Thesis: Propaganda, Aesthetics and Art: Languages and Rehearsals of Power

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In every society power must be visible to be meaningful. But, like the shifting political actors that exercise it, the representation of power is not fixed and is constantly redefined through the symbolic. If art allows for transformative experiences, can it transform, or redefine, the meaning of power for its audiences? What would it mean to construct a visual language that permits the exploration of empowerment? What visual codes or idioms might it be possible to draw on? Power of course must be understood in relational terms, and so any visual language or aesthetic must tap into a shared vocabulary already present in society for the sake of its legibility. In other words, the artist must take into consideration those existing sociopolitical relationships as well as existing languages of power as the artist’s clay to be molded. Perhaps an aesthetic can be constructed that takes up established languages of power for artistic ends.

When power is applied to art, our thoughts quickly arrive at propaganda art. When we think of 20th century propaganda, we know of its incredible power in affecting transformative change through aesthetic persuasion. For artists to take it up as part of an ‘autonomous’ practice is no small thing. Can such a pre-existing language, charged with its own historical connotations, be used to different ends without reducing artwork to the service of narrow political goals? Artists must maintain a practice that is not subservient or instrumentalized to political ends. Were the latter not the case, the artists risks converting their work into a tool, or a means to an end rather than a work to be understood on its own terms. Nevertheless, the possibility of using an aesthetic of power may allow for the artist to open up a space for exploration, a space for rehearsal of power, through the language of propaganda. In what follows, I look at artistic practices that apply the language of propaganda in order to think through these questions. This adoption of aesthetics must be understood in its historical relation to propaganda art, as well as the ontological evolution of the image itself.

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