Press: Art Map Burlington on Cowan Propaganda

From Art Map Burlington March, 2011, written by Ric Kadour

Toby Clark points out in his book, Art and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century, the word “propaganda” suggests a set of manipulative strategies while art implies a level of truth, beauty, and freedom. As such, “propaganda art” can be a contradiction. But if one thinks of propaganda art as simply art that is aimed at influencing the beliefs of a community toward a cause or position, one shifts the emphasis to the intention of the artist. The art object itself becomes morally neutral, an artifact of community dialogue and thought about a given issue. On whichever side of the debate one falls, the means by which the debate is taking place is worth noting.

Burlington has been embroiled in a brouhaha over a potential partnership between the City and Lockheed Martin. The City claims that the partnership is about addressing climate change. The protestors don’t like the coziness between the City and the world’s largest military contractor. Small Equal’s Liza Cowan waded into the debate by making and giving away a dozen 8.5”x11” propaganda posters that cast aspersions on the relationship between the City and Lockheed Martin.

In the posters, Cowan changes found images to create a message about the issue. She changes the poster for the 1947 film Kiss of Death so the lead actors are the Mayor, Lockheed Martin, and the Citizens of Burlington. She replaces the ad copy on a 1955 edition of George Orwell’s 1984 with a quote from Lockheed Martin. A 1930 advertisement featuring a physician touting the benefits of Lucky Strike cigarettes becomes an indictment of Lockheed Martin’s contribution to the problem of climate change. The posters are simple and direct. They are less about communicating facts and more about getting attention and inspiring interest in the issue. Cowan’s use of familiar imagery makes them accessible and connects the viewer to pre-established emotions like the fear of an Orwellian-style dystopia or anger at historic misleading tobacco advertisement

Here's my response to the review:

Ric, thanks so much for reviewing my posters! I so appreciate the opportunity to reach a new audience with my timely message, as well as recognition of my work as an artist and propagandist. In a half joking way, I tell people, as I hand out my posters, “remember, todays propaganda is tomorrow’s collectible.”

I think that Toby Clark’s definitions of art and propaganda are wrong, though. Much of what we call “fine art” is in fact propaganda, first by its creation then by curatorial selection. Our cultural standards of beauty, for instance, are created by and reflected in accepted works of art. Does this not both express a point of view while manipulating the viewer to accept it? Of course it does. But such propaganda flies under the radar, because we, as a culture, believe so strongly that art, great art, is somehow value neutral.

Maybe the beauty example is obvious, but the same thing happens with landscape. Art both creates and reflects a cultural standard of topography, cultivation etc. Those standards are neither value neutral nor universal, but have, often been used as colonizing tools. For example, when Christian Europeans “tamed” the landscapes of Africa to reflect the “godly” standards of their homelands. These values were both driven by and created by accepted standards of artistic beauty. We don’t think of this a propaganda, but it is.

My mission, as an agit prop artist, is to reach the mind and emotion of the viewer, and you get how I do it. My work is already half done for me by the conditioned response of the viewer to the images I chose. Find something that already resonates, then change or add words. And you are right, it is not a logical argument I am making. It’s an appeal to a deeper level of intuitive response. That’s how propaganda works.

I urge everyone to learn to understand the mechanics of propaganda. Because even though I think I have the moral high ground here, and I do very much want to sway people, I want even more for people to learn to think critically. Nothing could be more important in these times.

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  • Don't be fooled

    The wolf is Lockheed Martin.