Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

In defense of art: creative expression and its challenges

Posted in social networking and the arts by Timothy Platt on May 31, 2010

I was initially planning on posting a third installment today to my Starting a New Job, Building a New Foundation series within my ongoing Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development (see postings 73 and 74 for installments to date for that). I decided I had to change my plans however, when I received a set of questions sent to me from an organization that had asked if I would agree to being interviewed. I will give this organization and the individual who sent this to me the benefit of the doubt and assume here that their intent was simply to be provocative. I still found myself sitting back in amazement at the tone and approach of the seven questions that were sent to me and I decided to pick up on one of them here with this posting.

The question, or rather the statement that I was expected to comment as if replying to a question began by quoting me from one of my published works: “The arts are a fundamentally creative voice and come from the expression of openness to new possibilities and perspectives.” It went on to baldly state, and I quote precisely “But art is propaganda!” The comment/question went on to briefly elaborate on this but the basis for that continuation was effectively included in this four word excerpt. And this prompted me to make two decisions – not to be interviewed by this organization and to respond to this challenge here. And this is a challenge, and to the arts and to all who care about them in the face of propaganda and the forces that drive it.

Plato is often thought of as promoting the benefits of philosopher kings in his Republic and there is an element of truth to that but it is also stated in this work that in an ideal state all poets would be killed. There is a marked and sometimes very open potential for conflict between the individual creative spirit and the state and this becomes more pressing and open as that state becomes more rigidly authoritarian. This applies to the written word and to the fine arts in their various forms and to all forms and outlets of creative expression.

The arts open eyes and minds to new approaches, visions and possibilities and that stands in stark contrast to the regimented and controlled of authoritarianism. And propaganda is in may respects an attempted taming and regimenting of this spirit and its expression to fit officially approved norms and in support of that authoritarian state.

I initially found myself thinking of the “art” of the Great Leap Forward in China and of the Stalin era in Russia and the Soviet Union, and of other spirit crushing regimes. It is not an accident that where Plato’s philosopher kings would silence and even kill poets, their counterparts and the supporters of those counterparts in the Great Leap Forward and in Stalin’s Russia took similar measures. Those they could not suborn, they marginalized, imprisoned, “reeducated” or killed. And the only creative expression permitted was expression in complete and rigid lock step with the received wisdom of the state. And that is propaganda, and that is an overly simplistic cartoon stereotype and it is at the points where reality diverges from this simple picture that this becomes most disturbing.

I raise the specter of Nazi Germany here – one of the most malignant and totalitarian states ever imagined let alone realized in all of history. And it had its sterile approved-format artistic propaganda in large measure even as its leadership looted the homes and museums of Europe of their art and of all ages and cultures. And it had its grand scale architecture with Albert Speer and his colleagues leading the way. But it also had artists like Leni Riefenstahl and her Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens). Nazi Germany also had artists with real talent and vision, but who had a malignant vision, or at least a willingness to whole heartedly suborn themselves into the Nazi vision.

It is comforting to think that good and skillful art and art of vision must stand in denial of propaganda and of all that it would support and sustain in sterile conformity. The real world, unfortunately, does not always conform to or sustain that though. So if rigid propaganda in support of extremism and authoritarianism is a stultifying challenge to art and to artistic vision and expression, this represents a more damaging challenge to it, and to society and culture as a whole.

Art does not in general support the restricting and limiting and it is in general a voice in conflict with that and in denial of authoritarian legitimacy. But it is not art per se as an abstraction, but rather the determination and vision of the individual artist who offers this challenge – usually. And when is art subordinated to evil and willingly so, it offers the greatest challenge to art as it can be in its highest, most liberating expression. The simple, comforting cartoon image of art versus propaganda does not always hold true even if it usually does.

As a final thought here, this is not about marketing and the way that artistic expression, or at least artistic forms can be and are used to represent any and all sorts of products – good, bad and indifferent. This is also not about art in a competitive and pluralistic society where its specific focus and message may be popular or odious and to many. And this is not about stereotypes and simple answers even when the context is dogmatically defined and limited. I write this to raise an issue and to provoke thought. The arts hold such importance and such potential, as do all forms of individual creative expression. But the picture is not always simple or pretty in detail. Art is not propaganda but some real art can be. And that is the real challenge.

Tomorrow I am going to shift back to my planned posting schedule and add my third installment to my series on career development and building a strong foundation as you go through the new job probationary period. The day after, I will add my next posting on building a successful online store startup.

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