go. An election is not the same thing as (and no guarantee of) a functioning system. At any rate, Ai Weiwei is also a democracy proponent, but he seems to have more to say both in words and through his art which I think is very insightful.

He observes a certain element of 'fakeness' in what he sees coming out of China. Its economy cranks out enormous volumes of cheap copy-cats of Western goods. There is very little respect for intellectual property -- pirate copies of everything from software to pharmaceuticals flow freely. There is very little innovation or creativity. The educational system stresses mastery through rote.

His two mentioned artworks are both reactions against this situation. The 'fake' sunflower seeds, painstakingly 'hand-made in China,' were destined to be trodden on by curious Westerners, ogling a thing they probably couldn't understand or appreciate. His 'bird's nest,' in contrast, was more like an expression of the ideal. It was made wide open, it's materials exposed, unpainted and undecorated for anyone to inspect. It wasn't 'fake' and had no pretensions.

Ironically, the opening ceremonies which took place in that very stadium were marred by an act of 'fakery' when a cute young performer was caught lip-syncing a song which had actually been sung by another young girl, whom the event's organizers had deemed not cute enough to perform the song herself. To this day, the cute girl is a darling of the Chinese media. The not so cute girl has been largely forgotten.

Like many other Chinese, he thinks that the Chinese economic boom is 'fake,' and will be revealed at some point for what it is. I find that this is a very widespread opinion among Chinese. My own opinion is that the observation is probably half true, half not. It is hard to say with so many fake statistics, fake prices and phoney money systems involved in the assessment. It is certainly true to my mind that they face a day of reckoning for all the rampant manipulation, as do the rest of us to greater and lesser degrees. But I suppose that only time will tell if the economy sinks back into the destitute socialist mire from whence it came, or merely stagnates at a so-so level somewhere between third-world and first world standards. He also laments and fears the 'fake' patriotism he sees in the young, for which they can often not articulate good reasons because at the core it is 'empty.'

I very much like the stress he places on genuiness and honesty as being important to a society and possible antidotes to the problems he feels that he sees around him. He has more unique ideas to contribute than the typical Sino-democrat. However, like many such philosophers he seems quite the reactionary. In the short run this may be pointing him towards better philosophical pastures. But in the long run reaction against the bad will never substitute for articulation of the good. Focus on eradicating one negative is a good start, but it does not provide much guidance on the broader problem of constructing 'the good society.'

Kind of like democracy. It is completely incomplete.

Which leads me to my next somewhat-surprisingly related topic -- C.S. Lewis on what constitutes good Christian literature.


I have been reading quite a lot of C.S. Lewis of late, and am finding myself surprised at both the scope of topics he has commented on and on the number of topics with which I find myself in disagreement with him. I've even managed to dig up an extended essay that he wrote on what constitutes good literary criticism. A sort of criticism of criticism, and therefore an opinion of what criteria (or criterium, as it turns out) should be used to judge a literary work. I think this was actually a professional paper of his as it had nothing to do with Christianity.

So much of his thinking is so simply profound, but he really expressed an interesting opinion on what constitutes good Christian literature in one particular essay, Christianity and Literature. (Actually, it was a speech he once gave, but of course by the time I encountered it, it was an essay.)  He says that the New Testament doesn't really provide much of anything in the way of outright guidance as to what constitutes good literature, but a theme that it does tend to repeat on the broader topic of how Christians are supposed to behave and how the Christian world is supposed to be structured is the theme of 'derivation,' or 'emulation,' of higher orders as examples.

That's right -- Christians are supposed to 'copy.'

He gives many examples -- that the Son is derivative of the Father, that He 'only does what He sees His Father in heaven doing,' that people are to become as Christ was, that a man is to be head of the family as Christ was head of the Church, etc. etc. Lewis builds up a picture of the Christian worldview almost like a fractal image, the same motifs repeating over and over whether in finer detail or in larger, grander designs.

Likewise, he says that the present literary preoccupation with 'originality' and 'creativity' really runs counter to what he thinks should be the Christian point of view -- that all good Christian literature actually ought to be derivative. In literary circles, 'derivative' would be a strong pejorative.  As people committed to a belief system which places the ultimate source of all value with the Creator and his glory, the literary works of Christians should forever be propounding and exploring the same timeless themes and ideas that have been with the faith since its inception and were meant to reveal to people the glory of God.

He remarks that it wouldn't make sense for a Christian to write a book about events whose significance was purely derived from their significance to himself, because these events should appear to him to have no significance at all and not worth repeating. The only events and ideas worth sharing would be those whose ultimate goal was to reveal to the reader some greater universal truth that would benefit the reader's understanding of God or some aspect of His Creation. And anything written on such a topic would of necessity not be something utterly new or creative because by this measure it would be rooted in a very ancient theme and a reflection on something which already exists.

In a way, it seems to me that the whole idea of human creativity might be something of a delusion. After all, we are created beings, 'in the image of God.' How could we create anything really new, our own creative ability being merely derivative of His? Are not our creative actions, and all of Creation's for that matter, merely extensions of His own act of Creation? Is not everything derivative of Him, whether we like to think so or not? Maybe this thought is only yet another reiterration of 'there is never anything new under the sun.' But I think there is also something more here.

Some have said that every aspect of Creation, being derived as it is from the Creator, is only a reflection of some aspect of the character of God. The majesty of the mountains reflect His glory, the vastness of the oceans His own vastness, the prolific fecundity and variety of Nature His own prolific creativity. It is even said that the perversity of Satan is beholden and subordinate to the creativity of God, for Satan can only pervert and corrupt that which already was created by Him, and is incapable of creating anything new of itself.

Perhaps it is even true that if one were really to try to do anything solely of his own creative will, from himself alone and nothing else, he would have engaged in an evil act, and in the end really would have failed. He would only have suceeded in creating a twisted perversion of what God had really intended of him -- a thing not only of Creation by necessity, but in harmony with it, and with Him.

Is it even possible for the creature to produce anything which is outside of the Creator's design? If the Creator has produced the entirety of the Universe, from exactly where would this novelty come? From some other universe?


I have now read backwards through four 'generations' of authors whose fiction explores the same topic of how the old pagan religions intersect with Christianity in the works of Theodore Beale, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. I'm working on a fifth -- Paradise Lost, by John Milton. All of these authors acknowledge, and even celebrate, the derivative nature of their work, not just of the religions themselves but even of one another. They rehash the same old ideas, each with their own quirky expressions and perspectives, and often as not, lift entire ideas intact from their predecessors and restate them as their own.

And yet I found every single one of them to be interesting and inspiring to read, and knowing full well where the inspiration for their works came from (with the exception of George MacDonald and John Milton), I can say that, though all were incredibly talented, none of them were really all that creative. As far as I'm concerned, that fact does not take away anything in the slightest from the value of their stories. If anything, the enjoyment I got out of reading them knowing their derivative nature was not diminished but magnified.

I agree with Lewis -- I do not think that Christian artists should focus on producing anything new or creative. I think they should focus on producing works that are good.


But what about Ai Weiwei and his sunflower seeds? Was he not correct to say that works should be genuine and original?

I think he is correct as far as he intends to be correct. As a reactionary, I don't think he is operating on an all-encompassing level. He is merely reacting against something he saw and didn't like, which is fine. He is very focused, which is both the strength and the trouble with reaction as a motivator for change.

The key is his stress on genuinness and honesty and his revulsion towards what is 'fake,' not necessarily copying and derivation in and of themselves, but as symptoms of 'fakery.' Derivative is not the same as fake unless it pretends to be what it is not. Fake is a lie. But a derivative at peace with its place and honest with itself can be a beautiful thing.

Perhaps the 'best' thing.

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