The effort of understanding
By Rob van Gerwen
Propaganda and Pornography in and out of Art
Abstract of the argument on this page
How do we distinguish art from propaganda and pornography?
Can propaganda and pornography ever be art?
I address these issues in terms of the attitudes required for the relevant audiences.
Examples: Riefenstahl's Triumf des Willens, Jeff Koons' pornographic pictures.
May 21, 2016
Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will confronts this watcher with the sheer force of the gesture of the outstretched hand: to be able to make that gesture and provide it with all the content it had back then: I am one of you, He is my half-god (like He is yours), we are together. If you are not with us you are in deep trouble. One feels the same watching the soldiers: what it must have meant to be allowed to wear that swastika. Yet, none of these effects on the audience turns this vehicle into a work of art, let alone a masterpiece as it has been treated in current debates in analytical aesthetics."If you are not with us you are in trouble
Triumph of the Will is a work of propaganda. It may have been produced technically well, and artistic techniques may have been borrowed from mainstream avant-garde cinema, but does this turn the film into a work of art?
Why not? What would treating it as art mean?
- A work of propaganda has as its first and last meaning the act of exclusion or inclusion it thrives on. Watching the film (then and now) confronts one with the awkward feeling that there is a party going on but one is not included--unless one succeeds in identifying sufficiently with the rally-goers. (Pathos)
- A work of art acts upon its audience as well, but it pulls off a different type of performance. It does not include or exclude any beholders. Instead, it activates the beholder to bring in his or her background knowledge in order to bring the work (and its represented) to life: logos.
- In this, a work of art must show respect both towards the represented and towards the beholder. It must in part leave things to the beholder. (There is more on this in my paper on Ethical autonomism.) I am not inventing this, but think that it is part and parcel of the present-day concept of art of Western society: Works are to address their ever beholders in a democratic fashion, so to speak. Making the beholder choose beforehand whether or not he shall be included or excluded forecloses his powers of artistic empathy.
No intimation in Triumph of the Will
In Triumph of the Will no intimation--representation through modal ellipsis--is used. The shots of faces in the film suggest experiences more than conveying them.
In fact there exist two types of intimation. First, the type exemplified by the scene of a man slapping his wife, and the director showing the shaking coffee cup she is carrying (instead of the slapping and the ensuing tears), in L'Argent by Robert Bresson. This is a typical example of a representation-through-intimation of the experiential awareness of individual characters. An example of the second type of intimation would be the shower-scene in Hitchcock's Psycho. This type does not convey the experience of an antagonist, but the emotional expression of the events. Let us call this latter type intimation as expression.
Both types of intimation induce similar mental events in the beholder: in both cases some emotional dimension of the beholder's mental life is brought to life by his own imagination, and in both cases this emotional dimension exists in the world that is depicted in the film. There is a crucial difference, however, between conveying the feelings of some antagonist and representing some emotional aspect of non-sentient creatures or events, such as we find in the shower-scene.
In Triumph of the Will indeed one emotional aspect is conveyed ("Oh, how great it is to be here, all of us together.") But no experiences of individuals are represented. Neither Hitler nor any of the other antagonists is presented with a psychological repertoire. So in this film, there is intimation as expression, but no intimation as representation (of experience).
What we should ask ourselves watching this picture, is: are we still capable of being happy with regard to this Nazi rally, like these people, seemingly, were back then? Why not?
The answer may inform us about what David Hume, Kendall Walton and Derek Matravers call the impossibility of fictional assent to a moral world view that we do not share.
The resemblance of certain aspects of Triumph of the Will to a documentary on the life and times of our recently deceased ex-queen, Juliana, suggests that my objecting the lack of Intimation (as representation of the experiential) in Triumph of the Will was, maybe, overhasty. In this documentary we see cheering masses, who have their minds set to a singular subject, the then newly crowned queen. It would seem a mere academism to object to this film with the argument that the lives of the individuals are sacrificed to a singular subject matter, a singleminded ideology. Such a lack may not be a failure per se, although it may be one in works of art.
Possibly, what this indicates is, 1. that intimation is not a requirement for documentary; 2. that Triumph of the Will should be treated as one; and 3. that its intimation-as-expression may still go against its documentary status, i.e. against its task of telling the truth.
Then again, couldn't or shouldn't expressiveness be among the elements of such truth telling? What purist notion of truth lies dormant in the assumption that it cannot or should not? Perhaps this assumption identifies truth with the clear and transparent sense of propositions?
We could of course, end my philosophical struggles to get to grips with these issues by giving up the idea that conceptual analysis is going to take us nearer to a better world view, and by stating that, well, whether art, propaganda or documentary, Triumph of the Will is just a sequence of images (whatever its pretense or effects) and what anyone did or thought on account of it is irrelevant.
Yet, I conceive of philosophy, like Wittgenstein and many others, as a kind of conceptual therapy, and if we can produce better ways of thinking about art and propaganda--i.e. ways of thinking that explain and enable us to prevent certain wrongs--then we are better off.
The expression of evil
I hold, like Plato and Kant, that the "Beauty is the outward expression of a moral nature paradigm of beauty is the outward expression of a beautiful inner, of a moral nature. Expression in the arts is an analogue to real-life facial and gestural expression. This may be why it is so hard to think of an evil movie such as Triumph of the Will as beautiful.
It is the beauty (the outward expression) that precedes our recognition of a beautiful moral nature. It is as if we assume that an evil character cannot be expressed coherently, and cannot, therefore, be outwardly beautiful.
Maybe this is a correct assessment. Maybe, since our powers of expression come about through social interaction (see Lacan on the mirror stage), and because the vast majority of moral judgements is in favour of the morally good--maybe because of all this, our culture simply hasn't developed any means to coherently express evil. Maybe, it is thought that the expression of evil is simply an expression that lacks coherence.
Assent to fictional evil
Kendall Walton discusses why we don't want to fictionally assent to an immoral world, such as the one presented in Triumph of the Will even though we feel that "our convictions are so secure that there can be no real danger to them" (p. 343). In the case of Triumph of the Will this remark is pertinent. I feel at danger of being incapsulated by the propagandistic effects of the film--I acknowledge being dangerously fascinated by the powers of Nazi gestures and flags. Yet there is no thought in my mind considering joining this movement. And I feel as vulnerable as most people may have felt back then, and, maybe, eager to join in and share the fun. That scares me the most - being potentially one of them who tortured and killed so many Jews.
I feel somehow, to have to say similar things about Primo Levi's testimonies. He too has me fascinated and longing to be one of them, one of the victims, and to share the power of absolute powerlessness and dehumanization, famine, loneliness, cold, illness, death.
It is harder to talk about my fascination for Jewish victimization than about my fascination for the Nazi gesture. It is as though both the power and moral failure of the Nazi gesture are more in the open, as is its pathos. The victim, in contrast, is more inaccessible, more bottomless, and emotionally and culturally more complex. This is a curious asymmetry as both elements mutually define one another (at least in this argument they do).
Beauty and evil irreconcilable
Maybe, with regard to Triumph of the Will it is an inconsistency that we cannot accept, between some kind of beauty (and, by implication, inner moral goodness) and an overtly evil culture. We simply disagree with the idea that a culture like that can ever be beautiful.
Triumph of the Will goes against our personal sense of self.
Attitudes moral and artistic
"For a member of a moral species the moral attitude is primary Which are the types of attitudes that we take up in different circumstances?
The standard, everyday attitude, I submit, is the moral attitude. In it we perceive the events in such a manner that whenever something happens which we feel, according to our moral standards, is wrong we are held to interfere. We allow the world to not merely address us physically, but, rather, as moral persons. I.e., when in our moral attitude, we not only hold certain moral principles, but are, also, psychologically disposed to act accordingly. "This is the primary attitude" means: "This is what it means to be a member of the moral species, humanity." [Psychopaths do not seem to know this attitude, but that is not my concern here.]
To appreciate a work of art as art, we must release this moral attitude, and take up an artistic attitude. In the artistic attitude we do not allow things or events to address us as moral agents, but as persons who think and feel (morally relevant) thoughts and feelings without feeling the impetus to act accordingly. We are not held or supposed to storm the stage to rescue the victim from some murderous attack.
Several considerations may prevent someone to take up an artistic attitude. He can be too busy with more normal morally relevant actions, that are unconnected to the contents of the works one is confronted with. He can also feel that certain overruling considerations should prevent him from taking in particular works, on account of how they conflict with these considerations. For instance, one may refuse to take up the artistic attitude with regard to some work which either exhibits scenes connected or connectable to pedophile acts, to holocaust denials. [Claude Lanzmann might want to argue that works which depict the horrors of the holocaust might be cases in point. See his critique of Spielberg's Schindler's List; some comments]
This funny change in our experience, from the everyday moral attitude to the artistic attitude (which Roman Ingarden thinks is the most profound switch in human psychology) is not automatically proper in every context. "Certain subjects are not to be treated artistically For one, snuff movies require us to take up an artistic attitude where the only proper attitude is a moral one of indignation, and a duty to find the killers. Taking up an artistic attitude toward snuff movies turns one into an accomplice. The example of propaganda (Triumph of the Will) is one where the audience irrespective of the artistic attitude it may have taken up, is nevertheless addressed morally: when viewed in 1937 you wouldn't openly confess to disliking the film and its ideology, would you? The net effect might turn out bad for you, when other members in the audience might assemble outside to give you a beating. This, I submit, is typical of propaganda, and the reason why propaganda as such cannot be art.
Logs and fire
The men who throw logs of wood into the fire bring up associations with the ovens in the concentration camps. Riefenstahl will not have meant that to be a reference, but in the present stage of history these associations are inevitable. What we need is a 'speech-act' type of account of artworks' agency.
One might want to argue that Triumph of the Will was a work of propaganda in 1936, but it cannot be one at present. I disagree. It still engenders these very associations, and hence holds a power over us, that we will have to be very careful about.
This opens up--I am well aware of this--an approach to art that identifies the agency of works in terms of the associations engendered with an audience, irrespective of whether or not these associations are appropriate.
Desiderata: Making work of understanding the values of art
We must make much more work of understanding the high values that art has in for us. We must connect art's value to its causal powers that make us associate towards:
- a work's meaning in general, or its so-called truth
- its expressive powers (intimation).
- For this we must also look at "empirical psychology" (Kant's term for Hume's 'laws of association'), and
- our powers to farm out our memory to our surroundings.
- Exemplary case: Music's powers to contain our dearest memories
I found some hints at this, i.e. art's values, in Chaim Potok's My Name is Asjer Lev (thanks Désirée).
D.W. Griffith's Intolerance
Watching D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), one recognises the racism as easily as the beauty of the film. Because you don't feel vulnerable to being convinced by the morals in the film, you have little trouble separating the two.
What goes against Triumf des Willens is its present danger, which lies not in the strength of its message but in the existence of groups of people ready to act upon that message.
Okay, so apparently, only if you feel vulnerable to succumbing to a particular immoral message or if you think there are groups who are thus vulnerable, the issue surfaces of whether or not something immoral can be beautiful. (Cf. Devereaux).
We enjoy the beauty of the Egyptian pyramids even if we realise that people suffered as slaves to build them, because we think there is no present danger that such slavery will surface unpunished in present-day societies. We seem, also, to confide in our powers to keep racism at arm's length, but feel hesitant about controlling nazis.
In the absence of such vulnerability you might be able to treat the immorality in a relativist manner, arguing that it is merely the immoral views of the director or of a group the director somehow represents.
Sometimes we are accomplices with the subject matter of a film
The Belgian movie C'est arrivé près de chêz vous acts in a manner similar to propaganda, but differently. It implicates the viewer in the fiction by implicating the cameraman in it. We watch how the friends of a psychopath follow his whereabouts while killing, raping and torturing people--without interfering. Does that turn us into accomplices?
To me, this seems a crucial, although slightly underestimated new theme in aesthetics.
Cinema as documentary: never 'live'
Look at it this way. "What would it take to view the CNN or Al Jazeera television reports as works of art?Triumph of the Will was made in an era without television. To report visually on events that were deemed important one had to shoot a film, and show it in the theatre, where there are bound to be other people. Watching television at home can be a social event, but watching cinema in the theatre forces one to leave the safe and secluded context of one's family. That explains one part of the propagandistic element in this film.
The other part becomes clear if we transpose the situation Triumph of the Will was in to our times, and compare it with the often reports on television about the war in Iraq, which too are often criticized as propagandistic. What would it take to view the CNN or Al Jazeera television reports as works of art? Surely, this is a silly question.
Our criticisms of television reports on Iraq are aimed at a flawed performance typically attributed to journalism. Journalism is supposed to be truthful and as complete as possible.
Telling the truth is the typical performance of journalism (as it is of science); shutting out parts of the audience while privileging others is the typical agency of propaganda.
For art, some other agency is required (or expected): not telling the truth, nor shutting out or privileging certain people.
See here for a discussion of a work's moral agency.
One can object to my thesis - that Triumph of the Will is a work of propaganda because it includes or excludes the members of the audience before anything else - that this is what all films do. All films want their audience to identify with at least some of their characters' whereabouts.
Well, yes, but Triumph of the Will is a documentary, which means that it reports on a part of reality and this reality is continuous with the audience's. Moreover, fiction film does not require the audience to agree with what is represented in the film, but to perceive it as plausible and to try to experience the represented from the characters' perspective. Lastly, fiction film allows the audience to identify temporarily with some characters and to experientially neglect others. In Triumph of the Will one is required to identify with anything that is shown, whether this is a high official or a member of the cheering audience at the 'Parteitag'. In all, identification regarding a work of art is of a different nature from identification regarding a work of propaganda. With propaganda, identification ensues the social pressure from the other members in the environment of the moviegoer.
What is documentary?
Michael Renov distinguishes four aesthetic tendencies in a documentary: 1. to record, reveal, or preserve, 2. to persuade or promote, 3. to analyze or interrogate, 4. to express.
The first can, I think, best be understood as follows: there is always one of a documentary's claims that must be upheld: it is the claim that the images, however they are framed or edited, were found in the reality (that forms the documentary's subject matter). [Hany Abu-Assad's "Ford Transit", which contains documentary-like imagery played by actors, makes this clear, irrespective of its own pretense to be telling the truth better than real-life images could]. A film puts the claim to be documentary before us in and through its style, but what it thus claims, is: that its images are found.
Shots prove the reality of whatever they show: that it was there. But it is a long way from there to saying what it was. To tell what it was that happened before the camera, a film needs to take recourse to the other three aesthetic properties. If this reading is corect, and the first property defines the essence of documentary, two things can be concluded:
1. The Ford-film has made this essence clear, by transgressing it. [The film created a row in Dutch press.] 2. Documentaries are not works of art, because their performance is not artistic but truth-valuational. One can judge them by epistemological standards (esp. with regard to the first and third properties Renov mentions).
One argument favouring this position is at the end of a paper I wrote (in Dutch) about the 'ontological fallacy in analytical aesthetics'. In the paper I argue against Currie's thesis that we cannot perceive fictional characters in fiction films, because they do not exist and, hence have no perceptual properties to represented in a film. I argue that what we see in a film is determined by the representation (the film), not by establishing whether or not the depicted exists [how could we establish whether a particular persona in a film exists in reality if we have no means to perceive him in the first place?]. Films represent through a complex cooperation of factors, among which the contents of a shot is only one factor. For one, the mental lives of the people shown in shots in films, is constructed by way of editing and explaining text. It cannot be depicted directly either. Hence, whether we ever saw Jack Nicholson, the person, is as debatable as the idea that we see his character Jack Torrence in Kubrick's The Shining.
A puzzling case seems to be the film "In some films, feeling excluded by the narrative proves that you feel implicated.C'est arrivé près de chêz vous, which somehow implies the audience in the action that it presents. This film shows a psychopath at work filmed by his friends. The filming is accessory to the evil, and therefore the filmwatcher is too. The filmers are not actually involved in the rapings and killings, but, obviously, by just standing there and not doing anything they cheer the psychopath. By implication we do the same. This film too addresses us as the persons we are. Yet, it does not do this by denying that what we are looking at is a representation, and by including some but not all of the members of the audience. In fact, those who feel excluded by the narrative by feeling implicated by it are the best watchers.
See also: expression.
Triumph of the Will and C'est arrivé près de chez-vous
Comparable effects, yet distinct merits.
Both Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Belvaux's (et al.) C'est arrivé près de chez-vous have peculiar effects on their audiences, effects of implicating them in the stories they tell. In this, both are particularly telling with regard to the exact nature of the artistic attitude which is required for art practice participants if they are to adequately appreciate works as art. [For further specifics on this, see my "Ethical Autonomism"].
Funny thing is, I have been arguing against the inclusion of propaganda into art practice on account of its disallowing the audience to detach itself from its moral, everyday surroundings, whilst arguing that C'est arrivé près de chez-vous, in contrast, on account of its implicating effects should be considered great art. What explains this difference?
Propaganda and art-external politics.
To make clear how exactly Triumph of the Will implicates its ever audience, we need, for the moment, to abstract from the larger political and historical context of the film. Apparently, the devastating effects of Nazism seem to make the case against Triumph of the Will too clear-cut. My concern is not just with excluding immoral systems of thought and feeling from art practice--I am not a moralist, and think that the --fully legitimate!-- concerns to suppress Nazi-thinking are what I call "overruling considerations": they are external to art practice and derive their legitimacy from the political context. Such art-external resistance depends for its nature and success on the context's nature. Contemporaries of certain works might not (yet) perceive its problematic nature in full, and might, hence, be in favour of the relevant works. Over the years the works need not change, but their contexts most evidently do, so that, if art appreciation depended primarily on art-external contexts, it would loose all art-internal force, and art practice would loose its relevance (moral, or otherwise).
My concerns are art-internally motivated. Hence, I suggest, for the sake of the present comparison, to abstract from the political context--even though I would certainly want to argue that it is still in place, even though the Nazis have been defeated in 1945. [But you see, to argue that point I wouldn't be talking about art practice anymore, but about a sociological analysis of present-day culture. As said, that is not my concern. Mine is with the conceptual framework of art practice.]
Propaganda and advertising.
The way to abstract from these two films' political contexts, is to reduce the work of propaganda to its core, of advertising, i.e. something is propaganda only if it is trying to effect certain thoughts on behalf of its audiences, irrespective of the contents of these thoughts. [Propaganda is a subspecies of advertising, where the thoughts effected are not economically or commercially motivated, but politically.] Concentrating on its advertising core should allow us to make the comparison. The question, then, is: what is the difference between art and advertising?
Art and advertising.
An advertisement has one (complex) goal: to have people in the audience remember the particular brand or product shown in the ad, when they are in the right spot at the right time (i.e. in the shop), and then do the 'right' thing, which is: to buy it.
Where works of art want to influence our present thinking and feeling, ads want more: they want to cause memories, and, through these, our agency.
Kant's notion of disinterestedness objects to this: ads actively induce an interest in the object's existence in us. [In fact, we now find that Kant's disinterestedness holds as a requirement to creativity as well.] If the disinterestedness requirement holds, then advertising cannot be art.
Advertising and propaganda.
Propaganda, too, wants to influence the audience's thought and feelings, its memories, and its agency. There is no way, you could, adequately appreciate a work of propaganda if you were not ready and willing to translate the work's meanings into action.
Editing in film and television
The motivation behind editing in cinema is often directed at the intimation of the experiential. We do not merely want a story to be told, but want the film to convey how it is to experience the events told. Intimation is achieved, standardly, if not necessarily, through intentional representing through modal ellipsis. With live-television intimation is out of the question, and, therefore, non-existent. With live-television the switching between shots is due to a switching between monitors by the director, not to a meticulous cutting and pasting of singular (sets of) images, as with celluloid pictures. The motivation behind the switching between monitors on live television relates to the measure of information (or suspense) the director perceives in the next shots (as opposed to the present shot). For the audience the switch between shots is nor regulated (by conventions or stylistic considerations) but is truly singular and ad hoc. There is no way to make sense of them.
Procuring your erotic satisfaction from pornography (whether or not from the internet) involves the removal of one of the modalities of your erotic experience.
Sec with a real-life partner is egocentric: what you receive depends from the positioning of your body. Sex is an interactive dance of reciprocality, really. Sex via pornography in magazines or on the internet, is non-egocentrical.
This is not particularly different from what change we effect by taking up an artistic attitude. So the question is: what is problematic about pornography?
Erotic experience's subjective bodily aspect is kept working at the cost of intersubjective reciprocity. With art, in contrast to what Ernst Gombrich's substitution-theory submits, the subjective bodily aspect is sacrificed together with the reciprocal aspect.
Editing in pornography
In pornography footage, the motivation for editing holds a middle position between these two. Yes, the switch between shots is motivated, as on television, by the measure of information in the respective images, and then some: the (male) audience is being brought to craving and, eventually, to satisfaction--which introduces some type of suspense, which might be the subject of intimation, albeit a corporeal one. Also, the experiences of the characters is being 'intimated', but only after they were first reduced to sheer lust.
Are these full-fledged characters, or is their act such that the discrepancy between actor and character simply disappears? The 'actor' plays his own sexual satisfaction.