Art, not propaganda
Q: 'The Hurt Locker,' Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war movie, won great reviews and the Oscar for best picture but has failed to draw large audiences, joining other 2009 critically acclaimed films such as 'The Messenger.' What are the challenges for artists who try to use their art to lead the public on a divisive political issue?
Artists who seek to influence political discourse fail more often than they succeed because they lack credibility. We view them as artists not as people we want to embrace for their political points of view.
An artist's job is to tell a good story. Principals in critically acclaimed movies like 'The Hurt Locker' and 'The Messenger' have been very clear to separate their personal views about war from the stories they tell about their subjects. By focusing on the human stories, the filmmakers provide insights into the physical and emotional toll that war exacts on soldier's lives. Both films succeed because they are finely executed dramas not because they espouse a political point of view.
A lesson for leaders who seek to persuade is to bring people to your side, not alienate them. That is why storytelling is so powerful. It puts a human face on what you wish to communicate. The best stories are those narratives that include your stakeholders, that is, customers, employees and others who stand to benefit from what you propose, be it a product, a service or a program. You show people consequences rather than dictate them. In a drama, the characters have a life of their own; in a polemic the characters move in step with an agenda.
For leaders this means you argue your point of view with a respect for those who listen. Effective leaders are those who trust their followers to come to the right conclusions if they are shown the benefits of the leader's point of view. Those who seek to manipulate points of view from either the right or the left demonstrate contempt for their followers; they do not trust the people to make up their own minds.
A classic film about political manipulation made in 1957 is A Face in the Crowd in which Andy Griffith plays Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, a country singer-turned-populist moralizer. Rhodes' motivation is personal greed. Filmmaker Elia Kazan does not preach; he lets his characters move the story forward to its inevitable conclusion: living a lie has consequences.
Likewise in the recently released Invictus, the movie makes clear that the apartheid system in South Africa was morally wrong. The power of the film comes through not in its polemics but in the way that Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as South African Rugby team captain Francois Pienaar connect as human beings and mutually inspire each other. Director Clint Eastwood depicts Mandela's nobility and Pienaar's steadfastness in dramatic terms that underscore humanity over politics.
When it comes to art and politics, many artists would be wise to leave the preaching to pastors and the hectoring to pundits. As Shakespeare put it, "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit." Focus on telling a good story and let the public draw its own conclusions.
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