The fine line between art and propaganda

We often find ourselves in our local cafe on Monday mornings — my husband and I — and what often begins as silent, caffeine-sipping, bleary-and-tired-eyed company soon becomes debate-fuelled quality time centred on some abstract idea he’s been listening to podcasts and reading about. It often ends in me taking something personally and getting upset because I’ve run out of good arguments and so what else is there to do?

We’ve discussed many topics before, usually standing on opposite sides, trying to conduct a meaningful and honest exploration into any subject. It can range from ‘Fair Trade doesn’t actually exist’ to ‘everyone is religious’ which are mere rabbit holes and lead to many other conversations within.

On this particular morning, after the caffeine had finally kicked in, I suppose, Josiah turned to me and said, “I heard the other day that Ayn Rand’s novels were considered propaganda” and so it began.

Basically Ayn Rand held a simple belief that “morality is based on rational self-interest, as well as unrestricted capitalism”. She believed in a ‘rational egoism’, whereby if everybody takes responsibility for their own successes, then society will function fluidly. She named this “Objectivism”, which became more of an ideology rather than a philosophy. Rand believed that the state’s role in society was merely to protect individual rights and nothing else: no public health or education, no welfare, nothing.

Her ideas developed and worked their way into her literature during the times of the French and Russian revolutions (she was Russian), and then further into both world wars, where we can see that the battle for world domination stood firmly on ideological differences. She strongly criticised the political left and government-control, which both popular ideologies at the time (Fascism and Communism) sought. Anyway, she’s basically been heavily criticised and laughed at ever since, because obviously there isn’t anything ‘objective’ in our societies… is there? If she were around today, she would laugh in the face of those seeking ‘their’ truth because to her, truth is not relative.

You can see why it was such an unpopular view. I’ll be honest, I don’t want to dismiss it completely because I like to think that there is validity in many (not all, obviously - I hate that I even have to disclose that) ideologies and I think that, when explored further, something can be said for some of what she believed. Ultimately, her literature was inspired by and heavily-centred on her philosophical beliefs. Although they were works of fiction, they dripped with ‘Objectivist’ dogma.

Anyway, I’ve digressed.

As for propaganda, it was and still is used by political forces, regimes and governments. Now in our flourishing democratic societies we receive our propaganda subliminally through mass media and these have influenced our own values, beliefs and biases. This is where we now need to question ‘art’.

Ayn Rand had very obvious ideological standpoints and it would be naive to think that these didn’t influence her literature. We could safely call her a propagandist. If this is the case, would we also have to call George Orwell the same? His most famous works of literature challenged current ideologies of his time through Animal Farm and warned society of a dark future if the political climate didn’t change through 1984 (society obviously didn’t heed the warning). He was pushing his ideas onto society. The same could be said for Aldous Huxley, as he also wrote Brave New World to warn the future of what was to happen if we continued to adopt certain values and ideologies (we also didn’t heed his warning). Shakespeare challenged social norms and values even in the middle ages. In the 19th century we saw Virginia Woolf challenging gender identity and some time later we have received literature from Margaret Atwood that challenges the patriarchy.

Stepping outside of literature and observing actual paintings, fine art dating as far back as Picasso’s was also created in ‘protest’ to certain political events, wars and ideas that were occurring or circulating.

I struggle to think of many paintings, poems, plays, novels, or any other artistic expression that doesn’t find its foundation in opinion, ideology and general biases. I think it’s impossible not to include your biases into your art. Art is expression of who you are or what you believe, right? I don’t know that it can ever be truly void of subjectivity. I get that it can be open to interpretation and that’s the beauty of it, but there is always going to be intent behind it, whether the artist realises it or not. How can there not be?

I don’t quite believe it is policy that changes the world, it is art. Literary art in particular offers us a vision of a ‘better’ world and opens our eyes to how a society ‘should’ be designed — and hopefully if enough people do that, policies follow. It ultimately works to inspire change on some level, but it is change on the author’s terms and what they perceive to be right. Can we go as far to say that it is, in fact, propaganda? It could be a stretch. It is certainly something to think more about and I endeavour to read literature and consume art with a more critical lens. I don’t want to blindly accept opinions or adopt ‘truths’, just because they sound ‘good’, because I think I might never escape propaganda’s grasp.

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