Agitprop Art Activates Audiences

By Emma Hernando, Staff Writer

In today’s divided political climate, we often feel helpless to actively affect change. When politicians and elections fail us, we’re faced with a choice to do nothing or to invent our own solutions. Many have sought alternative ways to establish a voice in politics besides voting, and while we attempt to make our voices heard, artists seem tasked to both amplify those voices and reconcile the division between beliefs.

Within the NYU community, Gallatin junior Maria Polzin stands at the forefront of this artistic political revolution. In partnership with the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, she directs a magazine entitled Survivors that treads the boundary between art and activism – also known as agitprop.

While using art to empower a group of people or push a political agenda seems more prevalent today, there’s actually nothing new about it. Political art was popularized in the latter part of the 20th century in revolutionary Russia. Agitprop theater was inherently political and was formed off the words, “agitation” — meaning to stir public opinion for or against something — and “propaganda” — rumors spread to forward a political cause – with its goal to inspire the masses to support a particular political party.

While agitprop generally has  negative connotations because of its roots in Soviet Russia, it mainly aims to cause shifts in public opinion: a tactic that is predominantly being employed by artists who seek to affect political change. Notable productions that have included agitprop methods are the recent plays “1984” on Broadway and “The Low Road,” currently in repertory at The Public Theatre. These plays grapple with the current issues of our time and use Bertolt Brechtian techniques, techniques that remove all emotional connetations, to make the audience aware of the political message the play is trying to circulate. For example, in “1984” a blinding light randomly flashed between scenes to force the audience to remain on their toes and prevent them from sinking into passivity.

However, agitprop isn’t the only art form created with the purpose of igniting change. Art movements such as Futurism also seek to break societal conventions in art as well as life. Futurists professed manifestos and performed with the desire to stun their audiences and thereby push them into action. Yet, the very act of performance or art seems antithetical to change because the audience is inherently passive, but these artistic movements seem to leave their audiences with no other option than to do something about what it is they are seeing.

Series of editorial photoshoots that empower survivors of sexual assault fill the pages of Survivors. The survivors work with the creative team to put together photoshoots that allow them to feel confident and in control. The magazine also contains poetry and prose written by survivors. The magazine’s Instagram, @survivorsnyc, addresses broader issues with goals of ending violence and oppression.

“All of our projects give survivors the opportunity to reclaim autonomy of their representation,” Polzin said. “We acknowledge that we are part of a larger movement to end violence and oppression and this can only be done by using our platform to center the voices of marginalized communities and individuals.”

Polzin believes Survivors has impacted the community by allowing survivors of sexual assault to know they have a safe space and to introduce conversation about sexual violence.

“Without [these] spaces, conversation about sexual violence will continue to be taboo and swept under the rug,” Polzin said. “Our aim is not to directly affect legislation. But I firmly believe culture affects policy.”

She hopes that through the shifting of public opinion, lawmakers will feel pressured to meet the needs of the people. In Polzin’s perspective, “We have to start by believing them.”

Like the revolutionaries who have come before her, Polzin’s use of agitprop methods doesn’t let the viewer to be passive, but rather confronts them with her motivations for change.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 5 print edition. Email Emma Hernando at [email protected]