Blog / 2008 / The Difference Between Propaganda and Art

July 7, 2008

I’m certain that the only definition of art is that it must cause change. But, if that’s the case, then doesn’t advertising qualify as art? After all, ads do cause some fairly important changes—in our wallets if nowhere else.

The difference, to my mind, lies in intent. Though an art object may be for sale, its sole purpose isn’t (usually) to sell the viewer something. To put it another way: art causes change in viewers by inspiring them to think, while the anti-revolution that ads push carefully avoids inspiring thought. And that understanding of advertising includes propaganda, an integral part of the political promotional machine.

Rosie the Riveter

This World War II poster was not created to provide women with a positive image of what it was to be at work. Well before the War, many women were working outside of the home. The need for a double income was already a fact of American life in the late 19th century.

Rosie was about making factory work more acceptable to homemakers and women who would otherwise be in clerical positions. She wasn’t asking women to rethink their place in society: that’s a modern interpretation of this image. In 1942, Rosie just wanted women to participate in the less glamorous aspects of war production.

Rosie the Riveter wearing a headscarf
Gwenn Seemel
Raha the Riveter (German-Iranian-American, Kristina)
2008
acrylic on canvas
41 x 38 inches
(This painting is from a series about what it means to be American.)

Raha has a good deal more on her plate than Rosie ever did. She forgoes the original meaning (and gesture) and embraces the modern understanding of Rosie while also taking it a step further, from female identity to national identity.

Uncle Sam wants you for US Army

This image manages to insert itself into the viewer’s consciousness, but only as the embodiment of the the United States. Yesterday’s message (Army recruitment) has lost out to this old white man’s imposing and memorable finger and expression. This Uncle Sam now represents how we see our government, like a demanding old codger of Western European descent who wants a cut of our earnings every April. Like a parental figure of sorts? Definitely keeping an eye on us.

Vietnamese-American Uncle Sam
Gwenn Seemel
Chú Xam (Vietnamese-American, Nam)
2008
acrylic on canvas and eyelet
36 x 24 inches
(This painting is from a series about what it means to be American.)

This painting hijacks the attributes of Uncle Sam along with his name—Chú Xam means Uncle Sam in Vietnamese—without taking up his stated request for your life or (his implied one for) your money. Though the text in the resulting image is an order of sorts, this version of Uncle Sam isn’t telling you what to do so much as flirting with you.

Shepard Fairey poster for Barack Obama 2008

These days, propaganda posters in the US are focused around the promotion of a real person, Barack Obama. Without getting into the politics of this year’s Presidential race, I would like to note that these images have seared the likeness of the candidate juxtaposed with words like “hope” and “change” into our secular souls with little attempt to engage us as thinking beings.

The proliferation of these images fascinates me. I wonder whether or not future generations will even remember our Obam-olatry (I suppose that depends, in part, on the outcome of the election). And, if they do, I can’t wait to see how they will elevate our hypnotic brain trash to the level art.

UPDATE

April 13, 2019

There are a lot of presidential portraits featured on my blog. I use Obama’s and Bush II’s official paintings to explain how traditional art has the same appeal as a cover song. And I talk a lot about one of my portraits of 45 in particular—this one—because it ended up in Newsweek.


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