"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Let's avoid bad propaganda art

On Monday, council voted in favour of proceeding with something called the Library Art Project, which takes advantage of a provincial government grant of $35,000 to place a piece of art in the foyer of the new City Centre Library, which is now scheduled to open in November. However, before we unanimously supported the project, I took the opportunity to raise some concerns about the potential pitfalls of the project--with the result that both the NOW and the News published stories on the ensuing discussion.

Picasso's Guernica: A masterpiece of propaganda art.
Here's the background: My internal alarm bells start ringing more than a week ago when I read the background report about the project. The first alarm sounded when I saw that the project will bring together "community members from different cultural and faith groups with a professional community artist, using art as a tool [emphasis added] to examine issues of racism, diversity, integration and inclusion, and explore how the Coquitlam community can become more welcoming and inclusive."

Now, I certainly have no problem with furthering the causes of integration, inclusion, diversity and anti-racism. These are laudable goals, indeed. But my concern is that any time you set out to use "art as a tool" to do anything you are very clearly setting out to use art as a propaganda tool.
Maoist propaganda art: No artistic value.
Propaganda is defined as "a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position." We most often hear about propaganda as it relates to advancing some evil cause, but propaganda can be used to advance a good cause, too.

My concern is that propaganda art can very easily not be art at all, but simply a piece of rubbish or pap with no aesthetic value. Yes, some propaganda art, such as Picasso's Guernica (which aimed to influence viewers about the horrors of the Axis' aerial bombardment of a Basque village) can be stunningly successfully at an artistic level, of course. I fear, however, that, once an artist's unique, internally derived vision is tampered with by imposing an external demand on it -- in this case, demanding that the piece be "a tool" to fight racism -- that the artist will be handicapped and the work produced will suffer.

The second alarm sounded when I considered the implications of the fact that the artist will get his or her marching orders from a series of community workshops. It seems to me that this is "art by committee," and had the potential to be a "too many cooks spoil the broth" kind of disaster.

I quipped that, if we wanted to play it safe, save some money, and accomplish the "world at peace" goal to which we aspire, we might simply install a Coke machine in the foyer, and play "I"d Like to Sing the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony" on a continuous loop. I hope nobody took me seriously!

In the end, I'm glad we approved the project, and glad to have spoken up in favour of aesthetic quality. Let's set our sights high, and not settle for dreck.

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