Did the Most Political Artist on Earth Just Sell Out?
Chinese activist Ai Weiwei is the most political artist on Earth. Did he just sell his soul to a department store?
Is there anything more damning than a photo with Paris Hilton? Chinese activist Ai Weiwei is the most political artist on Earth, enduring censorship and arrest from the Chinese government in his struggle to give a voice to the voiceless both in his native country and around the world. So, what is he doing with the one-time star of The Simple Life (shown above)? The answer is simple (and troubling): They were attending the opening of an exhibition of Ai’s art in a Paris department store. Such associations raise a troubling question: Did Ai Weiwei just sell his political and artistic soul?
What exactly did Ai do to raise such a question? On January 16, 2016, Ai Weiwei’s exhibition Er Xi opened at Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche in Paris, France. Er Xi (which means “Child’s Play” or “Playground”) features works by Ai hanging from the ceiling of, sitting in the gallery of, and appearing in the display windows of Le Bon Marché (which means “The Good Market” or “The Good Deal”). The theme of the exhibition is the Shan Hai Jing (also known as The Classic of Mountains and Seas), a collection of Chinese myths and legends that is part animal folktales and part geography lesson. With the help of Wong Yong-Xun, professional kite maker, Ai transforms those stories into bamboo and silk kites (such as The Dragon, shown above). The display window kites are two-dimensional (perhaps due to space restrictions), but those inside the store take the traditional two-dimensional woodcut illustrations of Chinese children’s literature and bring them to three-dimensional life.
It’s the commercialism that rankles critics of Er Xi. Ai’s work comes at the same time as a big “White Sale” promotion at Le Bon Marché, with more than a little synergy between the white linen for sale and the white silk of the kite figures. Can we take Ai’s political stances as seriously after he uses his work to hawk wares for a department store? “Showing at Le Bon Marché is using a new medium, the department store, to encounter a new audience, as broad as a museum’s,” Ai argues. If Jeff Koons made the same argument, we’d chalk it up to just another self-justifying excuse from a shamelessly commercial, self-promoting artist. But, when Ai Weiwei argues for department stores as “a new medium,” should we take him at his word?
It wouldn’t be the first time that Ai’s been accused of selling out. When Ai helped design the Beijing National Stadium (aka, “The Bird's Nest”) for the 2008 Summer Olympics, many saw a contradiction between Ai’s cooperation with the Chinese government’s propaganda party and his dissent. Ai defended his involvement in the stadium design by claiming that his love of design overcame his distaste for the Olympics and the nationalism they promoted, even later going so far as to criticize Steven Spielberg and Zhang Yimou for their involvement in the festivities. “It's disgusting,” Ai said at the time. “I don't like anyone who shamelessly abuses their profession, who makes no moral judgment.”
But did Ai Weiwei “abuse” his profession as artist and activist with poor “moral judgment” in Er Xi? Did he sell out? In the first place, Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is no Target (even if you pronounce it “tar jay”). Le Bon Marché Aristide Boucicaut founder may have introduced the “white sale” back in the 19th century, but he also displayed art from his personal collection in his store, setting an upscale precedent continued today. Boucicaut traveled in cultured circles (inspiring a character in Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames and posing for a portrait by William Bouguereau), so Ai’s work follows a fine tradition. If any department store could live up to the status of a museum, Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is it.
Secondly, and most importantly, beneath the “child’s play” title and innocent exterior of Er Xi lies the subversive heart of Ai Weiwei’s art. Whimsy’s always been a part of Ai’s approach. Just take a look at his 2012 parody video of Korean musician Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” Ai danced for fun, but also to thumb his nose at the Chinese government’s attempts to contain him and his critiques. (The Chinese government actually blocked Ai’s parody in response.) Er Xi may allude to children’s tales, but Ai uses those same myths to make sly references to the long, troubled history of Chinese leadership. At the same time, he celebrates the mythic essence of China itself with these figures — an essence that endures despite the repressive government’s best efforts. Like Western fairy tales, these stories, if manipulated in the right way by the right artist, can say very adult, very controversial things.
If you still think that Ai Weiwei’s sold out and is hanging out with the Paris Hilton crowd now, consider what he did shortly before and shortly after that photo was taken. In late December, Ai visited the Greek island of Lesbos to help migrants and refugees from Europe with his presence as well with photos posted of their struggle on his social media accounts. And right after the opening of Er Xi, Ai closed two exhibitions in Denmark as a protest against new laws permitting not only the seizure of cash and valuables from asylum seekers, but also denying some refugee families from reuniting for three years. The 2015 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award winner doesn’t seem to be selling out or slowing down in his activism. New French legislation improving (at least in the near future) the process for refugees may save Er Xi from cancellation, but I have no doubt that Ai Weiwei — the art world’s ultimate refugee — won’t compromise his principles if it comes down to money versus morals.
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It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?
- Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
- Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.
The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.
- Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
- Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
- Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.
Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.
Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.
"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."
Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.
Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.
The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.
That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.
Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.
Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.
First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.
Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.
More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."
This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.
"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."
The Oedipal complex
The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.
That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.
Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.
But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.
Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.
An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.
The Freudian slip
Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."
"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."
In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.
According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.
"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.
Freud's case studies
Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."
It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.
For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.
Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.
Sigmund Freud and his legacy
Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)
Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.
If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.
When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).
Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.
But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.
With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.
Do you have a magnetic compass in your head?
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