Can Art Start a Revolution?

Guest Opinion

Art refers to anything created with imagination—such as a painting, a mellifluous note of music, graffiti, literature, dance, and sculpture—and intended to convey beauty or express overwhelming ideas and emotions. Art has influenced the essence of human history by shaping the nature of peace and conflict. Since art can enhance social solidarity, tolerance, diversity, and adaptability, this article is an attempt to uncover how art has been used in revolutions, protests, archives of peace and conflict, and even during the ongoing pandemic.

This article also elucidates upon the role that cultural identity, manifest as art, has in repairing the damage conflict wroughts on the welfare of society. A review done by Alison Baily identified the some key benefits posed by arts and cultural programs to security and stability: community engagement, skills for employment, inclusive development, therapeutic interventions, social cohesion, and provision of voice and agency to marginalized social sections. The review also identified several key risks and challenges for arts and cultural programs in fragile and conflict-affected contexts, some of which also apply to other areas of intervention: unrealistic expectations, evaluating impact, top-down approaches, lack of conflict sensitivity, and scale.

Recent research suggests that conflict prevention programs are less likely to provide long-term solutions if the emotions of those involved in a conflict are not fully understood, integrated, and expressed. This is why peace-building practitioners have started to look for alternative methods. Therefore, by drawing from Lederach’s ‘Conflict Transformation Theory’ and Aristotle’s ‘Catharsis’, art can be used as a tool for addressing some key socio-psychological issues such as trauma, miscommunication, social exclusion, and otherness that often facilitate the re-occurrence of violent conflicts

Art as Propaganda Tool

Art has been used as an instrument of pushing forth political agendas. Humans have used art as a tactic to recruit people onboard their ideology, whether that be for personal advancement or to further national causes. For use in propaganda, images are often paired with slogans, sayings, and words. The founding father of behaviourism, John B. Watson, advocated that images add extra clarity to the message.

Theories of attention also suggest a higher attention-capturing power of visuals, a power that only compounds with juxtaposition of visual and auditory messages. Countries have often in the past used this knowledge to create an image of the enemy (like Hitler did in the Holocaust with Jews) and an image of themselves (like Uncle Sam for American soldiers). This played on the division of ‘Us’ v/s ‘Them’ and gave those in power as well as the common people a justification for killing the Others. Political posters and cartoons were the most straightforward yet surreal vessels used to create these images. They were mostly used in propaganda campaigns in many different countries over long periods.

Revolutionary Power of Art

In addition to serving as an emotional release and a form of decoration, art has been used to address social inequality, cultural oppression, and political instability throughout the long drawn course of history. It is no different in today’s world, where artists like Banksy depict social injustices in the form of graffiti murals in public spaces. He, as many artists before him, uses art as a means of social commentary.

In India, art through cartoons, poetry, music, paintings, and literature has always played a major role in times of revolution and voicing of dissent by the citizens. One of the more recent examples of such a movement is the anti-CAA Protests in Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Millia Islamia wherein students repeatedly called for protests through street art, posters, and protest songs. This was later perceived as a threat to the nation and what followed was a campaign by the police to conceal the art installations and graffiti by painting over them during a 21 day long national lockdown. Often, suppression of expression through art can diminish individual autonomy, curb creations not produced by or convivial towards authorities, and thereby mask conflicts with a facade of peace. Negative peace in such contexts takes over and fools those who are blind to the violence implicit in such conflicts.

Such steps taken by the authorities pull out a question: “Can art lead to the rise of conflict causing a revolution?” Paul Gaugin, a pioneer of French post-Impressionism whose works influenced artists like Pablo Picasso, has said that, “Art is either revolution or plagiarism,” which further substantiates that art evokes emotions that raise unity among people. This aspect of art has been widely and popularly used to build feelings of nationalism among people. An example of this can be the popular patriotic song “Aye mere Watan ke logo” which instantly and perpetually became the evergreen anthem of patriotism for Indians. A movie inspired by the 1962 conflict between India and China, and released in the immediate aftermath of that conflict, Haqeeqat (1964) is the apt example of the power and influence of cinema as an art form.

Another example of how art can lead to peace and conflict is the movie Rang De Basanti. It had a noticeable impact on Indian society, the ripples of which are still felt. A direct umbra of the celebrated cinematic feat was cast on the 1999 Jessica Lall Murder Case. Barely a month after Rang De Basanti’s release, a Delhi court acquitted the main accused because of inefficient prosecution and hostile witnesses. This sparked intense civil protests and media campaigns seeking his re-arrest. Some protesters held a silent, candlelight vigil at New Delhi's India Gate while others carried out a rally. According to separate reports by Hindustan Times and India Times, there is a general consensus that movies like Rang De Basanti were the main reason behind the sudden upsurge in people's social involvement.

Art as Protest Melody

Charting the influence of music as an art form characterizing times of peace and conflict is the recent example of the Urdu Nazam titled ‘Hum Dekhenge’ written by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. During the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in India, a temporary faculty member of the Institute of Information and Technology (IIT), Kanpur, objected to ‘Hum Dekhenge’ being sung by protesting students on the campus. This soon resulted in the poem being touted as anti-Hindu. Student body rejected the charges as being misinformed and communal, and aimed at divorcing the poem from its socio-emotional context. Faiz’s daughter Saleema Hashmi said that ‘Hum Dekhenge’ is being taken as anti-India only because it was being sung by protesting students.

Art as Archives of Peace and Conflict

As enunciated in the discussions between Edward Hallett Carr and Alun Munslow, all of which they later elucidated in their writings about difference between history and the past, art can function as the artist’s representation of history but not as the truth of the past. Art inspired by peace and conflict has become an integral part of academic curriculum worldwide. The National Council of Educational Research and Training has included in its textbooks many cartoons, caricatures, and posters to convey their role in the representation of historical events. Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) also introduced an undergraduate course in Aesthetics and Peace Studies recently. The United States Institute of Peace offers a course on Media and Art for Peace. Therefore, literature containing art works and portraying the historical events, including comics, magazines, books, textbooks, infographics, and such can function as an archival resource and influence future conflict resolution of the state.

Art in the Aftermath of Conflicts

Art also plays a major role during post-conflict situations. For instance, ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ is a 2019 Indian Hindi-language military action film. The plot is a dramatized account of the retaliation to the 2016 Uri attack, and follows Major Vihaan Singh Shergill. Such movies are given thumbs up by the government to try to justify the events that led to such an action and thus support the argument that art during post-conflict eras does play a major role in influencing the citizens. But art acting as propaganda both during and after a conflict has simmered. Apart from its propagandist function, art has been used to restore peace.

Such movies discussed above become suggested documentaries or videos in the educational curriculum of students to give them a glimpse of particular peace and conflict scenarios and contribute to building a perspective for the future audience.

Art during Pandemic, Peace, and Other Current Conflicts

Another form of millennia’s digital art is memes. Citizens get influenced by memes, especially before an upcoming election. Such newer versions of art allow people to influence the different scenarios that may lead to peace and conflict in the future.

Art in Contemporary Times

Interesting evidence of art during conflict can be witnessed today. The movie ‘Contagion’ (2011) saw a surge in popularity during the pandemic and the World Health Organization used digital graphics to inform people about the virus. This is the era of digitalization with which not only the nature of conflicts has changed but also the format of art is compounded with the impact of the digital age.

Advanced camera and video technologies have let photojournalism become a prominent profession for capturing conflicts and painting peace. Many photographs released by news agencies bring to attention the severity of our reality. The photograph of a three-year-old boy Alan Kurdi, whose body was found washed ashore, captured the inhumane consequences of the Syrian crisis on the Syrian refugees. Photography is the new art of the technologically advanced world, conveying reality even to the illiterate.

Sketched throughout the canvas of time, art has time and again illustrated several angles of peace and conflict. Art, as discussed in all its forms, has influenced human’s experience of peace and conflicts throughout history and continues to do so. This role of art expands across a spectrum colored by incitement of conflicts, conveyance of different perspectives on conflicts, expression of conflicts, and conflict transformation on one hand to the expression of desire for peace and efforts toward its restoration on the other hand. It must be noted that art as a medium with a mass appeal that can be understood by many and impacts all can be and has been subjected to misuse as well in its role during war propaganda strategies, framing false perceptions to cover conflicts, gospelizing false narratives by authorities and involved parties, teaching singular perspectives, ultimately resulting in creating contexts for conflicts. A tool with such power and widespread use must be understood in all its respects for careful and responsible application in political contexts.


By Bhagyashree Chatterjee & Prakriti (Guest Writers)

Bhagyashree Chatterjee is a third-year undergraduate student pursuing a bachelor's in Political Science (Honours) from the University of Delhi. She is a highly driven photojournalist in making, who loves to read and dance when she is not completing her assignments.

Prakriti is a third-year undergraduate student pursuing a Bachelors in Psychology (Honours) from the University of Delhi. She is a listening enthusiast, keenly observant, passionate researcher, and amateur artist.

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