Tiffany Jenkins: Lost art of creating effective political protest

BELARUS Free Theatre will perform their new play, Trash Cuisine, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer.

The show is described as “a capital punishment café” – with chef’s specials that include electrocution, hanging and lethal injection.

The performance questions capital punishment. Although 95 countries still carry it out, Belarus is the only country in Europe that still enforces the death penalty, under President Alexander Lukashenko. On stage the troupe serve up food, dance and recount the brutal true stories from inmates and their executioners. They re-enact interviews conducted with human rights lawyers and desperate families of the executed.

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Belarus Free Theatre is banned from performing in their home country. They continue to do so, at their own risk, underground. And they take their message abroad, to the rest of Europe – this summer to Edinburgh and London. They bravely perform in their own country, where people go missing forever. And they take an important message out and amplify it, refusing to be quiet.

But, when I saw Trash Cuisine, at the premiere in Amsterdam, I felt, not that I was at a play, but that I was at a lecture. With the exception of one well-choreographed dance scene, which propagandised little but managed to convey serious menace, the rest of the performance was obvious and predictable.

Seated around me were those who agreed with the premise: execution is horrendous, the secret way it is conducted, appalling. Trash Cuisine was preaching to the converted. We all felt better about ourselves, on the night, seated in a luxurious theatre, self-satisfied that we know what is right and wrong.

So what? It is enough to just raise awareness, you might say. But I am not convinced. It is vital to reflect on the role and the current state of political theatre and political art more generally. If it adds nothing more than a speech or a newspaper report could do, then it is not art. That we may approve of the message doesn’t make it good. It needs to expose the truth, but not one that we can see easily for ourselves.

Every age has some form of political artistic response. This age, in what people are starting to call an economic depression, has one too. Sadly, it tells us a lot about the timid, directionless state of political protest and is unlikely to create anything of artistic significance.

One of the more flamboyant manifestations of protest art is the flash mob flamenco performed by the Seville based group, Flo6x8. The dancers enter an everyday space – a public square, a bank - unexpectedly, singing and dancing, taking everyone by surprise. There is an expressive, angry passion in their interventions, a voice of protest against the current financial meltdown that is hitting the Andalucia region hard.

But there is also a question to be asked: is it anything more than a display of passivity? Don’t let’s kid ourselves. They are just stamping their feet with frustration.

The energy and the edge of the political art of old is missing. There is nothing like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Diego Rivera’s revolutionary murals, nothing like Picasso’s Guernica or David’s The Death of Marat. What tends to happen instead is that art work repeats the obvious complaint, what is said better elsewhere, without the insight that art can bring.

Political art always had to tread a fine line. Some of Picasso’s later work came to be too closely associated with Stalinism to be effective. For it cannot simply be agitprop. The Irish poet and playwright, Brendan Behan, when asked once what his play The Hostage was about, what was its message, is said to have replied: “Message? What the hell do you think I am, a bloody postman?” If you want instruction, read a manifesto, go to a meeting.

In the past, political movements provided the inspiration for artists, when artists were less isolated than they are today, which means it too now all too easy for them to fall into clichés.

As well as casting light on problems in a way that other forms of communication cannot do, political art has to express a response in relation to – and in conversation with – the people, for it to work.

Nowhere is the sorry state of political art and of protest more obvious that the state of Occupy. This movement has been reduced to a whimper.

Occupy, which claimed to represent the 99 per cent, but it turned did not, has turned to performance poetry, in the UK, which activists say will garner support for their cause. But poetry will not enliven Occupy, especially when the cause was diffuse at best and one that had little, deep, support.

That they have reduced to playing with words indicates that something is wrong. In this instance, their talk of poetry is just a way of accepting the reality of failure rather than changing anything.

During the 1970s, with industrial unrest bringing the country to a halt, political theatre had bite – but even then producers and directors knew the limits. John McGrath, founder of 7:84, argued that: “The theatre can never cause a social change.” Not directly.

Instead, it could “articulate the pressures towards one, help people to celebrate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence.” The role it can play, he said, is “it can be the way people can find voice, their solidarity and their collective determination”. That is enough to ask.

Trotsky once argued that it was art’s sincerity that made it a potentially revolutionary force: “The struggle for revolutionary ideas in art must begin once again with the struggle for artistic truth” he said, “not in terms of any single school, but in terms of the immutable faith of the artist in his own inner self.” On art, he had a point.

Art provides an imaginative sphere in which future possibilities can be explored. It could open our eyes to how things are, beyond their surface appearance, and suggest how they could be. That vision could once again whet our appetite.