Thursday, February 23, 2017

Art Is Propaganda - Part II: Art and Democracy

Art has always been a tool for influencing people's thinking. What does such propaganda look like? Is it really bad? And can there even be art without propaganda? In Part II we discuss propaganda in democratic systems.

Every nation is built on propaganda.

Two weeks ago we discussed Soviet propaganda. The examples mentioned in that article contradict the famous ideal that art should be "free". And this is when I have to ask: What means "free"? As already mentioned, there's always an ideological context.

Growing up in Germany, I did believe that in a "free" country there is also "free" art. When I grew older and more experienced I realized that "free" art is nonexistent. As a multilingual and multicultural person I just kept noticing differences in artworks from different countries and their links to certain ideologies.

It used to be very hard for me to understand why so many US Americans seem to think that supporting "freedom fighters" is a good thing on principle. After all, depending on whose side you're on, "freedom fighters" often could as well be called terrorists. Generally, the whole "Western" world is quite obsessed with bringing "democracy" to the rest of the world without being actually asked to do so.

Looking at this strong belief that every country should embrace democracy and that "freedom fighters" are usually the "good guys", leaves a very eerie feeling in my guts. The thing is: I see a very uncomfortable resemblance with Soviet ideology here. The Soviet Union wanted to bring the blessing of communism to the whole world - and what the "Western" world does is just the same except for the blessing being called "democracy".

Democracy and Ideology

Why do many US Americans believe to be the saviours of the world? Why do they repeat that the USA are a free country like a mantra? Why do they think it's a good thing to support "freedom fighters"?

I found the answer in American history and in Hollywood. The mere existence of the USA is the result of a rebellion against the British Empire. This is what this nation was originally built upon. So it's no surprise rebellions and fighting for democracy are so idealized in its culture.

A dictatorship can't work without the people believing in its ideology at least a bit. A democracy can't exist like that either. Every society has its core values, and those values are strongly linked to the history of that society. If people don't believe in the system they are part of it simply won't work.

That Overused Good vs. Evil Formula

Every country is under pressure to legitimize its existence. People need to believe that they live in a "good" country. And this is when propaganda comes in: 
The Patriot by Roland Emmerich is a nice movie to watch. It isn't an eternal masterpiece, but it's entertaining, it has nice battles, it has an interesting story. However, I can't look past some details that strongly remind me of early Soviet propaganda movies. Just look at how the British/Loyalist characters are portrayed: They're either stupid or cruel or both. Without exception. Just like every rich person is selfish and fat according to old Soviet propaganda.
And don't get me started on how history is represented. Obviously, the Revolutionary War was far more complex than the movie shows. This fascinating chapter of history deserves much better than the old, pseudo-heroic good vs. evil formula.
 The problem with this good vs. evil formula is that it's pretty much the norm in Hollywood. I don't think there's a secret propaganda conspiration going on, but when you see your country always shown as heroic in media you subconsciously begin to believe this image. I mean, it feels good to be part of a heroic nation, doesn't it?

Yet the truth is: Every country has its skeletons in the closet. And it takes very much courage to talk about them. It's usually a taboo, even in democratic societies. Yes, there isn't anything like a propaganda ministry, but there are tropes everyone holds on to. Maybe even some kind of self-censorship. After all, conveying an ideology through art is an essential part of a country's survival.

Showing Complexity

American culture is filled with heroic rebels. Not only big franchises like The Hunger Games and Star Wars come to mind but also some smaller titles. There are also other values promoted through art. Some of them just reflect reality, but by doing so they support this reality. Sometimes it's just about ideals, and artists support them by portraying them as normal. 
One good example of "propaganda" is Napola - Elite für den Führer (Before the Fall), a German movie about two students of a National Political Institute of Education, a boarding school where Nazi Germany groomed its future elite. Obviously, the main idea of the historical portrayal in this movie is that National Socialism is bad. Portraying the past in another way wouldn't have even been possible, since glorifying Nazism is illegal in Germany. Even though I absolutely agree with this law I still have to mention it's actually censorship. 
However, what I want to talk about is that this movie accomplishes something unthinkable: In the beginning one of the protagonists gets a chance to go to that elite school and despite better knowledge the audience actually wants him to go. For a short time this movie makes one feel going there is right. Just to reverse this feeling later on, of course.
Napola (Before the Fall) adds a new layer to the old formula with evil Nazis and good victims. It has more than two dimensions. And it still gets across the message that Nazism is bad.
 Artworks like this prove that you don't have to design your piece like plump propaganda from the 1930's to get your message across. Propagandizing the ideology you want to support can happen in a very elegant way that isn't worn out.

Propaganda Is Normal

There's propaganda everywhere, and you can find it in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes propaganda is meant to be propaganda, and sometimes an artwork just serves propaganda. Often artworks serve propaganda just because they are influenced by ideals propagandized to a society. Since every society is built upon a certain ideology, this ideology needs to be sustained. One of the ways to do it is through art.

There are also many artworks that go against the ideology of their respective society. You can find them both in dictatorial and democratic societies. But this is a topic for another post. For now the important thing is that propaganda is not bad. It's natural. Bad is only the belief that you're not influenced by propaganda at all. In fact, you know you're dealing with a brainwashed person when this person refuses to accept that they are just as brainwashed as everybody else. 

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