Let there be light

In China, there are limits to enlightenment.

Die Kunst der Aufklärung
National Museum of China, Beijing

In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche describes his compatriot and philosophical forebear Immanuel Kant as the "Chinaman of Königsberg". That description has long perplexed Kant scholars. After all, the more literal-minded of them have complained, Königsberg is some 5,000 miles from Beijing and there is no evidence to suggest Kant had any Chinese ancestry (his paternal grandfather was Scottish).

I was reminded of Nietzsche's enigmatic remark when I attended the opening, on 1 April, of "Die Kunst der Aufklärung" ("The Art of the Enlightenment") at the newly refurbished National Museum of China in Beijing. The exhibition, which will run for a year, is a collabor-ation between the Chinese institution and Germany's three largest museums: the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden and the Staatliche Museum in Berlin. (The building is also the fruit of Sino-German co-operation. A vast and rather forbidding new entrance hall, designed by the Hamburg-based architectural practice von Gerkan, Marg and Partners, pays due deference to the Maoist monumentalism of the existing museum that occupies most of the eastern side of Tiananmen Square. It is one of the "ten great buildings", erected in 1959 on the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the People's Republic of China.)

Among the 579 items from the 18th and early 19th centuries that have been shipped east (including paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints) is a pair of Kant's shoes. According to the exhibition's curators, these battered leather pumps are icons of an "epoch that continues . . . to shape the European perception of art and artists' perception of themselves". They are housed in the eighth of nine rooms that chart the artistic and intellectual history of the age of Enlightenment, from the birth of modern science and the creation of the first European museums to the enduring influence of 18th-century notions of individual genius on contemporary artistic practice.

The room containing Kant's shoes is entitled "Emancipation and the Public Sphere" and focuses on the emergence, in the second half of the 18th century, of a "public sphere in which the individual was actively involved". The curators' debt here to Kant is obvious. In his 1784 essay "An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?", he defined "enlightenment" as consisting in the "public use of one's own reason".

Kant's name was on everyone's lips at a symposium that was held the day after the exhibition's gala opening. The keynote address was given by the German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle. With his face fixed in a rictus of diplomatic discomfort, Westerwelle declared that the Enlightenment had not been an "invention of Europeans" and insisted that countries the world over were converging on the values of "freedom, democracy and the rule of law" - though, he was careful to add, they were doing so at their own speed and by following their "own way".

A few days before the show opened, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had given an interview to a German newspaper in which he observed drily that it was "interesting" that such an exhibition was being mounted at a time when the situation in China was "absolutely crazy". Quite how crazy we discovered on 3 April, when Ai was arrested at Beijing Airport for unspecified "economic" crimes. Despite the protests of western governments, including Westerwelle's own, the artist remains in detention at an unknown location.
Since 2006, Ai had been an enthusiastic blogger, a participant in a virtual "public sphere".

In 2009, he wrote that the condition of "arriving at ethical public judgements" is "democracy". Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities don't seem to be listening. l

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm