Ai Weiwei and Bono on Art and Capitalism

No word triggers more nonsense thinking than “capitalism.” For centuries, when Christianity reigned, the ubiquitous bogeyman was Satan. As that superstition wanes, now it’s capitalism. (At least capitalism exists.)

China’s economy is in some ways the world’s most free-market capitalist — while its political system is an Orwellian dictatorship. China’s most famous artist is Ai Weiwei, who often pushes a thumb in that regime’s eye. But not his essay in a recent publication of The Economist he titled “Reclaiming art from capitalism.” Which is the bogeyman here.

A Martian reading the essay would never guess at the global confrontation between tyrannies like China’s and open democratic societies. Not mentioned as something art should be concerned with. No — it’s capitalism!

Ai complains that today’s global culture, very much including art, forms a “complete system” which “reflects the values and aesthetic tendencies of capitalism in every respect.” Characterized “by capitalism’s fervent advocacy of individual freedom, its encouragement of so-called ‘creativity’ and the idealisation of unfettered personal development . . . observed in the overwhelming tendency to consider art from a purely commercial perspective, neglecting spiritual concerns in favor of wealth accumulation.” While “societal injustices, regional inequalities, exploitation of the weak and unsustainable use of natural resources are ignored. By dodging these questions, contemporary art has become just a form of entertainment, detached from spiritual life. Art’s power . . . has been compromised. The outlook is dim.”

In other words, artists are selling out, sacrificing social concerns for filthy capitalist lucre.

What planet is he talking about? Is he on Mars? It sure doesn’t sound like he’s been to any modern contemporary art shows. Ones I’ve attended have been chock full of work concerned with exactly the kinds of “socially relevant” subjects Ai deems ignored. If anything, overbearingly so, in-your-face.

Unsurprisingly, Ai asserts that his own art fills the void he claims to identify: “concerned with life and death, the bigger sociopolitical context . . . all connected with the human condition and human dignity.” Well, bully for him. But to cast himself as some unique hero in that regard smacks of “mankind’s exaggerated self-esteem, extreme arrogance” which he later decries.

Rarely do voices flaying “capitalism” ever seriously offer an alternative. Meantime, a recent Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial discussed an interview with pop icon Bono, known for his anti-poverty crusading. It “may give progressives vertigo.” Quoting Bono: “I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. Now I know that’s not true.” Rather, “the off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce; it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.”

Because it enables people to keep the fruits of their efforts — an incentive to work harder, producing more goods and services. Businesses make profits by providing things other people want.

Adam Smith nailed the point: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

What we call capitalism (or a market economy) is not some concocted system, but simply the normal default mode for human interactions. A has something B wants or needs; B has something A wants; an object, or labor, or an intangible, etc. When A and B agree on its terms an exchange occurs. True, they don’t always have equal power. B may consent to work for A for pittance wages. But wouldn’t do so unless better off than not. Life is unfair; a market economy is how such unfairness is negotiated to maximize people’s aggregate welfare.

“Globalization has brought more people out of poverty than any other ism,” Bono said. “If somebody comes to me with a better idea, I’ll sign up.”

One Response to “Ai Weiwei and Bono on Art and Capitalism”

  1. Lee Says:

    > “Globalization has brought more people out of poverty than any other ism,” Bono said. “If somebody comes to me with a better idea, I’ll sign up.”

    I agree on the first point. For the second point, I am thinking that the recipe is capitalism with a universal basic income. (Plus the usual laws that prohibit fraud, compensate for adverse externalities, etc.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: