totalitarian historiographies. A landmark example is Igor Golomstock’s Totalitarian Art (1990), in which he argues that the propaganda art of → Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Maoist China in time became a singular homogenous body of pompous aesthetics, endlessly replicating the same generic visual language of grandiose leaders, heroic soldiers and defiant peasants.
Such absolutist aesthetic homogeneity across dictatorships did not actually exist. But more importantly, the claim that propaganda art is the equivalent of a totalitarian art in which totalitarianism itself becomes the “author” across different political, cultural and geographical contexts, serves a propagandistic objective, as it implies that propaganda art is limited to 20th century totalitarianism and its inheritors, but is in no way applicable to modern capitalist democracy.
This is, of course, incorrect, as capitalist democracy has a long history of propaganda art of its own, ranging from the infamous propagation of abstract expressionist art by the CIA in the Cold War to the decades of propaganda films made by former Trump-ideologue Steve Bannon. What I want to focus on here is the way that the totalitarian historiography of propaganda art has not only overshadowed the history of propaganda art in modern democracy but has also led to the lack of theorisation of propaganda art in emancipatory politics.
To define what is an emancipatory propaganda art, we first have to establish what is propaganda and what is propaganda art. Propaganda can be defined as a performance of power that aims not just to send a message but to construct reality. Concretely, propaganda manifests the moment that infrastructures of power are enacted – from politics to the economy, mass media and the military-industrial complex – to manufacture consent. Meaning, to create a normative reality that serves the interest of the propagandist. Propaganda art in this context can be defined as the performance of power as art; meaning, the role of art in composing, scripting, visualising and staging this desired new normative reality.
This means that wherever there is power, there is propaganda. But as structures of power differ, so do its propagandas in the plural. For example, Cold War capitalist democracy in the United States manifested in the use of abstract expressionism as a counter-image to socialist realism in the Soviet Union. Capitalist democracy in this context performs power as art through an abstracted representation of freedom: the freedom to reject Stalinist figuration (and as such, communism in its entirety). Both are propagandas, but the structure of power and its translation in the domain of visual morphology differs.
In this light, how does emancipatory power perform as art in the context of emancipatory propaganda art? Terry Eagleton argued that “any practice of political emancipation (..) involves that most difficult of all forms of liberation, freeing ourselves from ourselves.” In the context of propaganda as I just proposed it, that means: freeing ourselves from the normative reality that upholds a particular idea of who we are as a people. And thus, to become the collective authors of a new reality that reflects common rather than elite interests.
One of the earliest claims on the possibility of an emancipatory propaganda art was brought forward at the end of the 19th century when Filipino reformers declared a “propaganda movement” against Spanish colonial oppression (1880-1895), which was to be followed by a Maoist styled “second propaganda movement” against the US-backed Marcos dictatorship nearly a century later (1965). These propaganda movements were anti-imperialist cultural revolutions, as they called for a collective reconstruction of Filipino history—its indigenous languages, its rituals, and its symbols—which faced erasure under the Spanish and subsequent American colonisation. Contemporary people’s tribunals of puppets mimicking Filipino presidents, which are accused and burned collectively, form a direct artistic and theatrical inheritance of these propaganda movements. The tribunals educate on present-day conditions of oppression but also stage the possibility to collectively overcome this oppression and collectively author reality anew.
In 1925, writer and politician Upton Sinclair wrote Mammonart, a history of art from the perspective of class struggle. Sinclair claimed that “All art is propaganda,” as art had always stood in a subservient relation to dominant powers in the form of church, monarchy or upper bourgeoisie. But as socialist revolutions were sweeping the world over, Sinclair saw a chance for artists not to propagandise the world as it existed in favor of the ruling class, but the world as it became possible from the perspective of the masses. He ended his book with a call for an emancipatory propaganda art; an art of reality-construction:
The artists of our time are like men hypnotised, repeating over and over a dreary formula of futility. And I say: Break this evil spell, young comrade; go out and meet the new dawning life, take your part in the battle, and put it into a new art; do this service for a new public, which you yourselves will make. (…) That your creative gift shall not be content to make artworks, but shall at the same time make a world (..)
20th century dictatorships might have overshadowed these seeds for an emancipatory propaganda art, but in recent decades artists and thinkers implicated in various popular mass movements have in similar ways emphasised how new forms of emancipatory power enable new artistic morphologies.
Writer, curator and activist Lucy Lippard for example, argued that feminist artists should be at the frontline of redefining propaganda, as they have the embodied experience of having been excluded from the patriarchal canon of art. For Lippard, the feminist influence on the art of the seventies is key to articulating a feminist propaganda, drawing from the multidisciplinary practices of performance, video, film, music, and poetry readings, but most of all “meetings”—the physical assemblies of people as a form of artistic practice in its own right. This, in her words, shows an alternative understanding of an “intimate kind of propaganda,” one that is “inherently feminist” in the manner in which it introduces personal and intersocial relationships as a propaganda practice.
Such a proposition of and intimate, affective propaganda resonates with contemporary discourses on radical ecology, that attempt to enable new interspecies coalitions between human, non-human and more-than-human subjectivities, which Donna Haraway describes as a practice of “sympoesis.” Such expanded ecologies manifest in movements like Extinction Rebellion, and form in Haraway’s view the possible foundation for new forms of emancipatory propaganda. In her own words:
I don’t work by simplification and I am rarely drawn by art that works by reduction. And I am a polemicist. An ideologue. I think doing really good propaganda is something we really got to figure out how to get better at. I’m really interested in propaganda as a form that need not be full of alt-anything, that can be a practice of collecting each other up and telling important truths with certain kind of tonalities.
From anti-colonialism to socialism, and from feminism to radical ecology we can trace how different forms of emancipatory power enable different artistic morphologies, in the process of collectively constructing new realities. I believe this also enables us to look differently at contemporary art practices that are intimately rooted in popular mass movements and emancipatory politics at large. From Matthijs de Bruijne’s work in the Dutch Labor Union, to Tania Bruguera’s “useful art” in undocumented platforms, and from Not An Alternative’s campaigns for environmental movements to the Rojava Film Commune’s creation of a revolutionary cinema for the Kurdish uprising in North-Syria.
It is in this particular historiography that I consider myself a propaganda artist. Meaning, that I seek to develop an artistic practice situated in emancipatory political parties and popular mass movements.
In our present time, terms such as “fake news,” “alternative facts” and the “post-truth condition” have become common vocabulary, resulting from the propagandas of an increasingly global authoritarian-capitalist order. To overcome this geopolitical threat, we need to commit to new forms of emancipatory power and visions of governance that act at the scale of the political, economic and environmental crises that we are facing. And subsequently, as cultural workers, we need to contribute the narratives and imaginations that can agitate, educate and mobilise the collectivities to make the construction of a new social, decolonised, feminist and radically ecological reality possible.