Saturday, 16 January 2010

totalitarian art

North Korean propoganda poster, presumably the bad guys are US soldiers

Monument to the Third International, communist

More North Korean propoganda


so here's the question. i have been asked to, at great length it seems to me, define Art. and the question occured to me, can totalitarian art be considered truly Art, or is it merely propoganda? in the same vein you could ask if adverts have artistic value.

the other issue that popped up when i was discussing this with a friend earlier that there were several schools of art, with their own distinctive styles that grew up in the USSR, so yes it is. but then, this begs the question doesn't it, that are all products of a totalitarian society necessarily totalitarian in themselves. certainly, state controlled propoganda artists certainly produce totalitarian work, but does that discredit every artist in the school of Socialist Realism, for instance, a state sanctioned artistic ideaology though it was?

we don't call all art that derives from capitalist cultures "capitalist art", is this fair? no, i don't think it is. we can judge others very well, but we rarely look at ourselves. are not the endless barrage of adverts simply capitalist propoganda? could capitalism itself be considered a political and economic philosophy like communism, which with it's stranglehold on all aspects of life could itself be labelled totalitarian? much capitalist architecture is in my opinion blatantly totalitarian. many housing estates are clearly designed for the use of the riot police, and most of these new office blocks and housing units going up are clearly designed to make people feel small and powerless as far as i'm concerned.

think of that diamond skull. isn't that nothing more than a worship icon for senseless consumption, and how many of those diamonds came from the killing fields of Africa, mined by slave labour? This is true capitalist art, in my opinion, and i consider it a work of evil.

but to get back to the main point, can art, propoganda art in particular, really be called art. North Korea is an instructive country, as there is NO independent artwork coming out of there. look for pictures and videos of Arirang, the mass games, a stunning spectacle of ant-like cooperation. if you can call it cooperation



Meg in Nelson said...

Boundaries of art. Pop art, ads, journalism/photography, product and packaging designs, industrial designs, city planning...

????? to me. I'd love to see what others think.

Dorothy said...

Very interesting question ... I had not thought about art for propoganda before. Art used for manipulation, to twist the truth or to tell lies.


For me 'art' does not equate to 'valuable', or worthwhile. At its simplest it means "manmade" and possibly made with a certain skill.

I think art can be bad and good or bad (purely subjective terms) art can be used for bad or for evil purposes.

One man's art is another man's rubbish is another man's art.

The propoganda posters are created by an artist, and although it sticks in my throat to acknowledge it they are art. Made with artifice, with skill, maybe having a price tag that would suggest valuable for those who collect the tasteless and vile. Saying they might be worth money says a lot about money and its social function.

Actually, on art I don't like, similar to propoganda, I really don't like films (or novels) that purport to tell history but the facts are altered to increase the entertainment value.

Trapunto said...

It's definitely graphic design and illustration, by me. Then you can argue about where graphic design fits (if at all) under "art." Like Meg says.

My husband is a graphic designer and I have always found it fascinating, too, especially the history. "Typeface geek" is probably a term you could apply to both of us. There is a sad, head-shoppy imports store in town that Der Mann and I end up wandering into every year or so. The only interesting things in the store are some original Vietnamese and Korean propaganda/public service posters. They're positive propaganda: no babies down wells, but still that definite creepy slanted feel. Yet there is something very appealing about them from a design standpoint. When things reach a certain age it is easier to separate form from function. The posters look so good, there's a slight automatic tug to buy them. Then I feel an actual physical disgust toward the idea of handling the paper, framing it, where it's been, what it meant to the people who saw it in its original context. Maybe in another 50 years the last of the cooties will have worn off things like this. Quaint as Victorian soft porn. Hard to know what to make of them now. I'm a great believer in historical perspective.

Some of the things artists are doing in terms of ad design now are as creepily slanted and manipulative as the political advertising of the 20th century regimes; it's just we don't have the distance to see it properly. Unlike Dot, I don't think the propoganda designers were any more (or less) culpable. Well, short of the baby-danglers, maybe.

humblebumble said...

it's interesting what you're saying there.

i guess when you're immersed in a particular culture or political system it takes a great deal of intellectual effort to deconstruct the meanings behind propoganda art, advertisments are a good example of this. i doubt that people under communist regimes found these posters to be as reprehensible as we do today, as they were so used to them. i used to really hate the CCTV cameras on the buses, but i'm used to them now. that's not to say i'm not waiting with baited breath for the day that law and order breaks down and we can all go round smashing up all the CCTV cameras, it's just that i'm used to them, they've been absorbed into my conciousness of everyday reality. foreigners are often shocked at the amount of surveillance on publicv transport in this country. we're used to it.

also, consider two dictators, hitler and stalin. or to take a less extreme example, mussoline and castro.

now, you'll often see pictures of castro in trendy lefty houses (although che is more popular, being the man of action and all, and much better looking) and stalin can be used as a poster with a certain ironic subtext. but can you use hitler or mussolini on your walls? no, i didn't think so.

despite the fact that stalin's regime was responsible for a greater amount of human suffering, communism doesn't have the same stigma as fascism. i think this is a question of intent. the stated intent of communism was to create a better, more democratic, life for all. never mind that attempting to build this world lead to the deaths, exiles and forced relocations of 10's of millions of soviet citizens and widespread famine due to ill-thought agricultural policies dreamt up by idealistic scientists with no understanding of the land.

german fascism on the other hand had as it's stated intent, besides the traditional ideals of italian fascism, which is an entirely different monster altogether, the extinction/expulsion of the jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and handicapped (not to mention socialists, communists, unionists, anarchists and any heretic christian group) from Eurasia in order to provide Lebensraum for the german people

which appeals more to you? (i am assuming for the purpose of this rhetorical qustion that you're not a mad nazi)

thought so. communism wins doesn't it?

i think our descendants may have similar attitudes concerning capitalist propoganda of today as we have to communist propoganda of yesterday. as in, it's just a way of battering people's conciousness's into accepting an unacceptable system that's clearly on the verge of collapse.

i find aftershave adverts particularly galling. the subtext is thus

"if you use lynx bodyspray you'll find yourself drowning in pussy and having to beat off beautiful women with a shitty stick. this shall be aided by the fact that you happen to be a buff mid-30's white male who clearly isn't in need of cash and neither is ground down by the rat-race lifestyle, because you are master of society, an Ubermann if you like. men want to be with you, and women want to be with you"

likewise hair-colouring for women

"if you dye your hair with our product you will be married to a tall, rich, well-groomed and conventionally handsome man who will take you out in his flash car, unless you choose to be a rebellious conventional woman, in which case you can choose to ditch your effeminate, italian model boyfriend outside a cafe for a night of sexy hedonism on the town with your potentially lesbian girlfriends. not to worry, gorgeous as he is he'll definitely be willing to make fantastic love to you tomorrow morning, because you've dyed your hair with our wonderful product"

of course, it's worth bearing in mind that i'm a hardened cynic and misanthrope who longs for the catastrophic collapse of western society so he can go around saying "i told you so"

deborahbee said...

I have a gut feeling that if the purpose of the art work is to dominate and control thinking it is propoganda however skilled the artist.The diamond skull though a waste of resources does leave open the possibility to form ones own point of view. Hurst is not necessarily a consumer mad artist...or at least may be giving the viewer a shock combining concepts of death and riches.
The advertising industry is completely based on persuasion to increase desire for goods which will produce wealth. It is a perversion of the 'good life' but the bedrock of modern economics.
Get were so looking forward to this course

Anonymous said...

I checked back to see what more you'd have to say. I really like: "descendants may have similar attitudes concerning capitalist propoganda of today as we have to communist propoganda of yesterday" maybe when enough see-sawing has happened, and enough systems have run themselves into the ground, the world will come up with something really good (if there's still a world left).

Communism wins? On a gut level I dislike communism as much as fascism, though I have a lot more sympathy for its origins. Probably comes from growing up in a big family that was like communism and fascism combined. Political movements of any kind repel me.

humblebumble said...

as far as communism v fascism goes, it's all a question of intentions

like the wee story that goes like this

you've been out havin a picnic in the woods with your friends and you come back to the car to find the soft-top ripped open and the car a mess

your first reaction is probably "bloody vandals! is nothing sacred these days? grr, fume, etc"

upon further inspection however you find gnawed open biscuit packets and crumbs all over the place and a few wee piles of poo.

from this you conclude that it was in fact a squirrel or some other such small mammal that broke into your car in order to get at the food. and your anger evaporates like mist on a warm afternoon

the effect is the same, but the intentions assumed to be behind the act influence your reaction far more than the effects

like, if you're walking down the street and someone shoots you a nasty look you'll feel right bad towards them. you've not been hurt. however if someone bumps into you and knocks you down and you hurt yourself you're not nearly as likely to be angry. you might be annoyed at them (or yourself) for being clumsy, but it was quite clearly accidental, even if the effect was more injurious to yourself than gettin shot a nasty look.

second hand off-topic anecdote time

my friend was on the tube in germany somewhere and the train braked suddenly and he almost tripped over backwards over a bag on the floor. automatically he said "oh, sorry" to which a local replied "only an englishman would say sorry to a bag"