M-TH: dialectical materialism

David Bruce dave_bruce at SPAMryelands.co.uk
Tue Aug 3 10:27:16 MDT 1999

NY Times, August 1, 1999

Glorifying Governments Is Also an Art


WASHINGTON -- All governments engage in, even require, propaganda to
reinforce their authority and disseminate their policies. Made by human
beings, governments naturally like to look good.

They show distinct preferences for glory, no matter what their actual
circumstances. So the powers that be build monuments, put victory and
liberty on coins, establish patriotic celebrations, fabricate myths.

The word propaganda comes from the Latin phrase for propagating the
Christian faith; it acquired a generally pejorative sense only in World War
I, when governments took strict control of war information that could be
used in the mass media. Long before, every medium that could spread
ideologies or enhance renown and power had been called upon to do so.

Popes and kings and dictators commissioned architecture, sculpture and
painting, enlisted playwrights and speakers, and hired designers to shape
the ruler's image and fashion the servants' livery as well as the
military's uniforms.

When photography came along, it, too, was soon pressed into service. French
and British royalty in the mid-19th century started by posing with their
families so that their subjects might feel a certain warmth of kinship with
their emperors and queens.

During the technical peace of the 1930s, Germany, the Soviet Union and the
United States took the uses of propaganda, beneficent or otherwise, to new
levels. Two major -- one might even say resounding -- governmental
photographic programs in that decade are explored and compared in
"Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the U.S.S.R. and the
U.S.," at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington through Oct. 3. Here, even the
dreams look like propaganda.

This enormous and instructive show of 232 images, including a few posters
and photographically illustrated books and magazines, is accompanied by a
catalog written by the curator, Leah Bendavid-Val.

The exhibition offers some previously unknown photographs from both
countries as well as such revealing items as a second version of Alexander
Rodchenko's well-known "Pioneer Girl" and a variant of Dorothea Lange's
picture of a migrant worker's wife with her hand to her head, apparently
more posed than candid. These reminders of photographers' ways of working
hint at how artfully constructed and determinedly willed was the
persuasiveness of their images.

Lenin, who regarded art as an educational tool, called for central
government oversight of all kinds of information. The Soviet system aimed
not only at educating the illiterate masses but also at reconstituting
humanity by creating a new and more harmonious individual, a project that
could be furthered by keeping examples before the public's eyes.

All published and professional photography was essentially Soviet
government photography, as the government controlled all publications. At
one point, photographers were ordered to hand over their negatives so they
could not be used commercially. Nonetheless, Ms. Bendavid-Val says, many
images and even negatives were returned to their makers, and what the
government did keep was neither organized nor well cared for.

The United States had plenty of non-governmental photographers, but the
Farm Security Administration, one of the most prominent, discerning and
important photographic employers of the 1930s, was of, by and for the
government. The FSA was established to rally support for New Deal programs
to help farmers.

Roy Stryker, the head of the agency, ordered photographers to hand over
their negatives, and did not return them. (Walker Evans, unhappy with the
arrangement, took two pictures of everything and sent in only one.) Stryker
took complete charge of the photographs he received, even punching holes in
negatives he did not like. He made great efforts to get these
free-of-charge pictures published and displayed, and he preserved the
archive, which is now in the Library of Congress and making its way onto
the Web.

So both governments were engaged in large-scale photographic projects meant
to promote their ideas and programs. The subjects were sometimes similar --
farmers, children, interiors, daily life, some industry, some urban
environments -- but the press releases for "Propaganda and Dreams" -- and
on a couple of occasions the show itself -- mistake this for stylistic

Both subjects and styles reflect the different histories of the two
nations, something about their different goals, a lot about their different
circumstances in the 1930s.

The Soviet work owes a great deal to Rodchenko's experiments in the
creation of a new vision by means of vertiginous views, close-ups and
dislocations. By the 1930s, after Russia and the Communists had
revolutionized art as well as government, the Soviets forced the art genie
back into the bottle, but they never quite convinced photographers to
abandon their discoveries.

Many photographers made straightforward documentary pictures of the
approved type, but the esthetically daring, disjunctive style, replete with
bold diagonals and sudden changes of scale, never died out altogether.
Rodchenko was accused of excessive foreign influence and discredited.

Men like Boris Ignatovich, who continued along related formalist paths,
were not persecuted, merely ignored. Despite the utopianism of believing
that they could change the very way people saw, despite images that today
look very strong, Ignatovich and others like him seldom got published, yet
they did not renounce their vision.

Modernism in American photography had a wholly different tone and
derivation from most European and Russian modernism: it tended to be flat,
planar, tangentially cubist and constructivist. And though it was the
Soviet administration that decreed an end to extravagant modernist
experiments and a return to a simpler, less stylized presentation, it was
America that accepted the directive without even being aware of it.

The plainspoken approach was valued here as a token of honesty. American
documentary remained stylistically restrained, partly to distinguish itself
from the crowd-pleasing blandishments of commercial work.

Walker Evans was not alone in the 1930s in centering his subjects in the
middle distance and keeping them strictly parallel to the picture plane,
nor are there many flourishes in the work of Lange, Russell Lee or Arthur
Rothstein. The photographers' very styles were meant to say: "We are
compassionate but neutral. What we show you is the unvarnished truth,
uncontaminated by the prejudices of art and personality that creep into
magazines like Life and Look."

If the Soviet belief in the new man and woman was strengthened by radical
ways of seeing, the American documentary style was a kind of visual
equivalent to the homely, log-cabin character of Honest Abe.

When the photographs are visually similar, the similarities are often
superficial. Even though the two countries shared a faith in the potential
of government to improve the lot of the citizenry, even though both
believed in the redemptive power of machinery, even though the
photographers were equally convinced that their imagery could influence
social change, the historical differences were overwhelming.

The U.S.S.R. was at last barreling into the 20th century in the 1930s on
tractors and electric lines; the United States had been industrialized for
nearly a century. The Soviet Union was supposedly at the beginning of a
glorious future; the economic problems of the United States struck many as
the end to an entire system.

The Soviets were fashioning a collective society; Americans pinned their
hopes on the individual. The Soviet pictures are robust, full of hope,
dynamic. The American pictures, supposedly about the will to overcome, are
frequently sad, forlorn, empty and arid: the image of people who know they
are in trouble, as opposed to the Soviet image of people who are determined
to believe they are not.

Art journals in recent years have repeatedly criticized the FSA and its
photographers for being agents of federal government propaganda, a
criticism that ironically recaps political complaints about the program by
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's opponents in the 1930s.

Critics today also accuse the photographers of exploiting their indigent
subjects, an objection that goes to the heart of recent doubts about
documentary practice.

Ms. Bendavid-Val repeatedly and properly points out that photographers,
editors and publishers in both America and the Soviet Union believed in the
rightness of their cause and the usefulness and appropriateness of what
they were doing. By definition agents of government propaganda, they were
also acting on their own beliefs, for they shared the political faith in
reform and progress.

Besides, the Soviets approved of propaganda as education and understood
that the greatest persuasive enterprise in America was not the FSA but
advertising, from which they hoped to learn some valuable lessons. American
critics have further objected to the FSA's project as a kind of government
advertising, which it was, and it may not seem as benevolent today as it
did to photographers then. But unlike most advertising, it did include
critiques of the American system, particularly of racial segregation.

Even in the 1930s, some American photographers had doubts about taking
advantage of disadvantaged subjects (or at least about other photographers'
doing so), but times were different, and both photographers and subjects
expected that the subjects would benefit from these pictures. And sometimes
they did.

What is astonishing is that Soviet photographers, and Soviet citizens
generally, apparently continued to believe in their cause in the face of
mounting hunger, executions and brutal repression. Ms. Bendavid-Val writes:
"In the U.S.S.R., citizens went hungry and endured slave labor to build
Soviet industry, witnessed purges and terror in the name of it, and still
they believed they were better off than the rest of the world, that they
belonged to the world's most prosperous, free and classless society. These
attitudes, bringing into question the very notion of belief, influenced the
course of history."

This is, of course, one of the great tragedies of this century, that so
many people have suffered in the name of the betterment of humankind.

The bizarre disconnects of the Soviet photo enterprise take on a different
coloration when seen in the light of such beliefs. Photographers praised
collective farming long after Stalin engineered a famine to kill off
thousands upon thousands of farmers who resisted collectivization.

Rodchenko's first-rate picture essay on the building of the White Sea
Canal, part of which is on view at the Corcoran, in the pages of that
remarkable magazine "U.S.S.R. in Construction," is a dynamic view of an
industrial triumph that cost more than 250,000 lives, a fact that Rodchenko
could not have missed.

Evidently, he rationalized conscripted labor and death as the necessary
costs of progress, to which his best efforts of description could also make
a contribution. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and
sometimes with good photographs.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

Louis Proyect


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