Agnes Repplier once said, “Humour brings insight and tolerance. Irony brings a deeper and less friendly understanding”. She wasn’t wrong. In the same week that Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei was jailed, age-old protester, Bob Dylan stormed through his first ever gig in the Middle Kingdom: how’s that for irony?
Ai is widely recognised as China’s most famous contemporary artist and can (or at least could before his disappearance into custody) often be found levelling criticism of the state at the powers that be in Beijing; a well-documented void when it comes to human rights.
If the foreign ministry is to be believed, the investigation of Ai is regarding “economic crimes” and has “nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression”. A spokesman for the ministry added that "China is a country ruled by law and will act according to law” (that’s your irony quota filled for the day); perhaps Beijing could elaborate on its highly selective rule of law model?
As for Dylan, his gig played out free of controversy to the relief of some 2,000 agents of the Chinese Communist Party present. He stuck to the predetermined set-list, avoided some of his more controversial numbers and kept chit-chat with the audience to a minimum. That’s not to say he “bottled it”; his gigs are often carried out in this light these days. But he evidently thought better of pulling “a Bjork” and avoided the precedent set by the screwball Icelandic pop icon who wound up earning a two-year ban on foreign acts after her mini on-stage Tibet protest in 2008.
Perhaps Dylan was simply sharper. After all, if the West’s soft power is to be used as part of a strategy to change China’s way of thinking, Western acts are going to need a stage to play on. Better to get the message across quietly than to not get it across at all.
by Dane Vallejo