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Who is afraid of Ai Weiwei?

Enlightenment the Chinese way for Martin Roth. The German museum director criticises Ai Weiwei, while the Guggenheim launches a petition of support. By Rüdiger Schaper

Imperium confronts imperium. The American entertainment company Walt Disney is building a theme park in Shangai. Several thousand apartments and stores will be cleared away for this purpose. The park is planned to open in five years. Projections estimate seven million visitors a year.

Legend confronts reality. On Wednesday Bob Dylan played in Beijing, his first concert in China. Tickets were obscenely expensive, and the man in the white cowboy hat did not say a single word. He never does. Dylan a protest singer? This was a misconception even in the 1960s. He was never willing to commit himself. His Bobness has even sung for the Pope and at West Point, the sacred bastion of the US military.

Politics? No comment. But now that he will soon be turning seventy - and the world is still a difficult, unjust, torn apart place - it would have been just too perfect if he had played up a part of one song or the other, which millions of fans from throughout the world and even those in China could have read something into. But an agreement had been made with the Chinese authorities about the program, and apparently he stuck to it. Don't think twice, it's alright!?

Where is Ai Weiwei? He was taken away a week ago at the Beijing airport. He is under investigation for economic crimes. That is an especially insidious accusation, because with it the state intends to make him into a common criminal, thereby avoiding the impression that the trail might be political. Enlightenment the Chinese way.

What doesn't bother Disney or Bob Dylan is just fine with Martin Roth. Who is Martin Roth? He is a mandarin of the German art scene, the head of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, one of the museum institutions having organised the exhibition "The Art of the Enlightenment" in Beijing. The others are the state art collections of Berlin and Munich. Only the most important museums. Together with the German Foreign Office they have curated the first guest exhibition in the new National Museum on Tiananmen Square, on the topic of "the Enlightenment," of all things. The architect of the renovated building is also German, Meinhard von Gerkan.

Martin Roth
, Director General of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Michael Eissenhauer,
Director General of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; Klaus Schrenk, Director General of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München at the Press conference on March 31st 2011. Photos: © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Frank Barbian

While American and British museums launch appeals for Ai Weiwei, Roth dutifully kowtows in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit. There Roth is cited as saying that Ai Weiwei "is so popular [with the Western press] because he is constantly pounding on the table." And by the way, "There are hundreds of artists like him," but no one talks about them, because they are not pop stars." Kicking a man who is already down - his pure contempt for contemporary art is unveiled.

Precisely the German cultural scene would have reason to show solidarity with Ai Weiwei. The fact that he was arrested at the very moment when an exhibition on the Enlightenment - on human rights - was opening is utter mockery. Even more so is the fact that a few days before the exhibition opened he had announced he was moving to a second residence and studio in Berlin. "I feel particularly valued in Germany, especially since documenta 2007 in Kassel," he said in an interview.

But not by Martin Roth, to whom museum politics is more important than human rights.

The Museum in Beijing; Kant's shoes

Economic factors come full circle. The Chinese billion-market not only draws carmakers and architects. Also major museums from New York to Paris and London are attracted by sources of revenue, to Beijing as well as the Emirates on the Persian Gulf. Today international museums like the Guggenheim are operated like companies. They work on a global scale and are increasingly profit-oriented. Marketing goes before ethics. However, the Guggenheim took the first step in organizing a petition for solidarity with Ai Weiwei.

This makes it all the worse when the director of an institution such as the Dresden state collections, which enjoys the security of government subsidies, endorses a system of injustice and violence. Martin Roth has repudiated the world of German culture. He owes an apology. It is his duty to support the cause of Ai Weiwei. Otherwise, he will have wagered nothing in Beijing and can simply take his art treasures back home.

Museum encounters Enlightenment: both are dead.


The extended version of this article was originally published in der Tagesspiegel on 10.04.2011

Rüdiger Schaper is the cultural editor of der Tagesspiegel.

Translation: Laura Schleussner - let's talk european