23 February 2008

Art & Propaganda

"Beliefs must be held lightly, because certainty is frequently
the enemy of truth."

"Art is a survival mechanism for the human species. Otherwise,
it never would have lasted so long. [ . . . ] But how does it work?
How does it affect us? Primarily, it makes us attentive to
the reality of our own life."

I have lifted both of these astute observations from this essay in The Nation by graphic designer Milton Glaser (pictured here in an unattributed photograph). While I think Glaser's effort to differentiate art and propaganda is conceptually important, I am not persuaded (pun, as will hopefully soon be clear, intended) by his analysis. Following the Roman philosopher Horace, Glaser suggests "The purpose of art is to inform and delight." He contrasts "inform" with "persuade" and ascribes the latter aim to propaganda. That is where we part company. Where Glaser is distrustful of persuasion per se, I think a more careful assessment suggests his concern is misguided.

When I persuade someone, or seek to do so, I communicate with her. I am attempting to get her to see things my way or agree with me. And she, arguing back, would no doubt try to persuade me that I ought to see things her way. We would try to convince one another by, for instance, offering reasons, calling attention to implications or factors or evidence that our interlocutor seems to have neglected, focusing on what we consider inconsistency or incoherence in the other's views, and so forth. I need not dissemble, nor invoke authority, nor deploy ambiguous phrases or symbolism, nor, for that matter, engage in any sort of suspect speech act. Nor need she do any of those things. So, while I am sympathetic with Glaser's view that art does not seek to persuade (even if artist typically do seek to get us to see things differently than we might now do), I do not see persuasion itself as a nefarious activity.

Of course one might try to persuade another in a manipulative manner by, say, playing on her fears, directing her attention away from germane factors or evidence and toward irrelevancies, remaining impervious ot counter-arguments or disconfirming evidence, and so forth; that is how propaganda operates. Glaser rightly notes that a propagandist need not actually lie (according to David Levi Strauss, she will never actually risk being caught trafficking in outright falsehoods). But they can just as well be wholly indifferent to the truth too. In that respect, they peddle bullshit in the ways I've discussed in many previous posts [1] [2]. So, I can mislead you without lying to you.

I do not see how artists, by contrast, can be indifferent to truth and the sort of reflexivity that helps reveal it. In that sense they, unlike propagandists, ought to be attuned to the diversity of views, the openness with which they can be expressed, the general reciprocity of communication, and so forth available to us at any given time. Likewise, my efforts to persuade or convince you are parasitic on just such facors - diversity, reciprocity, openness; and these subvert to the efforts of a propgandist to indoctrinate or manipulate you.

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Anonymous jason said...

Rather ironic that Glaser's piece is, itself, an attempt at persuasion. Apparently this is only allowed when one is using written language? Nevermind that he proposes a false oppositional relationship between language and symbols.

Actually, I think he is making an even more foolish argument. It seems that his essential point is that informing is good, while persuading is bad. But the only real difference I can tell between his notions of the two is that informing comes from truth, while persuasion does not. In other words, in any kind of debate, the person who is correct is not actually debating, but "imparting truth," while the incorrect opponent is actually a nefarious propagandist.

I've seen this logic offered by intelligent people more times than I care to remember: I'll say, "But Guernica is also an attempt at persuasion," and then they'll say, "No it isn't, because it's obviously true" -- not realizing that they are dismissing its attempt at persuasion only because they already agree with its sentiment.

25 February, 2008 08:48  

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