The Ultimate Paradox: Can Revolutionary Films Hinder Social Action?

As a culture, we suck at appreciating the true significance of art. Conditioned to either create art for material success or to consume it solely for entertainment purposes, we often lack the historical framework or internal consciousness to value art the way many indigenous cultures did. Essentially, we don’t understand the spiritual significance of art. On a deeper and more abstract level, art is much more than a tool for self-aggrandizement or a foray into escapism.  Art transforms us in powerful ways. And no one knew this more than the tribal Shaman.

Traditionally, Shamans were responsible for maintaining the spirit-life of a tribe. Shamans could be either male or female but they always had to be dynamic individuals who possessed both the learned skill and the internal tools to be able to provoke, nurture, and supervise the personal and collective healing of the people within the tribe.  Through heavy use of ritual, mind-altering substances and ceremony, Shamans led tribe members through processes that provided insight, expanded awareness and catharsis, thus promoting transformation and empowerment. One of the most powerful tools in the Shaman’s toolbox was art.

As human beings, it’s pretty apparent to me that we have inherited an internal schism. Devotees of psychological study refer to it as a battle between the Conscious and Subconscious Mind. Eastern Spiritualists might view it as the Ego versus the True Self. Christians recognize it as the on-going clash between Good and Evil or God and the Devil.  In fact, the origin or name of this schism is responsible for many of the divides that occur between religions and spiritual philosophies. However, most everyone agrees that it exists. It’s general knowledge that to be human is to be conflicted. A huge part of  our  life is spent trying to reconcile this internal play of light and shadows. And for me, so much of my spiritual success in life is dependent on how well I can reconcile this schism. Or how well I can integrate this fragmented dualism into a complete and whole life….a coherent and happy self.
Shamans understood that art has the power to heal this psychological rift that lurks in every human soul, even before the advent of modern psychology. Art provokes the very internal conversations and shifts that are necessary to facilitate us becoming whole. Art provides that space where we can dump out all our self-destructive tendencies, pain, anger, frustrations and shape them into something beautiful and redemptive. On the flip side, it also takes all of those beneficial elements inside of us…love, intelligence, resilience, compassion… and allows us to amplify and share them with others. So Shamans understood that art is necessary for mental health and well-being.  Art is that sacred repository where we can both create our angels and cast out our demons. In this way, art is a true tool of personal and collective empowerment. The Shaman understood this and guided the tribe through creative processes to keep them sane.
But like all tools, art is double-edged. How consciously we create/consume our art and who controls the art are all serious determinants in whether art enlightens or deceive us.

This never became more apparent to me than when I was having a conversation with my husband about film and psychology. Research shows that humans unwittingly deceive ourselves in numerous ways. One of these deceptions is highlighted by findings that suggest that when we tell people we’re going to do something, we’re less likely to do it. Just uttering the words “I’m going to lose 10lbs by summer” to our friend tricks our mind into thinking that we’ve already started to do this. Essentially, it gives us a premature sense of completion. Both talk and action create symbols in our brain and even when we haven’t actually changed any of our behaviors, talking about it can trick our psyche into thinking that we have. See Derek Sivers talk about this very thing here:

So when I consider all this, it raises some interesting questions about whether art, and particularly art that calls for social change, is helpful or harmful. Could art, which empowers the artist, also dis-empower the consumer/ audience of that same work of art? Take the Blaxploitation films that rose to popularity during the Black Panther Era and carried on long after the Black Panthers had dissolved (Soul Plane, anyone?). While many of these films depicted black people through the very narrow lens of prescribed racial stereotypes, quite a few of these films also challenged the white supremacist power structure by showing black characters trumping racism and imperialism. The Spook Who Sat by the Door was such a film and it appealed to proponents of black liberation for this reason.
The creators of this film envisioned a world different than the one they inhabited and used the film to breath life into that world. In this way they were empowered.  Perhaps, when they created the film, the envisioned black folks leaving the theater, spilling into the streets, demanding to be finally recognized as full citizens of this country. But given what we now know about how the human brain relates to symbols could these films actually do the opposite? Could the consumption of these films negate actual action on the part of the viewer? Is it possible that movie goers, having vicariously exorcised their demons through the film’s protagonist and from the comfort of their theater chair, no longer felt the need to purge those said demons on the streets….in the political arena? Does the artistic symbol have the power to both inspire and undermine social action?
And this doesn’t just have to apply to racism and Blaxploitation.  This line of questioning can  apply to any film that carries a seemingly revolutionary message….V for Vendetta and The Matrix Trilogy are recent examples. Does the corporate elite secure their position and power by offering us a make-believe, diluted, Hollywood version of revolution so that we’re pacified just enough not to demand the real thing? Do the media conglomerates who produce mainstream films use this psychological understanding to their benefit?
How do we suspend belief enough to enjoy and be inspired by art…while not getting lost in a maze of escapism and manipulation that it can induce?
Like everything else, I think it all depends on consciousness. When we consume the mere symbol of something, our ability to recognize it as such is heavily dependent on how aware we are. Can we distinguish between what is playing out on the movie screen versus what is actually happening in our reality? Knowing how our brain is unconsciously deceived by symbols is the first and most powerful step. Once we have that knowledge, we can make the conscious choice of not letting it happen. When we leave the movie theater, inspired by some relevant social message, we must remind ourselves that now the work must begin and that we cannot allow ourselves to experience an imaginary satiation from a make-believe meal.
In this way, we become like the shamans…consciously transforming our lives and our world with every nugget of art that we ingest.