Here is the editorial I’ve written for Propeller #3, about Propaganda. This editorial introduces a series of great essays, namely: Fire Inside, by Pete Brook, Propaganda and photography at the front door, by Teresa Mendes Flores, and Shooting in the name of (and now you do what they told ya): Photojournalism – keeping the status quo, by Rodrigo Tavarela Peixoto. In due time, these texts will be made available through Propeller’s site. Since I’ll no longer be coordinating Propeller, this is also my last editorial for the publication.
It isn’t risky to say that, for many, contemporary art is a form of propaganda. However, if we fail to clarify the origin of such a statement, we will quickly fall into a disagreement. It is therefore appropriate to articulate some of the principles guiding this proposition. On the one hand, we cannot discuss an art that is not made public; therefore, many forms of expression are excluded from this designation. On the other hand, the circumstances that allow us to contemplate and experience works of art are largely conditioned by an institutionalized power – that of culture or of the art market, depending on the point of view.
In this edition, we will try to find a sufficiently expanded field to question this premise, on the one hand confirming it, on the other denying it. After all, art has a value and be its nature ideological or not, when the work of art is introduced to the masses – as an installed, popularized, televised product – it gains political affinities and commercial purposes. We could address the spiritual and immaterial value of a work of art. We could also guarantee it such an autonomy that the work of art would be able to rise above the institutionalized space of culture. One way or another, in no way is this an easy discussion.
Propaganda can be understood as the association and/or manipulation of aspects of reality with the purpose of promoting certain ideas or doctrines. We do not intend to suggest that contemporary photography lends itself to this service. However, we’ve come to realize that in the last decades, particularly in the documentary field, photography has promoted tendencies that evoke the same linguistic and demagogic strategies that sustain political propaganda, meaning the manipulation of ideas with potential impact on the common good.
It is becoming ever more evident that, in the West, contemporary art not only problematizes reality, but turns that questioning into a theme (mandatory and necessary). Such an engagement with reality raises some questions, namely: How can art address reality and still remain autonomous from the moralizing conditions of a shared reality? How can the subjectivity of the narratives created by works of art emancipate themselves from the rhetoric institutionalized by the dominant culture?
We are interested in investigating the political and/or private nature of this reality and how can freedom exist under such a dichotomy. The individual projects his/her sense of self through comparisons, which in turn guarantee him/her an illusion of identity. In this context, polarity stands for art as for any other dimension of life. But what’s the point of perpetrating the dichotomies that oppose art to propaganda and fine arts to popular culture, if not to question how the binomials individual/collective and private/public participate in such a polarization?
Propaganda plays with associations. In addition to that, it uses symbols that, by definition, only successfully integrate the message if received in a context that favors their decoding. Such a context is cultural. However, in daily life, mass communication tends to be apprehended automatically, with little critical sense, guaranteeing the success of propagandistic messages. In this way, and without us realizing it, our space becomes less private and ever more public.
To address the process that degenerates in the colonization of individual ideas, a word stood out: imagination. It designates the projection of representations that live beyond the conditions of the real; freedom is most fertile in each one’s imagination and therefore imagination must live on the margins of corruption. In Herbert Marcuse and the Subversive Potential of Art, Carol Becker (b. EUA, 1947) essays to discuss the importance of resistance in the arts, promoting the subversive character of the imagination. Becker takes Marcuse‘s latest work – Aesthetic Dimension – to frame the premise that art, as a space of freedom that is not governed by the rules of ethical pragmatism, is intrinsically subversive: “For Marcuse, a great deal of the radical potential of art lies in its ability to play both within as well as outside of the reality principle.”
Like Marcuse, we believe that an authentic aesthetic experience locates the observer in a non-deterministic dimension, regarding time and space. This experience activates the memory of a human condition that exists beyond an historical dimension. As Becker sums up, referencing Marcuse, when art strives to obey the reality principle, it loses its capacity to transcend what is circumstantial. What we’d like to stress out is that an aesthetic experience is corporeal and not just the intellectualization of a certain content conveyed by a given form. In other words, authentic art cannot be “understood” because it does not contain a message; its form is its content and only through our senses are we able to perceive it.
Much has been said about the supposed “failure” of contemporary art – discourses, performances, installations, etc. Artists comply with the capitalist system and institutions take advantage of the art market. It is a vicious circle, where everything is either advertising or propaganda. But who is feeding the “monster”? Does the nature of artistic expression imply the premise of a political language, or is that not a construction that is imbedded a posteriori, in order to give the artistic object a certain pragmatism that will allows us – the audience – to think of it as part of the real? We ask: where does this need come from? Why do we feel the need to colonize discourses and establishing bridges that unite invisible banks? Do these margins exist? And, if they exist, do we want to connect them?
Capitalist society, subject to the valorization of market potential, determines that everything that is produced can be the object of appropriation and, therefore, fetishization. This raises profound ethical problems, especially for artists who wish to permeate their practice with a political discourse, because they – the discourses – are immediately apprehended and trivialized. In conformity with the system, these hybrid objects (with and without purpose) see their anti-capitalist nature corrupted. Is there an anti-system art? Anti-propagandistic propaganda? How can we therefore question the “purpose” of art in light of this problem between the individual and the political, the public and the private?
Artist Martha Rosler (b. New York, 1943), engaged with her social reality, reflects on the ethics of her artistic practice. Referring to the photomontages made in the late 1960s – which establish associations between the violence of the Vietnam War and the violence of gender stereotypes –, Rosler comments that although at the time she refused to introduce them to the art market, later on she decided to show them in a gallery, submitting to the pressure that economic reality exerts on artistic values. But does the refusal to commit to the machine of artistic propaganda means voting the works to oblivion?
In Portugal, as in other countries, one of the issues that polarizes the artistic community is the rating and distribution of state subsidies. We remember (as we did with the pornographic noun, in our edition #0) that propaganda is not an adjective. All art subsidized by the state is propaganda, in the sense that this is the art that the regime conceives as legitimate. Assuming all governments rule by a political agenda, the art they assume as worthy to be paid by our taxes is also the one they see fit to comply with their “cultural program”. We can put forward a more idealistic understanding of the contract in which we participate, but when the production of works of art depends on a promoter who chooses to subject them to the economic reality, then artistic value ceases to be a quality. Many of us, aware of the game in which we participate, refuse to acknowledge it; rather we claim artistic freedom under state support.
Recognizing this modus operandi is not to say that all artistic freedom ceases when it is played under the cultural policies of the state. But one of the factors is excluded from this relationship: the subversive character that moves a certain artistic commitment to freedom. Subject to the cultural policies of the state, art becomes permeable to the censorship of necessity, which in turn is ramified: we speak of criteria of “good taste”, but also of artistic, social and cultural “relevance”. Might these criteria prevent dissidence and/or disruption, domesticating them and acculturating them under a state seal?
Elizam Escobar (b. Puerto Rico, 1948) tells the story that led to his arrest in 1980, admitting – with disarming sincerity – the conditions that subjected his art to political discourse. Escobar grew divided between his commitment to art and the need to take part in social revolution. Feeling the pressure of the real – and of putting his skills at the service of that “real” – Escobar was confronted with the lack of “purpose” of his art, eventually admitting that “political ideology began to win over [his] ideas about art, regardless of the strong resistance exerted by [his] unconscious and [his] intuitions”.
In The Heuristic Power of Art, Escobar not only recounts the circumstances that led him to join the struggle for the independence of his country, but he also tells of the conditions of his artmaking in the prisons where he fulfilled his sentence. Because art lives beyond any direct impact on everyday life – it has no political function – it takes faith to produce it. One must believe that it plays a role that is profoundly transformative, even if not evident: art is a progressive tool for questioning the human condition. As Escobar would come to understand, when in prison, “quotidian existence – the everything – is irrelevant compared to the nothing of the work of art, which nevertheless, is the only real important something of this otherwise wasted existence”.
In A plea for irresponsibility, Ewa Kuryluk (b. Poland, 1946) appeals to the irresponsibility of the artist and proposes an historical reading of the degradation of art “to a propagandistic or commercial device”. For the author, the artist that is aware of his/her social responsibility is born with the French revolution, culminating in the condemnation of the bourgeois patronage. This artist becomes progressively more precarious and, in time, social revolutions contaminate artistic production with a rhetoric politicized and financed by the most diverse regimes. In the same essay, Ewa Kuryluk acknowledges that, in the US, art that is funded is one that is “politically correct,” which is “deliberately made to fit, reinforce, or promote the collective images, ideals and goals”. It is possible that, at a distance, this way of doing things sounds archaic, but is it?
Nowadays artists live in a difficult enclave: the audience’s dictatorship set by the political power. Mostly living in cities, where time and space are managed in a totalitarian way, artists are impelled to produce for, as if the absence of a given purpose determined them as unfit or mad. There is a need to produce in order to exhibit, a need to produce meaning, always a need to… Ewa Kuryluk concludes that “the politicization of art is harmful to a sophisticated humanity” and that “deprived of art, humans will metamorphose into monkeys”.
The “necessary” radicalism is the one that best serves individual ethics. However, regarding photography, and this edition of Propeller (in particular), the only thing we want to see propagandized is the freedom to think, act and do.
We repeat forms, we name authors and acclaim works of art, but this is not a curatorial gesture.
This is not a curatorial gesture!
An image can comprise more than the glimpse of a name or a set of words.
In reproduction lives more than the exhaustion of ideas.
Fuck the present!
Fuck the common!
Fuck the copy!
Fuck the repetition!
Creation lives beyond recognition.
 Becker, C. (1994) Herbert Marcuse and the Subversive Potential of Art. In: Becker, C. (ed.) (1994) The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Social Responsibility. New York: Routledge, pp. 113-129.
 Rosler, M. (1994) Place, Position, Power, Politics. In: Becker, C. (ed.) (1994) The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Social Responsibility. New York: Routledge, pp. 55-76.
 Escobar, E. (1994) The Heuristic Power of Art. In: Becker, C. (ed.) (1994) The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Social Responsibility. New York: Routledge, pp. 35-49.
 When arrested (and sentenced to 68 years in prison) Escobar was a teacher and member of the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation). He served a sentence of 19 years, having received clemency from President Bill Clinton in 1999.
 Kuryluk, E. (1994) A plea for irresponsibility. In: Becker, C. (ed.) (1994) The Subversive Imagination: Artists, Society and Social Responsibility. New York: Routledge, pp. 13-19.