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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

All Art is Propaganda - George Orwell

I've recently been reading a collection of critical essays by George Orwell, compiled by George Packer, titled 'All Art is Propaganda' published by Mariner Books, 2009.

There were two things which drew me to this book; first of all, I had read two collections of George Orwell essays on politics and the english language as a teenager and I enjoyed them even more than his fiction writing. I still often quote his "six rules for writing" today, especially in my work as a communications consultant where I deliver trainings on social media, which I believe are evermore invaluable especially in the digital era:

The second thing which drew me to this publication, 'All Art is Propoganda' is that my own work has been referred to as 'propaganda' numerous times. Most memorably by an audience member (when I was speaking on stage at the Manchester Design Conference in 2018 alongside Michael Wolff of Wolff Olins design agency) who described my '24 Reasons To Remain' poster as 'propaganda in service of the truth'. This prompt has led me to explore the historical and contemporary use of propaganda through my research and work.

The tile of this compilation of essays 'All Art is Propaganda' comes from the first essay in the sequence, which focuses on the writing of Charles Dickens - which I will focus on in this blog post. It is a lengthy essay of 62 pages split into 6 sections. I found this essay particularly interesting because I don't think I have ever read any Dickens myself (I recall watching Oliver Twist and the Old Curiosity Shop on film as a child and not being very inspired by them) but am very much aware of his ubiquitous presence in English culture - such as, references in jest to "being visited by three ghosts". Orwell, on the other hand, clearly has read Dicken's body of work profusely and his analysis is critical and insightful, whilst also paying respect to the author. The impression I am left with is that Orwell enjoys reading Dickens, despite his deep awareness of the short comings of Dicken's social commentary (ie. his petit bourgeois moralising) and sometimes problematic character stereotypes (ie. use of antisemitic tropes).

'I have been discussing Dickens simply in terms of "message," and almost ignoring his literary qualities. But every writer, especially every novelist, has a "message" whether he admits it or not, and the minutest details of his works are influenced by it. All art is propaganda... on the other hand, not all propaganda is art.' (p.47) This statement from Orwell has parallels with the adage I often hear that "all art is political" because of the social and cultural context in which it was made and the intended or unintended message of the artist which is communicated through their work. Most memorably, I disputed this adage on a panel discussion at the 'Upfront! Young European Video Award' ceremony, with one of my fellow judges (a professor at the University of Dusseldorf). The reason I disputed it is because I find this adage to be generalised and reductive, taking agency away from individual artists to determine the intention or lack of message of their work, whilst also failing to acknowledge the commercial systems which operate in the art sector. If anything I would contend that the creative sector has become significantly less political, since commercial artists, agencies and organisations are concerned that they could alienate potential fans or funders by making overt political statements. The counter argument to this would be that subsuming yourself into the capitalist system is in itself a political act, but personally I think this is an assessment of the socio-political systems in which artists are operating and not on the individual artists themselves. So, is all art propaganda?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines propaganda as 'information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people's opinions'. With this definition, I would disagree with Orwell - I don't believe that all art is created with the intention of influencing people's opinions. I think a lot of art is created as an expression of the artist's feelings, ideas or aesthetic desires with no intended influence on the viewer's opinions. I also think that an artist can legitimately intend their work to make the viewer feel something without trying to influence their opinions. I also believe that the best art considers multiple sides of an argument and explores the complexity of different view points rather than broadcasting a singular message. And I write this as someone who has used art as a propaganda tool throughout my creative activism, creating visual imagery and performance works to promote my side of the argument (about a variety of different causes; refugees, Brexit, the European Union, Environmentalism, etc.) with the explicit intention of influencing people's opinions. It is actually my hope that through my MA studies, I will have the time and space to conduct more in-depth research and produce more multi-faceted creative work which considers more view points and has a less overtly politicised message. In a way, I want to de-propagandise my creative practice.

In the case of Dickens, I believe Orwell is legitimately asserting that his work is propagandist because of the implicit and explicit moralising but also because of his personal biases. For example, 'Dickens has grown up near enough to poverty to be terrified of it, and inspite of his generosity of mind, he is not free from the social prejudices of the shabby-genteel... one gets the impression of whole submerged populations whom he regards as beyong the pale... Dickens shows less understanding of criminals than one would expect of him'(p.28) and 'In David Copperfield, where he is dealing with a typical nineteenth century seduction, the class-issue does not strike him as paramount. It is a law of Victorian novels that sexual misdeeds must not go unpunished'(p.32). Orwell's socialist critique of Dicken's writing, emphasises the importance of artists being aware of their own prejudices, biases and assumptions - lest their work unintentionally becomes propagandist. 'His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions... All he can finally say is, "behave decently". (p.59) This perspective from Orwell goes further to undermine the adage that "all art is political", because oftentimes artists have a clear intention of message yet no constructive suggestions for change - in this way, "all art is propaganda" can be said to be more of a trueism.

If I have taken any learnings from this essay, it is to be more aware of my personal biases in the production of my creative work, not least because of the way in which artworks can be co-opted by groups or individuals with a political agenda. 'Dickens is one of those writers who are felt to be worth stealing. He has been stolen by Marxists, by Catholics and, above all, by Conservatives. The question is, What is there to steal? ... That kind of question is never easy to answer. As a rule, an aesthetic preference is either something inexplicable or it is so corrupted by non-aesthetic motives as to make one wonder whether the whole of literary criticism is not a huge network of humbug. In Dickens' case the complicating factor is his familiarity.' (p.47) Perhaps it is inevitable that as a creator, when your works become universally known and loved, their message will be co-opted to suit their agenda, perhaps in this way the creator's intention is irrelevant. Considering Repsonse Theory, where an audience assigns a meaning or message to a work, all art can potentially be co-opted by political actors and used as propaganda. In this sense, it is fair to say "All Art is Propaganda" including Orwell's own works which are frequently referenced by both the far-left and far-right in contemporary political discourse.

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