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The Fine Line between Art and Propaganda

What is Propaganda?

In an age where anything and everything could be considered art and where more and more artists are socially and professionally encouraged to incorporate their political beliefs into their work, where do we draw the line between art and propaganda? 

When art is created for its own sake, the motivation is partaking in the creative process itself, and the goal becomes a new revelation into some hidden truth. When art is created for the sake of expressing or sharing a specific message, the spread of the message becomes the goal, and the piece of work itself a tool to achieve said goal, in other words as a means to an end. 

When it comes to propagandist goals, art can become a tool used to gain support or shape public opinion. Here, certain ideologies can be portrayed in an oversimplified way, using fear or emotion to serve the interest of a person or institution with political or social power.

Activist Art vs. Propaganda

Not all artists who deal with political issues in their work are necessarily or actively serving as a propagandist. And not all artists who create political work knowingly allow themselves or their works to be used for propaganda. Many artists firmly stand behind their work and openly believe in the ideologies they are representing. Whether pro-war, anti-war, anti-imperialist, or pro-nationalist, it is difficult, albeit near impossible, to separate an artist’s identity and life experience from their creative expression. 

A great example illustrating that fine line between Art and Propaganda is the art that was created around the Suffragette Women’s Movement during the early 20th Century. Here, posters and postcards were initially circulated to support equal rights and voting writes for women. As a response, an Anti-Suffragette campaign was launched illustrating the unwanted consequences of giving women more power than they could handle.  

In one instance, for the Suffragette cause, the artwork was made with a clear message in mind: the need for female empowerment. The work stems from a place of activism, this is clear. But propaganda’s ugly head reveals itself more clearly in the Anti-Suffragette posters. Here fear is used to create a knee-jerk reaction in the viewer, the case against women’s rights is overly simplified, and the group in social power is protecting their personal interest.

Where Art and Propaganda Overlap

Art serves as a powerful tool for shaping perceptions. By visualizing and externalizing experience, great works of art stimulate deep emotional responses in the viewer. When enough people are exposed to a certain piece of art, this reaction to the work and the impressions it leaves behind becomes a socially shared experience that instills certain values within the public.  

Art can also inspire. It can enrage, and be a call-to-action by playing on emotion, feelings of injustice, and basic fears. Art can illustrate and demonstrate social wrongs or shortcomings. However, by calling it art, and setting it apart against white walls in a galleria or museum rather than on the news or town square, the public is forced to contemplate these realities with their guards down.

A notable case of a government applying their influence in the arts can be seen at the beginning of Soviet-Russia, where not only was pro-communist art sponsored, but all pieces of art that were against the ruling ideology were censored by those in power. The United States later took a page out of that book and answered with their own Anti Communist Propaganda in the 1940s during the ‘Second Red Scare’ that fueled McCarthyism and the ‘crackdown’ of Leftist symphatizers in film and the arts.

Making Ends Meet

In many cases, artists who have created propaganda in the past weren’t always given a fair choice in participating or not. It will not be far from the truth to say, that many of them chose the path simply because it was well-funded or overtly pushed by their government.

Art galleries, museums, and art institutions today are largely dependent on the government or corporate funding to survive, this can serve as a conflict of interest when it comes to art production and promotion. For instance, a government that has ties to the Green Party will be more likely to fund art dealing with the subject of clean energy, as opposed to a government or insititution that is not invested in the climate change problem.

Justin Connelly, Tempestries, an example of climate change art, representing change in temperature in a given location over time. CC BY-SA 4.0

Not to say that funding of art that deals with the topic for the ‘greater good’ like with climate change is bad – but considering how important funding is in the art sphere, such agenda backed sponsorships can influence artists to focus their creative energy on a topic that is more likely to be financially supported. In this sense, the artist is indirectly manipulated to forward a particular ideology.

The pool of artists creating engaging and even activist art is as vast as the ocean, so one must ask oneself which themes and styles seem to get more exposure than others? In this regard, although some works of propaganda could be and often are commissioned, it could be argued that a lot of what is considered propagandized art, becomes propaganda not at the point of creation but at the point of promotion.

Probably the best way to differentiate between art and propaganda is to ask ourselves – was it made to manipulate public opinion and who stands to gain from this message?

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