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Ai Weiwei Flips White House the Bird; Funny Lichtenstein

"Straight" (2008-12) by Ai Weiwei at Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The show is the first U.S. retrospective of the Chinese artist and activist. Photographer: Cathy Carver/The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden via Bloomberg

The first U.S. retrospective of Chinese Conceptualist, architect and activist Ai Weiwei is at Washington, D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. It’s clear that his cultural significance far outweighs his artistic importance.

Any discussion of Ai must consider his roles as an outspoken provocateur, blogger and critic of China’s totalitarianism and of traditional artistic values.

Ai’s calculated works, no matter how humorous, visually arresting or seemingly benign, are almost always politically charged -- and often the ideology runs their aestheticism aground.

At the Hirshhorn, we encounter a handsome, though rather dull show, including videos, handcrafted wooden sculptures, documentary photographs and colorful installations.

There’s a circle of 42 piggybacking bicycles and a huge snake, made of children’s backpacks, hugging the ceiling. Kids will have a ball here, especially if you don’t tell them what the works are about.

In “Straight,” rows of stacked, re-straightened, rusted reinforcing bars, undulating like waves, are spread across the gallery floor. Their Minimalist simplicity becomes suspect, though, when you discover that you’ve been duped: Like a smoking gun, the bars were taken from the remains of shoddily built schools devastated during the Sichuan earthquake.

Chinese Olympics

The Chinese government has been hot and cold toward Ai. Initially, his rising fame was financially supported and internationally marketed. Ai participated, with architects Herzog & de Meuron, in the design of the Beijing Olympic stadium.

But his subversive views and agitations have since caused him to be beaten by the Chinese police and his studio to be razed. In 2011, charged with tax evasion and the distribution of pornography, Ai spent 81 days in a Chinese prison.

I can embrace Ai’s outrage and existential despair. But when he photographs himself flipping the White House the bird, his antics are merely childish.

At times his work feels senseless and wasteful, as in the photographs of him dropping a Han dynasty urn. His Pop-art vandalism of ancient vases with industrial paint and the Coca-Cola logo make my heart sink every time I encounter them.

Ultimately, Ai comes off as an activist exploiting art for social causes.

“Ai Weiwei: According to What?” runs through Feb. 24 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, on the National Mall at Independence Ave. at 7th St. SW. Information: +1-202-633-1000;

Roy Lichtenstein

Pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) may be the biggest sellout in the history of 20th-century art.

Although Lichtenstein was billed as a painter, the wall text at the National Gallery of Art’s retrospective informs us that he “was fascinated by the one thing he could not seem to make: a brushstroke.”

This tells you nearly all you need to know regarding Lichtenstein’s oeuvre: He early on abandoned attempts at making Abstract Expressionist paintings for the less-daunting task of making funny, kitschy cartoons.

In this show, we see Lichtenstein appropriating everyone from Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to the ancient Greeks, Chinese Song dynasty painters, Monet, Picasso, Mondrian and Matisse.

Whole rooms are devoted to his cold, flat formless poster-colored dallies in war, romance, abstraction, the landscape, the studio and the nude.

To walk through this show is to feel that masterworks by other artists have been unmercifully run through Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day-dot-patterned Pop-art wringer. Great art has been turned into comic fare.

The best thing about this exhibition is that to exit you must walk through galleries devoted to pictures by Braque, Derain, Kandinsky, Matisse and Picasso, where great painting makes a stand.

“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective” runs through Jan. 13 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on the National Mall between 3rd and 7th Streets at Constitution Ave. NW. Information: +1-202-737-4215;

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Jeremy Gerard on music.

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