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A leading Chinese artist speaks out on the government crackdown

April 30, 2011 |  6:15 am

Chen Art critic and painter Chen Danqing gave a speech in March excoriating the Culture Ministry for meddling in his affairs. “Don’t you think this kind of pathetic, cowardly behavior is just like molesting yourselves?” he asked. A little later, the Communist Party arrested Ai Weiwei, artist, blogger, architect and big-hearted provocateur, the biggest catch in a crackdown that has snared dozens of activists. Now, Chen and others like him are left to reflect on what Ai’s removal means for China and for them.

Chen is 58, with a shaved head, long fingernails on his pinkies and careful hands. One of China’s most famous public intellectuals, Chen is not so much an activist as an eloquent and ambivalent dissenter. He criticizes the party’s grasp on history and expression and belittles China’s other artists for refusing to speak out. He thinks modern Chinese literature is “shameful” but admires blogger and race-car driver Han Han, whom he calls “the best example of post post-totalitarian writing, but he doesn’t know that.” He also admires Ai  and mourns his detention but thinks he went too far. “I don’t like provocation. Ai Weiwei thinks this is New York in the 1970s, where you can do anything without fear, the more extreme the better.”

Chen’s first success came from painting realistic portraits of Tibetans in the early days of China’s opening; almost overnight he became one of the country’s most famous artists. “Imagine suddenly there’s a painting that’s not overly political, social realism,” said Philip Tinari, a Beijing-based art critic. “That was Chen’s contribution.” Chen moved to New York in 1982 and lived there for 18  years, writing and painting; he received American citizenship in 1994. Ai moved to New York in 1981 and lived there for 12  years; during this time Chen and Ai became friendly, eventually publishing a book together, “Interviews Not About Art,” in 2007.

To read what Chen and other artists think about the recent government crackdown, click here.

-- Isaac Stone Fish