The Dimensions of Propaganda
Art has an inherent relationship with the political. In order to work as an engaged artist, it is important to understand the inherent alliances to politics, as well as how the practice produced might be a political tool. Different forms of art have always been utilised to reproduce ideological beliefs—in other words, propaganda. This article analyses why art is such a handy political tool and how it has been utilised throughout history. I do so using the four spatial dimensions. The first dimension is the line, which is about what-is-to-be-propagated. Next is the non-dimension, which regards censorship, or that which is deprived of form. The second dimension is the plane, where what-is-to-be-propagated is first materialised. The third dimension introduces space, in which propaganda is something that surrounds us and shifts with our perspective. The fourth dimension is psyche, which makes propaganda something within us, infiltrating the structures of our thinking and reasoning.
‘There is nothing more absurd either than the assertion that contemporary art does not involve any political project, or than the claim that its subversive aspects are not based on any theoretical terrain.’1
– Nicolas Bourriaud
Introduction: Political Art
Political art is any form of art that engages with a topic on a substantive level that we consider ‘political.’ Political here should be understood as that which concerns society in a certain time and space, be it spontaneous, like natural disasters or social interactions, initiated, like diplomacy and wars, or even planned, like the market state. To characterise the political, you could think of that which is ‘reported’ and ‘talked about,’ and which thus remains ongoing and needs to be ‘talked about’ and ‘reported’ more and more. In line with this journalistic jargon, political art is art that is about something political and prefers to ‘talk about’ that which is political through the structures of the artwork. This ‘aboutness’ manifests in many artistic practices, and is thus political in the sense that what it speaks about is politics; it is not political in the way it speaks about what is politics. This multiplicity of artworks can be political in two orders of aboutness. I will discuss both below without artistic evaluations.
The first is ‘intentional aboutness,’ by which I mean that it is the attempt of the artist to work with a political subject; that subject is intentionally ‘put’ into the artwork for it to be conceived in the way intended, hence the artwork is seen as a communicational medium. It follows that this artwork is strongly built on semiotics and relatively planned in order to communicate something. Therefore, the ‘meaning’ is contributed. A slogan that could fit this type of aboutness would be, ‘With this work I want to say…,’ which is obviously followed by a statement: ‘…that politicians are robots’; ‘…that our reality is ambivalent’; ‘…that war sucks.’ This aboutness strongly depends on the idea that a finished work of art is chronologically ‘constructed’ according to the whims of the artist, through which ‘meaning’ was created—be it a narrative or an argument—that can be brought to a spectator and which can be interpreted somewhere along the lines of what is intended.
In Roland Barthes’ words, ‘the author still reigns’2 in this chronology because the ‘meaning’ can be attributed to the creator of the artwork. That is to say, there resides an intended ‘pure’ meaning within the artwork that has to be ‘transmitted,’ which it does through its aesthetic structures. This artwork indeed has a teleological constitution: it attempts the proliferation of a certain doctrine conceived and coined by the author. This contributed or ‘intentional’ aboutness has, therefore, a didactical element to it because it attempts to ‘tell’ us something, but which, according to Rancière, we should think of as ‘stultifying’ because it tells an audience ‘what to think.’3 This order of aboutness is strongly founded on the idea that art is a form of communication. Within this stultification, contributed aboutness is the most primal form of propaganda: it plainly, and usually without too much subtleties, attempts to convince you to believe something. Reducing art to politics would trivialise artistic reality. Within this category, there are many nuances, and it is a method that is of emancipatory value if what is attributed questions a certain hegemony within discourse—if it brings something to light that would otherwise remain in the peripheries of what is spoken about within the political sphere.
The second type of basic political art concerns ‘attributed aboutness,’ which mostly consists of the interpretation of an audience, critic, politician, etc. In other words, it is intentional aboutness upside down. For this aboutness, the intention(s) of the artist are not unimportant but (regarded as) otiose. The work is created through interpretation, and interpretation is creation, as Barthes and Derrida have illustrated. Of course, artwork and interpretation overlap with each other through elements such as semiotics and symbolism: what is presented to a possible audience is always limited, and although we can easily fantasise from a limited point to infinity, the limited constitution of any artwork does direct towards association. On some occasions, it does so more rhetorically, or even aggressively, than others. This fact is utilised here not by the artist but a spectator, who speaks through the work of art. If this idea is centralised in practice, what Adorno said when raging against ‘committed art’ would indeed be true: that it is ‘nowhere more so than where it [engaged art] seems to be politically dead.’4 Because if all judgement lies in the eye of the beholder, it would be ridiculous to fill that empty shell of the artwork with ‘content’ because not only will it not be seen, it will not matter. Reducing politics to art would trivialise political reality.5
Both approaches are problematic on their own terms, as they are simultaneously inescapable. First of all, intentional aboutness makes the artwork a communicational object whereby it is itself not a subject of communication. In other words, the artwork is the intermediary of communication—the sole interface. It does not communicate itself but is communicated through. What communicates through the artwork is the artist and the audience. But because the audience cannot speak with the artist through the object (because they are not present; she is even absent when The Artist is Present6), this is a monologue. Hence, attributed aboutness in political art is a close ally of ‘pamphletism,’ in which the artwork is the aesthetical arrangement of what is to be communicated.
Contributed aboutness follows the monological quality of this communicative art but centralises the ‘audience’ in this monologue, where the artwork can indeed be anything to the audience. In this sense, this art plays with the psychology of meaning, giving the experience that it is you who is the active part of the artwork. And the ‘emptier’ the artwork, the fuller it might be of meaning to the audience because that meaning can be projected on to the artwork. It manoeuvres as signifier without signified, offering a loose structure. This allows mind games in an otherwise quite determined world. Some name this the political potential of autonomous art, including Herbert Marcuse, who notes that ‘the more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change.’7 Only in autonomy does it have a position ‘vis à vis the given social relations,’8 which, according to Marcuse, are necessary to indict it.9 In both occasions, the artwork is itself not a political actor but mobilises political agency within a spectator, be it through pacifying (attributed) or activating (contributed).
In a way, attributed aboutness follows the same structure as contributed aboutness but the opposite chronology. Here, the frustrating part, which many people not into the languages of art might come across, is that the artwork will not respond, even though in popular discourse we would say to ‘have a conversation’ with the piece of art, which we end up having with ourselves through the piece of art. This monologue feels as if nobody is listening, and although it is often said that the artwork is not understood in such a schema, I would argue that it is in fact the spectator who doesn’t feel understood by the artwork, which I think is legitimate in this framework. The artwork is not a subject of communication here. This is a quality many with political ambitions enjoy: you can speak, but you don’t need to listen.
Attributed aboutness strongly links to the constructions of mythologies, where certain images are appropriated to formulate an icon or symbol of an external story. The reason why it is this type of art that offers itself for this kind of political appropriation is exactly because it allows itself to be (fully) formulated post-production. It is not only a story to which we can ascribe our own association; it is basically a set of unformed signs; a grammar without words; a colouring image which can be used by anyone to paint their own picture. This is indeed wonderfully democratic but also an amazingly political technology because—if we generalised this structure—it delineates within what bounds reality is to take place.
In both directions, meaning is ascribed to the artwork—be it beforehand, in terms of what is made, or afterwards, in terms of how it is perceived. In this classical diptych, if this ‘content’ is to be political, it is true that the artwork functions in a passive structure in which, as Adorno polemically puts it, ‘genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature [i.e., engaged arts], it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.’10 The relationality in which the political-art schema functions is that it either conveys content on to an audience, or lets an audience convey content on to themselves through the artwork. This basic scheme of political art is thus a communicational technology. To use a bad wordplay to argue for the political potential of this technology: the literal Dutch translation of ‘aboutness’ is ‘government’ [over-heid]. If art is a shell, that shell can be consciously filled to signify meaning at any moment in production or afterwards, no matter the direction of intentionality (whether it flows down from a maker on to an audience or the mechanisms of the artwork make the audience think themselves).
There are many orders of filling the shell of political art. The first, ‘pamphletism,’ is still widely used today, although it is the weakest. It is followed by many other orders of propaganda that I will elaborate on in this article. A preliminary but important step we must first take is to demystify the term propaganda in general, which means to reproduce, distribute and disseminate something into the world when the world would not necessarily do so itself. Why? Because, as Louis Althusser has argued, one of the most significant traits of propaganda is ‘the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology.’11 In the plain, naïve way we think of it, propaganda is always the strongest ideological blanket to veil the true orders of propaganda at work. In 2018, when the relationship between South Korea and North Korea seemed to normalise, South Korea decided to turn off massive speakers faced towards the border of North Korea that had been playing K-pop nearly continuously since 2016. It could ‘be heard for miles. The speakers broadcast constant streams of Korean pop music, news and weather forecasts—snippets of everyday life strictly off-limits for North Koreans.’12
The first response here is to think of only the speakers and their sound in terms of propaganda—they are similar to the posters and pamphlet drops typical of the popular notion of propaganda. However, the propagandistic aspect here is not the speakers or the sound, but the fact that they were removed. ‘The best propaganda is not propaganda,’13 as American political scientist Joseph Nye argues. Similarly, German philosopher Hannah Arendt states in The Origins of Totalitarianism that a substantial part of propaganda is not just directed towards an ‘outside,’ say another nation, but at one’s own civilians (she calls this auto-directed type of propaganda ‘indoctrination’)14. The removal of the speakers at the Korean border was not meant to ‘enlighten’ North Koreans. Instead, it was directed at South Koreans and generally the West itself to illustrate ideological disagreements with the North Koreans and to affirm the South Koreans’ connection with the West. The silence of the speakers is the loudest propaganda. However, this is often not considered the case. In fact, ‘North Korea has its own system of speakers along the border, playing reports critical of Seoul and its allies.’15 Any propaganda, above all, asks for counter-propaganda.
‘The best propaganda is not propaganda.’
– Joseph Nye16
When the term ‘propaganda’ gained its extensive political interpretations after the First World War,17 many noted that it ‘had been unable to shake loose from the popular notion that propaganda is necessarily bad.’18 This is not wholly without reason because as we shall find out later, ‘propaganda’ proper cunningly attempts to bypass our resistance to persuasion: we either do not know we are being persuaded or we believe we genuinely want something, thus persuading ourselves. As American author Will Irwin noted, ‘The word [propaganda] had come into the vocabulary of peasants and ditchdiggers and had begun to acquire its miasmic aura. In loose, popular usage it meant ‘the next thing to a damned lie,’19 a belief strongly entrenched during the decades following the world wars.
Throughout the last century, however, propaganda has gained momentum as a field of study,20 especially in connection with the study of psychology, where it found new domains. Counterintuitively, propaganda has simultaneously intensified in use—particularly after the world wars. Although the term ‘bears a stigma’21 of the world wars, and hence of ‘reprobation,’ its advocates went straight to work to produce, in the words of Edward Bernays, a ‘peace-time propaganda.’22 Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, opposed what he considered to be ‘propaganda against propaganda.’23 He argued that ‘Propaganda is primarily a sales pitch, not an exercise in social theory,’24 and so he pitched it by a new name—‘public relations’ (PR).25 As Dutch artist Jonas Staal puts it, in this sense, ‘modern propaganda is the product of modern democracy,’26 especially in collaboration with capitalism, ‘and not of alleged totalitarian regimes,’27 such as Nazi Germany.
The premises of this peacetime propaganda were researched, reformulated, adopted and utilised by the fields of psychology and, especially, marketing, separate to its use in the politics of war. It now not only concerned an effective level ‘as a source of information or persuasion’28 but also an affective level ‘to view advertising as a form of entertainment.’29 This type of propaganda works towards disseminating a second ‘reprobation’ of propaganda, which is the psychological resistance to being influenced. ‘The propagandists necessarily have to overcome this resistance.’30 It helps, therefore, if we naively associate propaganda only with this wartime phenomenon. As long as there is peace, we think it is not being used; and because there is peace, there is no enemy to use it on.
Nevertheless, advertisements work wonderfully for this ‘peacetime propaganda’ because they utilise mechanisms that make us step over that resistance ourselves: we want the products and services promoted; we made the decision to purchase them ourselves, etc. That is why commercials are made to be fun. However, this ‘self’-persuasion is never fully attributable to the ‘self,’ even though the action is taken by the self—allowing a cognitive relaxation from that reprobation but simultaneously simulating a false sense of autonomy. It is made to give a feeling of free will: propagandists might argue that you can also not buy something, although that is highly inhibited. As Doob and Robinson put it, ‘Most men and women, however, actually do not like to be indoctrinated, or rather they prefer to be unaware of the indoctrination which is pervading them.’31 It is best if they feel that no one but themselves is the one convincing them, an idea that falls wonderfully in line with the illusion of self-determination and self-transparency that has still loomed since modernity, even though it utilises postmodern premises: we are not transparent to ourselves, but it surely helps propagandists if we think we are.
Jonas Staal notes that ‘for a long time, democratic states assumed they were “beyond” propaganda.’32 Nevertheless, thinking through propaganda easily leaves a nasty taste of the death and horror of the era of world wars, or the angst of the Cold War. Propaganda itself has been propagated as this sick tool that we have left far behind us, buried in less enlightened times (which is itself a propaganda of the linear dialectics of modernity). It is veiled in a mist of discursive exclusion and censorship. Thinking of it brings to mind flashes of Uncle Sam, the Sickle and Hammer, or the monochromes of marching Nazis. I want to invite you to undress the term propaganda from these images because at its core is a far more essential societal condition that underlines much of what takes place in society today. Above all, every expression carries in itself an intentionality—meaning that what is said is not said without reason or ambition. All of us always use propaganda’s mesmerising qualities to our best abilities whenever we speak about wants and needs with one another (i.e., rhetoric, presentations, charisma, arguments, etc.). Propaganda is already at play in these instances, thus becoming the form of anything discursive—the persuasive quality of form. The same applies to the arts, which often become the conductor (and much more) of such expressions. As French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud polemically puts it: ‘There is nothing more absurd […] than the assertion that contemporary art does not involve any political project.’33
We can ascribe political interference to nearly any element that manifests in society. Even placing a lamp post on some streets and not on others, or the planning permission for where a venue can be built, depend on propaganda to a certain degree. That is because propaganda is not just about ‘convincing’—which would be the modern take on it— but about setting the limits of what can be thought by inhibiting what can be seen, heard, smelt, felt and regarded as normal. It is where what is seen can be deduced to a motive—why we see what we see, i.e., a political agenda underpins our reality, which usually has not come about without motive (motive being the reason for propaganda; propaganda being the public outreach programme of that motive). It attempts to acquire support (outreach, ballots, flyers) and makes giving that support easier (easy structures, such as digital voting).
Although this example fits within the archetype of propaganda, namely campaigning, it is easy to give examples that fall outside it. Think of the presence of street lighting on certain streets and why planning permission allows for ‘shops’ in those streets. This denotes a political agenda where consumers should be supported shopping, which is what public space is seen as suitable for under the reign of neo-liberal (capitalist) governments. Some things in public space deserve what we could reformulate as ‘pedestrian stage lighting,’ while others do not. These are the breadcrumbs that show us the way, especially since they point toward the city centres—the ‘hearts’ of our communities—where what one does is shop. We can read between the lines that consumption is at the heart of our society.
Within any configuration, but especially this one, there is always a motive at play. The distribution of our reality—often silently—distributes an idea in itself: in this example of the street lighting, that is neoliberal capitalism. Propaganda is the sensible formulation of what the world ought to look like according to those who have a claim on reality—which is in the end everyone, but some have more of it than others. The struggles of emancipation often attempt to counter a ‘hegemony’ over such a claim, which concerns the monopoly of the entrenchment or construction of reality. What we often see is an expression of a political agenda directly or indirectly, both realising and affirming that agenda in that act of expression (and especially the manner of expression).
Propaganda, therefore, is much more a word that signifies the power structures that underpin both the preconditions of artistic production and the content of artistic practices. It is the interlink between form and power; it is the power of form. The question is of how power ‘dresses’ itself in the societal sense and how it thus appears and appeals to us as sensible beings (with sensible’s double meaning of the senses and being rational). Formulated from the perspective of artists, propaganda thus places the ‘work of art’ in the world in which it always already exists, and in this broader context wonders, ‘What does this do here?’ It broadens the scope of the artistic endeavour in which an artwork—however ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ it may be—has a relational functionality to play in the social realm, and hence is also a product of society as we know it. It never rips apart from this precondition, and therefore also always affirms it.
The form of an artwork, I believe, can even be deduced back to a political agenda, be it private, collective, or societal. That this agenda is often silent (following in the shadow of the avant-gardes, retracting back on to the discourse itself) obviously does not mean it is not present. Even the artist not being conscious of their own perceptions and stereotypes does not make the work less propagandistic; the opposite is true. Anyone who applies for state funding know this all too well. When the application is honoured, the artist is privileged with materialising a state programme—say, designing a lamp post—and this is not problematic in itself (all the streets veiled in total darkness does not sound like a solution to me); it is also not not problematic if the agenda remains unquestioned. The entrenching side of being actors of propaganda is that it is really hard not to follow the programme because it interlinks with our maintenance and quality of life and also a sense of honour and praise within the artistic community.
However, because artists materialise ideology in that sense, they also always bear a responsibility for what they materialise. American writer Upton Sinclair has argued that ‘dilettantism,’ which means a naïve or even superficial understanding of the arts, often proposes art to be ‘an escape from reality.’34 He critiques this idea, stating that ‘this lie is a product of mental inferiority, and that the true purpose of art is to alter reality.’35 Hence, taking an active relational position between power and form links closely to how engaged practices are defined, which we could therefore gently (and I can already hear the disagreement vocalising from a distance) call ‘propagandistic’—above all, it uses the power of form. As Sinclair adds, ‘All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably propaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda.’36 This, however, does not mean that any propaganda by necessity becomes art. ‘Art is not an Ersatz [= replacement] for politics’ but neither can it ‘keep its hands clean by hiding behind the exceptional position of “art” and “artist”,’37 as French philosopher Alain Badiou notes. We artists thus have to engage with the political side of our work. The naïve denial of this quality is what I call dilettantism throughout this article.
The main tipping point at which a practice encounters fierce and rightful criticism of being plainly propagandistic is to what power or who this specific work of art is affiliated, and the manner in which this is done unconsciously. In this essay, I will call the unconscious propagator the ‘Ex Officio,’38 who by virtue of their position alone propagates as if they were an officer in a social order. That is to say, many propagators are unaware of their explicit propagations. They follow preconceptions of what they believe to be good or bad. The artistic process of explicitly rendering Ex Officio’s ideology visible is what I call ‘pamphletism,’ which I shall discuss more elaborately the section ‘2-D Propaganda’ below. Whether the pamphletism of the Ex Officio affirms or indicts that social order does not matter; both are an ‘official’ art, an art that serves ‘the demagogic interests,’39 be it ‘for’ or ‘against.’ Walter Benjamin argues that this institution of art functions to ‘aestheticis[e] politics.’40 A classic example of this official art are Diego Rivera’s works, such as History of Mexico (1929-1935), which Mary K. Coffey notes ‘was a revolutionary art, or one that called itself revolutionary; on the other, it was an official art.’41 David Siqueiros adds that Rivera’s ‘art has served the demagogic interests of the government.’42
In other words, in what manner is a practice used as propaganda by a party external to the production of it? Jonas Staal’s suggestion of ‘post-propaganda’ is useful to denote the other side of this tipping point. According to Staal, post-propaganda signifies a situation where the artist is both conscious of the lines of interest crosslinked to their practice and acts on those links, so they can ‘depict power again, and all the schizophrenic convulsions that go with it.’43 Above all, if a practice is propagandistic—and all are in a way—but its maker is not conscious of it (dilettantism), it does not depict power. It affirms it, and the practice would regress into this marching Nazis and Sickle and Hammer doctrine—in other words, this is Ex Officio’s practice. Or, to refer to an astute quote from Adorno: in this construct, ‘genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature [i.e., engaged arts].’44 Adorno argues that ‘it becomes easier to continue to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.’45
We therefore need to think of propaganda in relation to forms, especially because, as Staal points out, ‘power is not a field of forces that can be immediately recognised as such: it has to be facilitated, it has to manifest itself somewhere else or through something else. Without this persuasive platform, it is homeless. In that sense, there is something parasitic about power, it needs a host to live in and to gain credibility.’46 This aspect is why propaganda always concerns morphology and not just as a motive: it both attempts to rephrase the world and simultaneously knead the world accordingly. It’s worth briefly discussing the dimensions of morphology. As Dutch artist Bas Overbeek affirms in his photo series investigating barrier tape, ‘When I found the significance of the “invisible” side of the physical appearance of barrier tape, a quarter fell […] objects have an amazing power to make us (self)regulate […] How is it possible, for example, that a barrier tape—no more than a few micron’s thick piece of bi-coloured plastic—can tell us where we can or cannot go and stand?’47 The answer is that without this form, it wouldn’t be able to do so.
Starting from this idea that any practice is in a way propagandistic and the arts the link between power and form, I would like to set out to decode the multiple ‘dimensions’ of propaganda explicitly affiliated with the production side of artistic practices. I want to explore what makes art such an excellent and practical tool for the multiplication of political motives. I will start with the first dimension, that of the ‘line,’ which concerns that-which-is-to-be-propagated. The second dimension is the ‘plane,’ where the first attempt at morphology is made to use form to materialise that-which-is-to-be-propagated. This form is that of the drawing, painting, or text, which are historically seen as the capacity to think abstractly outside the mind. The third dimension is that of the ‘extension,’ where the mechanics of physics introduce utility and functionality to materialise that-which-is-to-be-propagated. One could say the Newtonian laws are introduced here, as the piece at this point partakes in extended spaces. The fourth dimension is that of the ‘psyche,’ where propaganda works on Frankenstein and becomes alive, entangled in time, making it practically impossible to disseminate from any other lifeform.
1-D Propaganda: The Intentional Line
I want to set out some main motives of the uses of propaganda. In other words, what is to be propagated? What is to be propagated concerns at least three elements. The first is ideology, as defined by ‘Ex Officio.’ The second and third concern less intuitive elements of propaganda, being simplification and the interface to power. All these three elements of the first dimension of propaganda relate to one another, and the second and third can always be brought back to the first. Above all, a strong aspect of propaganda is to make something look extremely complex, only so Ex Officio can propose to reduce its complexities for you so that it can be understood.
The current Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, once said ‘[having a] vision is like an elephant blocking sight,’48 which, apart from causing upheaval in the Netherlands, is philosophically challenging because vision implies having a certain way of seeing things,49 which he argues he does not have. Rutte did not not have a certain way of seeing things; his statement implies the opposite: he had a vision on vision. A way of seeing things implies having an ideology, which is explained by Hannah Arendt, who said ideology is an ‘ism’ that deduces the whole world to the logics of a (single) Idea which explains the world in such words as to satisfy its followers,50 thus forcing what is seen and experienced as reality into a specific Idea.51 This idea not only explains the world but also gives a telos (a goal)—for example, the quantification of capital and its valorisation within capitalism.
Therefore, ideological convictions are like mental optics that deliberately show things in a certain way, and so they also conceal other things, stressing Rutte’s contradictory annoyance with vision. It is true that statements like Rutte’s can be regarded within a liberalist conviction of ‘realpolitik,’ which is a political consciousness that limits itself to current affairs also called ‘pragmatism’ while believing there is no idealism present. This form of political pragmatism presents itself as anti-ideological. He fails to notice that this is, in the end, also an ‘idealpolitik’ because it contains a conception of how things should and should not be. The issue here is that his pragmatism is meant to overshadow his idealism, making him appear neutral. This introduces an important aspect to propaganda that will be repeated throughout this article: propaganda is nearly never loud; it works best when it is silent, when it is experienced as neutral.
French philosopher Louis Althusser’s thought can further help to problematise what Rutte hoped to express—that one can escape vision, which is one of the doctrines of neoliberalism: it presents itself as anti-ideology, or rather even as a non-ideology. Althusser said that ideology is ‘always-already’ there, making itself from individual subjects who ‘always-already’ were subjects.52 As philosopher Byung-Chul Han notes, that ‘subject’ literally means ‘being subjected [onderworpen].’53 Althusser might respond that this could imply there is also a non-subjected, which, according to Althusser, is not the case. He argues that ‘man is by nature an ideological animal.’54 One cannot escape having a ‘vision,’ especially when that vision is a vision on vision. Hence, Rutte multiplied those optics of vision threefold—now that is blinding. To put it differently: Althusser wrote that one of the traits of propaganda is ‘the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology.’55 Ideology doesn’t want to ‘look’ like ideology because nobody likes that. Rutte’s ‘anti-ideological’ statement is thus an ideological propaganda, and a quite powerful one because it dissimulates itself from that ‘ideological character.’ As sociologist Jean Baudrillard notes, ‘Simulation is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology)56’—as with Plato’s mimesis—‘but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.’57 Simulation is an ‘imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter.’58
The synopsis of both arguments is that through deducing the whole world to a (single) Idea, ideology creates a story of the world that more properly adheres to the needs of the people (in Rutte’s example, that of his own political party) than reality itself, thus creating what Arendt called a fictive world.59 A simulacrum. Karl Marx similarly stated that ideology is nothing but a dream.60 Dreams are about the real world but are not the real world. Althusser expands and criticises this idea by saying that ‘ideology represents individuals’ imaginary relation to their real conditions of existence,’61 meaning that it is not just a dream, it is fiction realised. To follow Marx’s line of thought, ideology tries to make a dream come true. Through this realisation of the dream of ideology, it is not just a ‘fictive world’62 but also a narrated and constructed world where truth and lie are not just indistinguishable; they do not exist. It thus tries to realise a fictive story immanently—in the real world. Rutte tries to realise a ‘vision-less’ world, which silently would be a neo-liberal world where ‘everything goes’—because where there is no vision, neither are there morals.
The problem with making dreams come true, however, is that the real world does not cohere with the fictive ‘better’ dream world offered by ideology. Nevertheless, this is not a critique of the political status of ‘dreams’: we strongly need dreams in order to make that world better. However, the world does not fit into a single idea. That an idea of the world precedes the world itself makes ideology prescriptive instead of descriptive. Although it all too often presents itself as scientific and objective, ideology only explains the world as it is in terms of how it wants the world to be, and it might even scientifically accomplish doing so. The geocentric model—widely used by the Christian church to explain the levels of Earth and heaven—could explain and predict solar eclipses just as well as heliocentric model, even though the first proved to be wrong.
To put it differently, ideology presents an ought as an is63 because what it argues to be the real world is not coherent with the real world. And to be honest, nothing is coherent about the ‘real world’ because the real world (as this objective thing) itself is a construct that is needed for ideology to propose how it should be, which the philosopher Markus Gabriel deconstructs in his book Why the World Does Not Exist. It hence has to be made real. Ideology’s goal is thus to unify a fictive or dream world with the real world by simultaneously constructing that ‘real world,’ which itself is a product of its own dream. Put differently, propaganda is used for ideology to both produce and affirm what is regarded as reality: the dream-like propositions of a future are the least plausible element of propaganda; it preferably resides in the now. Yet again, this is why Althusser argues there is no ‘outside’ to subjectification. However, any idea needs materialisation, with the first dimension of propaganda—intentionality—always depends on its other dimensions.
If what ideology tries to materialise in the real world is impossible because that world does not cohere with the ‘idea’ of ideology, it needs a somewhat ‘aggressive’ method of doing so; it needs to force itself on to the world. One of the most important methods of doing so is ‘propaganda.’ Although the word was first used in biology to speak of organisms that reproduce themselves,64 it is now applied to culture which also reproduces itself—but automatically rather than organically. It is artificial breeding, to stay with the jargon of biology. The term ‘meme’ by British biologist Richard Dawkins is telling here because it concerns the cultural DNA, so to speak, rather than biological DNA. It is constantly reconstructed as it is reproduced, and this is actively done by those who partake in the DNA (be it through education, artistic production, or simply by living in a society).
There is no ‘naturality’ in this selection; no genetic ‘drift’; no spontaneous mutations—those three concepts would imply no conscious attempt is made in getting a strain of cultural DNA to behave in a certain way. So, propaganda concerns the steering of how culture is reproduced, which is thus very possible. As such, the term propaganda in this context is not used to imply that culture reproduces itself somewhat spontaneously and automatically but instead how that reproduction can be influenced and steered—which concerns this intentionality. And in this steering, we are, as I said before, all behind the wheel, although the steering wheel of governments and multinationals is obviously quite a lot bigger. Hence, a better paraphrase of the definition of propaganda might be, as Fletcher puts it, that we are on the ‘sight-seeing bus’65 of parties such as governments, corporations, and even artists.
This exposes that ideology is something that necessarily needs to be ‘propagated.’ Definition-wise it builds upon ‘the causing of plants and animals to reproduce’ and makes it sound automatic, which of course it is not. Trees grow by themselves; they do not have to be forced into existence by a second party. We breathe somewhat ‘automatically’; there is no one constantly pushing our chest. Ocean waves are mostly outside of our influence; there is no Truman Show-like wave-making system at work. Propaganda does not regard these things, and by that quality, it does automatically regard the not-yet—what ought to be; what does not happen by itself; it is artificial breeding, including its technologies, selection procedures, etc. Therefore, it is not just an evil to be thought: it can help us imagine future worlds, and it is precisely therefore also a very powerful tool. As with any tool, many parties strive to gain power over it.
The cognitively conflicting element of the term ‘propaganda’ thus lies in that it appears to denote that that which is to be propagated or propagates itself without any need for external stimulus. However, this is not the case: there is always an intentionality behind what is propagated, and what is to be propagated needs an active steering and moving energy. That being said, when the wheel of an idea spins rapidly, it almost seems to keep itself moving, making it harder to stop. Once it is there, the cultural DNA (meme) seems to spread itself: the term ‘meme’ in the sense of internet culture is telling here. Propaganda does not elaborately focus on new ideas but maintains already-present ideas—the re– in reproduction.
The first dimension of propaganda thus does not regard form; it regards what-is-to-be-propagated: the content to be conveyed, and the owners who would benefit from what-is-to-be-propagated being propagated. It is the motive behind what is propagated, and stemming from that motive, what is propagated. Again, we need to demystify this: it is nearly never a Marvel ‘evil genius.’ More like old, white men in grey suits, or generally speaking, those who would benefit—politically, socially, economically or even psychologically—if you believed one thing over another and allow that belief to motivate your actions. In that manner, we are all sometimes old, white men in grey suits.
It is very important to come back here to the extent of Althusser’s ‘always-already’ argument, which emphasises that there is not such a thing as ‘non-propagandistic’ and ‘propagandistic’ art. There is no neutral; the only difference is that that which disassociates from the ‘average’ or the status quo easily appears as propagandistic, implying—wrongly—that the average is not. The opposite might be true: the less something tries to be propagandistic, the more it becomes so. As curator and author Laura Raicovich illustrates, consciously not buying a car is often problematised as being ideologically motivated, while buying a car—which most people do anyway—remains seen as the neutral and thus non-ideological.66 Thus, both should be considered and regarded in political terms: nothing escapes ideology, albeit a different one. Constantly seeing, smelling and hearing cars everywhere around you is the propaganda of this ideology; it is what keeps it moving, what re-produces it as if it were spontaneous. Building an infrastructure around cars simultaneously makes it harder not to use a car, which takes away the visual, auditive presence of alternatives, such as biking, public transport or walking, affirming that cars are the neutral (there is no ‘competition,’ after all).
Nevertheless, it remains important to train our sensors to pinpoint deliberate propaganda, especially because it usually resides in the neutral (i.e., apparent ‘non-propaganda’). In order to at least attempt to ‘unveil’ my own idealistic position: this analysis stems from a tradition of (Marxist) critical theory developed shortly after the Second World War (just so you know). And I can also tell more about the position I occupy. My analysis is not not idealistic; and thus, not neutral. This article, one could say, is a form of propaganda in which I attempt to persuade you of something to be true or false, albeit in an accepted, approved form called academic style. One of the formations that materially shows this motive is the ‘[…]’ in quotations. It justifiably yet deliberately reformulates the sentence—leaving some parts in and other out—that is quoted just slightly to better fit into the text that uses the quote. This has nothing to do with ‘fake’ or ‘false’; it has to do with making something fit—even on the level of grammar.
In doing so, we as a Western culture have disseminated means that we perceive as ‘scientific’ and thus ‘neutral.’ The point is that this is not the problem in itself (any somewhat academic article from any [Western] writer attempts to convince you of something). The problem is to what manner the agenda behind it, the conditions from which it stems, and the world it proposes should be problematised. I invite you to do the same with this article. To help you along the way: this article is part of a series of articles into engaged arts, a product of a research project initiated by ArtEZ University of the Arts’ lectorate of Art and Culture Education, supported by state funding to work towards a more inclusive and diverse institution, conducted by me, a white, heterosexual male.
1-D Propaganda: Simplification and Interface
There is another important quality of propaganda which does not necessarily concern the propagation of certain believed doctrines into public consensus (its ideological side), but rather how we perceive on a sensual and understandable basis two things essential to any politics. The first reason for the occurrence of propaganda, or even its importance, is its reductive quality. Propaganda as a form allows the showing of those things that would otherwise remain too large, complex or abstract in scale to be understood easily. Thus, propaganda allows simplification. The structure of society, for example, in the ‘organisational chart,’ ‘data visualisations,’ or even the ‘family tree’: showing relations of political significance within a simplified single plane that would otherwise bear no qualitative relation.
Another example is the language that is used when the public is addressed, although the only form it currently knows is ‘simplification,’ in which another group is made suspicious—namely, those who appreciate and even require more elaborate and complex information. One of the strongest senses of propaganda is simplification because what has been simplified has lost its complexity, which has now become inaccessible. In a time where we have more than seventeen million ‘experts’ here in the Netherlands, self-proclaimed expertise will only grow if it is not confronted with more complex information, which our government has simplified into often meaningless one-liners and reductive metaphors though the motive of democratisation. I would argue that a simple button on governmental websites, next to the NL/EN button, for example, which allows users to choose between complexities of language and amounts of information, would help this problem.
I argue that allowing people to acquire more complex and detailed versions of what is uttered by Ex Officio—in addition to the simplifications—already reduces the propagandistic aspect of what is uttered. Another example are elections, especially their pamphlets and manifestos. Here, the word ‘propaganda’ should also be understood as those formal and essentially reductive elements which allow a (mass) society to be reproduced: it reduces and simplifies information before spreading it, precisely because of the fear that it might be simplified when it is spread. It must be stated that it is an obvious danger that reduction nearly always coincides with generalisation and regresses into stereotyping and discrimination if this propaganda is applied not to the formal structure of society (i.e., how it is arranged) but to the informal structure of society (i.e., what it arranged, thus rearranging it). This regression shows the inherent relation of this reductive quality of propaganda to the first—ideology. Simplification forms an intermediary between ideology and a third element of propaganda which is the interface that allows us to approach power on a personal level: it gives us check boxes, readable texts and campaign slogans
A third element of propaganda relates to the second and concerns those things that would otherwise remain abstract phenomenon, which is explained well by Jonas Staal, who starts with the question ‘Why would power need propaganda?’—apart from realising ideology, namely to ‘depict […] power.’67 He notes that ‘power is not a field of forces that can be immediately recognised as such: it has to be facilitated, it has to manifest itself somewhere else or through something else,’68 which would be artistic form which so becomes propagandistic. Staal continues: ‘Without this persuasive platform, [power] is homeless. In that sense, there is something parasitic about power, it needs a host to live in and the gain credibility.’69 In other words, institutions of power need an interface by which they become recognisable and, as such, addressable. Folders, flyers, forms, help desks, city halls, websites and so forth fall under this category. It is the manner by which institutions spread themselves through reality (propagate) in order to become addressable.
This is often done through many aspects of the arts, which help to find form to resemble, symbolise, metaphorise, or signify that power that authors ideology in order to make accessible and approachable. So, Staal’s argument (and which is the agenda this article is built on) is that we need an ‘artist concerning the way he allies himself with politics.’70 Staal elaborates by referencing Willem de Rooij, ‘an artist who refuses, for whatever reason, to reflect on or criticise the hand that feeds him, is producing—just as in a dictatorship—state art.’71 This might be the reason Staal uses the ‘post-’ term in his concept ‘post-propaganda’ because the consciousness of political affiliation disseminates the ‘unconscious’ character ideology attempts to keep intact: ‘the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology.’72 (Ideology doesn’t want to ‘look’ like ideology.) It thus breaks the circle of ‘denegation’ and shows what ideology looks like; it undresses it in as much as I have attempted to undress propaganda.
As an illustration of interfacing power, I would like to give one of my own examples, which took place during the Dutch parliamentary elections of 2017. Usually, many infrastructures of interfacing are active for voters to gain information about politics in general and the platforms of the various political parties (such as Stemwijzer.nl). Rallies are organised for people to see their potential representatives and hear them speak. Informational campaigns supply civilians with information about voting and help them make their choice. Special broadcasts and news items are made on a multiplicity of media throughout the election period. Debates are organised to set out the differences between parties and to delineate the political ‘options’ the Netherlands would have to face in the years to come. Websites even help you through handy checker boxes to define what party to vote for.
Nevertheless, these interfaces mainly work by going from politicians on to voters. It is nearly never inverted, resulting in what I believe people might call the ‘gap between people and politicians.’ (Although it is true that getting in contact with citizens is an odd construct because on the one hand, it does not take much more than stepping outside one’s own door; on the other, no one can really meet a citizen: one meets people occupied by living.) There are not really any infrastructures that allow politicians to be in direct contact with citizens, which is why I started the ‘First Aid with Politics’ hotline for politicians (2016). Politicians could call a free phone number and would be switched to a random citizen in the pool to discuss politics with them. The obvious outcome was that no politician has ever called.
One of the most persuasive forms of propaganda is that which remains in the abstract realm of intentionality (1-D), even though any intentionality always attempts to be valorised in the material dimensions. Now that some of the motives for propaganda have been set out, I want to elaborate briefly on a non-dimensional dimension before going into the other ‘physical’ dimensions. Above all, the lack of form, and thus the exclusion of something from society fuelled by a political motive, can be just as much propagandistic as any openly propagandistic work of art. This is wonderfully illustrated by the fictional language Newspeak from George Orwell’s novel 1984, which ‘takes as its goal limiting the scope of thought.’73 In Orwell’s story, ‘every year the number of words becomes smaller, and the scope of conscious simultaneously decreases.’74 What is not being said can be more haunting than what is put in the form of words or an image. Above all, what is endlessly reproduced over and over sometimes only enlarges what is still missed. During the Great Leap Forward, for example, propaganda by the Chinese Communist Party paraded a wealth of agricultural abundance, only affirming the great lack thereof, causing an extensive famine that led to the deaths of millions of people. At least in its archetypical form, much of propaganda can be read in negative. What it attempts to affirm is actually greatly lacking.
The first (non-)dimension of propaganda is thus that of censorship in the broad sense of the word—everything that is not visible that haunts between the lines of the visible; that which is deliberately lacking or which cannot manifest itself in reality. Much of propaganda resides within this category, such as the ‘threat’—say of the policemen who might patrol the streets, but who are not visible at the moment. This aesthetic coding simulates Foucault’s famous panopticism,75 whereby we internalise control, thus controlling ourselves by the sheer possibility of being under surveillance. Through this internalisation of Ex Officio, we deliberately deprive ourselves of doing certain things. In this non-dimensional dimension, ‘hope’ can also be found—what we would like to be realised but which is not; that which we silently wish for. But because hope can be found, frustration and despair also reside here. Because it is the realm of hope, it is also the realm of crisis. To use an overly popular quote, this is also the domain of what Gramsci once wrote while in prison: the ‘crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’76
The most prevalent part of this dimension of propaganda is what is deliberately prevented from being realised. Most artists arguably work within this dimension because most ‘projects’ are not realised or receive a platform in society, which is mediated by all kinds of inhibitors, which I call the ‘membrane of reality’: the force of resistance anything non-realised experiences when attempting to be realised. As discussed earlier, this force is co-authored by the neutral. However, the neutral implies that it seems to duck under the radar of intentionality, that there are also always forces present—Ex Officio—that controls what will enter (physical) reality and what ought to remain in the realm of abstraction. Therefore, this dimension is also supported by a motivation and thus by an intentionality, even though this motivation might also be a lack of motivation. For example, the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s cabinets of the past decade not wanting to support culture production in the Netherlands, thus cutting it, facilitating its disappearance, making it less present. I would argue that one of the biggest domains of propaganda is this non-dimensional propaganda.
The negating side of propaganda, which is therefore part of the non-dimension, is further elaborated by Doob and Robinson, who studied the psychology of propaganda during the interbellum: ‘Many authors have heaped their abuse upon propagandists who are seeking to change aspects of the status quo which they themselves cherish, and they have been almost completely blind to other propagandists engaged in their process of transmitting the basis of their own beliefs.’77 As Sinclair also argues, disagreement or criticism can be as much propaganda as what they disagrees with, and this is not an issue at all. The issue lies in that it disseminates itself as being so; that it proposes itself as being neutral; that it proposes odd categorical distinctions, such as ‘Jesus and Tolstoi are propagandists, while Shakespeare and Goethe are pure and unsullied creative artists.’78
The extent to which I would suppose we can disseminate ‘good’ propaganda from ‘bad’ is the extent to which it creates or works against the creation of the ‘precariat’: the class of the precarious, that which starves reality. Hence, whether the intent (what is propagated) and the manner (how it is propagated) induce an action that makes precarity or breaks precarity. The reason this is important to note is that the goal of propaganda is never the message nor the medium itself (which remain classical aesthetics categories); it is to act and act in a specific way. Propaganda always has a relational goal, never solely an ideological one. Orwell’s Newspeak is not only about the words and their form, but how they enable or disenable us to speak about certain things—taking from the realm of the real certain potentialities that make its users more precarious in the process. However, as we will discuss in 4-D propaganda, it is true that it can also be the sheer duplication of words that can starve our reality in our time.
A current example that makes non-dimensional propaganda sound a little bit less like a function of a totalitarian state is that which has primacy over visibility, and thereby which has not. In 2019, the most prominent Dutch passenger railway operator, the NS, made a mistake in the public tendering of their commercial promotion spaces.79 Advertising media in stations remained empty, which both showed how prevalent commercial space is in our public spaces, which was only revealed by its disappearing. What is there is sometimes only noticeable when it is not there. What was also revealed was the NS’ lack of ability to respond to the situation by harbouring this now open space for something other than commercial marketing. For example, they could have asked artists to use the space for a while. However, the dictum in visual presence in public space today is that it’s either advertising or nothing at all!
2-D Propaganda: The Plane
‘The contemporaries and rivals of Zeuxis were […] Parrhasius. This last, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen.’80
– Pliny the Elder, Natural History
Doob and Robison note that ‘a situation first has to stand out from the vastly complicated background which constitutes the normal environment.’81 The plane can be a ‘psychological megaphone,’82 exemplifying what is said, making it stand out from the background that is already over abundantly filled with sensual stimuli. When one adds the Y axis to the Z axis, a frame is created in which a plane exists, bringing something from the background to the foreground. Where non-dimensional propaganda emphasises the system in which propaganda takes place, it can only become evident in the negation of what is sensible. That is why even though it censors certain words, Orwell’s Newspeak can only censor those by first having other words that are formulated—words that are there to be uttered. This concerns the second dimension of propaganda, which is the first order of morphology: the flat surface, which combines intention (motive) with a first real dimension. In this dimension, 2-D, signified meets signifier, form meets content, and, most importantly, X meets Y.
To discover the first formalisation of the intentional motive into form, we first need to shortly delve into the history of propaganda. And although as Marcuse notes, ‘deception and illusion have been qualities of established reality throughout recorded history,’83 there was an historical movement that first started utilising ‘deception and illusion’ as a tool for indoctrination. The term propaganda as we know it today stems from the Counter-Reformation of seventeenth-century Europe. As an attempt to reverse the losses that had been made during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Pope Gregorius XV established a new papal institute called the ‘Congregation for Propagation of the Faith,’ which utilised new methods of creating ‘offspring’ of their religious ideology.
One of the first methods of doing so was what we now call ‘Trompe-l’œil,’ which means ‘to deceive the eye.’ It was applied in the form of ‘quadratura,’ where, for example, ceilings in churches were painted as if there were no ceiling at all and one could see directly into heaven. So, the attempt was to replace physical reality with an imaginary reality. Apart from the astonishing—or rather tantalising—beauty, the message conveyed is that the Roman Catholic Church brings you to heaven and brings heaven to you (through proper participation in the institute of the Church, of course). Propaganda works quite elaborately with the known, but possibly even more with the ‘unknown’; it always contains a fictional proposition, an ‘ought.’
As argued in 1-D propaganda, intentionality, the ideology behind it, presents an idea to reduce the world to, but the world does not fit it; hence, the strongest proposition of ideology generally is that it is going to make world according to this idea, and in order to do so it needs you. This is why the ‘pointing finger’ is the archetype of 2-D propaganda: it gives form to intentionality. The illiteracy of most church-goers in that time allowed the Roman Catholic Church to build an imagined world that not only surpassed their contemporary problems—not having to solve illiteracy, famine, war, etc.)—but also found surplus effect in doing so. Basically, they emphasised many aspects the Protestants condemned them for: such as idolatry and the fundamental position of the Catholic institution in Christianity, with Protestantism being much more of a solitary endeavour. In other words, they made explicit that one needs their institution to be a ‘proper’ Christian.
One of the most important factors of this early age of propaganda was the propagator. The ‘sign’—the material being conveyed—still reveals itself through perspective, which depends necessarily on a distance between the spectator and the object itself, and the position of that spectator towards the propagator (the propagator being the material form of what-is-to-be-propagated). Hence, American historian Hillel Schwartz notes that ‘Trompe-l’œil […] is most deceiving to the quick glance.’84 Or as Austrian art historian Ernst Gombrich adds, ‘We mainly rely on stationary one-eyed vision, and the result is that mastery of trompe l’oeil.’85 When the single pointed perspective present in these frescos is shifted by simply taking a step in any direction, the deceit falls apart and the simulated extra dimensions regress to the flat second dimension: the depth simulated in the piece falls back on to the flat surface. Heaven regresses into the ephemeral. In other words, ‘We would be unable to disprove that trompe l’oeil is “real”—unless, that is, we could apply some movement test either by touching it or by shifting our position.’86
This can be illustrated well by Italian baroque painter Andrea Pozzo’s ‘missing sphere’ in The Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius in Rome. Because of a lack of space, its builders could not make a real dome, which was fashionable in that era, so Pozzo—its painter—set out in 1685 to dissolve the ceiling mimicking a sphere. Due to a sphere’s high distortion relative to flat space, the single point perspective is narrowed down like a lens does to quite a specific point, from which it appears natural. Taking just a small step to the side makes the illusion fall apart. This is not just a fault in trompe-l’œils. No, it reaffirms that the ideology conveyed is not materially realised, hence it carries an imperative: what is there to reach is not yet there, which is exactly why it needs to be ‘propagated.’ This imperative is always present in 2-D propaganda, such as Uncle Sam pointing at you, or the gaze of portraits, which we shall discuss further on. This imperative of trompe-l’œils helps if the life that should ultimately work its way towards heaven still has to be lived. No need for propaganda if the subject of the propagator does not have to do anything with it.
Propaganda is not just about the projection of ideas but about the stimulation of behaviour, which many generations of propagators later found. This is also why Desmond Manderson argues that most of these types of 2-D pieces of art function as propaganda, not because of ‘how you look at the wall on which [they are] placed, but because it changes how you look at all the other walls, on which [they are] not placed.’87 Therefore, like many other 2-D forms of propaganda, trompe-l’œils do not just take place on their medium, on the propagator, but mostly in the subject perceiving them. They take place both on the wall and in the spectator, which allows them both not to coincide and thus project, intentionally, the reflective mind upon that propagator: it is a didactic constellation that draws on an epistemological difference.
One, so to say, ‘learns’ something from this type of propaganda, which always presents itself as more knowledgeable than the one who perceives it, precisely by utilising fiction. Uncle Sam knows better than you why you are needed; the trompe-l’œil knows heaven better than you do, and thus knows why you need it better than yourself. This is also why Marcuse speaks of the power of fiction: ‘Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation.’88 Or as Maria Hlavajova puts it, fiction ‘grasps the fact and flies with it.’89 This dissonance of fact and fiction that is always present in 2-D propaganda allows one to actually see that what is depicted is not as it really is. One realises the quadrature is a fresco on a church ceiling depicting something that ought to be ‘heaven-ish.’
It possibly even enlarges the urge to ‘really’ experience real heaven at a certain point, and thus live in a manner so as to reach that goal. Because these pictures are so tantalising but derivative, we can only imagine what real heaven must be like. In other words, heaven hasn’t opened up; there is still an unbreachable ceiling holding the church together, and the one seeing this obviously knows that. The fiction of that depicted heaven leashes fact—the world as it is—into its service. As Althusser would add, it does not yet say ‘all is fine’; it does not propose the present reality as the reality; it is not real, and it is explicitly this ‘unreality’ that gives it power over the lives of the seers because it coerces behaviour that could make it real.
In this sense, there is another psychological condition at play disciplining spectators into the ideology’s service, as Schwartz points out: ‘Trompe-l’œil […] [are] a debilitating excitement of the (optic) nerves with symptoms of vertigo, hypersensitivity, and exhaustion. It was an “embarrassing fact”.’90 In other words: shame. One feels deceived and is ashamed of it; to not be deceived again, one will work hard to realise the ‘real’ heaven that first had ashamed them. Here, again, it helps that the perspective only works from one point in space because it has to fall apart before you feel ashamed. Propaganda is, in this sense, very much about utilising its own limitations. Shame—an effect of the limitations of trompe-l’œil—is a compelling motivator, even if there is nothing to be ashamed of. The sheer threat of shame works, especially in an archaic society, where emancipating institutes such as writing and reading were far from accessible, which created a dependency based on not-knowing.
This epistemological deficiency is utilised by closely monitoring the functioning of the culture in which this propaganda occurs. Nevertheless, this shame is something that had to be overcome to develop the further dimensions of propaganda, as Schwartz notes in reference to acceptance of the scientific discoveries of Galileo Galilei: ‘The invention of the telescope had to await a milieu in which one trusted one’s eyes to see the truth,’ that ‘eye’ being subjected to ‘deceit of the eye’ throughout earlier forms of propaganda. ‘The law of optics adumbrated by Newton […] were at the crux of modernity.’91 Propaganda needed modernity to overcome the second dimension in order to reach the third, by which it surpassed the faculty on deceit, on which 2-D forms of propaganda are founded.
However, it is true that being conscious of the optical illusion of the trompe-l’œil does not make it go away once you step back on to the designated spot for the desired perspective. One still sees it; the difference is that one knows to see it. As American philosopher Jerry Fodor has argued, ‘The way one sees the world is largely independent of one’s theoretical attachments.’92 Fodor is out to resist that ‘(theoretical) conception is capable of penetrating perception thoroughly.’ Optical illusions remain functioning even while we know they are indeed illusions. This, again, underlines the power of the materialisation of propaganda: even though we know it is an illusion, we cannot unsee it. Somewhat contrary to popular belief, developed especially during modernity when men gained the illusory thought of being fully transparent to oneself, Fodor gives us a commandment to overthink: ‘There is a gap between the mind and the world, and (as far as anybody knows) you need to posit internal representations if you are to have a hope of getting across it. Mind the gap. You’ll regret it if you don’t.’93
Following this commandment, it is time to move towards the third dimension. This move concerns a few elements I want to discuss first. Although the illusion remains even while we are conscious of it, we bridge the earlier epistemological difference through knowing the deceit, acquiring the idea that we are immune to its propagations. This realm of apparent self-consciousness, the sense of self-transparency developed during modernity, unveiled a potency to propaganda that remains controversial to many today, which is ‘self-propaganda,’ or, in other words ‘voluntary self-revelation and self-exposure.’94 Controversially, in the arts today, when 2-D trompe-l’œils are utilised, it is done so exactly for the pleasure of actually being deceived while simultaneously knowing one is, which is a sensation we also see in contemporary advertisement.
This produces a sensation of epistemological superiority that is linked to a long tradition of a bourgeois approach to the arts. Examples of the use of trompe-l’œil in the arts today are Lieven Hendriks’ paintings, which simulate having real holes, although they are painted. The vulgarity of the artwork is that one knows, from the beginning onwards, that this is a painting on a canvas and by grace of this fact alone one knows, similarly beforehand, that there is nothing going on in between its surface and the wall on which it hangs. And it is exactly that one knows this beforehand and still seeing the deceit—which Fodor warned us of—that generates the accompanying pleasure.
The simulations are painted quite stunningly, but not too stunningly, because then one would indeed be deceived and there would be no pleasure of epistemological superiority, as in the example given by Pliny the Elder I started this chapter with. It might be because of this bourgeois sensation that this work functions so well in galleries. This pleasure of deceit in the arts makes one simultaneously blind to the fact that most propaganda does not function on this naïve level, delegating the propaganda wholly to the propagator; the canvas; the pamphlet. People tend to focus on the mesmerising question of ‘how it is done,’ without realising that it is actually about ‘what it does, what is done,’ which is where the most appealing aspects of propaganda reside. Although belonging to the third dimension, another example in the arts that makes use of this 2-D quality of trompe-l’œil is Drifter (2018) by Studio Drift.
2-D Propaganda: Looking Back and Repetition
Whereas the trompe-l’œil focusses on what is depicted and utilises the structures of our perspective (it undresses itself to be a muse to the gaze), there are also forms of 2-D propaganda that either look back at us, simulating a returned gaze—rather than having us look into ‘heaven’ and it not looking back, making us work to get there. And there is another important form of propaganda that concerns repetition: the amount by which we encounter something. The first can be thought through in the shape of official portraits, and the second in the shape of usage objects such as coins. Because portraits return a gaze (although simulated), we start entering the next domain, because the Z-axis now plays a part within the propagation itself, and because anything in the third domain necessarily has to do with time. The repetition I will discuss also takes place in this domain because repetition can only take place throughout time.
In the section on 1-D propaganda, I explored the quality of propaganda to interface otherwise abstract, distant phenomena. An explicit 2-D example of this is the official portrait. Particularly back in the day, it had an informational power: showing who’s head of state. In addition, it has a disciplining power: reminding you who is in charge. It also functions in regards to hosting power: its sheer presence—on coins, in courts of law—illustrates the extent of the power of the one in charge: it is spread throughout reality. It imposes itself on to you everywhere you go. More than anything, that which you encounter everywhere must be of importance right? The point is that this aesthetic configuration co-creates that importance. In the case of portraits and coins depicting a leader, a specific function also renders subjectification, namely that they ‘“follow us with their eyes” […] all portraits do this when they do not clearly look elsewhere.’95 Portraits always look back; in that regard, they ask something from the spectator in return. Both in the case of painted portraits and that of coins, the value of the leader is directly linked to the value of the currency, whereby both anchor each other in terms of worth. Thus, it becomes evident that the second dimension gives form to the first, which it can do through two subsequent structures: pamphletics and pamphletism.
2-D Propaganda: Pamphletics and Pamphletism
Although it exists in any form, the pamphlet is inherently part of the second dimension because, essentially, we could metaphorise that it always functions at the level of a pamphlet: a two-dimensional poster that tells you something, just like the trompe-l’œil simulating breaking into the third dimension. In 2009, the artist Jonas Staal made a cross section of the artworks that political parties from Rotterdam City Council in the Netherlands possessed. In the associated exhibition at TENT, Art, Property of Politics (2010), Staal showed those respective artworks which had ‘materialised through a systematic comparison between the political programme of each party and the backgrounds and artistic motivations.’96 Staal notes that at one point, much of the political field in the Netherlands agrees that, ‘in the Netherlands, politics is not supposed to influence the “content” of art,’97 though Staal correctly posits that ‘this is an impossible position to maintain.’98 It is not only impossible to maintain on a content-based level (what is said) but also on a structural level (how what is said is said).
I will put forward that the pamphletics of propaganda—the political infrastructure of aesthetics; the aesthetic infrastructure of politics—is not that it actively steers the content of artistic production for its own gain, but that it is underlined by artistic production. Or, of course, this works other way around, too: that politics underlines artistic production. The propagandistic aspect of art takes place not so much on the level of production but on the level of distribution. Therefore, here we speak of ‘pamphletism,’ which concerns the active utilisation of the aesthetic infrastructure through which something with political meaning is spread through the ideological landscape, through a society. Whether explicitly or consciously, we speak of pamphletism (i.e., the ‘what’). Whether implicitly or subconsciously, we speak of pamphletics (i.e., the ‘how’).
In brief, pamphletism ‘aestheticises’ and ‘reproduces’ a doctrine with political potential with the aim of multiplying the political message underpinning the artwork. It functions as a signboard for a certain politics. Needless to say, I hope, is that this investigation does not plea in any way for that to be good or bad. Rather, I would say, as Staal also does in Post-Propaganda (2010), that this is a necessary and inescapable aspect of the arts that is mainly at risk of becoming dangerous if it is forgotten or denied to be so. Staal argues that what differentiates this from ‘plain’ propaganda is that the artist should be concerned with ‘the way he allies himself with politics.’99
In a way, this makes any artwork ‘pamphletic,’ affirming the system in which it occurs simply by occurring in it. Hence, the artist represented by a gallery is pamphletic for the gallery business and the neoliberalisation of the arts, even while that artist does not actively promote neoliberalism or opposes the gallery system, as Maurizio Cattelan attempted with his Comedian (2019). Or Nokukhanya Langa, who stated in one of her amazing paintings at show at the art fair Art Rotterdam 2020 while being represented by Galerie van Gelder, that ‘this gallerist wants me to be another gallerist’s artist’ (Untitled 2019). Nevertheless, pamphletism—the doctrine cousin of the pamphletic white noise of everything in society—is never silent; never implicit. It actually wants to convince you of (not) buying a car, for example. Pamphletics, we might say, is passive propaganda because it concerns the infrastructure on which pamphletism actively manoeuvres.
Pamphletism means that the artistic practice is used or rather utilised to be a signboard for a certain politics. As Baudrillard puts it, it feeds ‘reality-energy’ into a preferred reality,100 or in other words, ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.’101 It attempts to reproduce a certain politics through imagery, much like advertisements: by glorifying and thus also by negating and demonising a certain politics. This could be called engaged because it creates, indeed, a ‘bond’ and this is the ‘power of linkage’102 that defines art. It creates new relationalities, but then, as Bourriaud argues, so do ‘flags, logos, icons, [and] signs.’103 Interpreting and utilising the engaged artistic practice, as a flag, logo, icon or sign for a certain politics is what can be described as pamphletism. If this principle is centralised in practice, the lines become convincingly short with ‘branding’104 plainly creating the appearance of uniqueness in a situation that is monolithically plain.
The pamphletistic practice often proposes that art is to coincide with politics: the discourse is often fed with terms like artistic responsibility and aesthetics representation. Along with others theoreticians, Badiou argues that ‘this movement is disastrous for both the actual political, affirmative potential of art and [also for] politics, which in fact outsourced its impotence to art.’105 The consequence of this is what Badiou calls the ‘(post)romantic’ movement in art, where there is no distance between what is produced and the producer—both coincide. When both coincide, propaganda starts because it disenables any criticality or reflective consciousness by taking away a distance that is needed to have both. Hence, if you become what you argue (for or against), you stop knowing what you argue, and what you argue starts owning you. If what you argue is on any level political, you will become a political pawn.
‘We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.’106
– Mark Crispin Miller
It was a widely used strategy during the world wars to attempt to mislead the enemy in the same manner that a trompe-l’œil misleads a mind. Multiple strategic advantages are linked to misleading the enemy, which mostly reflect a disadvantage of the propagators themselves. Whereas the classical trompe-l’œil remains on the flat surface and is therefore dependent on a single point-of-perspective to function, the introduction of the third domain itself to trompe-l’œil unleashes all degrees and points into the deceit. One of the most telling methods of doing so was the utilisation of the optics that were reigning during the world wars. There were considerably less virtual optics present at that time than we have today: no GPS; the first satellite only made it into orbit in 1957; and widespread use of radar was still in development up to and during the Second World War. Hence, the optics of the world wars, especially the first, were highly focussed on aerial view, which is a view that sweeps any direction even though it is distanced. What aerial view lacks greatly proximity; therefore, it is difficult to see detail. In this sense, any optical illusion within trompe-l’œil propaganda is always centred around an optical disadvantage: it is above to deceive the eye. In order to utilise enemies using aerial methods to scout frontlines, armies started producing blow-up imitation tanks, trucks and planes to attempt to give fake information to those aerial scouts—signifying that the army would be somewhere else than it really was. Because this message is always delayed in relaying it back, the army would have bought enough time before the enemy finally arrived at a location it discovered was fake.
This also introduces another element to 3-D trompe-l’œil, which is processing time: trompe-l’œils build on enlarging the time it takes to realise one is deceived because one will eventually realise, hence the trompe-l’œil is about utilising that time—just like the 2-D trompe-l’œil emphasises by seizing to function of the time one still has to live through in order to reach ‘heaven.’ I can only imagine the satisfaction this enemy army must have felt when they were to pop these three-dimensional optical illusions and see them fall back on to themselves collapsing on to the ground, because these trompe-l’œils, just like those in 2-D, will fall back to the second dimension in the end. That is even though these do so by properly utilising the third dimension, and 2-D trompe-l’œils do so by simulating the third dimension. They do so by simulating mass, rather than perspective, as is illustrated by this quote from The Times: ‘Both Russia and America have developed life-size inflatable tanks as decoys intended to fool enemy surveillance by satellite or drones. Senior British officers have been urged to follow suit after an official study of urban warfare concluded that the army should boost its “deception capability” to counter its “lack of mass”.’107
It is exactly at this last point, a lack of mass, where decoys and any deceit in general works really well: it is never only meant to deceive someone else but also to veil a deficiency of the self. Where there is a lack of mass, one will use fillers to inflate that mass. Artists use this same quality—not to deceive an enemy as the army would but to pinpoint exactly the lack of mass. During the 2019 Venice Biennale, Albanian artist Andreas Lolis placed garbage bags and cardboard boxes (Untitled, 2018) manufactured photo realistically from marble next to the entrance to the prestigious Giardini pavilion. Isabella Scott notes that ‘Andreas Lolis creates trompe-l’oeil objects in marble […] that mimic ephemeral objects he has seen on street corners or park benches […] by reproducing detritus in a high-classical medium, he intentionally troubles conventional systems of value and status.’108 Because these types of artworks refer to emptiness especially by having an extended from, they are a good method of popping the pressure of simulations, by simulating the simulation themselves.
However, in both cases the only faculty that can dissect these propagandas from real or fake is touch, which is simultaneously the faculty propaganda attempts to counter during its development in the third dimension—because it is in the third dimension rather than the second that something can be touched. In a culture centred around the empirical after the rise of modernism, the more empirical domains something applies to, the realer it appears to the modern mind. Let’s delve into the third dimension of propaganda, which is that of space and its faculty of touch. Here X and Y meet Z, and thereby introduce time and movement, which are both relative to space.
With the introduction of this third element, the ‘flatness’ of the second dimension is transgressed, and the pieces of propaganda start partaking in life: they are animated; they move and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, although they haven’t infiltrated us just yet (we shall discover which faculty is the self in the section on 4-D propaganda below). Because the plane is a dimension on which one can only look, its didactic element disintegrates when it transgresses into the third dimension of space. The propaganda will not appear as a finger pointing at you, but as something which you stand side-by-side with, drawing less and less on an epistemological disadvantage, which the deceived necessarily needed to have in the form of trompe-l’œil, as we discussed earlier.
Both the trompe-l’œil and pamphletism remain in the realm of the second dimension. In the case of the first, because it is a painting; in the case of the second, because it is rather flat. In the conquering of reality, the third dimension makes propaganda surround us, and it stops being bound by perspective. It takes place all around us because the space we occupy as reality is a product of propaganda, and also a propaganda in itself. In order to pursue this argument, let’s first continue with the historical reading of the phenomenon of propaganda as we have set out in the previous section.
A deliberate example that emphasises the difference between the second and third dimension is the uniform, even though it belongs to both. Although the uniform appears as only a 2-D plane wrapped around so that it appears 3-D, the third dimension is that it acquires a presence in space and ceases to exist only on a plane. You could say that it activates the second dimension, making it reactive. Whereas before it could only collapse back on to itself, it now collapses a dimension further, on to the body that wears it. Before the world wars, most (military) uniforms were flamboyant and excessive; they pointed to authority, drawing on awe as much as 2-D trompe-l’œil. These uniforms are still being used today, but only for ceremonial occasions. In this sense, this type of uniform essentially belongs to the ceremony, which is about the creation of an event around something that would otherwise have no inherent eloquence.
However, warfare has been decentralised, and although it remains a phenomenon of prestige in many countries, it has mainly become about resources, which is to say it should not be excessive but effective. Hillel notes that ‘Out in the open, the war [WO1] saw the end of bright battledress meant to embolden one’s own troops and dishearten the enemy.’109 It can also be seen here that propaganda is not just about making something explicit, which these old kinds of uniforms do, but making something invisible: to camouflage. As Hillel points out: ‘The old terror of a visible foe had given way to the paralysing sensation of advancing on an invisible one.’110 Hence, wrapping 2-D around 3-D is to dissimulate all three dimensions. Camouflage ‘[…] became the foot soldier’s cloak of invulnerability […] to be unseen is more important than to be protected […] the practice goal was to be invisible, not invincible.’111 And moreover, ‘Understand shadow like a painter, projection like an architect, pattern like a zoologist, reflection like a physicist.’112
However, although the aforementioned forms of propaganda meet the requirements to be called 3-D, they lack an element that came to be the core of this dimension. They utilise extension and time but have not brought them together, which would result in movement. Therefore, the key function of three-dimensional propaganda, as we shall discuss further on, activates the third dimension to be something that is alongside us, animated as we are. In order to discuss this type of 3-D propaganda, we will first need to delve into a bit more of its history, especially during the interwar period.
One of these elements is contextualisation: meaning that the propaganda is not the thing propagating, but a surrounding that propagates that which is in that surrounding to be true. Hence, it is the spatiality in which other things exist. The splendour of this method is that it wholly escapes the ideological character which earlier forms still attempted to dissimulate because it regards mere details—elements on the set which seem otiose. This form is called ‘reality effects’ and is explained very well by Roland Barthes, who notes that these are strategic details designed to bring about a sensation of verisimilitude.113 These are, as Barthes puts it, notations114—the smallest and seemingly most insignificant details with no function in the narrative itself that plainly and solely say ‘we are real.’115 These elements paraphrase a non-fictive narrative in a fictive environment. Anchors chat in everyday life, but they don’t just chat during broadcast, during which it is a reality effect. Politicians wave to people in everyday life but they don’t ‘just’ wave during campaigns. Moreover, these notations aim to unveil the reality behind a narrative, not a narrative behind reality; they precisely breathe a sense of reality into the fictive. Hence, these reality effects are ‘deterrence machine[s]’116 used to ‘rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real’117 by providing ‘the real by the imaginary.’118
When propaganda loses a fixed dimensional position (2-D), it becomes impossible to take distance from and it becomes rather ‘invisible’; the perspective now shifts with you as you yourself shift your perspective, and so it no longer gives itself away to be trompe-l’œil. One would now ‘require[e] a sixth sense that [would] enables us to become aware of it.’119 During the era of 3-D propaganda, spearheaded by PR men just like Edward Bernays, it was formulated exactly to appear as normal as possible. By normal, I mean that it perfectly aligns with current tendencies and doesn’t stand out at all. To give an example of one of the things Bernays developed: while being contracted to a major cigarette brand, his job was to popularise the cigarette for women for whom smoking was regarded as not socially acceptable during the 1920s because the cigarette was related to the phallus. During an Easter parade in New York, he made famous young models smoke cigarettes with the slogan ‘torches of freedom,’ and thus commercialised an emancipatory movement.120 Henceforth, emancipation became about claiming a position of equality on the market, or rather, emancipation became a marketing tool. Pamphletistically, appropriating the emancipatory struggle into the artistic practice makes the given practice a marketing tool. Propaganda, therefore, is no longer the ‘Hades’ of simulation, but is instead ‘the subtle, maleficent, elusive, twisting of meaning,’121 according to Baudrillard. Of course, the whole intentionality—its meanings, intentions and goals—of this activity was invisible to the spectator, which is exactly why it was so powerful. If everyone would have had the distance we now have in the shape of time, which enabled us to see the ideological backbone of this action (basically, aiming to sell more cigarettes), I doubt it would have been effective at all.
Staal argues that propaganda is the structuring of the logic—the relational structure—that we use when looking at and interpreting the world.122 Thus, it regards the structures that allow a certain image to come into being and the structure that gives those images ‘colour,’ meaning, and content. Along with creating the artwork, it more importantly creates its spectator—its subjects—and thus has a relational influence. It functions not just in front or our eyes, in the world, but behind them—in our thinking. These are aesthetical structures; ways of visualising—be it on a surface or the flat image, or in your head. The artistic practice (also the pamphletistic practice) is about passively making those images; the engaged practice is about focussing on the substructure that produces and makes possible certain images and their corresponding spectated interpretations. It is, so to say, a counter-PR. It attempts to make visible and intervene on invisible aesthetics and so recreate a distance by intervening on the structures of aesthetic productions. The engaged ‘work of art, on the other hand, does not conceal that which is—it reveals’123 that which is.
4-D Propaganda: Psychopolitics
‘Protect me from what I want’124
– Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitiek
Today, many propagators are really honest about being propagators, but that does not mean they stop functioning as propaganda. Being conscious of it does not in any way imply you are above it. In this way, the best protection against propaganda is protection from ourselves. While in 3-D propaganda the modernist stance of self-transparency still reigned, which allowed propagators to draw from ratio and a trust in reality, the fourth dimension moves into the postmodern stance, which is a realisation that we are indeed not transparent to ourselves. To be more specific, 4-D propaganda utilises this deficiency by working those structures with which we are not transparent to ourselves through ourselves. Psychology is the technology that underpins this strategy.
Whereas 2-D and 3-D propaganda focus on the dispositions of the bodily by its perspectivity or its spatiality—so called ‘biopolitics’—the fourth, and I would argue current, version of propaganda focusses on our minds. The second and third dimensions all concern extension: the presence is space in the second, and the presence in action in the third. The fourth regards the presence in mind, which is the institution that makes the second and third dimensions function; it is, therefore, the equinox of current propaganda. In that regard, the fourth dimension should hierarchically be seen as the first because the best propaganda does not just control or inhibit the body (which are all functions of biopolitical disciplining that necessarily cause resistance). It instead makes us control or inhibit ourselves, making us want to do so.
Above all, ‘it is not effective to exploit someone against their will.’125 This is what Han calls ‘auto-aggression,’126 whereby we exploit ourselves. He illustrates this with permanent ‘debt,’ which he believes we might acquire ‘so that we don’t have to act, that is, don’t have to be free, not have to be responsible.’127 Auto-aggression freely utilises our sense of self-determination, so that we feel as if we freely control ourselves, which indeed is a far stronger method than when something external (say oppressive power) attempts to control us. This is why current propaganda is friendly, non-coercive. It does not attempt to make people docile—which would require repression—but instead attempts to make people dependent on it.128 It attempts at structuring thinking in such a way that we believe it to be our thinking, rather than the forceful commandments of earlier propaganda. This is what Han terms the ’violence of positivity,’129 or as Barbara Ehrenreich polemically writes: smile or die.130 This power seduces rather than forbids.131 Whereas with ‘Newspeak,’ oppression took place through limiting what could be uttered by creating an artificial lack of words, Han argues that our time is characterised by the shear multiplication of words.132 I argued earlier that the lack of words starves our reality. The multiplication of words might plump up our reality, making it slow and reactive—and more importantly—addicted.
In the time of abundance of communication, we have a plight to make use of all the words available. Why? Because according to Han, we live in a cult of transparency, where every inside ought to be externalised. This is reflected in biometrics and social media, which Han terms the second revolution of statistics. In order to be transparent about ourselves, using a psychographic approach rather than orthopaedic and demographic ones—sharing every bit and piece through elaborate micro-nuances, constantly holding ourselves accountable for what we can say, which is simultaneously saved and archived, and what we therefore do. By the sheer amount of information it collects about us, big data goes beyond our own transparency; it penetrates deeper into ourselves than we can do ourselves. The pieces of data collected here are not even transparent to ourselves; they create a statistic advantage by which big data can precisely market what we don’t know we need, but know we need it when we see it. ‘People are “deinsided”, because the inside hinders and slows down communication.’133
That multiplication of communication is essential to current propaganda, and its ideology is neoliberal capitalism. Under the reign of full freedom, accessibility is omnipresent. As Stefano Harney argues, ‘“access plus speed” is the formula of […] logistical capitalism.’134 We basically create our own criminal records in the form of timeline posts on Facebook, and collect mugshots and evidence on our Instagrams. Han argues that individual freedom is the genitals of capitalism’s reproduction135 because it is that sense of (naive) freedom that produces the conditions on which capitalism can thrive. He also notes that in our era ‘everything that can be measured, must be measured,’136 and because it is done so transparently, our ‘emotional or ideological prejudices are filtered out.’137 The ‘transparency dispositif’138 causes a suppression of the different, whereby everyone keeps an eye on everyone—not just a single institution; we mostly watch ourselves—constantly being mirrored by repressive structures such as ‘liking’ and ‘loving.’
In this sense, to cite a controversial statement by Slavoj Žižek, ‘love is evil’139 because it works to exclude something, to pick something out of all the rest. Everybody is ‘de-internalised’—there is no internal, secret domain because ‘inwardness inhibits and slows down communication,’140 and the multiplication of communication is the propaganda of this fourth dimension. There is no single designable object that postulates the fourth dimension of propaganda; however, there are many artistic configurations that function as the cars that ride along the line of its logistics, that make possible the de-internalisation. Think about the content through which data is mined, or the rhetorical qualities of pseudo-information that steers our thinking. Hence, as I argued earlier, this dimension of propaganda takes place within ourselves, moving with us every step we take and every thought we have. Here propaganda is perfectly dissimulated because it does not need external form: it externalises the internal. It is a function.
Because this realm is all about self-persuasion, it also appears to have lost the institutional side, like the Catholic Church using trompe-l’œil to recruit followers. This does not mean, however, that we have become less religious (or less ideological), as Slavoj Žižek illustrates with his idea of ‘religion without believers,’141 which is a form of cognitive dissonance (‘I know it very well but I don’t believe it’). Nobody thinks of themselves as data mines, as walking wallets, as pure consumers. The religion without believers can be well illustrated with a very current example, namely hoarding in times of the coronavirus crisis of 2020. Nobody believed there was not enough toilet paper in March 2020—this was confirmed by all kinds of parties—but everyone believed that there are idiots who would believe it. That’s why everyone started hoarding toilet paper, and by that act there wasn’t enough toilet paper—a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby these apparent non-believers became the idiots who believed they would believe there would not be enough toilet paper. They themselves became the believers they didn’t believe in at first.
Žižek calls this a belief without believers. In the choice of toilet paper, the disposition also sees that no one actually believes that this is a crisis with deaths. And in this sense, our minds are still focussed on the third dimension in regards to empirical proof. I recall seeing a street interview asking people what they thought of the coronavirus measures in the Netherlands. A man asked the interviewer, ‘Do you see any dead people lying around?’, which he posed as an argument against the existence of Covid-19. People apparently need to see death, despair and all-out disaster in order to believe the crisis. The same counts for our externalisation as Han describes. However, this is a schizophrenic urge in the Deleuzian sense of the word. Despite people also buying relatively more dry foods, such as rice—which would affirm the crisis on a level of bare maintenance of life—the shortage arose on three-layer ‘ultra-soft’ wipes, so to speak, meaning that most people were probably busier with status anxiety or even a denial of the crisis. According to Žižek, these phenomena and the analysis thereof ‘help to detect ideological disturbances,’142 which is explicitly important now that within the fourth dimension of propaganda, we have internalised them, and only behaviours signify the effect of the structures of propaganda. He adds that ‘we believe much more than we know that we believe,’143 which is also why he suggests that ‘ideology in the West is so strong we don’t have to inhibit it,’144 even though we believe there is none. This contrasts well with ideology in China, where citizens have to inhibit certain kinds of fiction, and many know they have to,145 whereas we believe under the doctrine of freedom that there is no fiction to inhibit at all. Ideology is not decided on false and true, fiction and non-fiction, and should not be acted upon as such.
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Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2002), p. 14.
Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author,’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop (London: Whitechapel/Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), p. 41.
Claudia W. Ruitenberg, ‘Art, Politics, and the Pedagogical Relation,’ Studies in Philosophy and Education 30, no. 2. (2010): p. 217; Jacques Rancière, De geëmancipeerde toeschouwer, trans. Joost Beerten en Walter van der Star (Amsterdam: Octave, 2015), p. 56.
Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Commitment,’ in Aesthetics and Politics, trans. Francis McDonagh (London: Verso, 2007 ), p. 12. Adorno himself uses the term ‘committed art’ rather than ‘engaged art.’
Adorno 1962, p. 6.
This is the title of a well-known performance by artist Marina Abramović, in which she sat at a table during an exhibition and visitors would sit across her.
Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (London: MacMillan Press, 1979), pp. xii-xiii.
Marcuse 1979, p. ix.
Marcuse 1979, p. xi.
Adorno 1962, p. 9.
Adorno 1962, p. 191.
Chris Pilcher, ‘South Korea Turns Off Propaganda Speakers on North Korean Border,’ EuroNews, April 31, 2018, https://www.euronews.com/2018/04/23/south-korea-turns-off-propaganda-speakers-on-north-korean-border.
Joseph Nye, ‘The Information Revolution and Soft Power,’ Current History, no. 113/759 (2014): p. 6.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York/London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1979), pp. 341-342.
‘South Korea Turns Off Loudspeaker Broadcasts into North,’ BBC News, April 23, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-43861161.
Nye 2014, p. 6.
Erwin W. Fellows, ‘“Propaganda”: History of a Word, American Speech no. 3, vol. 34 (1959): p. 184.
Leonard W. Doob and Edward S. Robinson, ‘Psychology and Propaganda,’ The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 179 (1935): p. 88.
Fellows 1959, p. 184.
Fellows 1959, pp. 186-187.
Upton Sinclair, Mammonart: An Essay in Economic Interpretation (Westport: Hyperion Press,  1975), p. 10a.
Mark Crispin Miller, ‘Introduction,’ in Propaganda by Edward Bernays (New York: Ig Publishing, 2004), p. 12.
Jonas Staal, ‘Eis het Onmogelijke,’ De Groene Amsterdammer, no. 3, January 17, 2018, https://www.groene.nl/artikel/eis-het-onmogelijke.
Miller 2004, p. 17.
Fellows 1959, p. 186.
Doob and Robinson 1935, p. 90.
Ibid. Emphasis added.
Bourriaud 2002, p. 14.
Sinclair  1975, p. 9.
Joost de Bloois and Ernst van den Hemel, ‘Alain Badiou: Het Communisme in de Kunst,’ in Alain Badiou, Inesthetiek: Filosofie, Kunst, Politiek (Amsterdam: Octavo, 2012), p. 39. Translated from the Dutch to English by the author.
Doob and Robinson 1935, p. 90.
Desmond Manderson, ‘Here and Now: From “Aestheticizing Politics” to “Politicizing Art”,’ in Sensing the Nation’s Law, no. 18-5 (2018): p. 5.
Cf. Walter Benjamin, ‘Epilogue’ in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Manderson 2018, p. 5.
Jonas Staal, Post-propaganda (Amsterdam: the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, 2010), p. 84.
Adorno 1962, p. 9.
Staal 2010, p. 71.
Conversation with Bas Overbeek on May 7, 2019.
Bas Heijne, ‘Olifant,’ NRC, 2013, https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2013/09/07/olifant-a1472424. Translated from Dutch to English by the author. Mark Rutte said the following in Dutch: ‘Visie is als de olifant die het uitzicht beneemt.’ ‘Vision’ here has to be understood as ideological conviction used to make policy.
‘Visie,’ 2017, Van Dale Dictionary (Utrecht: Van Dale Uitgevers), accessed December 12, 2020, http://www.vandale.nl/gratis-woordenboek/nederlands/betekenis/visie. The Dutch word ‘visie’ means to have a certain way of seeing things. In English, it would translate to ‘vision,’ which means ‘the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.’ ‘Vision,’ 2017, Oxford Dictionaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press), accessed December 12, 2020, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/vision.
Arendt 1979, p. 468.
Think, for example, of ‘capitalism.’ Following the doctrine of the accumulation of capital, everything in the world should be regarded in terms of the multiplication of surplus monetary value. What cannot be expressed in terms of this ‘value’ and ‘profit’ is either regarded as worthless or should be made profitable.
Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2014), p. 193.
Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitiek (Amsterdam: Van Gennep, 2014), p. 9. Translated from the Dutch by the author.
Althusser 2014, p. 84.
Althusser 2014, p. 191.
With this critique of ‘ideology,’ Baudrillard means ideology that tries to restore an objective truth.
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (New York: Semiotext[e]/MIT press, 1983), p. 25.
Baudrillard 1983, p. 26.
Arendt 1979, p. 353.
Althusser 2014, p. 175.
Althusser 2014, p. 181.
Arendt 1979, p. 353.
Arendt 1979, pp. 197-198.
Fellows 1959, p. 182.
Fellows 1959, p. 182.
Laura Raicovich, ‘Manifestations of Neutrality,’ Proposition #10: Instituting Otherwise, BAK. December 7, 2019, 16:00-16:45 (Utrecht: BAK, 2019).
Staal 2010, p. 72
Staal 2010, p. 76
Staal 2010, p. 191.
Han 2015, p. 45. Translated to the English by the author.
Cf. Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism,’ from Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, accessed in Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts, vol. 2, no. 1 (Autumn 2008), pp. 1-12.
Zygmunt Bauman, ‘Times of interregnum,’ Ethics & Global Politics, vol. 5, no. 1 (2012): p. 49. DOI: 10.3402/egp.v5i1.17200.
Doob and Robinson 1935, p. 89.
Sinclair 1975, p. 10b.
Peter van Ammelrooy, ‘NS Verwijdert Reclames op Stations na Blunder met Aanbesteding,’ Volkskrant, December 9, 2019, accessed on January 6, 2021, https://www.volkskrant.nl/wetenschap/ns-verwijdert-reclames-op-stations-na-blunder-met-aanbesteding~b8636615/.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), chapter 36.
Doob and Robinson 1935, p. 90.
Marcuse 1979, p. 56.
Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), p. 185. Emphasis added.
E. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (New York: Phaidon, 2004), p. 133.
Manderson 2018, p. 11.
Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (London/New York: Routledge, 2007), p 65.
Maria Hlavajova, ‘BAK: Art and Politics,’ pt. 3, seminar on April 2, 2019, 19:30-21:30 at BAK in Utrecht.
Schwartz 1998, p. 185.
Schwartz 1998, p. 182.
Robert N. McCauley & Joseph Henrich, ‘Susceptibility to the Müller-Lyer Illusion, Theory-Neutral Observation, and the Diachronic Penetrability of the Visual Input System,’ in Philosophical Psychology 19 (1) (2006). DOI: 10.1080/09515080500462347. In reference to Jerry Fodor, p. 81.
Jerry Fodor, ‘Where is My Mind?’ London Review of Books, 31 (3), November 2008, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v31/n03/jerry-fodor/where-is-my-mind.
Han 2015, p. 16.
Gombrich 2004, p. 334.
Jonas Staal, Art, Property of Politics (Rotterdam: TENT, 2010), http://www.jonasstaal.nl/site/assets/files/1718/politiek_kunstbezit.pdf
Staal 2010, p. 7
Staal Post-Propaganda (2010), p. 76.
Baudrillard 1983, p. 26.
Baudrillard 1983, pp. 2-3.
Bourriaud 2002, p. 15.
As convincingly argued in Naomi Klein’s No Logo (1999).
Bloois and van den Hemel 2012, p. 23.
Miller 2004, p. 37.
Mark Hookham, ‘Inflatable Decoy Tanks to Puff up Army’s Strength,’ The Times, June 24, 2018, accessed January 6, 2021, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/inflatable-decoy-tanks-to-puff-up-armys-strength-xhnt8jl88.
Isabella Scott, ‘Andreas Lolis’ in May You Live in Interesting Times, 58th edition of the Venice Biennale (Venice 2019), p. 186.
Schwartz 1998, p. 137.
Schwartz 1998, p. 188.
Robert Stam, ‘Television News and Its Spectator,’ in Regarding Television, ed. Ann Kaplan (London: BFI Publishing, 1984) p. 32.
Roland Barthes, ‘The Reality Effect,’ in French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, ed. by Tzvetan Todorov, trans. R. Carte (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 11.
Barthes 1982, p. 16.
Baudrillard 1983, p. 25.
Baudrillard 1983, p. 36.
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp. 470-471.
This take on propaganda and how it used psychology to unveil new domains is well dissected in the documentary series The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis (BBC, 2002).
Baudrillard 1983, p. 34.
Jonas Staal, ‘Art. Democratism. Propaganda.,’ e-flux 52 (2014): pp. 4-7.
Marcuse 1979, p. 56.
Han 2015, p. 23.
Han 2015, p. 11.
Han 2015, p. 14.
Han 2015, p. 15.
Han 2015, p. 22.
Han 2015, p. 39.
Cf. Barbara Ehrenreich, Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2010).
Han 2015, p. 22.
Han 2015, pp. 45-47.
Han 2015, p. 16.
Stefano Harney, ‘The New Rules of Algorithmic Institutions,’ in Former West: Art and the Contemporary After 1989, ed. by Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016), p. 451.
Han 2015, p. 11.
Han 2015, p. 62.
Han 2015, p. 17.
Slavoj Žižek, ‘Love is Evil,’ YouTube, December 16, 2012, accessed January 8, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AfonD9_1W8.
Han 2015, p. 16.