Though state media insists that Harrison has plans to overthrow the government, his act of rebellion is not a traditional coup: he dances beautifully on national TV with a ballerina whom he has liberated from her handicaps, to music from an orchestra he has also un-handicapped. In other words, Harrison’s dissent is an artistic performance unencumbered by forced equality, which suggests that artists can disrupt state authority through the power of performance.
Before Harrison takes over the televised dance performance, George and Hazel are watching the handicapped dancers from their living room. Both agree the dance is “nice,” and George notes that the ballerinas are “no better than anybody else would have been” due to their intense physical and mental handicaps: they are burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in.” Here, the totalitarian state regulates the minds and bodies of artists in order to curb their potential for extraordinary artistic expression—after all, a citizen witnessing moving artistry might begin to question the value of forced equality, thereby undermining the state’s power. The intense regulation of artists, then, is a reflection of the state’s recognition of the power of the arts.
Harrison’s transcendent performance with the ballerina, televised on state TV for all citizens to see, is a political act meant to disrupt the totalitarian regime. When Harrison enters the ballet, he declares himself Emperor. In response, all witnesses “cowered on their knees before him,” which signifies Harrison’s effective displacement of governmental authority. This initial power-takeover grounds Harrison’s artistic performance as political. Harrison destroys several state-issued handicaps on himself, the ballerina, and the musicians in order to perform to his personal standards. The ease with which “Harrison tore the straps of his handicap harness like wet tissue paper” suggests that his rebellion has potential, as this act symbolizes that the government control that seems all-consuming is actually somewhat flimsy. In addition, Harrison tells the musicians to “play your best…and I’ll make you barons and dukes and earls,” which shows that Harrison imagines the new social order will enshrine individual talent rather than forced equality.
Ultimately, Harrison’s performance is cut short by his death at the hands of the state. The very fact that Harrison is killed on the spot by Diana Moon Glampers (the Handicapper General) herself—someone who would presumably only handle the most grave events—speaks to the political significance of Harrison’s artistic expression. Harrison’s choice to express his politics and enact his rebellion through artistic performance demonstrates that art is a powerful political tool that encourages critical thought.
The Power of the Arts ThemeTracker
The Power of the Arts Quotes in Harrison Bergeron
George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn't be handicapped. But he didn't get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts.
The music began again and was much improved. Harrison and his Empress merely listened to the music for a while-listened gravely, as though synchronizing their heartbeats with it. They shifted their weights to their toes. Harrison placed his big hands on the girl’s tiny waist, letting her sense the weightlessness that would soon be hers. And then, in an explosion of joy and grace, into the air they sprang! Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the law of gravity and the laws of motion as well.