It’s something I’ve been mulling over for a time and I’m not sure I’ve reached any satisfying conclusions. In fact, I’ve been puzzling over what even is propaganda– some definitions seem too narrow and some too broad. I’ve heard some weird things (some that would imply the only way to not be a propagandist is a to be a pantser), yet rather than talk on anecdotal evidence, let’s look at a definition, because I like definitions, as un-definitive as they often are:
“information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.”
Okay now we’re getting somewhere- if we focus on the misleading/biased element of this definition, most artists can be let off the hook. Yet, still there’s room for some, like Steinbeck with his pro-socialism bias. And not just a casual bias (for someone’s certainly going to argue “aren’t we all biased?”) but a conscious bias. There is no doubt, for instance, of the messaging in Grapes of Wrath. Now I’ve often joked that “when you can write like Steinbeck you can write what you like”- but the inescapable truth is he was trying to convey a political message in an emotive and ergo manipulative manner. Maybe the term is apt.
Here we get to the crux of the issue- because stating all of this will make many recoil in disgust. Either from my arguments, with a design to spare poor Steinbeck this label, or from his beautiful work, which is not my intention. It would, however, be a shame that reasoned individuals would fail to see the wood for the trees simply because the term is distasteful. It would be even more of a shame if art was dismissed entirely on these grounds.
Granted, not all propaganda is beautiful or interesting or worth examining- but then nor is a lot of art. I will not make the argument that all propaganda has merit- indeed I have a particular dislike for the Soviet or Nazi brands for instance- yet some, as I’ve mentioned, is very aesthetically pleasing. Take, for instance, the Roman propaganda machine. From the Republic to the last of the Emperors, they constructed divine monuments to display their power and beliefs. One of my favourite ancient monuments, the Ara Pacis, is designed purely to show the peace and prosperity of a new saeculum aureum under Augustus. Its friezes depict scenes of tranquillity and fertility- but make no mistake, this enters into the thorny snare of politicised art. Its very position on the Campus Martius dictated as much.
With that, all that remains is to discuss how effective it is. And the truth is I do not profess to know how susceptible people are to propaganda- especially the written kind. I have long held to the view “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink”. Frankly, unless you have an unformed opinion, books do not subvert entire mind sets, only nudge you in a direction you were probably already headed. My own perspective is that if I’m being clobbered over the head with an idea or thought I don’t hold, I instantly pull back from it…. so maybe potential propagandists should watch out- they don’t realise how many people they’re alienating with their heavy handedness.
And that rambling point leads me to my conclusion– for if it is not effective and potentially beautiful, I cannot discount all propaganda as unartistic. Personally, as curious as I am about where the intersection of propaganda and art lies, I do not think acknowledging that it is propagandistic is the be all and end all. So, yes, I guess you can enjoy propaganda.
What do you think? Do you agree with me? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!