In light of the discussion about censorship last week in Cairo, Ai Weiwei has an interestingly paradoxical article on the freedom of the Internet in today’s Guardian. His argument is that the capacity of people to adapt to censorship regimes on something as complex and evolving as the Internet, and the fact that ultimately censorship never works in any case, means that freedom will win out on-line. A nicely optimistic prognosis and who would argue (so long as we ignore the very rapid commercialization of the web, which arguably constitutes an even greater threat).
However, about half way through he makes a a characteristically provocative statement: “But without censorship, I think it would be much less interesting. ” The ‘it’ here seems to refer both to the Internet and to the ongoing struggle against censorship. The paradox here, of course, is having Ai Weiwei of all people saying in effect that censorship may be necessary to ensure freedom of expression. And, of course, it is all too easy to find examples where repressive regimes have produced some of the finest, edgiest and most enduring art, literature, music and poetry.
Not only do we have Ai Weiwei himself (see the contents of his exhibition ‘Absent’ held in Taipei in 2011), but among my personal favourites are John Heartfield, who produced the most excoriating anti-Nazi images in Germany in the 1930s:
Perhaps even more extraordinary was composer Dmitri Shostakovitch who was hounded by the Soviet authorities in the 1940s – including by Stalin personally – and responded with some of the greatest and most sophisticated music ever written. His chamber music – which he only started after he was first denounced by the authorities – used an explicitly ‘bourgeois’ form to create an extraordinarily powerful, and immediately popular, musical language. He went even further with his 10th symphony which includes (allegedly – he never admitted it) a less than flattering musical portrait of Stalin himself.
Whether these wonderful examples (there are many more, of course) can be used to argue that censorship makes things ‘interesting’, however, is debateable. I know that Ai Weiwei is not ‘defending’ censorship here, but he raises a troubling issue that has been around for a long time. Would complete artistic freedom make us lazy and boring? The name ‘Damien Hirst’ springs effortlessly to mind at this point…….