Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Propaganda is in the Eye of the Beholder

"Brokeback Mountain is a politically correct piece of anti-family and anti-American propaganda aimed at poking a finger into the eye of the 128 million Christians who go to church every week."

Ted Baehr, Christian Film & Television Commission

"I realised that what he was up to was propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in."

Children's author Philip Pullman on The Chronicles of Narnia


Propaganda n. The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause; material disseminated by the advocates or opponents of a doctrine or cause.


Propaganda is a neutral word. Propaganda is merely a message meant to influence beliefs or opinions; in Spanish it simply means "advertising." In modern American culture, however, "propaganda" means, at best, an unbalanced exaggeration or, at worst, manipulation through the deliberate portrayal of falsehood as truth.

If you accept that "propaganda" is simply advocacy for a certain point of view -- which you must, since that's what it means -- then really all art is propaganda.

The idea that you can criticize art as "propaganda" and somehow be taken seriously must stem from the belief that artists are not allowed to have a point of view, or that they should not communicate it, or that as members of the "cultural elite" their views are out of touch and irrelevant, or, at least, that they should only communicate things which are pleasant and non-controversial. But as human beings never agree on anything, the idea of "non-controversial art" is a non-starter. Back when the first Neanderthal painted a mammoth on the wall of a cave, you can be sure two other cavemen got in an argument over whether it was any good.

The question is not really whether Brokeback Mountain or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe can be said to promote certain ideas, but whether they promote falsehoods.

"The real object is to demonstrate that homosexuality is normal, " wrote R. Cort Kirkwood for The New American in his lengthy and emphatic essay Homos on the Range. Mr. Kirkwood did not see Brokeback Mountain: "You needn't lift the lid on a garbage can, after all, to know what's inside." And what's in the trash, according to Kirkwood? "Homosexuals aren't like everyone else; and not just because they can't tell the difference between an entrance and an exit: they also expect society to accept, tolerate and legalize their sin."

Peter Bronson, writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer, agrees: "It dishonestly portrays selfish betrayal of family and marriage as a brave struggle against repression, as if homosexual love is more noble than traditional marriage."

Art, however, is not used to “settle” a discussion, but rather to provoke it. Brokeback Mountain no more proves homosexuality is normal than The Ten Commandments proves God parted the Red Sea…

…which brings me to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The propaganda controversy swirling around this film is not so much over its Christian content, but rather its target audience: children. The concern is whether children, too young and too na├»ve to be able to detect artistic bias, are being presented with ideas they don’t know how to defend themselves against. Are they being indoctrinated against their will?

Please forgive the lack of juicy quotes attacking C.S. Lewis’ agenda. It turns out when you do a Google search for “Narnia” and “propaganda,” instead of a lot of hot-tempered liberal screeds about the evils of religion, you get academic essays rebutting Christian assertions that the film is good propaganda by saying things like, “C.S. Lewis warned us not to read too much Christian theology into the stories of Narnia.” Liberals, it turns out, need to work on their inflammatory rhetoric.

“Much of the controversy generated before the film’s release concerning its potential overt Christian propaganda turned out to be hot, empty gassing,” wrote one reviewer, adding, “[it’s not] propaganda except in the perception of the religious or secular fundamentalist. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe brought me much comfort and joy as a Muslim child growing up in Wales." [emphasis mine] Yup, that’s right, here’s a Muslim movie critic defending Narnia on IslamOnline.

Art can certainly be moving, but its critics in this instance grant it more power than it has. Taking a child to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe no more plants a covert time bomb in their minds destined to turn them into Jerry Falwell than Brokeback Mountain will make them queer. Though he was referring to the latter film, Andrew Sullivan’s statement applies equally to the value of both movies: “That is what great art does: it reveals the truth we are too scared to see and the future we already, beneath all our denial, understand.”


Mary Ann said...

I don't have any statement about the movies in question. I haven't seen either one, and the only thing I've heard about them has come from the lovely world of blogging. What I have to say is in response to your observations about art, which, I think are too narrow.

"If you accept that "propaganda" is simply advocacy for a certain point of view -- which you must, since that's what it means -- then really all art is propaganda."

I'm fine with that up until the all. There are lots of art works, even things that are seen as taboo-trampling, controversy-courting etc. that weren’t meant to mean anything. They advocate for nothing. Andreas Serrano, the artist behind your example Piss Christ, has made that claim.

The most prominent critic to urge artists to shun propaganda was Clement Greenberg in 1939. He called it kitsch, but what he meant was political ideology. His view was that politics subjugates art and robs it of autonomy, making it a politician's stooge.

A lot has changed since 1939, and most of what Greenberg dictated has been toppled. Today, the arts have become vastly political. I wasn't around back then, so I can't say if art really has lost something for doing exactly what Greenberg warned against. And though many artists today could just claim that they are advocates and not artists without changing a blessed thing, there are still people out there making art without any real agenda.

This is a tangent, I know, but I couldn't resist. Thanks again for an engaging post.

DJRainDog said...

Your point about reading carefully (from previous post) is well taken; I somehow read, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe brought me as much comfort and joy as a Muslim child growing up in Wales", and I thought, "Why is he comforted by a Muslim child growing up in Wales? That's kinda twisted..." ;-)

Andy said...

Mary Ann, thanks so much for your really brilliant contribution! No, I agree that the "all art is propaganda" was an oversimplification. Originally in the post I tried to qualify that statement, but it started to lead me down the garden path away from my point. Anything that has an aesthetic quality could be regarded as art -- after all, someone even had to think about and design the recycling bin under my desk. That doesn't mean they were trying to tell me something.

little-cicero said...

I feel cheated Andy. You didn't quote my rhetoric in this post. (Whimper) I thought I said it better than any of my fellow bigots. Oh well, I'll be back after Ash Wednesday mass. Bubye.

Trickish Knave said...

I love that WWII poster. I printed and framed about 30 of them and then hung them up in the hallways at my command. A lot of them were well received but that particular "She may look clean.." was not and I was asked to take it down- along with the one that said "Smack the Japs". Occasionally, we teach Japanese submariners here and the powers that be thought the posters would show poor taste and an apathetic attitude toward their feelings of the U.S. nuking the hell out of them.

I explained to my supervisor that the Japanese have a different recollection of WWII. I told the story of my visit to Peace Park in Nagasaki where the Japanese timeline of their entrance into WWII started after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. That incident wasn't even included on the mural.

Needless to say, those two pictures are still framed and still in my desk drawer.

I promise there is some relevancy to my story.

Regardless of propaganda, people will still have their own perceptions. Before the uproar over TLTWATW, I wonder how many kids would have just watched that movie and viewed it as fantasy, like a Lord of the Rings movie, instead of a movie dripping with Christian overtones. I read that series of books when I was in middle school and that is how I perceived them- except back then I thought they were Dungeons and Dragons on crack.

Unfortunately, people will now look at this movie differently because of all the controversy. Likewise, people will have a different perception for Brokeback Mountain. Originally, I think people just thought of it as a gay cowboy movie. Then the people who think that the "gay" might rub off on those who watched it started the fire in the tire dump. Conversely, supporters tried to force it down our throats that there is more to this movie than a cowboy who fucks his wife in the ass becaue he is gay but can't tell anyone.

Frnkly, I am sick of people doing this with movies. Before the controversy I had a lready decided I would not see either movie- Narnia, because I read the books and just didn't want to be disappointed and BBM, because the theme of the movie didn't appeal to me. Why do both sides have to come after people who just don't want to see the flick?

Supporters of BBM and TLTWATW are no different from each other in that they both spin their propaganda as a counterattack.

I'm afraid this all I have to contribute to this post because frankly, I am sick of hearing about both of these movies. But with Oscars coming up, along with the subsequent whining for a week or two after by people who think their favorite movie got the shaft (no pun intended), my interest in Hollywood in general has started to wane to the point where I have rekindled my acquaintance with Limewire.

Anonymous said...

I was always taught that one of the traits of propaganda is it's an assertion made without supportive reasoning, and as mentioned, done so systematically.

Good post, and comments, too.