Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Notes on Art and Propaganda

Toby Clark's Art and Propaganda argues that studying images can provide important information about how narratives of national identity are constructed through the cultural production.  Images are intimately tied to politics and studying visual culture can contribute to a history of politics and society.  Clark shows that art has a long political history since ancient times when rulers in Rome raised monuments as a show of power (9).  He leads up to modern day examples such as the CIA funding art exhibits in New York's MOMA in the 1940's and 50's in which US painting was viewed in contrast with the kitsch style of Soviet communist artists.  Clark dedicates a lot of the book to showing how the Nazi's used art and techniques of performance for political purposes.  The Nazi's also stigmatized modern art not in line with the politics of their regime as "degenerate" art.

Otto Freundlich's The New Man, 1917.
Clark's overall argument seems to be that art has long been a political tool.  This point is argued quite convincingly and he provides examples of art in modernity, fascist and communist states, art as war propaganda and art as a tool of protest.  Clark also gives examples of art being used to build narratives of national identity and memory such as in public murals and with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (35, 118).  Some deeper points that Clark reflects upon, but does not spend much time on, are also very useful.  For example he asks if propaganda can ever be "morally good," given the fact that it turns art into a tool of persuasion and manipulation of the masses.  He is obviously troubled my the problem of political art, censorship and misinformation in cases where there is an ethical or moral reason behind this use of art.  Clark cites an article by Lucy Lippard "Propaganda for propaganda" written in the 1930s where she evaluates if art can be morally good.  According to Lippard, art is intended to provoke a new way of seeing the world around us and so Lippard encouraged artists to make "good propaganda."   In my opinion, the question of good or bad propaganda is not essential for critics, but rather critics should focus on highlighting and revealing how art is political and how it is used as propaganda.  Still, it is an interesting and provocative reflection.  Another interesting point that Clark makes is that the political function of art may not necessarily be inherent in the work, but depends on the context of its display.  Clark gives the example of Henry Wallis' The Stonebreaker, 1857 and explains that stone-breaking was a common forced labor for inmates in the UK.  If policymakers were faced with a painting like Wallis' in the boardroom, it would impact the political message of the work.
Henry Wallis' The Stonebreaker, 1857.






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