Is Artistic Expression Inherently Political?



In lieu of answering the question posed in the title, I’ll present the opposite perspectives of two world-class Chinese artists making headlines today.

Piano virtuoso Lang Lang (above) recently attracted criticism after he played the patriotic tune “My Motherland” at a White House state dinner. The piece was an arrangement of a song from a Chinese film from 1956 about the Korean war, historically employed as anti-American propaganda. (View the performance here.)

In an interview with NPR host Melissa Block, Lang Lang explained that he did not mean it as a political statement of any kind and did not associate the song with its original meaning or context, but that he was attracted to its beautiful melody.

As for the international reaction it received, namely, a perceived political gesture and snub, Lang Lang was impassioned in setting the record straight.

I feel very sad. You know, I very sad. And, you know, and I must say, disappointing. Because, you know, as a person, what I’m trying to do, and what my missions are, you know, making music. And, you know, I’m very honored that people inviting me to play in those great events and to connect us to classical music and to music, to Chinese music and to American music, to, you know, to world music. And once, you know, people use it as a political issue, that makes me really sad because I am a musician. I’m not a politician.

Visual artist Ai Weiwei (below), on the other hand, has continuously sounded the clarion call in defense of the disenfranchised within his own country, attracting support from the international human rights community while rousing the ire of Chinese politicians for challenging the status quo.

Whereas Lang Lang wants only to create harmony through his concertizing, Ai Weiwei thrives on dissonance as path to justice.

We have a responsibility, as artists, to fight for better conditions. I see freedom and justice as basic, fundamental rights for everyone. I’m just in this position to make my voice heard…But there are a million people like me in China. I don’t think they can stop us all.

Ai Weiwei

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(Lang Lang by Detlef Schneider; Ai Weiwei by Andy Miah)

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