Ai Weiwei, the internationally renowned Chinese dissident artist in exile in Europe recently found his exhibition at the Lisson Gallery in London, scheduled to open November 15, had been cancelled, along with three more of his exhibitions scheduled for New York, Paris, and Berlin. The reason, as the BBC headline indicated, was his Israel-related post on eXTwitter. BBC quoted the Lisson Gallery’s statement, “There is no place for debate that can be characterized as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic.”
What did Ai post? Translated from Chinese, he said basically that American politics, finance, culture, and media were mostly under Jewish control; and that the annual U.S. $3 billion aid to Israel bound the two countries in a shared destiny.
Chen Weihua, China Daily European bureau chief, reacted immediately, with a great sense of schadenfreude: “Sounds like a death sentence. His exhibitions cancelled… They like to use/abuse him to criticize/slander China… they won’t allow him to criticize Israel… A bloody artistic reckoning?”
Others joined, “Moved to the U.K. for freedom of expression and then got cut off by the U.K. for a social media post about Israel. HAHAHA!” “Censorship. Is it China?” “Shameful for those who cancelled it. Hypocrites. If he criticized China, he would have got standing ovation but not over Israel.”
Son of a famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who was persecuted and exiled along with his family in remote regions of China during Mao years, Ai Weiwei has been a rebel in art and social activism. His provocative art, for instance, included a photo of his middle finger in front of the Tiananmen Tower. He was beaten by police in China for organizing a citizens’ investigation of the victims of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. His blog on Weibo was shut down due to his commentaries critical of the Chinese government. He was jailed for what the government called tax evasion and was not allowed to leave China until 2015.
As the producer of the film “Human Flow” about the global refuge crisis, which included filming in Gaza, and himself long sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, how did Ai Weiwei respond to the cancellations?
He told the New York-based contemporary art and culture outlet Hyperallergic, “While the suddenness is jarring, it doesn’t astonish me; what does surprise me is the application of violent means in today’s ostensibly democratic and free society to suppress cultural expression.”
He was also quoted in Euronews, “In my opinion, all kinds of opinions can be expressed, even when they are not correct.” He continued, “Incorrect opinions should be especially encouraged. If free expression is limited to the same kind of opinions, it becomes an imprisonment of expression.”
“Same kind of opinions” recalls the case of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower Wuhan doctor who warned in his social media circle of the SARS-like pneumonia among the patients in the emergency room at his hospital, received a reprimand from the police for “spreading rumors,” and later died of Covid 19. But what Li told the Caixin magazine interviewing him in his hospital bed has lived on, “A healthy society should not just have one voice.”
Together, Ai’s and Li’s words underscore that a healthy society, a healthy democratic society, should not limit free speech to the same kind of opinions or one kind of voice. Yet cancel culture seems to be pushing for that kind of limit.
Over the years, cancel culture was first more a practice used against conservatives. In 2014, for instance, professors at Rutgers University demanded that the school cancel its commencement invitation to Condoleezza Rice, believing that she was partially responsible for the Iraq war. Or as late as 2020, crowds online called for cancelling JK Rowling, the famed author of Harry Potter, for her comments on transgender rights and her criticism of the re-defining of the word “women.”
With the ongoing Hamas-Israel war, cancel culture has come to target people on the left or those being critical of Israel. Michael Eisen, who is Jewish, was fired as the editor-in-chief of eLife, a biomedical and life sciences journal, for retweeting a satirical article of The Onion critical of Israel and indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians.
Another editor-in-chief, David Velasco of Artforum, was fired after he posted an open letter signed by thousands of people criticizing the silence about the Israeli bombing of residents in Gaza. The latest recipient of such a “cancellation” is Susan Sarandon, the Oscar-winning actress, whose agency, United Talent Agency, dropped representing her because of her comments at a pro-Palestinian rally.
It is clear from these cancellations, and Ai Weiwei’s, on at least the issue of Hamas-Israel war, there is only one kind of opinions and one kind of voice allowed, which is that Israel is unquestionable. If one does voice such criticism, one can lose his or her job or more. In this respect, there is a disturbing similarity among the United States, the U.K., and China, where the Communist Party is unquestionable as it is always right and never wrong.