Unreal Nature

June 29, 2009

Propaganda, Prepropaganda, and the Merely Aesthetic

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:09 am

Photographs in and of themselves may prove to be like Scripture, which the Devil has been known to quote to his own advantage.

That and all that follows are from the essay, Landscape as Politics and Propaganda, in the collection of essays, Landscape as Photograph, by Estelle Jussim and Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock (1985):

In a recent issue of Life magazine, and article on the increasing destruction of Montana’s Glacier National Park featured a large color photograph of a meadow, a river, and a distant gloriously snow-covered peak. The meadow was strewn with abandoned automobile carcasses, rusting vehicles in considerable numbers and of no explained origin. The otherwise impassioned text commented on this eyesore as being a “merely aesthetic” problem. The more conspicuous dangers were the strip-mining operations and energy resource explorations on the boundaries of the park, the atomic dump sites nearby, and the unwitting destruction of the delicate balance of nature by admiring hordes of tramping tourists. In other national parks and preserves similar destruction continues unabated. As the Life reporter noted, for more than a hundred days a year, smog drifting in from Los Angeles prevents tourists from seeing across to the opposite rim of the Grand Canyon. … The list of elements and activities destructive of nature — not to mention human health — is unbearably long. Yet it is typical that the commentary about the trashing of our wilderness areas by the automobile culture is relegated to the “merely aesthetic.” We suggest that this scanting of the aesthetic issue represents a much deeper aspect of American behavior toward nature and the fundamental ideologies which inform that behavior.

We might begin by blaming Abraham Maslow for listing the aesthetic need last in his famous hierarchy of human needs. Not only does he place it last, but he insists that only for some people is the desire for the beautiful a genuine need. Not everybody has this need. Maslow does not say who does, but the implication is that they are probably aristocrats or the “artistic” minority.

[ … ]

For inner-city minorities, trapped by poverty, the segregation of spectacular scenery into national parks beloved by landscape photographers is a gesture unrelated to their desperation. To live in the South Bronx or in Harlem is to experience “nature” in the form of an occasional sumac tree — what New Yorkers called “railroad trees” because they grew along the tracks into the city — and mammoth legions of roaches, rats, pigeons, sparrows, and the tough grass which even cement pavements cannot entirely squelch.

How does seeing a stunning color photograph by, say, Eliot Porter, assist these slum dwellers in their daily lives? For some, if they can afford the Sierra Club calendars, pictures of golden aspens and snowy pines may refresh spirit, reminding them of the nature of which we are all a part. On the other hand, for others, such pictures only widen the gulf between their status as social outcasts and economic pariahs and that of the very rich, who can afford to travel to spas, national parks, and their own more private nature enclaves whenever they like. The national parks were conceived in the spirit of democratic sharing, rich and poor alike — that was a significant part of the ideology and political pragmatics of nineteenth-century congressional actions. And although photographs can distribute images of these wonderful places, they can never alleviate the bitterness of those who can hardly afford the busfare to Bear Mountain.

[ … ]

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Nazi Germany was perfecting its own style of propaganda and Hitler was preaching conquest, genocide, and totalitarianism, there was violent dissent among photographers as to what their ethical and artistic stance should be. The situation can be summed up by a statement attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson; indeed, it is much more than a statement, it is a shocked expostulation: “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” Because he believed that humanity needs the purely aesthetic as much as anything material, Adams defended himself: “I still believe there is a real social significance in a rock — a more important significance therein than in a line of unemployed.” Unfortunately, Adams did not explain what that social significance might be, and he was accused of being politically and humanly insensitive.

The story is reminiscent of an exchange that took place between Berthold Brecht and André Gide. The latter, writing at the time of the appalling expansion of nazism, happened to speak about a tree he greatly admired. Brecht wrote, sorrowfully,

What kind of times are they, when
A talk about trees is almost a crime
Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

To talk about trees, to photograph trees, to think about nature, were all insupportable in the midst of barbarism.

… Like poetry, photography, with its compression and metaphor, can be considered a seductive anodyne, not a remedy; it could even be condemned as a hypnotic substitute for direct experience leading to action for socially beneficial causes.

When Roy Stryker was exhorting his Farm Security Administration photographers during the Second World War, he fully recognized that what was needed was a gigantic propaganda effort. For landscape, the Great Depression and its Dust Bowl documents were to be forgotten. “Emphasize the idea of abundance — the ‘horn of plenty’ — and pour maple syrup over it … I know your damned photographer’s soul writhes, but … Do you think I give a damn about a photographer’s soul with Hitler at our doorstep?” Thus, instead of Dorothea Lange’s tractored-out farm, Americans were treated to images of this land as a vast granary, with wheat and corn sheaves stacked in never-ending rows.

This last is from the beginning of the essay; it precedes all of the above quotes:

Modern propagandists — by whatever name and of whatever political persuasion — recognize that propaganda for a cause can succeed only if a number of conditions are present in the decision-making context. To begin with, there is more than one kind of propaganda: Jacques Ellul calls these prepropaganda and active propaganda, the former obviously being indispensable to the latter. Prepropaganda has the task of mobilizing our psychological responses, loosening the old reflexes, and instilling images and words in repetitive formulas. According to Ellul, prepropaganda, perhaps surprisingly, “does not have a precise ideological objective; it has nothing to do with an opinion, an idea, a doctrine. It proceeds by psychological manipulations, by character modifications, by the creation of feelings or stereotypes useful when the time comes.”

… Playing on the already present assumptions and unconscious motivations of individuals and groups is the art of the propagandist. In order to be successful as propaganda, photography has to create images that not only resonate with what people will accept, but also has to contribute to the creation of the fundamental myths by which we all live. If you are on the side of the angels, this might be the “myth” (or ideology) of democracy, liberty, productivity, authority, the dignity of labor, or the sanctity of life. But there are other myths, like racial superiority, religious “truth,” the beliefs that life is dog-eat-dog in the best tradition of social Darwinism or that people are no good and that women deserve to be raped, for those who feel too threatened to be civilized.

It would not be hard to make an argument that all photographs are, to some degree, prepropaganda. Those that are “merely aesthetic” are those that have a greater — not lesser — degree of potency.

-Julie

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