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Revolution, Reform, and Modernity, 1900-1939

Reds, M. Soules,Freiberg, Germany, 1998

The period 1900-1939 saw the spectacular growth of propaganda as a weapon of persuasion for labour and women's movements, during WWI, the Russian Revolution, fascist movements in Germany, Italy, and Spain. After WWI, the principles of propaganda modeled by the British formed the basis of an emerging public relations industry, and an increasing awareness of the power of persuasion in the management of human affairs. In retrospect, we are able to see that the seeds sown in the first forty years of the 20th C. blossomed into public relations and advertising industries of global proportions, and whole new approaches to governance and foreign affairs based on techniques of persuasion originally devised during wartime and revolution. As Clark points out, The Communist Manifesto (1848) of Marx and Engels became the bible of an ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism involving a sustained propaganda war that dominated the media for over fifty years.

The Style of Propaganda

How does one best convey the messages and emotions of an ideology through art? Is there an artistic style that is more suitable than another? As we saw last week, Abstract Expressionism is often considered to be value-free; that is, it resists interpretation and presents itself as an object of contemplation--pure form, pure art. In this view, asking of an abstract expressionist painting what it means is equivalent to asking what a tree means. The answer? It just is. In his introduction, however, Clark relates how even Abstract Expressionism could be called into the service of ideology through its context and presentation as a style of art associated with (political) freedom.

Fila Ad: Hyper-realism in the foreground, abstraction in the background, M. Soules, Vancouver, 2003

Abstract Expressionism grew out of earlier movements towards abstraction: impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, expressionism, dadaism, surrealism, fauvism, constructivism, and other attempts to free art from the limitations of representation. These movements were partly inspired by the development of photography: why painstakingly paint a landscape with a high degree of verisimilitude (or realism) when you can photograph it? Developments in psychology and philosophy also suggested that what humans see is greatly affected by what they are feeling at the time; that interpretations of reality are highly subjective and open to interpretation. Finally, new industrial techniques and emerging media helped shift definitions of art, and how it was received by an audience. Recall Jacques Ellul's assertion that the growth of propaganda in the 20th C. was directly related to new technologies.

While visual (and audio) art explored increasingly abstract modes of expression, after 1850 realism continued to evolve as an artistic mode through photography, film, documentaries, drama, and figurative painting and sculpture. In this chapter of the text, Clark sets the stage for an on-going debate about the artistic style of propaganda: Should it be realistic, or can it take advantage of the various strengths of abstraction? Familiarity with this question of artistic mode--realism versus abstraction--gives us a critical tool for identifying visual persuasion and propaganda in our own time.


Clark traces the origins of realism in mid-19th century France as a new approach to creating a picture of reality in art: not reality itself, but the illusion of reality (verisimilitude). Realism as articulated by Émile Zola was meant to be based on scientific and objective observation of the world. The fiction of Balzac, and the drama of Ibsen and Strindberg focused on the everyday lives of the middle-class and their ethical and moral dilemmas in society. The realist stage of Ibsen, for example, with its missing fourth wall through which the audience viewed the action of characters who spoke to one another and not directly to the audience, used every trick available to make the audience forget it was watching a play rather than real life. With realism, we lose ourselves in the life-likeness of the drama and forget that we are watching art, not life. The current trend in reality TV programming is but an evolution of this important artistic style.

Boy in a Doorway, Christian Children's Fund

As Clark illustrates with his comparison of Léger's The Mechanic (18) and Wallis' The Stonebreaker (18-19), there are many ways to suggest and interpret the realism of a work. All examples of realism have some degree of abstraction and conscious shaping for effect, but all are meant to convey the sense that this picture shows us something real and true about life, even if the style is not exactly photographic (or highly mimetic). If the realism reflects on social issues--such as the exploitation of labour, the poor, or women--it is called social realism (19).

The example of Lewis Hine (22-23) demonstrates how photography as "social documentary" conveys a particularly intense sense of being an objective image of the way things are, even though they may well be staged, composed, and interpretive (as much as by what they leave out, as what they show). Clark concludes, "His photographs also show that realism can never be truly objective because all images are contrived; mediated through the process of representation" (24).

Brecht's Alienation Effect

The German playwright Berthold Brecht believed that dramatic realism as practiced by Ibsen and others had the effect of playing on the emotions of the audience, drawing them into a feeling of empathy with the characters, and thus promoting a sense of passivity. The audience, lost in contemplation of the illusion of reality, were seduced into compliance and inaction. With his epic theatre techniques, Brecht wanted the audience to remain aware that they were watching theatre, not life, so he used bare lights, partial sets, and a unique acting style to "alienate" the audience--keeping them consciously engaged in critical thinking. He wanted audience members to leave the theatre energized for social and political action, not pacified through their empathy with the characters' dilemmas and consequent emotional catharsis. While his work is not widely known outside of theatre circles, Brecht's influence on artistic styles has been profound since the 1950s. Any work of art which draws attention to the fact that it is art, not life, owes a debt to Brecht. Think of The Blair Witch Project or Adaptation.

Claus Bjørn Larsen, Denmark, Berlingske Tidende, Kosovo Albanian Mother and Her Baby Near Kukës, Albania, 3rd prize People in the News Stories

Brecht's plays from the 1920s and 30s were partly inspired by the agit-prop (agitation propaganda) theatre used by communist revolutionary cells to mobilize the people into action. These groups had to be mobile and use a minimum of props to avoid confrontations with the law. Groups like the Berlin-based Red Rockets (26) provided the inspiration for a theatre of protest in the streets used by suffragettes, situationists, hippies, and anti-globalization activists in our own time. The performance art of Claude Cahun (33-35) was intentionally provocative and "alienating" in a similar manner to the self-portraits of Cindy Sherman or the sexual parodies of Annie Sprinkle.

Collage and Photomontage

The example of Hannah Hoch's Dada Panorama (1919, p. 30) nicely illustrates the subversive potential of the collage for persuasive effect. As an art movement, Dada protested the abuses of reason that led to WWI. If such barbarity could be rationalized as necessary, then reason itself must be suspect. The Dadaists used strategies and techniques that subverted reason: nonsense lyrics, spontaneous and improvised performances, and fragmented images lacking visual coherence or classical perspective. The collage thus became a staple of the Dadaists since it cut up and rearranged the pictures of reality, then placed them in surprising juxtapositions. Everything was mocked--even Dada itself!

Clark explains the subversive signification of photomontage (combining photographs into a composite image): "...[P]hotomontage combined the photograph's proximity to objective reality with a dynamic process of reordering which enacted, at least metaphorically, the revolutionary reordering of society. Dadaists also liked the technique because it requires no special skills and thus overthrows the status of the artist as a trained specialist" (32).

Context and Scale

Vote for Guernica, M. Soules, Vancouver, 2003

The example of Diego Rivera's Legacy of Independence (1929-35) and Picasso's Guernica (1937) illustrate the importance of context and scale in propagandistic art. The large public murals of Riviera are environments that absorb the viewer into their grand panoramas of history. The events of history have shaped the people, and could do so again. These murals cannot be owned by any wealthy art collector; they are the collective property of the people. A manifesto of the Mexican mural painters (1924) states: "We repudiate so-called easel painting...because it is aristocratic, and we praise monumental art in all its forms, because it is public property...Art must no longer be the expression of individual satisfaction which it is today, but should aim to become a fighting, educative art for all" (39).

Similarly, the scale of Guernica signifies the enormity of betrayal and deception it portrays. Standing in front of it--as I did in NYC in the 1970s before it was repatriated back to Spain--is overwhelming in the sense of reality it conveys. Even though its symbolism is ambiguous and complex, and its cubist fracturing of the picture plane somewhat abstract, it conveys a brutal reality that is inescapable. It not only creates an environment to involve the viewer through its scale and intensity, it communicates in a wider social context of political events: "Propaganda images are seldom devised to communicate independently, and accordingly, Guernica was designed to be understood alongside a broad set of Spanish Civil War images, especially the widely distributed press photographs and newsreels" (43). In effect, the painting and its social context create a collage of signification: layers of meaning, often contradictory, contesting the reality of public space.