Art is such a beautiful expression, it can evoke emotions and speak to truths that can be hard to articulate. It also can often serve as a powerful tool for change, for revolution, to spark people to stand up and make changes.
This series is going to explore the power of art, by looking at actual art. Sometimes it may be written, or it may be visual (who knows, maybe I’ll convince someone to share auditory art with us as well). This will run the third Wednesday of every month, for as long as I can keep it going! (Interested in contributing? Let me know!)
Rogue One has taken a lot of criticism in recent weeks after the writer, Chris Weitz, publicly stated that the Empire is a fascist, male-led, white supremacist (and in Star Wars’ case, human supremacist) government, and the rebels are diverse and allow women and aliens to partake as well as lead in their organization. This criticism led to a trending Twitter topic, #DumpStarWars, and a lot of our president-elect’s supporters calling for a boycott of this and the Star Wars franchise in general. This is fine, considering this is exactly how capitalism and a free market works. However, this showcases the dual nature of the power of art; it can unite as well as divide, and when used correctly can impart hope and even affect public opinion.
Art is one of our most powerful mediums, which is why we see so many celebrities today using their position to speak out as Weitz did. Art is also historically one of the first things that is restricted and oppressed to stifle opposition. Every authoritarian government in history has quickly cracked down on artists and their free expression in order to make sure the public is only receiving the government’s official line of thought. Novels, films, music, and artwork are all ways to express ideas and share them with the populace, and this open exchange of ideas on every political side is a key part to a democratic and free society.
In most societies, we see art in an everyday, pleasure-giving sense; reading a book to relax, bingeing on Netflix shows on the weekend after a long week of work, strolling through an art gallery to explore other cultures and time periods through their artists. As I write this, I’m listening to Jewel’s Pieces of You, and though I’ve loved this album since the 90s when I taught myself to sing while listening to her music, I never quite appreciated the political nature of all of her lyrics until now. Give the song “Pieces of You” a fresh listen and you’ll see how relevant this piece of lyrical art remains, over 20 years after its release. This is obviously just one example in a vast collection of our cultural world and its political nature.
Other examples are much more prevalent and obvious. Casablanca was wartime propaganda, unexpected to actually become the classic it is today, but intended to help bolster the Allied Forces and the people’s support of the military during WWII. Rosie the Riveter was propaganda to encourage women to step in and take the jobs the men going to war were leaving behind. Both of these bits of propaganda have now entered the cultural lexicon as pieces of art of the time period; they haven’t entirely lost their meaning but the majority of our population may not fully appreciate or understand their origins any longer. Captain America, as a comic, began as a response to Nazi Germany, and in the first Captain America film they show Steve Rogers being used as a propaganda tool to get people to buy war bonds before he eventually takes up the mantle of Captain America, the superhero. The most well-known example of obvious political art that almost everyone in our culture would catch as a reference though is George Orwell. Orwell’s works and essays denouncing all forms of totalitarianism are incredibly well-known in our culture, with nearly everyone catching references to Animal Farm or 1984.
Orwell was writing his novels with the sole purpose of critiquing and serving as a warning for totalitarianism. Other forms of art, such as the Star Wars films, are not as blatant in their intent to criticize political systems. The recent attempts to boycott and stifle the Star Wars films because of their anti-fascist message are surprising only because of the sudden outcry against a longstanding anti-totalitarianism franchise. The entirety of the Star Wars story, starting with the first film in the ‘70s, have been about a fight against fascism by a diverse Republic in the form of the Rebellion. That it took the writers openly announcing this as their intent for some people to notice this shows how pervasive and yet subtle political art can be. For a lot of film goers, the Star Wars franchise has been about Good vs. Evil in a far away time and place. It is only now, when we need political art to speak more strongly against what is happening in our country, that we are noticing how pronounced, necessary, and powerful art can be to send messages of criticism and hope.
Want to hear more from Julia about Rogue One and Star Wars? This will certainly be continued on Comparative Geeks!