Can propaganda be ART?
The question of propaganda has become urgent in this day of “fake news”. When I think of propaganda in art, I immediately think of art from countries with very repressive regimes. Below [right side] we have the Russian worker proudly producing bombs for the defence of the country. The art is so often in praise of the values which the government wants to promote such as the unquestioning loyalty of the worker to the Communist state. But what about the poster above [left side] produced in the USA which aims to strike fear of the Red Menace, that is Communism, in the hearts of its citizens? I think we’ll find propaganda in just about any society. To determine if some communication or expression is propaganda means we should ask a lot of questions. Let’s try a few out.
If the main purpose of the work is to influence the thoughts and feelings of a group in a society then that certainly seems like propaganda. For me, these kinds of messages in artwork just about destroy any possibility of aesthetic appeal.
But then, propaganda and art are likely determined by the eye of the beholder. The intent, of course, is to influence large numbers of people to take on a particular attitude [scapegoating?] or perform a stated action such as shown by Rosie the Riveter.
Are these propaganda posters art?
Rosie heralded women entering the work force during the Second World War. But once the men returned home, by and large it was back to the kitchen for her. Propaganda, often used in wartime, is certainly not confined to any particular country. All governments hope to convey important messages effectively to their people.
But the next one [below] is a portrait of Chairman Mao by Andy Warhol, the famous American artist of Campbell’s soup can fame. Among many others, I consider it to be art. But perhaps it’s not so easy to distinguish between ART and propaganda.
If you compare the paintings of Rosie and Chairman Mao, can you spot any differences that would make one art and the other not? My guess is that the words above Rosie give it away so that I can only conclude work is simply propaganda.
Commercial art and ART
Would we consider this magazine cover to be ART? If this image did not have the words “Hotel Management” on the cover, would you consider the painting to be ART? Personally, I wouldn’t think so probably even though I find it aesthetically pleasing. Other people may not. Something seems to be missing.
The painting of the woman playing the piano [below by Edward Hopper] seems to be in another category in which the sense of a story predominates. What is happening between this man and woman? This art work was created by one of my favourite artists, Edward Hopper, who was also a commercial artist. So, where is the line between ART and commercial art?
And what is ART and what is GREAT ART?
Below is another of Hopper’s paintings entitled New York Movie. Does it have any characteristics which would differentiate it from his magazine cover above of the sailboat? To describe the cover, the first words which leap to mind are –stylized or perhaps superficial. While it is pleasing, the magazine cover seems to fall into a certain style or mode of painting seen on many such covers and it does not engage me the way his painting of the woman at the piano does. Why? Because I am drawn into the scene and left with a lot of questions.
What is the usherette thinking about? She seems to be concentrating intently on some inward matter. There is a sharp divide between the space the audience occupies and that which the usherette is in. Those in the audience are concentrating on another world on the screen and the young woman is lost in her own undefined world. And so, you see, question upon question is posed by New York Movie. I am engaged. But looking at the magazine cover, I see an aesthetically pleasing composition but then my eye moves on.
So let’s ask Edward Hopper himself about ART—GREAT ART.
In a written statement about his art, Hopper said
—great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.
Sounds like there is a secret ingredient which is personal to the artist! I think his statement neatly points out the difference between commercial art, ART and GREAT ART which comes from within the artist.
Art as Social Commentary
The Chinese artist, Ai Wei Wei, comes from a Communist country and his art is all about political and social protest. When he was on the island of Lesbos, he was making a documentary film about the Syrian refugee crisis.
When this photograph appeared on the front page of most newspapers around the globe, our collective heart was wrenched open and tears flowed—for at least a week.
This photograph was “staged” by Ai Wei Wei. It is his body lying on the shore. Since the artist chose to recreate the original photograph in this fashion, many questions come to mind.
- Is this ART?
- Is it propaganda?
- Is it exploitation of an unbearably sad event?
- More broadly—what was the point of the photograph?
It seems strange to question the motives of an artist. We don’t ask why Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and we don’t ask why Michelangelo created David. They were inspired and just did the work and that’s the only possible answer. If we ask–could anyone else besides Da Vinci or Michelangelo their respective works–perhaps we are closer to an answer.
To ask Wei Wei’s motives makes me feel as if I have hit a pretty low point. If I’m prompted to ask why a work of art was created, surely something is wrong. Or something is missing.
Sandy Angus, co-owner of India Art Fair, which is displaying this photograph, said, “It is an iconic image because it is very political, human and involves an incredibly important artist like Ai Wei Wei.” Angus went on to say, “The image is haunting and represents the whole immigration crisis and the hopelessness of the people who have tried to escape their pasts for a better future,”
Is Wei Wei’s image more powerful than the original photograph? Does it say anything new—make a greater impact—add an interpretation or commentary?
But we can argue that Wei Wei’s photograph highlights this sad aspect of human suffering and the imitation or modification of it reinforces the point so that we do not risk forgetting.
Does the photograph tell us to take any particular action? It definitely asks us to think more deeply about difficult questions. When we look at either photograph we think—this should not have happened. How can we stop the war? Then we should want to work harder to find a solution to the crisis. Does Wei Wei feel that by substituting his body for the little boy’s that he is representing all humankind?
This makes me think of documentary films made to prove a point or call upon us to take some action. But are such films and Wei Wei’s photograph ART? And again—what is added by the artist recreating or modifying the scene in which it is his body on the beach not the little boy’s. Perhaps that suggests that thousands of others are washed up as well. I can make an argument that it puts a human face on human suffering or at least it re-iterates it.
Some will accuse the artist of exploiting the child’s sad plight and that the photograph is a stab at sensationalism. Many find it crass and tasteless—perhaps even cruel. Wei Wei’s photograph may simply be propaganda to promote a particular cause [to stop the war] in which case it may not be ART at all. Perhaps it is purely manipulative and emotionally charged.
Now that I’ve driven everyone nuts with questions about what is and what is not ART, tell me what you think?
- Can propaganda be ART?
- What about commercial ART?
- What do you think of Wei Wei’s photograph? Is it ART or even just art? Or is it pure sensationalism?
- If we try to promote a message through art, do we inevitably lose something important and thus degrade it?
My conclusion? I think that Edward Hopper’s words are truest. ART [great or trying to be great] comes from within the artist, not from outside. The artist puts something of himself into the work—something from within. Perhaps the addition of a social purpose actually “muddies” the work. Then again, maybe it’s not really ART at all.
But we began by asking about “Fake News.” I think that concern is good reason for asking all these questions about art and propaganda. We need to get good at discriminating among different forms of communication of our ideas,
Have I intrigued you with all these questions? Please leave your thoughts below.
If you check out my blog, you’ll see that I write a lot about ART. Why? In writing The Trilogy of Remembrance, I discovered my protagonist a fascinating artist, Alexander Wainwright. I hope you’ll find his search for his muse captivates you. You can purchase any of the books in the two trilogies at the carousel below.
Mary E. Martin is the author of two trilogies: The Osgoode Trilogy, inspired by her many years of law practice; and The Trilogy of Remembrance, set in the glitter and shadows of the art world. Both Trilogies will elevate the reader from the rush and hectic world of today and spin them into realms of yet unimagined intrigue. Be inspired by the newly released and final installment of The Trilogy of Remembrance, Night Crossing.