Ai Weiwei vs. The LEGO Group: Are Multinational Corporations the New Big Brother?
Yesterday afternoon I received a Facebook message from Anne Verhoijsen, a Dutch artist who invited me to contribute one of my LEGO creations to an exhibit on human rights in Alkmaar, a town outside Amsterdam, in December. She linked to this article in the Guardian, about The LEGO Group’s decision to deny a bulk order to the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei for an upcoming exhibit in Melbourne, Australia. Ai has already shown a collection of LEGO mosaics at Alcatraz Island, depictions of notable human rights activists including Nelson Mandela and a fellow Chinese dissident, imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo.
According the the article, LEGO denied Ai the bulk order on grounds that it “cannot approve the use of Legos [sic] for political works.” While in theory Ai can obtain the pieces via third-party sites like Bricklink, doing so adds time and expense when he is probably rushing to finish in time for the installation in Melbourne. (I don’t know this, but if he’s like most creative people, he’s rushing to finish at the last minute.) In addition, if the company disapproves of its product being used to make political statements, Ai and his Melbourne hosts could receive a cease and desist letter.
And so could I. After reading the article, I had to make the choice whether to keep my “Dirty War House” piece in the Alkmaar show or withdraw it. What a chilling effect these corporate actions can have!
My response, like the response of my Instagram mentors @legojacker and @pulup, was to post a political commentary using LEGO pieces. I featured the outside of Dirty War House and noted the preponderance of police officers in the City-themed sets. In response to several commentators, including two who didn’t agree with me, I discussed some of my concerns about the corporation’s actions.
Ai suggested that LEGO’s refusal stemmed from the new Legoland under construction near Shanghai, as well as a new multimillion-dollar factory in China. In fact, The LEGO Group doesn’t own Legoland, having sold the parks and the right to build more to the UK-based theme park operator Merlin Entertainment. But it appears that the corporation has decided to pick and choose what kind of “political” speech it wants to promote, allowing its name and products to be used in a theme park in a notoriously repressive country (one which, by the way, blocks this website) while preventing dissidents from that country from buying its products.
Furthermore, in preventing customers from using its products in a “political” manner, the company is setting itself on a dangerous path. The Koch Brothers own paper mills. What’s to prevent the corporation they own from denying paper, by refusing to sell it or sending cease and desist orders, to publishers of books and newspapers with ideas they don’t like?
Multinational corporations are not democracies. They are not bound by the same standards of free speech that democratic governments are, and they have the ability to act aggressively to curtail free speech. In the past, corporations have sued and bankrupted community activists (in the United States and elsewhere, these are known as SLAPP suits, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation), fired and blacklisted employees for speaking their minds or trying to organize a union, and used unlimited campaign donations to install or coerce public officials to do their bidding.
Could corporate CEOs become the dictators of the future? While this incident with Ai Weiwei may seem like a “tempest in a teapot,” as my friend Shelly Corbett wrote on 100% Stuck in Plastic, I hope it raises awareness of the power of multinational corporations and why we need to take back some of that power through individual and collective acts of free speech. And we need to push our local and national governments to do the same.
[Update: This article from the New York Times shows some of the steps Ai’s supporters have taken, as well as other censorship efforts, successful and unsuccessful. One of them, is very close to my project — and fortunately, the artist won in the end.]
I would say that we have already lost this battle. In the world I live in, corporations already rule and free speech is already curtailed. Until we get money out of politics and revoke laws like Citizens United, multinational corporations will be the law of the land. I applaud Ai Weiwei and his artistic activism, I hope he continues to fight and lead by example. We need more artists like him and our mutual friend LegoJacker. But I don’t think we should tar and feather the mothership because one artist is behind on his deadline or its a slow news weekend.
Thank you for commenting, Shelly! Just because our favorite benevolent dictatorship has shown its teeth doesn’t mean I’m planning to start a boycott or anything. But according to a more recent article, there have been other attempts at suppression, including an attempt, which LEGO dropped, to keep a model of a Nazi concentration camp from being displayed. (That surprises me, in a way, because my students and I once attended an excellent program in which a LEGO artist teamed with a Holocaust survivor to organize a community build of the Warsaw Ghetto.) As I said on our Twitter discussion, LEGO has these rules about bulk orders and Ai didn’t follow them, but that doesn’t mean we have to like the rules or refrain from criticizing them.
This is vile. Very glad you’re bringing it to our attention.
Thank you, Ann! I’m sort of surprised at the number of people who are defending LEGO. The dilemma is that we use and appreciate these products but the behavior of the corporation that makes them is not something we’d necessarily endorse. For instance, we use computers and smartphones that are manufactured under oppressive conditions. Last year I read and reviewed a novel, Blue Gold by Elizabeth Stewart, that did a good job of exploring these issues.
You lost me at the 2nd paragraph… bulk orders? Lego never accepts bulk orders by anyone besides certified resellers that they meticulously select based on how they promote the brand to children. I am a Lego reseller but not even I nor any resellers I know can place orders at Lego. What would make anyone expect that an artist can?
Mathieu, there are two other ways someone can order in bulk from LEGO. Members of recognized LEGO Users’ Groups can order once a year with strict guidelines (limited number of pieces, pieces cannot be resold). The group has to be in good standing, which means, among other things, a yearly minimum of community service projects. I describe a couple of the projects in my blog piece titled “A Building Flurry.”
But there is a category called LEGO Pro that includes artists who use the brick in their professional work. Like LUG members, they are not allowed to resell the bricks. LEGO doesn’t want them, or user group members, to undercut people like you. Many of the artists display at major events, and the only way they can get the type and quantity of the bricks they need is to buy them directly from LEGO. Others, like a member of my own LUG, create displays for large corporations to use in their trade shows. LEGO Pro rules also prevent artists from making “political” statements, but that is open to interpretation and inconsistently enforced. Personally, I would prefer that LEGO simply require any artist who uses the brick for a project with a message, explicit or implicit (because promoting corporations does convey a “political” message as well), carry a large disclaimer that The LEGO Group does not promote or endorse the artwork or the organization or business with which the artwork may be associated.
Thanks for the explanation Lynn! I wasn’t aware that Lego was selling to artists, interesting! 🙂
Actually, I personally believe Lego should just either offer or not offer, and not discriminate based on their assumptions of whether they think they like the buyer enough. I’ve heard they don’t even apply their own rules consistently, selling to one particular large webstore here that doesn’t promote Lego or have physical displays like they normally require from stores. But technically speaking it is of course their legal right to run their business the way they like whether fair or unfair. It’s a bit like getting a mortgage or insurance, banks and insurance companies can just make up any standard they like to decide if they’re going to offer it, and there isn’t really much a client can do about it to change their mind.