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Artists and Revolutionary Leadership

Fall 2009 Epigram

Artists and Revolutionary Leadership

Final reflections on leadership, truth and the subversive pen

Propagandists argue that the true poet must be a revolutionary. Otherwise, he or she is just a bourgeois wannabe – or an opportunist. But isn’t the artist’s only responsibility to show ‘truth’ – as he or she sees it? If his or her art is ‘truthful,’ it will be ‘revolutionary.’ Besides, a real revolution is bloody and messy, and, sadly, instead of furthering peace and democracy, provokes civil war and terror.

A revolution is optimistic nihilism versus realistic pessimism – or apocalyptic hope versus hellish desperation. Hence, revolutions frequently worsen already intolerable situations, exchanging disasters for catastrophes.

See the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949: their legacies included mass starvation and general repression. Yet revolutions can thrust history forward, allowing commendable social experiments. Indeed, one must defend both the Russian and the Chinese Revolutions as exemplifying the wish of the people to be freed from poverty, the selfish rule of the cold-hearted wealthy, and from foreign – or racist – domination.

Also, the Soviet and Chinese Revolutions provided inspiration to many developing nations that could only free themselves of Western economic, political, and military control by toppling the brutal puppets, ‘running dogs,’ and ‘paper tigers’ that exploited them at the behest of offshore powers. The Cuban Revolution, of 1959, liberated that nation from impoverishing, Mafia overlords. However, one political party controls Cuba still.

The Velvet Revolution, in the then Czechoslovakia, led by playwright Vaclav Havel, exemplified the possibility for radical but non-lethal change. The rebels won, yes, but the nation still split into two sovereign entities. The American Revolution terminated British mastery of the Yankee colonists, unleashing rich energies of invention – as well as a tendency to export a fierce republicanism.

The French Revolution of 1789 extended the American-born principles of liberty and equality to Europe, but not to French colonies, such as Haiti. Indeed, Haiti had to have its own revolt, in the early 1800s, to rid itself of slavery and French imperialism (although it ended up with its own ferocious dictators). Likewise, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 properly nullified the fantastic horror of the Shah’s regime – only to propagate the fresh terror of the Ayatollah’s.

France, in May 1968, is the model of a pacific near-revolution – one that argued for unity between workers and students, inspired the feminist movement in Europe, and tried to ‘liberate’ speech and imagination. It was a réveille for artists. Certainly, the problem with revolution waged at gunpoint is that one can never be sure at what end of the gun one will find oneself – or one’s family. Better is the revolution waged by ink, or by speech, or by paintbrush, or by music and song. Better to prompt thought than shed blood.

The philosopher Herbert Marcuse writes: “It seems that the poems and songs of protest and liberation are always too late or too early: memory or dream.” The artist is always either remembering political struggle or revealing, prophetically, its presence. Art always stages a revolutionary hallucination – or recollection.

If we view “society as a work of art” (Marcuse), then it is the task of artists to perfect it – but in art, not in legislatures or in armies. Political struggle is ephemeral, but art is its eternal witness.

Another philosopher, Adolfo Sanchez Vazquez, tells us that “beauty cannot exist outside of humanity.” Moreover, he says, “creation comes to mean rebellion.” As soon as the artist makes art, he or she challenges society. There can be no true art that is not also profoundly transformative of the artist and his or her audience.

Sanchez Vazquez affirms: “A victorious revolution, by unleashing the creative energies of the people, escapes the prison of tragedy.” Thus, triumphant art, by insistently provoking the intelligence of the beholder, escapes the prison of decay.

According to a third philosopher, Frantz Fanon, the artist is “an awakener of the people.” (The “awakening” is – one imagines – a revelation of social ‘truth.’) The conscious artist – the conscientious artist – is one who remembers roots, stares at stars, and humours humanity.

But that very process of reflection, observation and empathy renders every artist defiant to State dictates.

Governments succeed by ahistoricism, prejudice and cynicism. (I.F. Stone insists: “All governments lie.”) Their ‘truth’ can never be trusted. Yet, art displaces their lies.

In the end, the revolutionary task of the artist is not the fomenting of revolution. It is the making of renaissance after renaissance. If the art properly challenges his or her society, the artist has forged revolutionary change…

“Snow hammers earth with leaden softness….

Ah, this world’s mutable: mountains become coral reefs.”


George Elliott Clarke is a Governor-General’s Award-winning poet, novelist, essayist, and librettist. His newest book is I & I, a verse-novel. He teaches English at the University of Toronto.

Prime Minister Mossadegh entering the Peace Palace, seat of the International Court of Justice during the proceedings of Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (United Kingdom v. Iran). Iran successfully defended the Majles’ (national parliament’s) decision to nationalize the country’s oil industry, resulting in a favourable Court decision on July 22, 1952. A foreign-sponsored coup occurred on August 19, 1953 – a year after this judicial ruling. That coup planted the seeds for the tectonic Iranian revolution that was to come in 1979, and the ultimate establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Photo is courtesy of the International Court of Justice. All rights reserved.

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