Propaganda has been a recurrent theme in my life since June 2018 when we, at Propeller, decided that should be the theme for the following edition, which will finally be out on february 20th. I’m also working on the theme with undergraduate students in the context of a larger project about media and photography’s relation to propaganda. Finally, in the context of a research project about radicalization and extremism, I’ve recently started reading about propaganda strategies in the era of social networks.

It’s easy to define propaganda. We know when propaganda messages are put to work, though we’re not always aware of it. If we think about the particular history of the photographic medium, we might also realize that propaganda coding is at its core. Grounded on a discourse about “the real”, photography was always put at the service of regimes to promote ideals. Formats and representational strategies have changed since then, but we’re still referring to symbolic language when addressing advertising and or propaganda strategies. Talking about hyperphotography, Fred Ritchin (Toward a Hyperphotography), makes the following advert: “It is particularly urgent that issues of social importance be represented in more nuanced, innovative ways, or the readership (and citizenry) may resign themselves to a passive spectatorship.” He then makes some suggestion on how to go about this, namely:

1) unmasking photo opportunities;
2) photographing the future, so a version of it does not happen;
3) enfranchising the subject;
4) reporting as “family album”;
5) constructive interventions.

Unmasking photo opportunities: The U.S. invasion of Haiti, 1994.
left: photographer unknown
right: © Alex Webb

Unmasking photo opportunities: The Similarities of the September 11 attacks in both Chile and Washington DC; both Kabul and World Trade Center towers destroyed
left: © El Mercurio e © Tom Horan
right: © Doug Kanter e © Sebastião Salgado

Enfranchising the subject
left: © Spencer Platt photograph winner of WPP, 2006. Caption published at the time: “Affluent Lebanese drive down the street to look at the destroyed neighborhood.”
right: © Jeroen Kramer. Photograph of Liliane Nacouzi, Bissan Maroun, Jad Maroun, Lana Khalil, Nour Nasser.

Reporting as “family album”
right: Brian Palmer Digital Diary: Witnessing the War –

On an essay entitled Visual propaganda on Facebook: A comparative analysis of Syrian conflicts, by Hyunjin Seo and Husain Ebrahim, propaganda is defined as “a form of communication that attempts to promote a certain political agenda and influence the target audience’s point of view”. Analyzing propaganda imagery posted on social media in the context of the Syrian war, Seo & Ebrahim identify the following categories:

(i) victory;
(ii) threats from the enemy;
(iii) casualties of civilians or military personnel;
(iv) destruction;
(v) unity;
(vi) humanity;
(vii) other.

This means they were able to study the symbolic strategies underlying the success of the sort of imagery promoted in a particular case study – analysis of The Syrian Coalition Facebook page and the Syrian President’s Facebook -, but I’d say these coding strategies can be applied to many other situations of conflict involving political ideologies. Beyond identifying these codes, they analysed the narratives used to enhance them and concluded on “types of propaganda frame featured in Facebook images: overt vs covert, analytical vs emotional, and human interest vs nonhuman interest“. To sum it up: an overt approach explicitly promotes something, as the covert one does the same implicitly; “the analytical frame captured images that focused on facts, statistics, or analytical interpretations” as “the emotional frame covered images intended to evoke emotions”; finally, the human interest highlights individual stories, calling upon identification with the suffering of “the other”. They do not study the aesthetic qualities at play and what stylistic strategies are recurrent in propaganda imagery, but others have done so.

On doing this study, Seo & Ebrahim were particularly interested in the sort of rhetoric used to manipulate the audience. It’s about advertising and marketing strategies and, as we all know, most marketeers agree that in order to play the game it’s ok to use the same weapons. It’s not like there are no rules in advertising. There are; they have ethics. So does war. Not everything is fair in love and war, isn’t it? The problem with reproducing strategies that are fundamentally wrong is that we are legitimizing and promoting a way of thinking (and thus projecting acting) that is also fundamentally wrong. Where should we draw the line? I’d say before humanism begins to fall.

In the context of the referred research about radicalization and extremism, I kept hearing people talk about the target audience for prevention campaigns and about vulnerability. That vulnerability kept being described as an identity related issue, meaning: a problematic concerned with difficulties in empathizing with “the other” or feeling integrated, having a sense of self or familiarity. I agree there’s something here, but on the other hand I kept thinking that the conditions that make someone prone to doing something “radical” or “extremist” (and in no way do I equate both terms) have to do with suffering and that isn’t always circumstantial. So how does humanism begin to fall?

I kept thinking about something that happened about a century ago: Hitler’s propaganda around the theme of Entartete Kunst. The term degenerate (latin degenerāre) generically qualifies that which loses its primitive qualities or corrupts the virtues of what is at its origin; decadence (latin cadĕre), on the other hand, is a term that tends to describe a state of decline, weakening or deterioration. Thus, when the nazi rhetoric says an individual “degenerates”, it usually refers to the overall corruption of the essence of the human species; on the other hand, characterizing an individual as “decadent” refers to a deviation, a trajectory of fall that ultimately robs that individual’s life. 

In the context of German National Socialism, the term degenerate art has its origin in a long succession of works of pseudoscientific character on which the nazi sustained the ideal of a “pure race”. Entartung, by Max Nordau (1892) is an example of an essay where the author promotes the idea of a “truly Aryan” art, that is, the type of art that was believed to be a faithful portrait of the spirit of the German people (volk). This work would in turn influence Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who would replace Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus, and who in 1928 would publish Kunst and Rasse (“Art and Race”), rehearsing  parallels between “mental illness” and the vanguards.

According to a large majority of historians, the culture of decadence begins with Romanticism, a context in which progress is but a sign of the bankruptcy of the human being. However, when we speak of decadence in art, there needs to be another approach to history. In Kunst und Koexistenz (“Art and Coexistence”, 1968), Ernst Fischer identifies the decadence of art with post-French bourgeois society, at the same time pointing out the field of possibilities that this process triggers, especially with regards to critical awareness. Matei Calinescu (1987) also tracks the application of the term decadence in the aesthetic dimension with French neoclassicism of the early nineteenth century. Evoking the Entartete Kunst exhibition, Fischer identifies decadence in art with “the instrument of false consciousness, of phrase, of hypocrisy, of decadence practiced in the name of strengthening”. On the other hand, Calinescu suggests that where we detect a taste for decadence, we can also detect a seemingly contrary phenomenon, i.e., a taste for primitivism. In short, and here accepting Fischer’s conclusions, decadence would be the compliment of pyrotechnics, absurdity, insincerity, utilitarianism, vanity, ornament and lying, and for that very reason the renunciation of truth. However, if we follow Calinescu’s suggestions we’ll arrive at Baudelaire‘s praise of decadentism, where the term decay is associated with a movement of refusal of the very same death the word indicates.

Although decadence may appear full of vitality, it is, in fact, a denial of one’s own will to live. In art, signs of decay often acquire the appearance of vital movements, directing the making of art to a purpose that is contrary to itself and favorable to the stagnation or reproduction of mechanisms of illusion, albeit under the appearance of truth. In other words, decadence arises under the guise of an ideology against which it is imperative to fight. National Socialism was particularly rich in the promotion of decadence, precisely because the ideology of the regime did not admit the field of possibilities that modern art, in particular Expressionism, signaled with its fusion of modes of expression. Moreover, in the historical context that gives the motto for the term degenerate art, we find a regime with the expectation of discrediting the expression “impure”, i.e., all the art in which were located values ​​contrary to those that the regime had decided to promote and acclaim.

If we look at the catalog that accompanied the subsequent exhibitions of the Entartete Kunst after Munich (July 1937), we can understand the criteria guiding the installation and grouping of the artworks featured in the exhibition:

1) the decadence of technique, which the regime dubbed “barbarism of representation”;
2) the derision of religion, which brought together all kinds of “revelations”, “apparitions” and “witchcraft”, which the regime did not consider worthy of any religion;
3) the political purpose, whether of a communist, Marxist or anarchist character;
4) moral depravity, by the representation of obscene and pornographic motives;
5) the blurring of “racial” differences, with emphasis on the representation of the “black ideal” as modern;
6) the distortion of the human figure, evident in the paintings, drawings and sculptures that depict humans with animal features;
7) works made by Jews;
8) works that break with all the classical criteria of the arts of the academy, and which the regime saw as manifestations of “pure madness”.

On a given page we see a reproduction of two lithographs of Kokoschka and a drawing of a “mental patient”, accompanied by the following comment: “Which of these three drawings is the work of an amateur, institutionalized in an asylum? You’ll be surprised to know it’s the top right corner. The other two used to be seen as drawings of a master, Kokoschka.”

At the hands of the nazi regime, this rhetoric serves to level the work of the vanguard and institutionalized authors, identifying in both failures in technical excellence and understanding of the human figure, among other things.


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