The Media is the Massage
By Chris Cobb
On a rainy night in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, an art show opened promising to explore the power of propaganda. The space, Blue Cube, had the feel of a nightclub. Along with a bar, two floors, a handful of political punk and hip hop bands performing on one stage, and a cluster of DJs on another, the space had a separate outdoor room where people performed spoken word and freestyled to a lolling, supportive audience.
Propaganda 2.0’s “They Hate Our Freedom” art show was organized by former high-tech recruiter and San Francisco entrepreneur John Doffing and StartSoma, the parent organization behind many of his endeavors. Their strategy was to have an open call for art with no restrictions on content, hoping that a natural friction would occur between differing points of view. Perhaps there was a feeling that having an anarchist-style organizing ethic would enable agitprop producers to freely create. But like many shows with high ideals, the realized end product differed from the concept it began as.
Their website announced what seemed to be a rather ambitious monster, a survey worthy of MOMA in New York or the SFMOMA here in San Francisco: “We have collected propaganda from around the world with hundreds of artists and over a thousand works of political art representing the entire political spectrum including posters, stickers, tshirts, banners, signs, flyers and new media.” Anyone who has ever hung an art show knows how hard it is just to set up a space for ten or twelve works of art, let alone “over a thousand.” Needless to say, there were not a thousand works of art, nor of propaganda at the show. And though there were great pictures by the likes of Winston Smith and the First Amendment Project, it was unclear how everything was connected. Anything-goes curatorial strategies seldom result in art shows that make any sense.
In some places WWII era war propaganda posters were hung side by side with contemporary graffiti art. Agitprop in the form of Soviet-Style red banners with the faces of Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzalez, George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld hung along one wall. A DJ played in front of them. Clusters of unrelated stickers, paintings and posters were spread throughout two large rooms. Some had small cards explaining who made them; most didn’t. The blend of historical and contemporary images, and the lack of any focused narrative created the impression that the show was more about decorating a club than it was about examining an issue. The sought-after friction didn’t seem to be located in the art so much as it was in the clashing sound of the band, the DJs and the rhythms of the spoken word artists.
Dozens of flyers, paintings and posters explored various topics but many, strictly speaking, were just not propaganda.
Propaganda is not the same as advertising or art. Art today is preoccupied with abstract ideas; advertising tries to get you to buy something. Propaganda, on the other hand, is interested in making you believe something. It is the stronger societal force; once you start believing in an idea or ideology you will buy anything – metaphorical or literal – it tries to sell you. Once the public was scared into believing Iraq was trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, they didn’t seem to mind that they were being fed lies over and over. Untruths and misleading statements were quickly accepted as reinforcement and justification for a particular point of view, even when proven false. Propaganda is that strong.
The recent indictment of Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby has revealed to the greater American public what many of us have known of already: a chain of events showing how the White House team built a case for war based on lies, forged documents and deliberately misleading statements such as those linking Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda and the events of September 11th, 2001. Consequently more than 2,000 American soldiers have died, 30,000 have been wounded or maimed, an estimated 100,000 – 300,000 Iraqi civilians are dead, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, the United States military and National Guard are spread dangerously thin, and despite the fact the US plans to occupy Iraq for years to come, despite all this - many still support the war and believe it was right. Propaganda is that strong.
So Propaganda 2.0 “They Hate Our Freedom” might have hoped for a broad discussion about the war we are in or at least an exploration of youth culture agitprop. But it ended adding up to a blurry sense that everything equals everything, and that music, art, propaganda, advertising and events are all best connected at parties. It appears that StartSoma is similar to groups such as GenArt, which primarily throw parties and plan events using art as a lure for young professionals to mingle. In these events art is used to create a sense of culture and high class but is relegated to being a backdrop.
It’s easy to forget that a lot of positive political change came about because of a huge Left movement that focused its energies on tireless activism and extremely creative agitprop. During the 1960’s and 1970’s American youth culture produced all manner of posters, flyers, underground newspapers, comics, poetry publications, socially-aware novels, satire, political music and films.
But “alternative” lifestyles, parties and personal rants are not enough to create change against a backdrop of well-managed and well-funded manipulation. Not every art show is going to be perfect– that is a fact of life. But shows like P2.0 demonstrate the need for more intelligent dialog and more focused action.