The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis (2005)

Lenin, following Marx, assumed the incompatibility of class interests: because the rich would always exploit the poor, the poor had no choice but to supplant the rich. [President Woodrow] Wilson, following Adam Smith, assumed the opposite: that the pursuit of individual interests would advance everyone’s interests, thereby eroding class differences while benefiting both the rich and the poor. These were, therefore, radically different solutions to the problem of achieving social justice within modern industrial societies. At the time the Cold War began it would not have been at all clear which was going to prevail.
(The Cold War, page 89)

John Lewis Gaddis (b.1941) is a renowned academic expert on the Cold War and has been teaching and writing about it since the 1970s. The preface to this book explains that his students and publishers suggested he write a popular, brief overview of the subject about which he knows so much, and that this book is the result.

The cover of the Penguin paperback edition promises to give you the lowdown on ‘THE DEALS. THE SPIES. THE LIES. THE TRUTH’ but this is quite misleading. Along with Len Deighton’s description of it as ‘gripping’, this blurb gives the impression that the book is a rip-roaring narrative of an action-packed era, full of intrigue and human interest.

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Cover of the Penguin edition of The Cold War

Academic and theoretical approach

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the book feels much more like the textbook to accompany a university course in international studies. It doesn’t at all give a chronological narrative of the Cold War and certainly has no eyewitness accounts or personal stories of the kind that bring to life, for example, Jim Baggott’s history of the atom bomb, Atomic, or Max Hasting’s history of the Korean War.

Instead, the book is divided into seven themed chapters and an epilogue which deal at a very academic level with the semi-abstract theories of international affairs and geopolitics.

Nuclear weapons and the theory of war

So, for example, the second chapter, about the atom bomb, certainly covers all the key dates and developments in the history of the bomb but is, at its core, an extended meditation on the German theorist of war, Carl von Clausewitz’s, famous dictum that war ‘is a continuation of political activity by other means’ (quoted p.51). The chapter shows how U.S. presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, and their Russian opposite numbers, Stalin and Khrushchev, worked through the implications of this profound insight.

If war only exists to further the interests of the state (as it had done through all recorded history up till 1945) then a war which threatens, in fact which guarantees, the destruction of the very state whose interests it is meant to be furthering, is literally inconceivable.

Truman showed he had already grasped some of this when he removed the decision to deploy atom bombs from the military – who were inclined to think of it as just another weapon, only bigger and better – and made use of the atom bomb the sole decision of the civilian power i.e. the president.

But as the atom bombs of the 1940s were superseded by the hydrogen bombs of the 1950s, it dawned on both sides that a nuclear war would destroy the very states it was meant to protect, with profound consequences for military strategy.

This insight came very close to being ignored during the darkest days of the Korean War, when the massed Chinese army threatened to push the Allies right out of the Korean peninsula and plans were drawn up to drop atom bombs on numerous Chinese cities. Again, during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, American generals were advising President Kennedy to authorise a devastating first strike on the Soviet Union with likely results not wildly exaggerated in Kubrick’s bleak nuclear satire, Dr Stangelove.

And yet both times the civilian authority, in the shape of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, rejected the advice of their military and refused the use of nuclear weapons. Truman signalled to both China and Russia that the Korean War would remain a conventional war limited to Korea only. And Kennedy made significant concessions to the Soviets in order to defuse the Cuba situation. We aftercomers owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the wisdom and restraint of both these men.

It is by following the ramifications of the new theory of war created by the advent of nuclear weapons, that Gaddis makes sense of a number of Cold War developments. For example, the development of regular meetings to discuss arms limitations which took place between the Cold War antagonists from the Cuban crisis onwards, talks which certainly continued to be fractious opportunities for propaganda on both sides, but which also proved Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw jaw is better than war war’.

Capitalism versus communism

If chapter two considered the evolution of new military theory during the war, chapter three covers much the same chronological period but looked at in terms of socio-economic theory, starting with a very basic introduction to theories of Marxism and capitalism, and then seeing how these played out after World War One.

Gaddis deploys a sequence of significant dates each separated by a decade, which tell the story of the decline and fall of communism:

  • in 1951 all nations were recovering from the devastation of war, the USSR had established communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and a newly communist China was challenging the West’s staying power in Korea
  • in 1961 Nikita Khrushchev visited America and gleefully told his audience that the communist countries would surge ahead in economic production and ‘bury’ the West
  • by 1971, as consumerism triumphed in the West, all the communist economies were stagnating and communism in China was accompanied by inconceivable brutality and mass murder
  • by 1981 life expectancy in the Soviet Union was in decline and Russia was mired in a pointless war in Afghanistan
  • by 1991 the Soviet Union and all the communist East European regimes had disappeared, while China was abandoning almost all its communist policies, leaving ‘communism’ to linger on only in the dictatorships of Cuba and North Korea

Capitalism won the Cold War. Marx claimed to have revealed the secrets of history, that the capitalist system was inevitably doomed to collapse because the exploited proletariat would inevitably grow larger as an ever-shrinking capitalist class concentrated all wealth unto itself, making a proletarian revolution inevitable and unstoppable. That was Marx and Engel’s clear prediction.

1. In direct contradiction to Marxist theory, living standards in all capitalist countries for everyone are unrecognisably higher than they were 100 years ago.

2. Marx predicted that his communist revolution could only happen in advanced industrial countries where the capitalists had accumulated all power and the proletariat was forced to rebel. In the event, communist revolutions turned out to be a characteristic of backward, feudal or peasant countries, namely Russia and China, later Cuba, and then a sorry string of Third World basket cases – Angola, Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan. Communism only took hold  in Eastern Europe because it was imposed by Russia’s military dictatorship, and was thrown off the second that Russia’s tyrannical grip was loosened.

It was the tragedy of both Russia and China that, in order to make their countries conform to Marx’s theories, their leaders undertook policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation which led to the deaths by starvation or murder of as many as 50 million people, generally the very poorest of their populations. Communism promised to liberate the poor. In fact it ended up murdering the poorest of the poor in unprecedented numbers.

It wasn’t just their theory of revolution that was wrong. Lenin’s 1916 tract, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, is an interesting analysis of the history of the European empires up to that date and a contribution to the vast debate over the origins of the First World War. But its key practical suggestion was that capitalist states will always be driven by boundless greed and, therefore, inevitably, unstoppably, must always go to war.

Gaddis shows how Stalin and Mao shared this doctrinaire belief but how it led them to bad miscalculations. Because, in direct contradiction to the notion of inevitable inter-capitalist conflict, American presidents Truman and Eisenhower, both with direct personal experience of war, grasped some important and massive ideas, the central one being that America could no longer be isolationist but needed to create (and lead) a union of capitalist countries, to build up economic and military security, to ensure they never again went to war among themselves. The opposite of what Lenin predicted.

This was a big shift in American strategy. Throughout the 19th century America concentrated on settling its own lands and building up its own economy, happily ignoring developments beyond its borders. Despite President Wilson’s achievement in persuading Americans to intervene in the Great War, immediately afterwards they relapsed back into isolationism, refusing to join the League of Nations and indifferent to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Japan.

After the cataclysm of the Second World War, American policy shifted massively, finding expression in the Truman Doctrine, President Truman’s pledge that America would help and support democracies and free peoples around the world to resist communism. To be precise:

‘It must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.’ (Truman’s speech to Congress on 12 March 1947)

The Truman Doctrine was prompted by practical intervention ($400 million) to support the anti-communist forces during Greece’s Civil war (1945 to 1949), which the Americans felt also had to be balanced by support ($100 million) for Turkey. In both respects the Americans were taking over from aid formerly provided by Britain, which was now no longer able to afford it. The doctrine’s implicit strategy of ‘containment’ of the USSR, led on to the creation of NATO in 1949 and the Marshall Plan for massive American aid to help the nations of Western Europe rebuild their economies.

Of course it was in America’s self-interest to stem the tide of communism, but this doesn’t really detract from the scale of the achievement – it was American economic intervention which helped rebuild the economies of, and ensured freedom from tyranny for, France, West Germany, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium and Holland (in Europe) and Japan and South Korea in the Far East. Hundreds of millions of people have led lives of freedom and fulfilment because of the decisions of the Truman administration.

The power of weakness

Of course the down side of this vast new expansion of America’s overseas commitment was the way it also included a long and dishonourable tradition of American support for repellent dictators and right-wing rulers solely because they were the only available anti-communist figures available in many countries.

This lamentable tradition kicked off with America’s ambivalent support for Chiang Kai-shek, the semi-fascist Nationalist leader who America supported in pre-communist China, then the repellent Syngman Rhee in post-war South Korea, through Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, General Pinochet in Chile, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and so on and so on.

This dark side to American post-war foreign policy is well-known, but what’s thought-provoking about Gaddis’s account is the thesis he hangs his fourth chapter on, a teasing paradox which only slowly emerges – that many of these small, ‘dependent’ nations ended up able to bend the Superpowers to their will, by threatening to collapse.

Thus many of the repellent dictators America found itself supporting were able to say: ‘If you don’t support me, my regime will collapse and then the communists will take over.’ The paradox is that it was often the weakest powers which ended up having the the strongest say over Superpower policy. Thus Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist regime in China was able to summon up American support, as was the equally unpleasant Sygman Rhee in South Korea, because America regarded these states as vital buffers to communist expansion, which meant that, in practice, both dictators could get away with murder and still be supported, often reluctantly, by the U.S.

But the same could also go for medium-size allies. In 1950 both France and China very much needed their respective sponsors, America and the Soviet Union. But by 1960 both were more confident of their economic and military power and by the late 1960s both were confident enough to throw off their shackles: General de Gaulle in France notoriously withdrew from NATO and proclaimed France’s independence while in fact continuing to benefit from NATO and American protection. France was weak enough to proclaim its independence while, paradoxically, America the superpower had to put up with de Gaulle’s behaviour because they needed France to carry on being an ally in Western Europe.

Mao Zedong was in awe of Stalin and relied on his good opinion and logistical support throughout his rise to power in China in 1949 until Stalin’s death in 1953. This respect for the USSR lingered on through the 1950s, but China came to despise the weakness of Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, and the feebleness of the USSR’s hold over its East European satellites, especially after they rose up in revolt (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968).

I didn’t know that border incidents between China and Russia flared up in 1969 and spread: for a while it looked as if the world’s two largest communist powers would go to war – making nonsense of Lenin’s thesis.

This of course presented the West with a great opportunity to divide the two communist behemoths, and Gaddis is favourable to President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for the brave decision they took to visit China, to meet Mao in person and try to develop better trade and cultural links.

The Chinese, surrounded by a menacing Russia to the north, neutral India to the West and the traditional enemy, Japan, to the East, realised there was merit in reaching an understanding with distant America. Nixon realised what an enormous coup it would be to prise apart the two largest communist nations, as well as helping sort out some kind of end to the disastrous war in Vietnam.

By this stage, 25 or so years into the Cold War, the relative simplicity of a bipolar world divided between two superpowers had become considerably more complicated, an increasing complexity created by the newly independent nations of the developing or Third World, and the growth of a would-be ‘non-aligned’ group of nations seeking to avoid entanglement with either side, but cannily playing both superpowers off against each other in order to extract maximum advantage.

Other themes

These first chapters deal with:

  • the realisation of the nuclear stalemate and its implications i.e. superpower war is self-defeating
  • the failure of both capitalism and communism to deliver what they promised
  • the realisation by ‘weak’ states that they could use the superpower rivalry to their advantage

Further chapters discuss:

Human rights 

The rise of the notion of human rights and universal justice, which was increasingly used to hold both superpowers to ever-tighter account. Gaddis looks in detail at the slow growth of official lying and ‘deniability’ within American foreign policy (epitomised by the growth in espionage carried out by the CIA) which reached its nadir when the systematic lying of President Nixon unravelled after Watergate.

Gaddis compares the discrediting of American policy with the long-term effects of the Russian suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. In a kind of mirror of the Watergate experience, the Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia planted seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of communist rule in the minds of much of the Soviet population and especially among its intellectuals. From the 1970s onwards the Soviets had to cope with home-grown ‘dissidents’, most notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov.

Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev worked hard to secure the ‘Helsinki Accords’, a contract with the West giving a permanent written guarantee of the security of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He allowed the declarations of human rights which made up its latter sections to be inserted by the West as a necessary concession, but was appalled when these began to be used by dissidents within Russia to measure the government by.

When a Czech rock band was arrested by the authorities in 1977, leading intellectuals protested and signed Charter 77, which politely called on the Czech communist government to respect the human rights which were paid lip service in both the Czech communist constitution and the Helsinki Accords. And when the first Polish pope, Pope John Paul II, visited his homeland in 1979, he also called on the Polish government to respect human rights as defined in the Helsinki Accords.

Gaddis identifies this emergence of human rights, a realm of authenticity over and above the laws or actions of any actual government, of either West or East, as a major development in the 1970s.

The power of individuals

A chapter is devoted to the importance of individuals in history, contrary to Marxist theory which believes in historical inevitabilities driven by the power of the masses, themselves driven by the ineluctable laws of economics. Thus Gaddis gives pen portraits of key players in the final years of communism, namely Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel and Lech Wałęsa, but most space is given to the key role played by Ronald Reagan.

Gaddis explains that détente, the strategic policy developed by President Nixon and continued by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and on the Soviet side agreed by Brezhnev, amounted to an acceptance of the status quo, especially the borders in Europe, and thus solidified Russia’s grasp in the East. With these borders defined and agreed, both sides could:

  1. Settle down to a routine of talks about reducing nuclear weapons (which, by this stage, came in a bewildering range of shapes and sizes – hence the complexity of the Strategic Arms Limitations [SALT] talks).
  2. Sublimate their confrontation into the developing world: hence the stream of local conflicts in far away countries like Ethiopia or Nicaragua. Fascinatingly, Gaddis quotes Kremlin advisers confessing that the Soviet leadership often had second thoughts about getting involved in some of these remote conflicts, e.g. in Angola or Somalia, but felt trapped by the logic of needing to be seen to support ‘national liberation struggles’ wherever they involved self-proclaimed Marxist parties.

At the time it felt as if Soviet communism was successfully funding revolutions and spreading its tentacles around the world; only in retrospect do we see all this as the last gasps of a flailing giant. According to Gaddis, the great political visionary who brought it to its knees was Ronald Reagan!

As someone alive and politically active during the 1980s I know that the great majority of the British people saw Reagan as a bumbling fool, satirised in the Spitting Image TV show in a recurring sketch called ‘The President’s brain is missing’. To my amazement, in Gaddis’s account, Reagan is portrayed as a strategic genius (one of America’s ‘sharpest grand strategists ever’, p.217) who swept aside détente in at least two ways:

  1. Reagan thought communism was an aberration, ‘a bizarre chapter’ (p.223) in human history which was destined to fail. So instead of accepting its potentially endless existence (like Nixon, Ford and Carter before him) Reagan’s strategy and speeches were based on the idea that Soviet communism must inevitably collapse (for example, in his famous speech in Berlin when he called on Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’).
  2. Similarly, Reagan rejected the entire twisted logic of mutually assured destruction which had grown up around nuclear weapons: he was the first genuine nuclear abolitionist to inhabit the White House, hence his outrageous offer to Gorbachev at the Iceland summit for both sides to get rid of all their nuclear weapons. And when Gorbachev refused, Reagan announced the development of his Strategic Defence Initiative (nicknamed Star Wars) i.e. the creation of a satellite shield which would shoot down any incoming nuclear missiles attacking the United States, thus rendering Russia’s nuclear arsenal obsolete, but also dangerously disturbing the delicate balance of power.

At the time these destabilising words and actions seemed reckless and dangerous, and what Gaddis portrays as the entrenched détente establishment on both sides strongly criticised Reagan. It is only with the enormous benefit of hindsight – the knowledge that the Soviet Union and communism were to collapse like a pack of cards in 1989 – that Reagan’s approach and all his speeches take on the light not of a mad old man (he was 74 when Gorbachev came to power in 1985) but of a bold visionary.

The steady growth in Reagan’s stature is a salutary lesson in how history works, how what we think about a period we’ve actually lived through can be completely transformed and reinterpreted in the light of later events. How our beginnings have no inkling of our ends. An object lesson in the severe limitations of human understanding.


To summarise: The Cold War is not a straightforward historical account of the era 1945 to 1991; it is, rather, a series of thought-provoking and stimulating essays on key aspects and themes from the era.

Each chapter could easily form the basis of a fascinating discussion or seminar (of the kind that Gaddis has no doubt supervised by the hundred in  his long and distinguished academic career).

In other words, coverage of specific incidents and events is always secondary to the ideas and theories of geopolitics and international strategic ideas which the period threw up in such abundance, and which are the real focus of the text.

It’s a fascinating book full of unexpected insights and new ways of thinking about the recent past.

I was politically active during the 1970s and 1980s, so I remember the later stages of the Cold War vividly. Maybe the biggest single takeaway from this book is that this entire era is now a ‘period’ with a beginning, a middle and an end, which can be studied as a whole. As it recedes in time it is becoming a simplified artefact, a subject for study by GCSE, A-level and undergraduate students who have no idea what it felt like to live under the ever-present threat of nuclear war and when communism still seemed like a viable alternative to consumer capitalism.

Although many of its effects and implications linger on, with every year that passes the Cold War becomes a distant historical epoch, as dry and theoretical as the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Thirty Years War. I try to explain how it felt to be alive in the 1980s to my children and they look at me with blank incomprehension. So this is what it feels like to become history.


The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis was published by Allen Lane in 2005. All references are to the 2007 Penguin paperback edition.

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  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

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Ai Weiwei @ the Royal Academy

I like contemporary art at least in part because I find it light and frivolous, an airy alternative to the world which, as Wordsworth pointed out, is too much with us – more than ever in the brave new matrix of 24/7 social media and unstoppable information overload.

Thus Agnes Martin‘s variations on the grid format are open to any number of interpretations – the exhibition of her work at Tate Modern is full of pattern, space and light. Barbara Hepworth‘s sculptures at Tate Britain inspire new ways of seeing shapes and being aware of space.

By contrast I felt this blockbuster exhibition of work by world-famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei is too heavily overshadowed by the glare of his own fame, his personal trials and ongoing tribulations with the Chinese authorities, too weighed down with ‘real world’ issues, to be enjoyable – unless you buy into the ‘artist as hero’ story.

Ai Weiwei bio and politics

Ai’s biography is long and eventful. He comes from an artistic family which suffered internal exile under Mao. He spent 12 formative years in New York soaking up the mood of modern conceptual and pop art, its interest in ready-mades, ‘found art’, junk etc, before moving back to China to establish his practice.

Through the 1990s and 2000s he was a consistent critic of the Chinese government, but this came to a head with his video and documentary exposure of the cheap, shoddy building materials which led to the collapse of numerous schools when the Sichuan earthquake hit in 2008, causing the deaths of some 5,000 schoolchildren. Ai took to social media and dedicated his prolific blogs and tweets to scathing criticism of the authorities who he – along with many others – blamed for the appalling death toll.

As a result of this and other fierce criticism of the government, in 2010 the studio he’d been building in Shanghai was declared illegal by the authorities and demolished. Ai organised a ‘crab feast’ party – a traditional festival of the riverside city – to ironically celebrate its demolition, but was himself arrested and unable to attend the party.

On 3 April 2011 Ai was arrested and spent three months in close confinement on what the government claimed were tax evasion and economic crimes. He was imprisoned in two small rooms and accompanied at all times by two guards, obviously subjected to intense psychological pressure, stress, harm. He has several medical conditions, including diabetes, which were exacerbated by the imprisonment.

As I write he is in the news again because Lego have refused to supply him the bricks he needs to make another ‘controversial’ installation, prompting a typical ‘crowd-sourcing’ flood of support from fans around the world who are being encouraged to donate him their Lego – Australia gallery collects Lego for Ai Weiwei.

Prison art

Thus, to a disconcerting extent, Ai Weiwei’s art is about himself, and this exhibition reflects that, big time. One huge room is full of skip-sized steel boxes with small windows cut into them. If you peer through the windows you can see a scale model of the cell Ai was imprisoned in, bed, lamp, chairs and the connecting toilet, complete with lifelike mannequins of him and the two guards posted to watch him at all times, even on the toilet.

The walls of this big room are covered with vibrant gold wallpaper bearing a pattern made up of handcuffs and CCTV cameras (bad) and the twitter logo of a chirruping bird symbolising – you understand – the power of social media to spread his message, despite the worst the authorities can do (good). On close examination the round chest of the twitter logo includes an image of Ai’s face curved and burnished, which I found more sly and cheeky than much of his other stuff.

Souvenirs of Shanghai

After the authorities demolished Ai’s workshop in Shanghai, he recovered a lot of the rubble and constructed this work, a room-sized cube of masonry with samples of traditional wood carvings embedded into the brickwork. The irony, you see: the rubble of contemporary life, wreckage of a repressive regime, juxtaposed with exquisite artefacts from a more elegant age.

No fewer than 800 supporters attended the memorial feast to ‘celebrate’ the demolition and this is marked by a pile of realistic life-size model river crabs stacked up in the corner of the same room. Apparently river crabs are a symbol of dictatorial government but also sound like the Chinese word for ‘harmony’. I wondered what would happen if I was ‘subversive’ enough to reach out and touch one. Or nick one.

The way so many of these works directly refer back to these ‘political’ events, for me, drains them of the ambiguity and lightness of fancy which I value in ‘art’. But they are also not all that impressive in themselves. A pile of model crabs. Yes.

Self congratulation

Ai Weiwei’s career, art, his self presentation and the promotional machinery of the western countries where he is an art superstar, allow us to feel good about the part we’re playing in the ‘struggle for free expression in China’ – namely, wandering round a big art exhibition in central London, then doing a spot of shopping.

Many of the works are striking but the whole show is dominated by his story, his biography, the account of his suffering and his heroism standing up to power – then flying out to London to do media interviews and arrange this show. I am not minimising the unpleasantness of his experiences. I am just saying such a weight of art so heavily reliant on his experiences makes me feel uneasy, and exposes – in its western audience – a raft of ironies, mismatches of meaning and hypocrisies.

Irony of technology

I couldn’t help noticing many people taking photos of the art works on their smart phones. Surely everyone knows by now that many of our shiny digital devices are produced in Chinese factories where conditions are little better than slavery, labour camps, the suicide factories. Ie by buying these products we prop up the economic miracle which keeps the repressive Chinese authorities in power. But the exhibition goes nowhere near this.

Nor does it tackle the glaring irony that for Ai, social media, Facebook and twitter are all unalloyed goods whereas many of us in the fabulous free West are deeply sceptical and/or anxious about the extent to which these digital devices have penetrated every interstice of our lives, relaying our every move, thought, word and action back to vast databases which are ploughed by immensely powerful algorithms creating digital profiles which can then be used to sell us products wherever we go and whatever we do and are routinely, as Snowden showed us, harvested by security services and police forces who know more about their national populations than ever before in human history.

Irony of the Royal Academy

The guides, introduction, audio guide, wall labels and Ai’s quotes all emphasise what a rebel he is, always exploring and pushing the barriers, a subversive to his fingertips… It felt odd reading all this rock and roll subversion in the hallowed rooms of the Royal Academy.

Looking up at his chandelier made of strings of crystals hanging in a cunningly constructed lattice of bicycle frames and wheels, your eye also takes in the rich gilding of the RA’s covings and ceiling. If you’re an optimist maybe you see this exhibition in the RA as the art establishment’s ‘acceptance’ of Ai and his politics. If you’re like me, you see it as paradoxical that a man who prides himself on being such a subversive shows his works in such a sterile, formal, carefully patrolled setting, complete with close circuit cameras and security guards in every room. Does no one see the irony? Around every exhibit was a grey tape line which you mustn’t step over. If you stepped over the line a guard was quick to ask you to step back. It felt about as subversive as progressing around a cathedral from one Holy Relic to another.

Irony of the bourgeoisie

An enormous room is dedicated to the Sichuan earthquake and Ai’s response to it. The long walls are covered with an enormous grid or table recording the name of every one of the students who died in the disaster. I am a liberal, I think almost anything can be ‘art’, but the literalism of this made me think this is actually a memorial like, say, the Vietnam memorial in Washington. Because it doesn’t say anything more than it says: a list of the names of the Chinese students who died in the earthquake.

In a corner of the room is a video of a Chinese factory where steel cables for buildings are being made. The video screen was surrounded by a crowd of middle-class, white English people who have never been inside a factory, staring intently at the screen and empathising with the Chinese workers doing this demanding manual labour in a noisy dirty environment – before moving on to the shop and wondering whether to buy an Ai Weiwei poster or mug or apron or coffee table book, made by the same or similar Chinese factory workers.

Irony of the Great Thinker

On sale in the shop is a Penguin paperback of a series of interviews conducted with Ai Weiwei by curator and critic Hans Ulrich Obrist – Ai Weiwei speaks. The blurb says it is a marvellous insight into the thought of this Great Artist. That use of the word ‘thought’, the Great Man’s Thought, reminded me that this was the kind of adulation and even phraseology which surrounded the insights and writings of another great Chinaman, Mao Zedong – Mao Zedong Thought – who hypnotised the western liberals of an earlier generation. 50 years ago pretty much the same art-going classes would have been forming the same sort of respectful queues to enjoy the insights and thoughts of another Great Chinese subversive, radical and deep thinker. Uneasy.

Irony of Indifference

British Chancellor George Osborne spent last week in China drumming up trade with one of the strongest economies in the world. Maybe he did say a few words about China’s human rights record, about the Dalai Lama, Tibet, the imprisonment of numerous political protestors – and maybe he didn’t. Either way it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. China’s economy is vital to the West and we want a slice of their economic pie, we want closer trade and industrial ties with this superpower. Us citizens can donate all the Lego we like to the latest Ai Appeal, but in the tough-minded negotiations of the powerful we aren’t even dust on their shoes…

George Osborne’s epic kowtow to China

Ai Weiwei’s stance is obviously brave, there’s no doubting he went to prison and may go again, but still bravely refuses to stop exposing government corruption and repression where he sees it, there’s no doubting the authorities (foolishly) block his name and websites from the internet, demolish his workshops, harass his assistants and associates, but:

  • Despite this he was still here in London supervising this blockbuster show. In my boyhood dissident writers disappeared into mental institutes or died in the gulag – this one is jetting round the world saying whatever he wants in interviews with the world’s media, featuring in glitzy magazines, and collecting awards – it’s a genuinely bizarre situation.
  • And anyway, it doesn’t appear to make the slightest bit of difference.

Samples of the art

In the courtyard of the RA are installed a sort of avenue of ‘trees’ made out of lumber and spare wood. I should like this kind of thing, but… I didn’t. I go for regular walks in the countryside: I prefer real trees.

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei presenting his installation Tree in the courtyard at the Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Inside, one of the RAs’ rooms contains a vast assembly of rusting metal cables. I think the labels said the cables are arranged so that, from above, they form the shape of China as seen on the map – and then unravelled to lay on the floor. So far so, well, familiar from New York minimalists from the 1960s. Of course, when you learn that the cables are salvaged from some of the schools which so disastrously collapsed in the earthquake, then your reaction to them changes. They are no longer ‘art’, they are a memorial. It is impious, it insults the dead, to be anything other than respectful.

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei with his installation Straight, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

These three photos of Ai dropping a Han dynasty vase have become pretty widespread. The black and whiteness, the deliberate naivety of the images, the crude vandalism, bespeak experimental art of the 1960s or 70s. Or even Dada from the 1910s… The only novelty is that this is a Chinaman indulging in western art-vandalism…

In fact, a whole room of the show is dedicated to Ai’s ‘engagement’ with the Chinese ceramic tradition: which involves him taking genuine antique vases and painting them modern primary colours (as the Guardian puts it: ‘Ai dips ancient pottery into paint’) or with provocative slogans: one had Coca Cola emblazoned on it. Coca Cola. You see, it’s because Coke is an icon of American consumerism. It’s like it’s a comment on the contemporary world. Wow. In fact they looked very like the kind of thing my kids used to get up to at their half-term art club.

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

Ai Weiwei taking a photograph of his installation Coloured Vases, Royal Academy of Arts (2015) Photo courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photography © Dave Parry

The metal cables referred to earlier, seen from above.

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008-12) Steel reinforcing bars Lisson Gallery, London Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Straight (2008 to 2012) Steel reinforcing bars. Lisson Gallery, London. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Ceramic tiles forming the outline of China, each with a Chinese text about ‘freedom’. China. Freedom. It’s almost like there’s a message here somewhere.

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style, Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Free Speech Puzzle (2014) Hand painted porcelain in the Qing dynasty imperial style,
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

A lovingly-crafted copy of a video camera carved out of marble. State surveillance is bad, apparently – though the technology itself has a clumsy/spooky/slickly designed outline and shape.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) Marble. Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei © Ai Weiwei

Irony of the dissident superstar

Art is now a global business, and deals in brands, assets and products. The international art market this year topped €50 billion. After a certain level of success a modern ‘artist’ establishes workshops and employs significant numbers of ‘assistants’, as well as the retinue of PAs, organisers, accountants, and probably brand managers, social media consultants and so on, some to create the ‘work’ but other, more importantly, to manage the brand in the global marketplace, to plan and curate the never-ending schedule of ‘major’ exhibitions, to co-ordinate sales at the major sales houses.

Eventually Ai reminded me of Damien Hirst, another ‘rebel’ become international superstar whose art has ended up about money. Like Hirst, Ai stumbles on a new concept and then milks it. So one room in the show includes samples of his ‘cube’ art. At some point he ‘discovered’ the attractiveness of the metre-cube and began to think of variations on the theme: a glass cube, a polished steel cube, a granite cube, a rusted metal cube, a cube made of traditional Chinese wooden panels which can be moved in and out and re-arranged like a Rubik’s cube. (Except that you cannot touch it, of course. God forbid the rebel’s artworks got fingerprints on them.)

This reminded me of Hirst’s animals in formaldehyde: initially it was a liberating, original idea but, at some point, after the first 4 or 5 years, became a formula, and then a production line turned out by ‘assistants’ in the Ai or Hirst factories. As with Hirst’s vitrines or spot paintings or butterflies, so with Ai’s painted vases or metre cubes or big wooden sculptures – what once had the shock of the new now has the feel of a showroom for Russian billionaires or Arab princes looking for sound investments to add to their portfolios.


The final irony is that someone who is undoubtedly a dissident in his own country, a threat to the authorities who are in turn a permanent threat to his freedom and practice, can at the same time be such an unparalleled success in the west, an art superstar, a mover and shaker, curator of international exhibitions, winner of countless prizes and awards, sitter on numerous panels of judges.

But for me his art is so heavily overwritten by the newspaper-type stories of his dissident activities, and then overwritten again by his bestselling super-artist status, as to lose the freshness, the space for idle interpretation and the free play of the imagination which, for me, is the main value of ‘art’.

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