Thursday, December 15, 2011

Use and Enjoyment in Art and Propaganda

A critical distinction has become clear to me in the past few posts that I've written, dealing with the relationship of art and propaganda, that propaganda is an aspect of art which is accidental to the work of art.   I am using the term accidental in the philosophical sense, that is the propaganda is not a part of the essential nature of the art, but is something added on, rather than using the modern sense of something that happens unintentionally.

Over the past few posts (and few months) I've been trying to think about what exactly makes a work of art propaganda, and at first I was interested to inquire of whether art and propaganda are something of opposites: that a true work of art could not be propaganda, nor could a work of propaganda be a true work of art.  But on reflecting on my original example and exploring others, I found real works of art which either had been meant from their inception to be propaganda, or more critically, later on been used as propaganda.   When it became clear that the truth of the art was one thing in itself, and the use of the art for propaganda was another, it seems then that propaganda is accidental to art.

St. Augustine, being a Platonic philosopher, explained a distinction in how human beings view outside things, that we either enjoy something, or we derive some use from a thing.   Here that distinction finds a correlation, art is to enjoyment as propaganda is to use.  Art is then to be enjoyed purely for its own sake, we contemplate its beauty and simply marvel.   We value the Mona Lisa but it doesn't in any sense do anything, we simply enjoy it.

Propaganda however is properly related to use, and we evaluate its merits as propaganda not in how we enjoy it but in how effective it is in moving people to action.    Propaganda as an accident of art then seems to be a completely separate thing from the art in which it resides.   Now this is not to say however that the effectiveness of the propaganda is not affected by the beauty of the art in which it resides, on the contrary, the more beautiful and stirring the art is, the more effective the propaganda will be in stirring people to action.  The converse however is not true, that the strength of the propaganda increases the enjoyment or value of a work of art.  In fact depending on the message of the propaganda, the art is diminished and criticized not because of anything intrinsic to the work, but because of what has become attached to it.

The work of Leni Riefenstahl is probably the clearest example of this.   Triumph des Willens is clearly a work of propaganda of the highest sort, and clearly the effectiveness of it as a work of propaganda is directly related to its beauty and its technical brilliance.   But while filmmakers widely acknowledge its place among the great works of their craft, it is still the subject of strident criticism because of the absolute depravity of the regime which it promoted. This criticism,  however correct and justified for the film qua propaganda(the film insofar as it is propaganda), is incorrectly attributed to the film qua art (the film insofar as it is art).

The separation of the enjoyment of the form of art from the use of art as propaganda will be critical in my next few posts, as I intend to continue exploring how propaganda relates to and is married to art, and how the forms of art can effect the propaganda and philosophy.

(EDITS: deleted text struck out, added text in blue)



  1. Brilliant! Correct use of the word 'accidental'. The term refering to art as one thing 'in itself'is interesting. The Existential Philosopher Sarte uses the term 'in and of itself' to make the same distinction. If you will pardon me, I would suggest that the last sentance of the next to the last paragraph needs clarification-- I'm not sure just what you mean to say. Don't get me wrong, the distinction you are making is most insightful and quite acurate. I continue to enjoy what you write. I hope you don't mind my reading. Regards, Bob

  2. Hoo-rah! I figured out how to get in! (And only one typo).

  3. Thanks for pointing out the last sentence, I think it makes sense now.