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

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...
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