Art, particularly about systems of oppression, necessarily has to choose a side. After all, choosing not to speak out for those who are oppressed, is also choosing a side.
By Ragini Srikrishna
“All art is propaganda…” Upton Sinclair
A full year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit us and while George Floyd was still alive, community organizers across New York were agitating to close the jail complex Rikers Island. Organizers and artists were always at the vanguard of this and other struggles, whether protesting climate change, mass incarceration, or ICE raids. “I consider all my art to be political,” says M (@emulsify.art), a cultural worker and organizer. “Even when it is not outwardly obvious. My work is political because it is made by me for my community. Because it is queer, gender fluid, brown, and immigrant centered.”
The death of George Floyd proved to be the proverbial last straw. It sparked an uprising that has swept across the world, unlike anything seen in the earlier murders of countless other Black people. Not only have we seen mass protests, but growing mainstream recognition of systemic racism, widespread donations to bail funds, and the creation of a veritable outburst of artwork to spread awareness.
Many have questioned the role of art or an artist in an uprising. Yet, every one of us can recall iconic visuals—such as the twin towers aflame in Manhattan or if you are a little older—the raised Black fists of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, or the Marines planting the American flag over Iwo Jima. It is this power of visual imagery, to capture our attention and possibly enrapture or inflame us that makes it such a potent tool for propaganda.
Propaganda is defined as “ideas, facts or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” Commonly we assume propaganda is “bad” and likely think of fascism or totalitarian regimes. So is there such a thing as good propaganda? In order to really explore this question, we need to examine history.
Two of the most iconic pieces of propaganda that Americans have experienced were the ’Uncle Sam’s “I WANT YOU”’ recruitment poster, originally published in World War I, and Norman Rockwell’s ‘Rosie the Riveter’ used for World War II war bonds.
“The modern lay conception of propaganda holds that all propaganda is lies, and that is wielded only to change opinions,” writes Jane DeRose Evans, a professor in the Art History Department of Temple University. In her book The Art of Persuasion: Political Propaganda from Aeneas to Brutus she states that the modern perception of it is more subtle. She defines it as “educational efforts or information used by an organized group that is made available to a selected audience, for the specific purpose of making the audience take a particular course of action.” Today the “I can’t breathe”, “White Silence is Violence” and “Cops Out of Pride” signs and art hit home and are being wielded to elicit an actionable response from all that view them.
“The responsibility of an artist is to be informed, intentional, and respectful,” says M. “Images communicate across cultures and languages,” and, “I think artists have the responsibility to harness that power to create and advocate for change,” they say.
The response to the protest art and signs shows that propaganda works. We don’t need to look further than the opposition it has generated from those who are hateful or misinformed, who are moved to create counter-propaganda that attacks #BLM, as a “symbol of hate.” Even Big Business aka capitalism has taken to showing public support for Black Lives Matter as their Instagram feeds fill with black boxes, D&I posts, and the pledge to fill leadership with more diverse voices.
Artist Vienna Rye (@vrye) describes their artwork as one that aims to advance revolutionary consciousness. “Art that is a weapon against imperialism. Art that delegitimizes empire and teaches about socialist movements that successfully overthrew their oppressors. Art that reminds us that we can win,” they state. While all art can be deemed propaganda, the impactful ones are those that spread awareness and play a role in shaping social consciousness.
Purists may argue that art shouldn’t mix with propaganda and that the job of an artist is to create art and let the viewer make their own judgment—in other words, artists should never break the fourth wall. All artists, however, are influenced by their environment and are a product of their times. Art, particularly about systems of oppression, necessarily has to choose a side. After all, choosing not to speak out for those who are oppressed, is also choosing a side. In such an instance, silence indeed is violence.
Roman philosopher Horace wrote, “The aim of the poet is to inform or delight.” Artists such as Rye and M are expanding that definition to assert that the purpose of art is to make us question the status quo. And that is the first step in bringing radical change.
Ragini Srikrishna is an artist and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.
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