Not the storm you want
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?
In my four years as a double major in history and theater, I learned that many artists just can't help using their art to try to influence public opinion--whether it's through painting, writing, plays, or film. The results, like a film as good as 'The Hurt Locker' can be fantastic; but so can the pitfalls.
An artist touching on a divisive subject runs the risk of being condemned or even prosecuted by authorities. For example, in 1905 the New York City police arrested the entire cast and crew of Bernard Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession, which argued that prostitutes turn to the streets in desperation, not licentiousness. His play was never widely discussed until after women had found many other respectable career alternatives.
Even when an artist succeeds in whipping up a storm of public opinion, it might not be the exact storm he had intended. When Upton Sinclair wrote his novel The Jungle, he had meant to cause backlash on industry--it just wasn't the kind of backlash he originally had in mind.
Sinclair's intent was to expose the harsh conditions that immigrant workers faced in a system of unregulated capitalism. Instead, his book ended up launching a full investigation into the meat-packing industry that resulted in a string of legislation regulating the sanitation of meat-packing factories. Later, he said that he had meant to hit the country in the heart and had instead hit them in the stomach.
Who knows what kind of impact 'The Hurt Locker' may have on public opinion. Like many small, critically acclaimed films, few people have actually seen it. It's probably safe to say that after such an astounding victory at the Oscars more people will watch it, and I will be one of them. --Liz Willis
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