Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei—whose gallery delayed his show after he tweeted about the Israel-Hamas war—said recently that censorship in the West poses a “greater threat” due to how it “operates in a more concealed, solid and enduring manner.”
The comments were made to the Art Newspaper this week followed an interview with Sky News in which Ai said censorship in the West is “sometimes even worse” than Mao’s China.
On February 4, Ai told Sky News host Trevor Phillips it was “such a pity” how “in universities, in the media, political sector, everywhere—you cannot talk about the truth.” He referred to the reported suspension of New York University professor Tomasz Skiba for posts made on Instagram about the Israel-Hamas war.
In the interview with Sky News, Ai also discussed the cancellation of an exhibition of his work at Lisson Gallery last year after posting a tweet about the Israel-Hamas war in Mandarin. “The sense of guilt around the persecution of the Jewish people has been, at times, transferred to offset the Arab world,” Ai posted at the time.
Ai’s studio provided a translation of the tweet to the Art Newspaper.
On Tuesday, Ai expanded on his comments, telling the Art Newspaper, “In the context of censorship in the West, there was a prevailing illusion that the West embodied greater freedom of speech and press, portraying itself as a society with minimal censorship. Yet, I believe that censorship persists wherever there is power.”
“Unlike traditional authoritarian regimes that directly target individual speech, censorship in the West manifests itself more subtly within the framework of so-called democratic politics and the broader concept of so-called freedom of speech. Criticism and dissenting thoughts that diverge from the established values and corporate interests are often subjected to censorship to varying degrees.”
The blue-chip artist told the publication that when criticism is about sensitive topics like war and the arms trade, narratives from the mainstream media and government tend to stay unquestioned.
“While individuals may still voice their opinions, their impact on shaping societal ideology is often minimal. That’s why I think Western censorship operates in a more concealed, solid and enduring manner. This poses a greater threat as people are lulled into believing in the absence of censorship in the West,” he said.
On the issue of freedom of speech, Ai told the Art Newspaper: “Censorship, in fact, arises from the vulnerability of power. When power is weak and unable to confront the truth, censorship becomes apparent. The Western framework, despite its aspirations towards advocating for science and other fields, finds itself in a fragile state today. It is evident across all levels of education, from elementary schools to universities, and in public discourse, mainstream media, entertainment and the realms of politics and finance—all heavily controlled in terms of speech. This situation hinders the development of a truly civilised society and instead propels it towards regression.”