Friday, January 23, 2009

Contemporary Art 1: Propaganda and Art

Last year Shepard Fairey (formerly known as "the Obey Giant guy") went from Art Star to well... "that Obama poster guy", and people who more-or-less understood his work (but not necessarily the impact or context in which it functioned) argued about the merits of it. Art or propaganda? Establishing, for some reason, that the two are mutually exclusive.

There are a lot of artists whose work functions dually on this level. Fairey is joined by anonymous street artists like Banksy, and the kids who have nothing better to do than to scale buildings and bridges in search of the next tag. This is the next wave of contemporary art. Street art has taken on a life of its own wholly separated from fine art, and recognized by few, if any, in the art establishment.

It's just that, those contemporary artists whom many of us look up to started as street artists (and those such as Banksy continue solely in that vein). And yet, most street art is considered "dirty", it's called "graffiti" and removed or covered up because of some societal morality that states that art does not belong on the street, but behind glass, a safe distance from those who might find it offensive.

Even still, your average museum or gallery will not host works that it finds controversial, so artists are left with two choices:
  • Start your own gallery -- this costs and obscene amount of money, and most artists, (despite the common convention that only artists who have money will make money), do not have obscene amounts of money.
  • Make it on the street.
Street art, unlike gallery art is cheap, but it's also fleeting because more often than not, it's going to be removed or covered up, although, you might still see an ObeyGiant sticker here and there, or stencils of the Year Zero flag on sidewalks. Interesting enough, but the ObeyGiant stickets as well as the Year Zero "Art is Resistance" flag were propaganda devices.
prop⋅a⋅gan⋅da –noun
1. information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.
2. the deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc.
3. the particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement.
By this definition, pretty much everything is propaganda, but most people don't operate from this definition when they're talking about something being "mindless propaganda" or how it's illegal for the US government to "propgandize" to the people (although, make no mistakes, it is legal for the US government to propagandize to the people of other countries... don't know why). But let's consider the dictionary definition, since we're talking about art (we'll consider the political definition in "Contemporary Art 2: The Political is Personal").

Street art, by its viral nature and distinctive style is, in a manner of speaking, propaganda. Taggers use a spray can to say "I was here". Street artists, similarly, plop down a stencil or sticker in order to further enforce the idea contained in their work. For instance, in 2006, you couldn't go anywhere in Seattle without seeing The Bald Man and being told that he was watching you. (In the image at left, you can also see the remains of the compeltely unrelated ObeyGiant.)

"What does it mean?" I once asked one of the artists responsible for The Bald Man.

"To remember that you're being watched," was essentially the response. In 2006, remember, news was just coming out about the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretap program (and we found out today that everything was being monitored all the time), so it was a just reminder from a couple of street artists mounting a campaign that spread through Seattle and much of Washington State.

Evocative of nothing less than the Big Brother posters that we read about in
1984 (and saw if you watched the movie), you really do get a sense that The Bald Man campaign was intentionally propagandistic. But aside from the relics of the early half of the 20th century, most propaganda is created and promoted through art and artists on the street -- and most of it is as a reminder of what propaganda has been used for in the past.

There are more endemic forms of propaganda (although, most people call it advertising or FoxNews), that are intended to get viewers to hold a particular thought like "I like soda" or "I should be thinner" or "Dick Cheney really was right about WMD", and these forms are meant to benefit the propogator. Art as propaganda is meant to benefit the viewer, and that's the real difference between the two; or, for the sake of this discussion, the difference between advertising and propagandistic art.

1 comment:

the bald man said...

Hello i feel that your facts about the bald man's propaganda campaign are wrong. If you have interest in learning the truth go here: