When an artist's work becomes dangerous

Art that’s relevant is political, says provocative Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

Preview: Enemy of the State

Ai Weiwei's work has gotten him harassed by police, thrown in detention and driven out of the country. But in order to be relevant, he must be political, as he tells Holly Williams in a 60 Minutes profile to be broadcast Sunday, May 21 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

The acclaimed artist has left China and is now staying in Germany, he says, out of concern for the safety of his young son. But he doesn't rule out moving back to China, where authorities tried to censor his work, which they considered subversive. In one famous piece, he photographed himself giving the middle finger to a portrait of China's revered former dictator Mao Zedong.

Ai Weiwei CBS News

So is he an artist or an activist? "I think artist and activist is the same thing," Ai Weiwei tells Williams.  "As an artist, you always have to be an activist."  And to be a good artist, you need to be political, he says. "I think every art, if it's relevant, is political."

"I think artist and activist is the same thing. As an artist, you always have to be an activist." 

In the 1980s, Ai Weiwei lived in New York City, drawing inspiration from American icons like Andy Warhol.  He made a meager living doing odd jobs and selling street art. But when he returned to China after a decade in the states, he started making artwork that drew a lot of attention.  In one piece, he smashed a 2,000-year-old Chinese urn -- a symbolic challenge to the official Communist Party version of history.  Reminded by Williams that the urn was considered a  priceless artifact in China, the artist responds, "For me to smash it is a valuable act."

Ai Weiwei's activism took many forms. When an earthquake in China resulted in the death of thousands of children -- many crushed in shoddily-built government schools -- the authorities tried to cover up the death toll.  So Ai Weiwei conducted what he called a "citizen's investigation," gathering and publishing names of the dead, and infuriating the government.

Eventually, Ai Weiwei's activities landed him in prison. He spent 81 days in secret detention and after his release, was forbidden from leaving the country.  When he got his passport back two years ago, he departed for Berlin.

Will he ever give up his activism? "Never....to freely express myself, to tell the truth...It's part of my life."