Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Art vs. Propaganda: an eternal struggle?

I suppose it seems necessary to first ask, why make the distinction between art and propaganda? With respect to fiction, the reason the distinction needs to be made is two-fold, I think. Primarily, there needs to be some kind of precedent established between works that create and propagate conversation, and works that simply polarize issues.There's a school of thought (1) that says literature ought not to answer questions, but rather perpetuate them. This has been put in various ways, the most poignant of which is the saying that art should "comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable." This is something that contemporary critics tend to ignore for the most part, oftentimes instead opting for the trite narrative discourse of reader experience, combined a witty comment or two on a few thematic tidbits in the work. Let's look at the concluding paragraph of Sam Anderson's recent review of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, the ultra-hyped Freedom:
"I hadn’t expected to be nearly so engaged by all of this. I picked Freedom up out of a sense of duty, then read it semi-addictively and finished it in just a few days. The difference between reading Franzen firsthand and thinking about him from a distance is the difference between having a dream and trying to tell someone about it three years later...I found myself identifying with the book—thinking in new ways about recent events in my friends’ lives, in my own life. It made me think, many times, of one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite edicts about fiction: that the good stuff can make readers feel less lonely."
-Sam Anderson, NY Magazine (

So, with near ubiquitous praise like this I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise when Franzen's book gets the attention of Oprah (again). I'm not going to comment much on the quality of Freedom, seeing as I haven't gotten a chance to read it. But I will say this: Franzen's dancing on some thin ice with respect to his stance on what literature ought to do. The more dogmatic you get about this sort of thing, the more you will find that tricky thing called art slipping through your fingers. I find two things troubling about Franzen: A. His reluctance to experiment (in conjunction with his tendency to direct criticism towards anyone foolish enough to take up the Avant-garde tradition) and B. His stubborn and misguided dedication to an outdated notion of realism. But I digress--this isn't about Franzen. What I want to emphasize here is that critics don't seem to value the very quality that makes literature unique, or if they do they don't call attention to it in any real terms. Anderson goes on and on about how compelled and taken in he was by the quality of writing in Freedom, and certainly that's a matter to be discussed in criticism; however, he fails to cite the source of that engagement, or give it any sort of meaningful context (2). But maybe I'm not being fair. Perhaps we aren't in agreement on the various terms of the thing in question, e.g. literature, and to a broader extent, art. 

It's necessary to note my position on the use of propaganda; that is, it's a tool, plain and simple. That is not to say that a work of propaganda is inherently poor in regards to quality. On the contrary, if it is indeed effective, propaganda must be well written. The issue here seems to be one of stigma. Propaganda in the guise of art seems to me morally repugnant. But that is not to say propaganda and art are always mutually exclusive things. For instance, it seems ironic that the works of Orwell both are definitive in their descriptions of propaganda, and simultaneously used as propaganda in classrooms across the country (3).This speaks to the elusive, slippery nature of literature. And indeed, it would be a self-defeating claim to say that art cannot be propaganda, and vice-versa, no? After all, if one is to contend that propaganda is essentially a pervasive message of simplicity--that is, provider of answers rather than a thing that obscures such notions--critics cannot make that same mistake in placing such labels on works of fiction, for they are subject to the same dichotomy.  One must make the same distinction between critical work and propaganda--because the thing about critical thinking is that it too ought not to conform to the bounds of polemics. We are dealing with an entirely different arena.

Simply put, things are not either propaganda or art. These are essentially terms critics use to make sense of works. It's a dichotomy, but it's one that can be broken down. And by no means should these terms be the parameters for a healthy critical discourse.We need treat more polemical works with a different kind of critical method than we would with say, a piece of fiction that doesn't tend to simplify issues via binary logic (4). Propaganda is for the most a different kind of beast (though there is some common ground), and should be treated as such. We need to remind ourselves that literature by definition ought not to employ the language of utility for political/commercial ends. But this is all very lofty territory.


1.) I would place myself in said school. While I think it's a rather specious question to ask what literature ought to do, one of the more general qualities to works I find engaging is that they tend to obscure and dilute matters, as opposed to providing easy answers. Kafka and Barthelme are two literary figures that come to mind.

2.) Forgive me if I'm skeptical, especially concerning the questionable citing of David Foster Wallace in Anderson's concluding sentence. Though DFW and Franzen were good friends (I've heard), there was certainly a great deal of literary disagreement between the two. Take a look here for some evidence on this, particularly at 11:40, when DFW pegs down a serious flaw in Franzen's philosophy.

3.) I know when I was in high school the evils of communism were implicitly touted, and that was five to six years ago. I assume it was more blatant in the past.

4.) When I refer to binary logic, it connotates a few things. The main thing I want to stress is that polemical works frame things in matters of right vs. wrong, us vs. them, black and white, etc. It's not a complicated idea.