Artful Dissent and Empowerment Education

Ai Weiwei, Remembering, 2009. Photograph by the artist.

“There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” – Richard Shaull from the introduction to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed

“Liberty is about our rights to question everything.” – Ai Weiwei

Can art start a revolution? Can it bring about viable social, cultural or political change? There have been far more than a few circumstances throughout time and place where artists and works of art have caused enough of a stir to affect the discourse, ideals and actions of a society. Chinese conceptual artist, Ai Weiwei’s artwork exemplifies a contemporary case of art being an imposing and impactful form of conscientious dissidence.

Weiwei’s art has been censored and confiscated by the Chinese government. He has even been confined under house arrest. One of the key issues that Weiwei addresses in his art is widespread political, economic and social malversation, which spreads across every facet of contemporary life. One of his most poignant works to date is Remembering (2009). Not surprisingly, this work got him into some of the most serious legal trouble he has ever faced. The artwork was created in response to a devastating tragedy that happened in Sichuan, China, involving school children who perished as a result of their schools collapsing during a 2008 natural disaster, known as the Great Sichuan Earthquake. Upon investigation, it was found that the schools had been improperly constructed, with outstanding safety hazards and civic oversight that contributed to the students being trapped inside their schools. It is estimated that nearly 7,000 classrooms collapsed and around 10,000 students were killed (Wong, 2008).

The tragic loss of young lives shook the community and country at large. It led to widespread protests, including aesthetic responses by Weiwei, which garnered international attention. Weiwei’s work of art reflecting upon the tragic events serves as a memorial for the students whose lives were taken too soon, and a condemnation of the government for failing to keep them safe.

Remembering is a massive artwork that blends together archetypal educational materials and the topic of school safety to inform the world about grave injustices that threaten humanity’s future. The piece is made up of red, yellow, blue and green backpacks, which in Hanzi, spell out a message that one of the grieving mother’s wrote to Weiwei in memory of her daughter whose young life was cut short when her school collapsed. The text poignantly expresses ““All I want is to let the world remember she had been living happily for seven years.”

Weiwei (2018) elaborates on the aspirations and aims he has for works of art like Remembering: “Given all our social and political investigations, it was about how, in Chinese society, with censorship and control, individuals can still take action to defend their very, very fragile rights.”

From 2009 to 2010, the sculptural piece was installed on the facade of the Haus der Kunst art museum in Munich, Germany, as the striking introduction to Weiwei’s solo exhibition, titled So Sorry. The exhibition’s title is a pointed jab at typical mass media and governmental replies to cataclysmic events, which in many instances could have largely been mitigated. In the United States, we often hear our politicians offer their ‘thoughts and prayers,’ a vapid and vacant sentiment in light of horrific events and humanitarian crises, when what is really needed is empathetic legislation and action that could do more to prevent future incidents of a similar nature. What should be a teachable moment, is instead a grievous case of not learning from mistakes, or being unwilling to admit that mistakes were made to begin with. It is callous cruelty to neglect the chance to grow and learn collectively as a culture.

The Chinese government eventually admitted responsibility for constructing schools that failed to follow codes or guidelines that would have made them more structurally secure (see: Wong, 2008). However, they attempted to divert negative attention by arresting and disparaging vocal dissenters, many of them being artists, activists and teachers such as Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei is not the only artist to be persecuted and censored for making art that criticizes governmental negligence and corruption. Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera’s powerful socially engaged performance art has been a source of the Cuban government’s ire. Like Weiwei, she has also been physically confined for public performances that speak out against abuses of power. In 2015, she performed a 100-hour reading of political theorist Hannah Arendt’s seminal publication The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Shortly afterwards she was arrested by Cuban police officers.

Bruguera considers her artistic discipline to be “Behavior Art,” which is a movement rooted in performance and pedagogy. Behavior Art is focused on art’s sociopolitical ramifications. It is a concept with some similarities to Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘Social Sculpture’. Her visceral and cerebral performances follow a pedagogical process wherein the artist and the viewer enter into an empowering and enlightening participatory dialogue. The purpose of this cooperative conversation is to inspire transformative social change. Many of her works consist of proposals and aesthetic guidelines for others to use and modify. In this sense she is both a creator and facilitator of creative social actions.

In an ideal system, governments would adopt several pedagogical philosophies and methodologies, such as problem-posing models of critical consciousness (see: Freire, 1970 and Drew, n.d.), which would result in active collaboration and dialogue between legislators and their constituents. A civilization that truly values art and education, values the voices and experiences of people from all walks of life. Art is indeed a productive means to inspire interconnectivity and empathy for one another. Art empowers us to think and act critically, while working towards achieving a balanced, enlightened and liberated way of life. It is productive and pertinent for raising socioemotional solidarity in times of crisis and collectively embarking on a trajectory that uplifts the human experience. Art is one of the major humanistic catalysts for transformative change. When art and education are combined, the possibilities for inspiring mindfulness and facilitating social action are expansive.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Drew, Chris. “Problem Posing Education – 6 Key Characteristics.” Helpful Professor. Accessed 28 December 2020.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Weiwei, Ai. “The artwork that made me the most dangerous person in China.” The Guardian, 15 February 2018.

Wong, Edward. “China Admits Building Flaws in Quake.” The New York Times, 4 September 2008.


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