Fair warning: this article is propaganda. It was written to change your mind. I have a point to make and an argument to support this point, with the intended result that the reader believes this point as well. This article is not up for interpretation; the reader must finish the piece thinking as I do — anything different is failure.
This means the article is not art. Writing can be art (often the best art) but this piece cannot be so for the above reasons. Despite whatever artistic merit a single sentence might have, or the fact that I’m sharing a part of myself through written self-expression, it’s all redundant because I’ve admitted the goal. This admittance is rarely made out-loud; it’s made by “artists,” in secret, while creating propaganda, then repressed to convince themselves that what they made was art. It’s hard to judge people’s motives, but easier to judge their creations. Therefore, I’ll show you how to distinguish between art and propaganda, so the next time you view a painting, read a book, or watch a movie, you’ll know what’s trying to change your mind versus what’s trying to expand it. In the instance of art, your mind can change because it is open to change. In propaganda, the mind is given no choice.
One of the most important maxims in fiction writing is “show, don’t tell.” This means that, rather than telling the audience what a character is doing or feeling (e.g. “The dog frightened Julia.”), you present the character’s actions impartially and the reader can decide for his or herself (e.g. “The dog growled, making Julia’s heart jump.”). Since literature should display the purest form of reality — ultra-reality, in fact; a reality that magnifies truth — showing is the standard of good writing, while telling is what bad writing is built upon. I use built upon because the writer has an idea he or she wants to share, and the ensuing writing services this idea. Ideas are not reality, they are judgments made about reality. As soon as an author makes a judgment about the story he or she is telling, it becomes propaganda. Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s thoughts on idea-oriented writing:
“The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas. Oh, I know the type, the dreary type! He likes a good yarn spiced with social comment; he likes to recognize his own thoughts and throes in those of the author; he wants at least one of the characters to be the author’s stooge. If American, he has a dash of Marxist blood, and if British, he is acutely and ridiculously class-conscious; he finds it so much easier to write about ideas than about words; he does not realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that writer have not yet become general.”
No one would dispute Nabokov’s place among the greatest artists of the twentieth century. This is because, more than being an artist, he lived the ethic of artistry: art for art’s sake. He dealt in stories without leveling judgment upon the stories. Most notably, he made creation itself the primary function of art; the words were more important than the messages they conveyed. He showed completely, purely, without any conscious propagandizing. He made propagandizing the enemy, as all artists have done before and after. The show, don’t tell rule is not specific to literature, but extends to all creative processes as a means to separate the artists from the impostors. To be clear: every artist is human, and every human has biases that infect their creations — but these biases must be concealed enough that the audience will not be influenced by anything other than, ironically, their own biases. Art is supposed to be an image that viewers can process in whichever way their individual minds decide upon. Art must be open to interpretation; artists cannot close this loop, or else it’s propaganda.
Compare these two pieces. The first is Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois.
The second, Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
Both pieces have similar themes, but only one is art. Femme Maison explores female societal identity in the form of a naked woman whose face has been replaced with a house. Though viewers may draw much significance from the painting, they found the meaning themselves without being told. To many of you, the message will seem far from subtle, but there’s enough flourish to diversify interpretation. Whereas with Stop Telling Women to Smile, no interpretation is allowed. Despite the commendable sketchwork, there’s nothing to be learned that is not forced. With both pieces, you can come to the same conclusion that the artist intended, but only one is consensual.
Now for literature, possibly the easiest medium for accidental propagandizing. The excerpts I will show are both exposition, meaning the narrator is simply moving the story along, so these are not characters voicing their own opinions. If the narrator is omniscient, as in the following excerpts, the opinions come straight from the author.
The first is Cormac McCarthy, from Blood Meridian.
“They swarmed up the hill toward the fortifications where the Americans lay sleeping and some were mounted and some afoot and all of them armed with bows and clubs and their faces blacked or pale with fard and their hair bound up in clay. The first quarters they entered were Lincoln’s. When they emerged a few minutes later one of them carried the doctor’s dripping head…” (286)
This is Ben Shapiro, from his novel True Allegiance.
“He turned his back on the Hudson, where the sunken bridge still lay slumbering under acres of water, the calm of the surface masking the graves of thousands of Americans. The American public had called the Iraq War too bloody, the Afghanistan War too costly; combined, America had lost fewer than seven thousand people. Now, on one day, they’d lost far more than that.” (195–196)
Both passages describe victimization at the hands of a foreign enemy. However, only McCarthy is showing the event impartially. Shapiro is making a judgment about the event, telling the audience with whom to align their support. Artists aren’t supposed to tell. The only people required to tell are parents, preachers, and politicians, and this is the reason they’re hated.
In film, which is an artform so commercialized that its artliness is overlooked, exposition is made through images. Therefore, the devil’s often in the dialogue.
Consider these two film dialogues on race relations. The first is from 2017’s Best Picture winner Moonlight.
Juan: I’ve been here a long time. Out of Cuba. A lot of black folks are Cuban. You wouldn’t know from being here now. I was a wild little shortie, man. Just like you. Running around with no shoes on, the moon was out. This one time, I run by this old… this old lady. I was running, howling. Kinda of a fool, boy. This old lady, she stopped me. She said… [imitates old lady voice] “Running around, catching a lot of light”. “In moonlight, black boys look blue.” “You’re blue.” “That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue.'”
Little: Is your name “Blue”?
Juan: [laughs] Nah.
Juan: At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.
The second is from 2014’s Dear White People, taken directly from the script.
Sam: What about my show?
Dean Fairbanks: Your show is racist.
Sam: Black people can’t be racist.
[The Dean is rendered speechless at this statement.]
Sam: Prejudice? Yes. But not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since they don’t benefit from such a system.
The second is guilty of one of the worst crimes in storytelling: author surrogation. Author surrogates, or “mouthpieces,” as known in writing circles, are characters that the author speaks through; the author is, consciously or unconsciously, hiding his own opinions within his characters. This means he’s not considering how a character, who should be a complex and thought-out entity separate from himself, would respond naturally to a situation. You can detect author surrogates when the dialogue is too perfect to be spoken in real life. We all know how people talk to each other, and it’s imperfect and nuanced like the Moonlight example. In Dear White People, the character Sam talks as if she were reading out of a textbook. In a tense meeting with a college dean, a person may find it difficult to recite a political point so perfectly without a teleprompter, but a talking head has no problem doing so. This is why dialogue is one of the best places to spot propaganda, especially in film where visual propaganda is often subliminal.
After examining and contrasting the examples, it may seem as if this reverent, mysterious phenomenon called art is just ideas presented in vague ways. Though an oversimplification, this is essentially correct. Artists often have a statement to make, but, because they’re artists and not propagandists, they must conceal it as best they can. This is through the ingenuity that made them artists in the first place. A message isn’t art unless it’s explored with so much nuance that whatever remains cannot be as exceedingly simple as what the author meant to convey. It’s why, when asked what your favorite book is about, you can only give an answer so convoluted that it confuses the asker even more. This is because the best art implants an emotion in the viewer, which is inadequately expressed by words.
For these reasons, art is the perfect vessel for postmodernism. Many people blame what I’ve described as art, which has no consensus, and therefore no absolute truth, as destroying values and ruining society. This is half-true: art doesn’t show what is true, just what is, and the judgment resides with the viewer. However, in art’s absence, conflicting truths will have no mediator. Art gets a bad rap for its deconstructionism, but not forcing a person’s mind is the most libertarian thing one can do.
This doesn’t mean propaganda shouldn’t exist. If that were the case, we would lose every documentary, research paper, and comedy special. It just shouldn’t be included with art. Netflix needs a propaganda category.
As I disclaimed at the beginning, this article is propaganda, but propaganda doesn’t make the thesis untrue, it just makes it unfree. In revealing this, I hope you’ll have the serenity to accept the things that are not trying to change your mind, the courage to stop the things that are, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Bourgeois, Louise. Femme Maison. 1946-47. Oil and ink on linen. Collection Louise Bourgeois Trust, New York.
Dear White People. Written and directed by Justin Simien, Lionsgate, 2014.
Fazlalizadeh, Tatyana. Stop Telling Women to Smile. 2012-18. Oil on canvas. Public space, multiple locations.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. Vintage International, 1992.
Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on the screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney, A24, 2016.
Shapiro, Ben. True Allegiance. Kindle ed., Post Hill Press, 2016.
Toffler, Alvin. “Vladimir Nabokov.” Playboy, Jan. 1964.