One hundred million sunflower seeds individually crafted of porcelain and painted, poured on to the floor of a gallery and then walked on by the public provided the introduction to the work of Ai Weiwei for most people in Britain.

The compelling contradictions of the sculpture installed last year at Tate Modern and the invitation to crunch underfoot something as delicate as Chinese porcelain said more about China’s relationship with the rest of the world than a mountain of economic commentary and cultural analysis.

His recent arrest was most likely due to his critical blogging but his art is more powerful because it forces us to confront big and disturbing ideas by catching us unawares.

In Sunflower Seeds, it is through the medium of beauty and skilled craftsmanship. By dripping industrial paint over 6000-year-old vases, he shocks us into considering the ruthless desecration of centuries of Chinese culture in the pursuit of economic progress.

Like the most avant-garde of his western contemporaries he has pushed the boundaries of communication by harnessing the experience of others.

The Sichuan earthquake and the loss of thousands of young lives as schools collapsed prompted a particularly haunting installation. It consists of 9000 children’s schoolbags arranged to spell out in Chinese characters the words of a mother whose child had died: “She lived happily for seven years in this world”. It’s easy to sniff that this is not “art”.Without converting his vision into powerful images Ai Weiwei, who was released on bail this week, would have been just another blogger.