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Bob Dylan and Ai Weiwei

Will Gompertz | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

Awkward. That's how I imagine Bob Dylan is feeling. His jaunt to China raised the odd eyebrow when it was first made public. Now, with the arrest of Ai Weiwei, those eyebrows have been lowered into scowls and quizzical looks.

Venue for Bob Dylan's first concert in China

"What's the world's most famous protest singer going to do about Ai's detention?" people are asking. "Will he quit the tour? Or at least say something? Surely he will say something? I'm sure he'll say something." And so on.

I'm thinking he'd probably never heard of Ai Weiwei before going to China. Well, he has now. And after a modicum of research he will have found out that the conceptual artist has - as he himself did in the 60s and 70s - made politics a central component of his artistic output.

But there is a difference. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan - the great American post-war academic - Dylan's message was in the medium, whereas Ai Weiwei is the message. When I interviewed him for Newsnight last year, he said he most admired Marcel Duchamp, not for his art, but for his attitude to life.

A pro-democracy protester holding a pen to urge residents to sign their names to support the release  of Ai Weiwei in Hong Kong

And this is what he has attempted to emulate. His art is a secondary by-product of his view of the world and his place within it - his attitude to life is the real artwork. So for Ai Weiwei the installation at Tate Modern of his porcelain sunflower seeds is an example of one of his works of art, and his arrest and detention, another.

That is not to say he is pleased to be banged up, or that it is part of some grand artistic plan, but that the man, his politics and his art are one inseparable thing. Which I suspect means that if the roles were reversed, and Bob Dylan was under arrest in China, that Ai Weiwei would probably have had something to say by now.


  • Comment number 1.

    To go to China at this time, it just shows how Bob Dylan is incredibly brave and couregeous, he does not have to go there, he wants to go there, it is who he is as one of the best singer-songwriters that ever lived and he still loves it...

    His words are like poetry, his music like rain and his voice like a comfortable t-shirt...

    I love you Bob and I wish the best of luck to you!!!

  • Comment number 2.

    I don't think there's much chance of Dylan being banged up in China. So I'm not sure what's "brave" about his visit. And it's one thing to write and sing songs of protest in a liberal democracy and quite another to be outspokenly critical of the political system in a repressive Communist country like China.

    Let's hope Dylan takes a stand - it's a great opportunity to make a difference.

  • Comment number 3.

    Not sure I could say that Dylan's ever been overtly political. Asides from some vague commentary on the arms race and a more focussed look at the civil rights issue very early on, he's been notable for his silence on every major issue since, barring his own religious circumstances in the early '80s and a spot of swimming against the tide with his comments at Live Aid. Besides, what would commenting from the stage achieve? An early ticket home no doubt. Perhaps the question should be why he's there in the first place? I note that the possible answers in the 7 days quiz this week include "The Times They Are a-Chingin'" (sic)....

    I love the man's music, but part of it's enduring appeal is that it doesn't point the finger directly at anyone, and so isn't constrained by the times it was written in - the executioner, masters of war, even the president in those early songs can just as easily be applied to today's world, because Dylan chose not to give them names. So, maybe he'll write a song about an imprisoned artist, who knows?

  • Comment number 4.

    Elvis never came to Britain, and not many western music/art icons have toured China! I have been lucky enough to see Weiwei's spider installation in Liverpool, and his sunflower seeds in the Tate. And like Dylan, he is a genius. Art is music, and music is art.
    Most people get up every morning, and art/music is on their mind's most of the day. The bird's still sing, and the sun still shines.
    If only Elvis was still alive, wearing a Weiwei designed jump suit! All along the watch tower, baby!

  • Comment number 5.

    Marshall McLuhan - "the great American post-war academic"? Really? Come now! Do your homework! I know from my own experience that Brits are unable to distinguish a Canadian from an American, having been mistaken for the latter myself while studying there and travelling across the old sod. However, McLuhan was 100% Canadian, despite teaching in the U.S. for about a decade before WWII. He returned to Canada in 1944 and spent the major part of his career in his homeland at the University of Toronto. However, the U.S. made him famous. In the words of Anthony Burgess, "John Kenneth Galbraith and Marshall McLuhan are the two greatest modern Canadians that the U.S. has produced.'

  • Comment number 6.

    If you are going to quote Marshall McLuhan please note that he was born, raised, and educated in Canada. Much thanks - Canada

  • Comment number 7.

    Good post, Will Gompertz. Interesting times for Dylan but I agree, it's not about him but people like Ai Weiwei.

  • Comment number 8.

    As Bob has said before, he sees himself kind of as a song and dance man. What song and dance men do is sing (and dance). And, LOOK, there's Bob Dylan, in China, and LOOK, he's singing ..... and dancing. If you like, Gompertz, we could all buy you a ticket, and you could go protest in China instead ......

  • Comment number 9.

    Comment no.1 is preposterous. I am a huge fan of Dylan the artist, but to say he's "courageous" for going to China and allowing himself to be censored is ridiculous.

    We all know what Joan Baez, a lesser artist but truly courageous woman, would have done.

  • Comment number 10.

    I don't see where Dylan is being "incredibly brave and courageous " I expect his bank balance for this tour of China will ease his conscious for allowing himself to be censored.

  • Comment number 11.

    I don't think Dylan cares at all about anything political anymore, he is simply in the game for the cash now. I was surprised that on the night of the last American election he said anything at all but he did say something like in 1941, the year he was born, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and dragged America into world ar 2, and that now with Obama as the president maybe significant change could now take place. Well that all failed miserably, anyway, Bob, keep counting your cash


  • Comment number 12.

    I am a British Engineer and have been living and working in China for 6 years. I have my own factory here and employ around 100 Chinese guys. There is nothing courageous about coming to China. China is a very liberal and easy going place. You can do almost anything you want so long as you don't break the law. Since I arrived here I have made good money and met fantastic friends, and my life has been magical. Ai Weiwei is one of those people that has his head in the clouds. He has an idea that somehow the 'western' way of doing things - multi party politics - free market economics - human rights for everyone - is somehow a panacea for all the World's ills.

    Well, judge people and Governments by their outcomes. The US and UK are bankrupt. China is a stable fast growing economy with 300 million people already residing in the middle classes. Huge infrastructure programs have brought high-speed rail and internet to the masses. You can catch a movie, drink German beer, go to a club, have a massage, go to the beach, get involved in politics, do business. In fact, I have never visited a more liberal country.

    The Americans are really angry at the fact that their economic and political model has failed ABSOLUTELY. They are spitting venom at the Chinese. The Chinese, as they do, simply ignore the foreigners and get on with the business of economic development for the masses. Hillary must be spitting blood right now.

    Ai Weiwei made a lot of money doing exhibitions in the 'west'. I imagine, like most Chinese, he stashed his cash hoping that the Chinese Tax Man would not find it. Well, they did. Now he is paying the price for trying to destroy the social stability of China. 10 dissidents jailed to ensure peace and stability is a small price to pay.

    Multi party western style democracy in China would lead to the world's worst genocide. If you don't believe me Google: YouTube Taiwan Legislature Fight or Brawl. You will see what happens when Chinese get multi party politics. It is no wonder Clinton is calling for multi party politics in China.

    I like boring and competent - it is good for the masses.

  • Comment number 13.

    @Brit in China

    "China is a very liberal and easy going place"

    ...where you can mysteriously disappear for having an opinion that contradicts the government? What dictionary definition of 'liberal' and 'easy going' are you reading?

  • Comment number 14.

    To suggest that Bob would say something 'political' is to willfully ignore the last 47 years of his output (except, as badvocthebad says, for his Christian period, to which I would add 'Hurricane'). After being pushed forward as the 'leader of his generation' Bob recoiled, and began making music to help dispel that particular myth (see Self Portrait). If you read his book 'Chronicles: Volume One', he makes clear that he does not want the public to put him in a box. As a result, he has sought to evade the confines of being framed in any particular way. I honestly think that if Bob were the relentless freedom fighter people like to pretend he is, then he wouldn't allow his setlist to be vetted in the first place. So really, the anticipation of him making a stand is totally divorced from reality, a romantic notion of an artist that never existed. After all, this is a man who tends not to utter a word on stage except for singing. I doubt he would break the habit of a lifetime and subject himself to the very type of media he's spent almost 50 years avoiding.

    "Are you gonna see the concert tonight? Are you gonna hear it? You'll hear it, see it, ok, and it's gonna happen fast, and you're not gonna get it all, and you might even hear the wrong words. And I won't able to talk to you afterwards, I've got nothing to say about these things I write, I mean, I just write them. I'm not gonna say anything about them, I don't write them for any reason. There's no great message. I mean, if you want to tell all the people that, then go ahead and tell them. But I'm not going to have to answer to it" - Bob, 1965 (Don't Look Back film)

  • Comment number 15.

    Dylan has never, I repeat, never spoken out about anything political, I repeat; anything. It is a complete misconception attributed by the popular media press since the early 60's that he is the spokesperson for a 'counter-culture'.

    Prove me wrong. Find me a quote that says, I dunno, "People should get behind Dr King," or "I'm not God, Kennedy is" etc. Perhaps maybe the Hurricane Carter period, but all he ever did was write and sing songs, which is all he will ever continue to do.

    Freedom fighter my bottom.

  • Comment number 16.


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