Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot: The case for obnoxious dissidents

Prompted by news that Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is releasing a heavy metal album, the Atlantic's Matt Schiavenza questions just how useful China's best known dissident's antics are for advancing the cause of democracy in his own country:

So the fact that Ai is able to embark on these extracurricular ventures at all is, in its way, something of a triumph. But by fanning his celebrity through what amounts to little more than publicity stunts, Ai has evolved into a bumbling parody of himself and in the process has empowered the same force -- the Chinese Communist Party -- that he so regularly vilifies. Unwittingly, Ai has conformed to the Party's definition of a dissident -- a Narcissist more attuned to the whims of foreign admirers than to the interests of his own people.

If Ai were just an artist, or even a politically engaged artist in a more democratic country, he would be totally insufferable --"at once formidable and absurd, courageous and disingenuous, unquestionably brilliant and downright moronic," as critic Jed Perl described his recent show at the Hirshhorn museum in Washington. And no doubt, there's a threshold activists can cross -- let's call it the FEMEN line -- where their actions become more about self-promotion than effecting any sort of change. 

But the distinction Schiavenza draws between's Ai's Gangnam-dancing, Elton John-hugging public profile and "the mild-mannered professor" Liu Xiaobo seems to imply that opposition is more legitimate when it comes from refined intellectuals rather than brash self-promoters. 

Schiavenza draws some parrallels between Ai and Russia's Pussy Riot, which I think is a useful comparison. Like Ai, Pussy Riot seems to conform to Vladimir Putin's government's cartoon version of what the opposition looks like -- immature, reflexively disrespectful of authority, and supported more in the West than their own country. Even the Russian opposition has kept Pussy Riot at arm's length, while supporting their release from prison, with blogger Alexei Navalny calling them "silly girls" and Mikhail Khodorkovsy chalking up their actions to the "mistakes of youthful radicalism."

I get that Russian activists and the writers and commentators who follow their movement in the West are frustrated that the world only started paying attention when the word "pussy" entered the equation.  But arguing that these figures shouldn't be supported because they match the stereotypes described by authoritarian leaders seems dangerously close to letting these leaders define the acceptable limits of public discourse.

One wonders what critics of Ai and Pussy Riot would have said about Fela Kuti, the Afrobeat pioneer who was a persistent and effective thorn in the side of Nigeria's military government in the 1970s at the same time he was declaring his recording studio an independent nation and marrying his 27 backup singers. It takes a certain type of personality to believe your artistic expression is worth the risk of death or arrest. It's not always the most appealing one.

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