restricted access Art or Propaganda? Dewey and Adorno on the Relationship between Politics and Art
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Art or Propaganda? Dewey and Adorno on the Relationship between Politics and Art

Almost all people—even if they seldom articulate or act on this belief—believe that art is good in an "enriching" type of way, making us better people and promoting a healthy and free society. Conversely, most people believe that propaganda is bad because it "impoverishes" our experience, reducing our selves and our society to one-dimensionality and reducing our freedom. In addition, almost everybody believes that they can distinguish between art and propaganda. If it is indeed the case that art enriches our experience and propaganda impoverishes it, then establishing criteria that will allow us to make a distinction between the two would seem a worthwhile exercise, one whose ramifications could affect the quality of our educational, cultural, political, and spiritual lives. However, there is a problem with making these necessary and potentially beneficial distinctions and this problem belies the common notion that the difference between propaganda and art is easily visible. When we actually attempt to consider a specific work or body of works in its integrity, according to its form and content, distinguishing between that which is art and that which is propaganda is often troublingly difficult.

As an example of this problem, consider the classic "propaganda" film, Triumph of the Will (1934), directed by Leni Riefenstahl. After numerous screenings in the "Philosophy and Film" course I regularly teach, I have noticed that my students evince two nearlyincommensurable reactions to this documentary of the National Socialist Party Congress at Nürnberg. One of these reactions is that of aesthetic arousal and enjoyment. The geometric patterns formed by columns of soldiers, the close-ups in which these soldiers appear as statuary, the minutiae conveyed by faces in the crowd: all of these masterful shots involve the film's viewer in an aesthetic experience that is neither banal nor gratuitous but satisfying and inspirational. Triumph of the Will—perceived in this first way as involving the viewer in an experience that is cathartic, fulfilling, and memorable—is enjoyed and experienced as a work of art. [End Page 42]

The other response of my students to a screening of Triumph of the Will is that of visceral revulsion. It is the feeling inspired by a morally repugnant piece of propaganda. The events depicted in the film—Hitler's descent from the sky, the volks parade, the rhythmic and fevered cries of "Sig Heil"—all these engagingly filmed actions appear absolutely repellent to those whose knowledge of history demands that they be seen as seeds of World War II and of the Holocaust. Because Triumph of the Will is so artfully executed, the viewers' feelings of revulsion towards the film are made even more intense than they would have been were the picture poorly made.

Even noting these intense feelings of revulsion, there remains my students' other yet simultaneous reaction to the film: specifically, that it is a great film and that it can be seen as a work of art. This feeling, and from this feeling the reasonably unavoidable contention that Triumph of the Will is indeed a work of art (it is beautiful in its execution, arouses sentiment, provokes contemplation, and offers meaning), stands in uneasy tension with its effectiveness as a piece of propaganda. Always there remains the question: "How can I be appreciating something that, as a propaganda piece for Nazi ideology, should be and is loathsome and repellent to me?"

Almost since its debut, critics have been wrestling with the tension caused by the ambivalent response the film provokes. Most have resolved this tension by arguing decisively for viewing the film either exclusively as propaganda or exclusively as art. Critics like Susan Sontag and Siegfried Kracauer contend that the film is an abhorrent propaganda piece with nice cinematography, whereas analysts like David Hinton and Andrew Sarris emphasize Riefenstahl's relative autonomy from the Nazi propaganda machine and concentrate on the film as a piece of documentary art.1

This tendency to unequivocally categorize Triumph of the Will—or for that matter any creative work—as either propaganda or art is not, however, a productive, revealing, or honest analysis. With such...