Art vs Propaganda

There are two great and terrible four-letter words writers avoid in polite society: synopsis and propaganda. Critics most often apply these two words to ideological movements, both justly and unjustly, and there has been no movement so often criticized in the past forty years as the pro-life cause. So without further ado, a synopsis of propaganda.

Since the First World War, states, organizations, movements, and churches have employed a vast array of words to avoid saying propaganda: ‘psychological warfare,’ ‘public communication,’ ‘the war of ideas,’ ‘battle for hearts and minds,’ ‘struggle for the minds and wills of men,’ ‘thought war,’ ‘ideological warfare,’ ‘nerve warfare,’ ‘campaign of truth,’ ‘war of words,’ etc. When an organization tells a story as a tactic or strategy to create a dichotomy between two points of view, theirs and the devil’s, they create propaganda.

Now, we’re not involved in an international conflict with Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice movement, but I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “we’re in a culture war”: two sides, issues, ideologies, fighting for supremacy, one utterly and always wrong, and the other the epitome of good. How can anything that espouses a pro-life ‘message’ be anything other than propaganda? On the face of it, art and propaganda seem very similar: a message, a form, and a response.

The message of propaganda focuses on a small, narrow, and shocking statement or assumption of fact, which may or may not be actually factual, but almost always involves over-simplification. It involves the obfuscation of the truth, presenting only ever one side, whereas art tries to capture the larger experience. Propaganda rarely tells a good story. States or revolutionary forces sponsor the majority of propaganda, i.e. Communist Russia or National Socialist Germany, to name just two of many. It is usually a form of hero-worship: “Our fearless leader marches at the head of destiny, and the people who follow him find shelter in his benevolent arms”, or “Our righteous cause overwhelms our opponents in a tide of our comrades’ blood and spirit”. Propaganda does not satisfy the intellect because it focuses solely on emotion, creating opposites of “bad them/good us” to inspire a far different reaction than Art’s humility: fear, anger, hate. The contrasts of propaganda is not beauty, but shock and awe. Propaganda inspires pride.

In the same way that non-Christians can excel at art, Christians, particularly the modern, American, evangelical variety, excel in propaganda: except we call it ‘Christian art,’ ‘Christian films,’ ‘Christian books.’ As pro-life and American Christianity are tied so closely, the pro-life movement often uses the styles of Christian Art, usually film: good, misunderstood protagonist who struggles with his faith against evil atheist who is irretrievably saved in a tearful climax; or a broken Christian marriage that slowly is repaired as faith is increased through various trials, all culminating in a direct presentation of the gospel, often with the grandfatherly figure resting his hand on the protagonists shaking shoulder or offering a prayer straight from the heart. These stories present a strong us-vs-them paradigm: bad atheist, bad bureaucrat, bad thing that doesn’t have to do with prayerful faith. If you’re not Christian, you’re wrong, bless your heart. And that is pride.

So what does that mean for us storytellers and artists in Voices? By telling stories, whether in photojournalism, written pieces, or songs, instead of glorifying a cause, we are humbled as we step into another person’s shoes and we bid other to the same humility as they receive these well-told stories. Propaganda is a matter of using disturbing or overweening symbols and events to portray a half-truth at best and a lie at worst for the purpose of inspiring active hubris in a population. Art is beauty making truth accessible and goodness possible. Instead of hitting the public over the head with a poster and slogan to get him to protest for the movement, we invite him to feel the joy of a happy ending or the catharsis of a sad one, and become a more complete human in a place of rest and contemplation, like when you come to the last word in a good book and set the book aside and dream.

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