The contents of this article are for information and educational purposes only. Patriot Propaganda does not officially recommend using any of the tactics, techniques or procedures presented.
The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. JORGE LUIS BORGES
Animating facts, truth, and our causes in ways that resonate with people is critical to changing the world, yet traditional political theory and standard activist training don’t provide much assistance here. There is, however, one field that has made the connection between issues and emotions for millennia: the arts.
ART MOVES US
From the Indonesian cave paintings thousands of years ago to the most cutting edge conceptual work produced in art institutions today, artists use signs and symbols, stories and spectacles to move us. Art is highly effective at translating events, facts, and ideologies into stories, images, and performances, making objective things into subjective forms we can experience, feel and, importantly, remember.
It’s hard to think about art because the power of art lies beyond thinking. In the past, philosophers and critics called this the “sublime” quality of art. The sublime can be beautiful or it can be horrific; in either case it is beyond direct description, beyond measurement, beyond even comprehension. As mystical as the sublime power of art is, or perhaps because it is so mystical, it can be a powerful force in the real world. The ancient Greek philosopher, Longinus, believed that the power of the sublime lay not only in its capacity to provoke awe, but in its ability to persuade. That’s why when we are affected by a piece of art we often say it moves us.
BYPASS THE RATIONAL MIND
This sublime power of art to circumvent our rational minds and affect our emotions, bodies, and even spirit, has been recognized for millennia. And it has been feared for just as long. The Bible and the Quran are filled with commands that prohibit visual depictions of all things holy and profane. In Exodus, God commands Moses: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
Why is God so set against creative representation? Well, only God knows, but we expect it’s because of the dangers of misrepresentation, which is why we really need to use this stuff responsibly.
As in the Bible, Plato, too, devoted a chapter in The Republic to explaining why art should be banished from his ideal society. Plato’s objections against art are many, but his criticism culminates in fears concerning the power of art to move its audience. Watching a play or listening to a poem, the audience experiences the pleasure and pain of the characters in the drama. Rationally, the audience knows that these are merely fictive creations of the artist, but emotionally they feel as if the struggles and victories of these fictions are their own.
The holy scriptures and Plato are absolutely right about the power of art. But where they saw this as a threat, we see it as an opportunity. We like that art can represent the world, that people are attracted to and can identify with these representations, and that art has the power to move us emotionally. The problem with art, from an art activist perspective, is that this power is often wasted.
A painting hangs on the wall of a museum. It moves us. And then, all too often, we move on. We leave that experience, and its power, behind when we leave the museum. We’re also taught that art is something “special,” something separated from our everyday world. Except, of course, that it isn’t. The power of art is used to command high ticket prices or boost the status of particular institutions. In our world, the sublime is in the service of promoting Cultural Marxism and child grooming. But what if we could harness the power of art and apply it to the world-changing potential of activism?
EXERCISE: HOW ART WORKS
Time: 10 minutes
1. Recall a piece of art you really like (or really hate). It doesn’t need to be a painting on a wall or a dance performance; it can just as easily be a Western movie or a well-prepared meal. Make a quick sketch of it – remember, it doesn’t have to be “good” as no one will see this but you.
2. Take a couple of minutes and write down all the reasons why you love or hate it. Include any relevant details of the work in your explanation.
3. Read over what you’ve just written. We’re guessing you came up with a list of things you like about the work, such as how the artist uses colour or sound, or things you don’t like, like the way the director depicts men as weak or idiotic. But we’re also guessing that your explanation is incomplete. These observations likely just scratch the surface, and probably don’t completely capture the depth of your attraction or repulsion.
4. Try again. Recall the work again, but this time describe only how it makes you feel.
A bit easier, right? But it’s still hard because art, if it’s any good, doesn’t translate easily into words — it evokes rather than explains. This is one of the powers of art.
5. Try once more. This time draw how you feel (abstraction encouraged).
Maybe you found this even easier. Maybe not. The point of this exercise is not to be able to accurately communicate how art moves us, but to demonstrate exactly how hard it is to do.
Art allows us to say things that can’t be said, to give form to abstract feelings and ideas and present them in such ways that they can be communicated with others.
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. AUDRE LORDE
Whether or not we agree with Audrey’s politics, her statement is dead on. Art allows us to imagine things that are otherwise unimaginable, and then to live them. Lorde continues, “Poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”
Art of course does a lot more than this, too. To detail all the intricacies of exactly how art works would take hundreds of pages, and even then we couldn’t ever offer a complete explanation. But that’s kind of the point: despite thousands of years of art practice, thousands of years of philosophical discussion, hundreds of years of art criticism and, most recently, brain studies of the neurological effects of exposure to art, the power of art is largely beyond rational explanation. And this is art’s power.
This article was adapted from Duncombe, Stephen, and Steve Lambert. The Art of Activism: Your All-Purpose Guide to Making the Impossible Possible. OR Books, 2021.
Sharp, Gene. From Dictatorship to Democracy. Serpent’s Tail, 2022.
Beer, Michael, et al. Civil Resistance Tactics in the 21st Century. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.
Popović, Srđa, and Hardy Merriman. CANVAS Core Curriculum: A Guide to Effective Nonviolent Struggle: Students Book. Serbia, CANVAS, 2007.
Marovic, Ivan. The Path of Most Resistance: A Step-By-Step Guide to Planning Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd Edition. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2021.
Sholette, Gregory. The Art of Activism and the Activism of Art. New York, United States, Macmillan Publishers, 2022.
Clark, Howard; Garate. Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. Revised edition, War resisters’ International, 2022.
Thompson, Nato. Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the Twenty-first Century. Melville House, 2015.
Gavin, Francesca, and Alain Bieber. The Art of Protest: Political Art and Activism. Gestalten, 2022.
Miller, Matthew, and Srđa Popović. Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World. Random House, 2015.
Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. Vintage; Reissue edition, 1989.
Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. Ig Publishing, 2004.
Abbott, Daniel. The Handbook of 5GW: A Fifth Generation of War? Amsterdam, Netherlands, Adfo Books, 2021.