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Can Art Still Play a Subversive Role in Society?

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Can art still play a subversive role in society?

Steven Winn

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

St Francisco Chronicle

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/03/29/DDGRJHUSMV1.DTL

When the hero of "V for Vendetta" blows up a London landmark -- the Old Bailey at the beginning of the movie and the Houses of Parliament at the end -- Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" surges from the speakers. Back home in his subterranean hideaway, this self-consciously cultured revolutionary delights in precious artifacts that the government in this techno-fascist near future has outlawed. V's verboten stash includes paintings and statues, a working jukebox and a copy of the 1934 film "The Count of Monte Cristo."

Even viewers put off by the movie's Orwellian overkill and blood-spurting mayhem may find something awfully enticing about the aesthete avenger himself (a masked Hugo Weaving as V). At the heart of this goony, rhapsodic fantasy based on a 1980s graphic novel is a persistent, alluring idea about the force and efficacy of art -- namely, that it can change the world in substantive, material ways.

"Artists use lies to tell the truth," V tells his captive and eventual acolyte Evey (Natalie Portman). Drawn in by his musical tastes and his flair for quoting Shakespeare as much as by his oppositional politics, Evey joins the cause and helps V bring down the repressive regime in a frenzy of explosives and a convulsive Tchaikovsky reprise. Music, literature and visual art aren't just a backwash for V's deeds, they're instrumental to what he believes and why he acts.

Every age, every artist, every observer sorts through the question of art's real-world effects. Daumier, Zola and Dickens believed devoutly in the power of their work to assail injustice and precipitate social change. Oscar Wilde believed (or pretended to) the opposite: "All art is quite useless," he wrote. The artist as engaged revolutionary and/or social reformer is a well-established trope in Western culture. So is the notion of a "pure," apolitical agenda -- free art.

Today, in a centrifugal-force new century whirling with change, the issue has a fresh urgency. Where does individual artistic expression fit in an image-crammed digital age? Is form-changing originality possible in a culture of relentless self-reference, replication and commodification? Has art ceded its incannot

atory power to science, with its promise of unspooling the genetic mysteries of life and measuring the distant reaches of space? Absent the Tchaikovksy-fueled superhero powers of V, does the artist even register on a world stage filled with the stark deeds of terrorists and the mounting folly of Bush administration geopolitics?

Some of the responses to those questions are built on worthy, if modest, claims. Maybe it's no coincidence that the mainstream acceptance of "Brokeback Mountain" parallels an apparent growing acceptance of gay marriage and civil unions and adoption by gay parents. And who knows, "Crash" may well have deserved its Oscar win over "Brokeback" by contributing to a similar consciousness shift on racism.

Locally, in the continuing debate about arts funding in San Francisco, the call for devoting more dollars to neighborhood-based programs carries the conviction that the arts do ameliorate social ills and imbalances. Crime, drug abuse, school truancy -- advocates come armed with studies showing the arts can address them all and change behaviors.

Other arguments for the arts as a force for change have a retrospective cast. In a new book of essays on "The Poem That Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later," editor Jason Shinder sees the imprint of Allen Ginsberg's angry, unruly, ecstatic anthem in "homosexuality, politics, drugs, tyranny, loneliness, music, madness, and death."

Watching the closing credits for the magnificently sad South African film "Tsotsi" the other day, and only then realizing that the script is based on a novel by Athol Fugard, I began thinking about the connection between that great writer's plays (" 'Master Harold' ... and the Boys," "The Island," "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead") and the end of apartheid. And then I thought about Solzhenitsyn and the fall of the Soviet Union. And then about the writers and composers and painters we still haven't heard from China or the Middle East or Africa, and how history might be bending right now under the force of their work.

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