Tiny Toys, Big Uproar

Was the LEGO Group right to refuse an artist’s order?

One of the world’s most popular toys, LEGO® bricks, have inspired children for generations. The Lego Group sells approximately 46 billion of the colorful, interlocking blocks every year—enough to circle Earth 18 times if laid end to end. But now the beloved toys are at the center of a controversy. It all began when Chinese artist Ai Weiwei (aye wayway) placed a bulk order for the bricks and the Lego Group rejected the order.

Ai makes art installations that highlight human rights issues. In 2014, Ai used Lego bricks in an installation at Alcatraz, a former prison located on an island off the coast of San Francisco, California. He used the colorful blocks to create portraits of 176 people who are imprisoned or in exile because of their political or religious beliefs.

Last October, Ai began preparing for a new exhibition in Australia. He tried to place a bulk order of several million LEGO bricks for an artwork he planned to include in the show. Knowing that Ai’s work can cause controversy, the LEGO Group denied the artist’s request. Officials at the company said that their products are children’s toys meant for creative play, and should not be used to express political messages.

Ai says that this is censorship. He points out that, just like a company that sells pens can’t dictate what authors write with their products, the LEGO Group shouldn’t decide what people build with their toys. 

Ai took to social media to share his experience. In response, people from all over the world donated LEGO bricks for Ai’s new exhibition, which opened in December. One of the works in the show, Letgo Room, features portraits  of Australian political activists made  of donated and imitation bricks. 

Following the public’s response, the LEGO Group changed their bulk sales policy. Beginning in 2016, the company no longer asks people to explain the intended themes of their projects when placing bulk orders. Instead, customers must disclose to the public that the LEGO Group doesn’t support or endorse any political message presented with LEGO products.

What do you think? Was the LEGO Group right to deny Ai’s order?

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