A Discussion on the Relation Between Art and Propaganda

Categories: ArtPropaganda

Art is a culmination of endless possibilities that can be achieved through various levels of skills and resources available at the artist’s disposal. It only calls for an imaginative mind to formulate unique content that can be considered art, but the experience to execute and create the piece. It is evident that there will exist certain individuals whose skills transcend the norm, either achieved through manifested practice or latent talent. At the same time, artists also have the liberty to take creative freedom with the pieces they choose to create.

It is not a definitive wrong to embed evocative information within a form of art. However, the conscious decision to create an art piece with the influence of propagandic intention can raise inquisitory doubts.

Within the realm of art, self expression is exceedingly important to an artist and their craft. Yet the opposite can also be said of the element of restriction evident within factors that exist to influence the artist’s vision.

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The issue then lies between the balance that artistic intention and bias seek to maintain. Many artists take the liberty of exploiting the concept of “artistic freedom” in order to convey a message (or lack thereof) through their art. As a result of this conscious decision, the line between artistic creativity and indoctrination becomes blurred. Gone with the Wind is one such film in which creative liberties were taken, resulting in the pre-determination that “historical picture” meant omitting the majority of the Civil War historical events while substituting an altered, if not sugar-coated, version of the narrative.

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Melvin B. Tolson emphasizes that many of the historical aspects of the film were modified to fit the painting that the Old South was righteous in the decision of committing not only hate crimes upon African Americans, but also for their enslavery. “According to the picture, slavery was a blessed institution. The Negroes were well fed and happy.

Last summer, I stood in the slave market of Charleston. In the picture there were no slave markets tearing husbands and wives, mothers and children apart” (Tolson 142). Among other things, including justifying the existence and actions of the KKK, the film creates the illusion that “The North was wrong in fighting to free black men” (Tolson 143). Despite claiming historical accuracy, many art forms such as these, lack the motivational accuracy towards historical truth. Consequent to such pieces, the content creator can easily rationalize the autonomy of changing or disregarding accurate facts with the claim that they maintain the artistic freedom to do so. There is little to no responsibility admitted when an artist is cited for subtly exhibiting propaganda in conjunction to art. To the naive and the fanatic, simple assertions that claim accuracy to historical events are enough to stoke the embers of belief.

There are numerous negative ramifications that come with propaganda disguised as art. Art based on biased directive seek to glorify the consequences that result from subjects such as war or racism. Social issues that plague the social world are sought to be justified through mediums of film, photography, etc. It is an act of dismissal in comparison to the necessary discussion that demands consideration. Without the desire to get rid of negative issues that are still prominent even today, individuals that refuse solutions to these problems tend to create material that work to strengthen and condone problems like racism. Where is the line between art and opinion drawn? “The Devil Finds Work,” authored by James Baldwin, discusses the pretenses that the film Lady Sings the Blues tries to depict. It pretends to convey Billie Holiday’s autobiography when in fact, “it has absolutely nothing to do with Billie, or with jazz, or with any other kind of music, or the risks of an artist, or American life, or black life.”

To succinctly put it, “the script is as empty as a banana peel, and as treacherous” (Baldwin 491) to the perception that the film tries to create of the black woman. What the film underscores stems from the degradation of black women by depicting them as self-indulgent and weak to the point that they cause the apparent demise of everyone they love, including themselves. This originates from the film industry’s manipulation of screenplay and situational context. In many other cases, white heroines in eurocentric pictures are illustrated as innocent and that the crimes she commits (even for the sake of saving herself from a dangerous husband) are always forgiven by the same society that condemns the black heroine for it. The beauty and aesthetic of an art piece contributes to the allure that man feels by engaging the art in question.

The incitement of the deep, subconscious, emotion within an individual is the cause of the attachment to the ideals present under the guise of the art’s aesthetic. Considering the “ideals are vivid and moving to many people,” (Sontag) it is an effective way of swaying the individual to sympathize with the concepts presented. In Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag highlights the effect that German artist Riefenstahl generates due to the artistic sense of beauty that she utilizes to appeal to her audience, “Riefenstahl’s films are still effective because, among other reasons, their longings are still felt, because their content is a romantic ideal to which many continue propaganda for new forms of community as the youth/rock culture, primal therapy,

Laing’s antipsychiatry, Third World camp-following, and belief in gurus and the occult. The exaltation of community does not preclude the search for absolute leadership; on the contrary, it may inevitably lead to it” (Sontag). Style and aestheticism can serve as a tactic diversion to lull the audience with a false sense of security, allowing themselves the susceptibility to the art’s material. Riefenstahl’s impact developed into the collective resolution of young individuals who were compelled to submit their full autonomy under the control of an authority when prior to the films, these individuals were ranked as former anti-authoritarians and anti-elitists. The sudden development that Riefenstahl’s artistry had on these individuals proved that art’s appeal can make an impact on multiple people to the extent in which pre-conceived beliefs can be reformed.

There exists a vast amount of films that have the ability to provoke strong emotions within a person. Given the right circumstantial tools, it can provoke progressive (or regressive) thought or action. The stigmatization of propaganda in conjunction to art has always been perpetuated among the audience. Propaganda by itself has always been associated with a negative connotation. Forms of art that adopt propagandic meanings, however, can receive a wide range of opinion depending on the content it carries. In some cases, the audience might accept the propagandic art easily but there might also be those who may react negatively. It all depends on the feelings that the individual possesses pertaining to the subject of propaganda. However, there is an underlying problem that propaganda within art has caused within society. It can inspire years of conditioning, implanting beliefs that the individual will not recognize otherwise due to its systematic habituation within society. The question still remains, is propagandic art a positive or negative influence on society? It can be argued that it might be both, as it establishes a common belief system within the social world, resulting in the unity of the people.

However, it can also instill values that are regressive and instead, do more damage than necessary. Propaganda has influenced art for millennia simply because art has been around for as long as humankind can remember. In fact, “much of the ancient art that we value today is a form of propaganda” (Sooke). Creating anything involves the motivation to create; along with that desire comes “the agendas and demands of others, such as patrons who are also political rulers” (Sooke). Art seldom stands on its own as the representation of the individual’s expression. It is driven by the artist’s desire to create and share with others. Yet that same desire requires resources in order to fully realize the artist’s dream. That is when outside factors (such as sponsors) can influence the artist’s motivations, including their actions. These certain patrons can also dictate the direction in which the artist goes towards.

Susan Sontag heavily remarks about the influence that the Nazi regime had on Riefenstahl’s films, especially because they were the main financial providers for her artistic visions. This same situation happens to various artists due to the fact that they are subject under contracts that restricts some of their free will. Art is the apex of the human consciousness and desire. While the same restrictions applies to the normal human on a day to day basis, it is certainly implemented in human constructs such as art. Propaganda is not necessarily built upon the influence of lies or deception. But it does affect the individual’s perception, inhibiting their sense of reality. It causes the person to act contrary to their interests which is triggered by the sensory response to images and symbols. The repeated history that utilizes fear tactics is a prime example of the interchange between fear and persuasion that propaganda is so adept at inciting. Propaganda can make use of brutal honesty and the same effect would occur. Just like blind anger can influence the individual’s perceptions and decisions, propaganda can do the same. It instigates emotional arousal to the point in which the individual can act irrationally.

This tactic is evident within many forms of writing and filmography. It is meant to spur a fervent discussion, including the capacity to influence beliefs in a certain direction. Is there something else that is less damaging that can “substitute for propaganda?” (Locke 2). Alain Locke introduces the idea that propaganda has both positive and negative contributions to the social world, “Propaganda at least nurtured some form of serious social discussion, and social discussion was necessary, is still necessary. On this side; the difficulty and shortcoming of propaganda is its partisanship. It is one-sided and often pre-judging” (Locke 2). Can propaganda within the realm of art ever be substituted for something else entirely? For as long as human civilization has thrived, propagandistic art has existed even before the twentieth century. If it is so intrinsically ingrained within society, it will be difficult (maybe even impossible) to completely cast it aside.

While acknowledging the benefits art with propaganda has provided, Locke pushes for the separation of the two aspects due to their contrasting difference in nature, “My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it. For it leaves and speaks under the shadow of a dominant majority whom it harangues, cajoles, threatens or supplicates. It is too extroverted for balance or poise or inner dignity and self-respect. Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naive or sophisticated is self-contained. In our spiritual growth genius and talent must more and more choose the role of group expression, or even at times the role of free individualistic expression, – in a word must choose art and put aside propaganda” (Locke 1). The issue with such a separation is the method.

One cannot exist without the other simply because of the coexisting nature that the two concepts have had throughout history. As long as mankind exists, fear mongering and the like will always remain as it stems from the various emotions that humans possess. Without such self-awareness, maybe it would be possible for propaganda to cease to exist. The constant desire to create material that would induce shock value is irresistible to the individual. Propagandistic art will continue to endure through the times just because of the intrinsic nature to control others, to shock others, including all of the other factors that contribute to propaganda’s continuous survival that was cultivated by man. Art and propaganda will invariably continue to self-sustain itself. The issue then translates into finding the balance between the two without saturating in either positive or negative ramifications.

The option to choose whether or not to exploit propagandistic art remains up to the goodwill of the artist. As indicated in the beginning of the essay, there are ways in which propaganda can be used to harm the societal ideal, especially through the influence that propaganda can dictate upon the individuals who are exposed to the artistic material. But that too, is dependent on the artist’s decision. Art will constantly inspire, through the arousal of human emotions. On the same discourse, propaganda can do the same and much more. Propaganda can motivate the individual to act as compared to art that only inspires. Balance must be kept in order for propaganda and art to remain within the same realm. It is that same coexistence and manipulation that allows art to exploit propaganda and vice versa. Yet all of that will only be possible with the full participation of the artist.

Works Cited

  1. Baldwin, James. “The Devil Finds Work.” : 491-500. Print.
  2. Sontag, Susan. “Fascinating Fascism.” (1975). Print. Sooke, Alastair. “Can propaganda be great art?” (2014). Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130703-can-propaganda-be-great-art>.
  3. Locke, Alain. “Harlem.” 1 (1928): 1-2. Web. 17 Dec. 2015. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai3/protest/text10/lockeartorpropaganda.pdf>
  4. Tolson, Melvin B. “Gone with the Wind Is More Dangerous Than Birth of a Nation.” : 140-44. Print.

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A Discussion on the Relation Between Art and Propaganda. (2021, Sep 15). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-the-relation-between-art-and-propaganda-essay

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