Art and Propaganda

Art and Propaganda

Using fear and the classic tools of persuasion, the Bush Administration has subverted American mythology and our national character.


Some years ago, I was in Fez, Morrocco, with my wife Shirley. We had hired a guide and were being escorted through the Medina, the ancient part of the city that had 160,000 inhabitants and no telephones (although our guide assured us that he could reach anyone in the old city within two hours by word of mouth). We stopped momentarily to look into a courtyard through an open door where about fifty boys between the ages of four and five were seated on the ground reading out loud. “How long will these boys be at school?” I asked our guide. “Generally, two years. After that, almost all of them will go to work. “What do they study?” I asked. “The Koran.” “Nothing else?” “No.”

The memory of that scene and conversation has haunted me for over twenty-five years. These poor boys would never be able to question their own beliefs and could never understand how those beliefs had been systematically pounded into their brains. Every culture has its own way of indoctrinating its citizenry. In our culture, this indoctrination occurs through the use of advertising, television, schooling and the way news is reported. Because this indoctrination is so difficult to identify, it becomes essential to question all the beliefs we cherish most.

We live in an ocean of persuasion, most of it unrelenting and invisible. I once described making a low-calorie Greek salad for my wife and myself on a warm spring day in the country. After I chopped the tomatoes, onions, peppers and cucumber, I found a package of French feta cheese in the refrigerator, which I crumbled into the bowl. I glanced at the back of the package. It read: 70 calories per serving. Below that, in smaller type, it read: “Number of servings per package–7.” I had just added 500 calories to our modest lunch.

How does a tablespoon of feta become a serving? Everyone here today knows exactly how this happens. It’s so trivial, so banal it hardly seems worth mentioning. Of course, I should have paid attention and read the label before I dumped the feta into the salad. Multiply this trivial event a million times and you begin to understand today’s constant and relentless subversion of what is real.

As someone involved in the communication business, I often find myself confused by whether I am an agent of propaganda. The most obvious examples of my own interest in persuasion are a series of buttons I’ve created for The Nation–the magazine, not the country.

A while ago, I was looking for a definition of art’s purpose. I came across one that I liked; in fact, I liked it so much that I used it for the title of a film that was made about my work. It’s from Horace, the Roman philosopher and critic, who wrote, “The purpose of art is to inform and delight.” I’ve been thinking about the purpose of art all my life and Horace helped me to arrive at an understanding. 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. The first cave paintings made its viewers attentive to the spirit and character of the animals their lives depended on. Sixteen thousand years later, Guernica made us conscious of how cruel the death of the innocent could be. Picasso and Cezanne help us understand that things can be looked at from several points of view at the same time. When we pass a landscape and think of how much it resembles a Cezanne painting, we become aware that Cezanne has made us attentive to how we see a landscape. Picasso and Seurat anticipated and illuminated the science of the 19th century, demonstrating that a landscape is an accumulation of color fragments and spaces. Art may be the only truth we can ever know.

The experience of art can be considered a form of meditation. By suppressing the debris of everyday life and the illusion that desire creates, meditation enables us to observe without judging. In this way, what is real to us becomes visible.

Recollecting Horace’s description of art’s purpose, he said, “To inform and delight,” not “to persuade and delight.” Informing us makes us stronger. Persuading us robs us of our ability to observe things for ourselves. Propaganda cannot be described without its link to persuasion.

Propaganda is not necessarily a lie, but it affects our neurological system and brain in the same way. It undermines our ability to understand our own reality. It makes us more infantile and dependent. It substitutes an alien authority for our own perception.

Not all belief is culturally manufactured. A large part of what we believe seems to come from a universal moral code that is genetically programmed in every human being. They are:

• Doing no harm to others

• Fairness

• Loyalty and shared solidarity with your group

• Respect for authority

• Fear of contamination, or the celebration of purity

Every society and political system emphasizes the parts of this moral construct to serve its own needs. My moral indignation and anti-administration activity may, in fact, derive more from fear of authority than any other motivation. Those on the right don’t have trouble with authority but are driven up the wall by such issues as same-sex marriage, which is a contamination issue. On the other hand, my parents, who were anything but right-wingers, were horrified when I told them I had eaten a clam.

Propaganda not only inhibits our sense of reality, it frequently causes us to act against our own interests. It does this by affecting the primitive parts of the brain that are unaffected by logic or consciousness but respond to images and symbols.

The short recent history of the Bush Administration has demonstrated this principle. By using fear and endless repetition, the government has subverted our mythology and character and it has processed the American people into accepting a dramatic erosion of our civil rights and, perhaps most appallingly, to approve of torture. Sadly, the phenomenon is scarcely unique. In fact, it may be the inevitable narrative of human civilization. The intersection of fear and persuasion has created the world as we know it.

The mind’s ability to alter itself is the source of human freedom. Information expands the capacity of the mind to change. Persuasion limits that capacity. Beliefs must be held lightly, because certainty is frequently the enemy of truth. Or, put another way, we can follow the example of the scientist and psychologist William James, who was said to have loved questions more than answers.

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