The War on the Canvas: Art vs. Propaganda

In Christina Mercaldo, Culture, Featured by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Christina Mercaldo –

When I asked my absolutely brilliant writing mentor why she writes, she could have responded in a gorgeous, poetic oration that would leave any listener drooling and questioning why they were even attempting to take up the craft, when geniuses such as her had already discovered every secret of the art. But instead, she responded simply, yet with great feeling: “Because it makes me more human.” Something about the artistic process leads us deeper into the human experienceー ours and others. Particular. Messy. Beautiful. Unique.

So, does propaganda do these things? Does it bring us closer to the human? Is it art, or perhaps it exists within art? What happens when it shares a canvas? A Canadian professor may have some answers.

“You can almost see in the paint the war between ideology and artistic message,” said Jordan Peterson, who collects Soviet propaganda paintings by procuring them from eBay. While he enjoys the irony of buying artwork from a communist era on a free market platform, this isn’t the only reason he collects these historical pieces. When asked on a podcast ‘why’, he gave severals reasons: 1) because he wants to remind himself of “totalitarianism and the human capacity for atrocity”; 2) because they are beautiful – painted by skilled Russian artists; but the most notable reason is 3) because “you can see a war on the canvas” – the skill and imagination of the painter subjugated to the ideological “horrors of the USSR.”

In the introduction to a 2011 exhibition of works from his collection at a Toronto gallery, he described Soviet painters as keeping “the traditions of European impressionism and realism alive throughout the 20th century, when formal artistic training in the West was deteriorating.” These pieces were born from hands of practice and skill that devoted earnest study to the form of their craft. And they used their imagination and ability to, willingly or unwillingly, propagate a very certain picture of of their country and politics: partiinost (party-mindedness) and narodnost (the spirit of the people).

The two pieces above are from Peterson’s collection by Redko, Kliment Nikolaevich: Born in Rakolupy (now in Poland) 1897. Studied in art studio of Pechserksaya Lavra, Kiev, 1910-1914

This piece above is by Isaak Brodsky, the grandfather of the Socialist Realism movement, known for his portrayals of Lenin and idealized, carefully crafted paintings dedicated to the events of the Russian Civil War and Bolshevik Revolution.

Looking at Brodsky’s work, pieces from Peterson’s collection and others like them, propaganda and art seem to actually complement each other: propaganda seeks to deliver a message and these pieces are stunning proof that art is the most effective form to do so. So what is this war Peterson is speaking of? I think it comes down to the human vs. the ideological message of a piece.

When art serves ideology– when its purpose is to serve an ideological message, it runs the risk of becoming untethered from reality. Why? Because art is meant to be built up from reality– generate from our experience and flow from the human rather than an idea. For example, if a portrait is painted with the intention of portraying the subject as a perfect, just, angelic ruler, while ignoring their flaws, that painting is filtered through ideology, rather than reality.

Propaganda often has an aim of furthering a cause. It is often marked by its singularity of perspective and predetermined parameters. For example, in Mao’s China, (Mao Zedong was a communist revolutionary and first chairman of the People’s Republic of China), paintings of him were created by untrained artists that portrayed him consistently in a standardized way. The parameters around his image included: using bright, warm colors so that his face appeared as a source of light, and divinity– with no grey for shading and no black, because that was a color that connoted counter-revolutionary intentions.

Designer: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House Propaganda Group (上海人民美术出版社宣传画组) 1966, August. The sunlight of Mao Zedong Thought illuminates the road of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution

Improvisation is necessary to the artistic process. As Peterson explains, “Art is a process and the artist doesn’t know what they doing – they are playing.” He references watching a film of Picasso at work, and notes that Picasso doesn’t have a plan, but is exploring… discovering and trying to understand. As though the form itself is teaching the artist something – a truth which the artist belongs to, stands under and must continually seek. The artist will use grey shading and black, if he or she so chooses, without fear of counter-revolutionary intentions. The greatest thing an artist fears is not being true to the form. An artist doesn’t wield their work to his or her own agenda, but ventures deeper, into the secrets of the art.

Pablo Picasso, 1910, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), oil on canvas, 100.3 x 73.6 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York

These secrets often unfold in multiple perspectives. And embodying multiple perspectives is a fruit of the human experience. The varied, dynamic, and transformatic expression is uniquely human, full of the grit, flaws, texture and color that ideology lacks, and propaganda omits.

But when skilled artists willingly or unwilling leverage their talents in service of a political message, a war bubbles up. The freedom of artistic expression – the desire to capture reality – is checkmated by the ideological aim of the piece. But time sifts through this war, and picks a winner. Because of the frailty of one-dimensional views, propaganda struggles to outlast its context. As we get further away from the USSR, there will be a time when people won’t understand the political message… all that lasts in Peterson’s paintings is the beauty – the art.

Saint John Paul the Great addressed artists many times, always with the aim that artistic pursuits are a vocation meant to uplift the human spirit – to put it at the service of humanity as a whole. And when art is put at the service of something ideological, like propaganda, a tension inevitably exists because liberty is at the heart of the creative process – the ability to choose colors, notes and words. The artistic process is a mystery. So much of it is discovery and play. It is an improvisation of the imagination of the artist – an actualization of the image in which they are made in: creator.

As Ludwig von Beethoven is credited with saying: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine” and, I would add, deeper into the human.

About the Author

Christina Mercaldo was born in Northern California and raised in Washington State. She graduated from JPCatholic in 2015 with her MBA in Film Producing. She is currently working in multimedia for a Veteran nonprofit organization in San Diego and producing her own projects on the side. She plans to polish her third and final comedy script and begin querying managers this year.