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Rebellion and Art

Culcher tackles the chicken-or-egg debate of rebellious art and revolution; which inspires the other? And what does sex, booze and comedy have to do with it?

And men in their millions float and flow
And seethe with a million hopes as leaven;
And they win their Will, or they miss their Will

Sodomy Alcohol. Sexual intercourse. Laughter. All that features in any representation of a “Bacchae”, the other-worldly celebrations of life present in Euripides’ tragedy. Amidst the rowdiness, between wine drinking and erotic dancing, a demonstration against the repressiveness of the Theban state may be perceived. While an artistic piece of classical theatre, the political message is blatantly portrayed through the characters’ interactions. In the classical world, narratives and issues unraveled on stage were designed to spark up an emotional response in the audience. While exact knowledge of people’s reaction to this particular play may be hard to acquire, it nonetheless acts as evidence for the understanding that through its portrayal on stage, the issues of the outside world were resolved. If there were ever a need to subvert the social, political and historical order, resorting to the performative arts seems to be a most fruitful alternative.

Described as “an unbroken chain from the crudest mythological pantomime of primitive man down to the severest problem-play of the stern Scandinavian” by Brander Matthews, the principles of drama outlined by Aristotle in his Poetics ensured that the mythos or plot resolved itself along with the series of passions that would have otherwise been repressed in all other aspects of the Athenian social life. As such, in a world dominated by reason, having an outlet for one’s passions, for those feelings that defy logical explanations yet wish to convey a rather important message, the stage as a microcosm for the world permitted its subversion.  Imbedded in representations of myths that sang the mishaps of mortal-divine interactions, were discussions of issues that threatened the lives of their audiences, namely those of conquest, tyranny and betrayal. The ability to identify oneself with the emotional component of these lyrical compositions permitted the development of empathy for the characters on stage, as well as a place and a time where passions found themselves as protagonists.  In a sense, these performances provided them with a place to process their emotional responses to similar situations and warn those who hadn’t about these passion-based threats.

Drama, as with any literary form, responds to its historical context. This performative art, however, is able to transcend the social context, something which becomes apparent at even elementary levels of literature studies. It seems to respond to intricate aspects of the human condition, bodies of feeling which, despite being classified under different terms, despite belonging to different historical eras, are triggered by the same situations, feelings and emotions. As such, playwrights remain relevant, their works treated as revolutionary far beyond their time of first publication. Harnessing this universal power is a determinative fact in the success or failure of any political movement or revolt. The reason for this stems from the understanding that there is more to human existence than causal relations between events and people. Drama is successful, these playwrights are still well known despite shifts in socio-political contexts, due to their ability to display and spark human emotion. Removing the stage and analysing real life events reveals something quite similar.

Emma Watson’s speech at the UN, designed as part of the launching of the HeShe movement, had a definite impact on people listening to it. For months it was used by teachers all over the world to explain both feminism and the art of rhetoric to students. The success of her speech lay in an extraordinary ability to harness emotion, passions and general sentiment, within the coherent structures of logical, linguistic persuasion. As an actress, her delivery moved viewers as subtle changes of tones, stressing of words and timely pauses, filled the room. In other words, by making her politics a performance, she was successful in conveying to viewers and people listening in from all over the world, that particular Will of hers, the same one the Bacchae so often referred to as intricate in human action.

It is this point about the revolutionary ethos of the performative arts which brings into question the potentiality of them as capable of sparking up revolt. Identifying a causal relationship between rebellion and art, while rather tempting, potentially neglects the complexity of a relationship which spans across centuries. Though Picasso’s Guernica undoubtedly responded to the pain and suffering of the Spanish Civil War, it’d be too much of a leap to suggest it was this particular work which led to a development in Republican support from abroad. Though the decision to paint their faces white appealed to the idea of statues, and presumably art, as a powerful revolutionary move, the logistics of carrying it out, as well as the political motivation behind Extinction Rebellion, cannot be explained merely as a consequence of the artistic ethos. It seems, rather, that though a constitutive element of their development, and potentially of their success, art with regards to revolution is not a causal principle, nor a consequence of it. Relations between the two are focused on the possibilities harnessing of emotions, and consequent display of them in a “logical” manner has on an audience. By this, what one wishes to stress is that it is not so much that art is prior to rebellion, or vice versa, but rather that they both share the same goal: appeal to a wide audience so as to convey an important and powerful message.

Picture a circle of people holding hands, dancing around. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, right? Now imagine half of them as skeletons. That’s probably slightly more out of the ordinary. The scene described here is none other than a danse macabre, a late medieval depiction of death as something universal, the end of life being presented as something no one can escape from. Looking at the current political situation (Brexit haunting every broadcast channel across the world, the climate crisis becoming more apparent as we speak) it seems those on the streets, carrying European flags and the threat of Holocene extinction on their banners, are engaging in a 21st century danse macabre of their own. The performative aspect of these events, the artistic component of revolutions, should be considered as an intricate aspect of their development and potentially success. It is, after all, art’s ability to transcend the political, social and historical context of the revolution that appeals to a larger universality, appealing to the emotional aspect crucial in raising awareness of the cause. It is the focus on the “passions”, on that which finds itself at the core of human relations, that establishes a relationship between artistic and political sentiments in times where logical explanations lack the power of persuasion. Attempting to resolve the conundrum of what came first art or revolution defeats the purpose of what might be found at the core of the relationship, which is often hard to define, and perhaps may only ever be resolved on stage. 

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