The Problem with Agitprop

In art, what works is what is real, what is executed with honesty and integrity, what is beautiful

On 14 December 2008, Muntadhar Al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist, hurled his shoes at the US president George W Bush during a press conference in Baghdad. AP PHOTO
01 June, 2011

THEATRE DIRECTOR ARVIND GAUR'S President George W Bush is a menacing fool who wears an oversized coat and a funny wig and orders Iraqi killings with insuppressible glee. Speaking at a press conference in Baghdad to solemnise the withdrawal of American forces, he demands the puppet prime minister serve him better local food the next time he comes over. The hero, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, has been simmering with rage, and when he can take it no longer he throws his shoes at Bush, one after the other. Bush gathers himself, gives a bumbling speech about how such things don't scare him, and turns to the prime minister to say that he greatly looks forward to having good Iraqi food.

The play, The Last Salute, is based on the famous incident that took place on 14 December 2008, in Iraq. Al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist, hurled his shoes at the then US president during a press conference in Baghdad.

Mahesh Bhatt, a self-confessed "fierce critic of the US foreign policy", had been watching the events in Iraq and al-Zaidi's story caught his fancy. He decided to produce a play based on the book that al-Zaidi eventually wrote on the event and the circumstances leading up to it. Bhatt chose Gaur, the man behind the Asmita theatre group and the -doyen of socially relevant theatre in Delhi, to direct it.

The play, according to the publicity brief, is about "what made Zaidi, an ordinary man, raise voice against the most powerful man in the world? It shows the event in the light of what America is doing to the whole world in the name of democracy and human rights. It raises questions and instigates the masses to speak up and be there for the cause. It fires up the conscience." The Last Salute achieves none of the above-stated objectives.

It opens with Bhatt reading a letter he had written in 2003, declining an invitation to join Bush for the 51st Prayer Breakfast in Washington; to do so, he wrote, would amount to condoning and being complicit in the death and destruction unleashed by Bush in Iraq. The play has dramatised readings of news reports of the Iraq war and its aftermath, and is accompanied by video footage of the bombings of Iraqi cities and soul-curdling torture images from Abu Ghraib.

In a promotional article in The Hindu, Bhatt wrote, "In this age and time when we are manufacturing conformists on an assembly line, I think it is my duty to enshrine the human spirit of revolt which is palpable in Muntadhar al-Zaidi."

Bhatt is not the sole dissenter against the Iraq war in the creative world. Since 2003, Iraq war-inspired, Bush-hating plays have been routinely staged in the US and many other countries. But they have achieved little in terms of impact. It can't possibly be that people all over the world are uniformly apathetic. The trouble lies in the limitations of the genre of political art in general, at least in its current version, and agitprop theatre in particular.

Political art surely makes a difference, or governments wouldn't dread it passionately. Art works by stimulating empathy, which is an indispensable step to social justice. Any real change needs to be achieved through cultural means and art makes a good contender. It is believed that the universal ability to be moved by beauty in pictures and sound is closely related to the instinct for valuing justice and freedom of expression. "The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world," Albert Camus wrote, in Resistance,Rebellion and Death. "Tyrants know there is in the work of art an emancipatory force, which is mysterious only to those who do not revere it."

It was as early as 1810 that Francisco Goya started working on The Disasters of War, a series of 82 tragic paintings in protest against the horrors of the Peninsular War, prints that would later become the defining works of anti-war art.

But soon the Art for Art's Sake movement took over. Born out of defiance against socialist realism, it held that art had no useful role to play in the larger scheme of things. Its advocates argued that art exists in relation to itself, for the enjoyment of the artists and art viewers, and is not beholden to the goings on in the wider world.

This pricey aloofness of art did not work very well for the world at large, though, and with time there were efforts to revive its intermediary glory. But all our postmodern attempts have not been able to reinstall political art where it needs to be, culturally. There are a number of reasons why.

Those employing art as activism are basing it on the same bedrock that they are questioning, that of dominance and annihilation. Typical agitprop performances are about showing one's opponent in the poorest, most pathetic light and manipulating the emotions of the audience. The artists depend as much on subjugation as the authorities and regimes they mean to subvert. They are playing their game and thus perpetuating the status quo. In art, what works is what is real, what is executed with honesty and integrity, what is beautiful—not in its literal sense of ‘lovely', but what is sincere and intense and arouses you.

The other relevant issue is that of the motive. Any work of art whose central aim is to convince an audience to take some foreordained action, political or otherwise, ends up being predictable, mediocre and unmoving. To aim for revolution in performance is to misunderstand the meaning of the cathartic experience. Propagandists, by their nature, alter the reality they depict; they are never disposed to tell you the whole truth.

Any great art has an unconditional and unwavering relationship to truth. It emphasises our perception of things as they are. Political art is not incapable of achieving this, but only if it can forgo the provocations to dishonesty that are laid out in its path. Turning hard facts into creative fiction is an exercise that has to accommodate the overarching complexity of human nature and experience. Even a caricature, however extreme, must incorporate the humanity of its subject. Without sympathy there can be neither humour nor persuasion.

The most nagging problem still with our political art is its deterministic and patronising nature: it is presumptuous about the acquiescence of the audience. How can it assume that everyone in the audience is politically smart to hate George W Bush? What is it with the condescending notion that only progressive thinkers are genuinely creative? This sense of entitlement means that the artists don't feel any responsibility to make arguments that will persuade those who don't agree with their line. They feel no pressure, either, to be amusing, nuanced or interesting. All art, political or not, must make everything more beautiful in order to realise its ultimate role, that of captivating the viewer. A full-fledged, carefully structured play is more forceful and persuasive than one-sided and coercive documentary theatre. Effective political art is about exploring the transcendental nature of human experiences. A shoddy work of art cannot convince anyone of anything.