Asia Society Museum Director Melissa Chiu recently took part in a discussion featured on The New York Times' Room for Debate page entitled "Ai Weiwei and the Artist's Role in China." Also participating: Wenran Jiang, political scientist, University of Alberta; Gao Minglu, art historian, University of Pittsburgh; and Guobin Yang, professor, Barnard College.
Chiu's response was headlined "Freedom, Up to a Point." Here's a taste:
When he returned to China in the mid-1990s, his artworks were often considered controversial but not necessarily political. His very public withdrawal from the Beijing Olympic National Stadium project was the beginning of his more strident political tone against the government. His commentary and efforts to name the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, distributed through social media, also distinguish him from other Chinese artists.
It seems he's paying for those efforts now, having been caught up in what appears to be a widening campaign by the government to silence its critics. His detention marks a shift back to the post-Tiananmen Square atmosphere when artists had to be careful in what they said, who they talked to and where they showed their work.