Glorifying Governments Is Also an Art

GBandLM Graham at
Mon Aug 9 07:44:28 MDT 1999

RE. Glorifying Governments Is Also an Art

Observations on the posting re. "Propaganda and Dreams: Photographing the
1930s in the U.S.S.R. and the U.S." exhibition.

(In keeping with the welcome requests to cut down on the size of
contributions, I have only snipped the relevant sections of the original

>>>>So both governments were engaged in large-scale photographic projects
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

Yet there is a case to be made FOR seeing stylistic similarity here, if we
consider the function of the photography.  Its public use led to
assumptions about the kind of audience for the photos, whose understanding
of and patience with complex or abstract images was taken being pretty
limited.  Being 'realistic' - i.e. closely approximating reality, as a
documentary 'window on the world' was placed at a premium.  In the USA,
similar debates were thrashed out in relation to the Federal Art Project,
which was insulated from photography and other technologies (in that they
weren't incorporated into artistic production) in order to ensure that WPA
artists continued to work on a craft basis.  Simultaneously, the art itself
- especially public murals - were policed to ensure documentary realism so
that perceived public sensibilities would not be offended.  (The
contemporary equivalent of this is perhaps the pressure to keep public art
'relevant' and 'accessible' to its imagined audience.)

Obviously the Soviet system of 'arts patronage' was quite different, but
the point remains that if two different state art policies strive towards
the photographic reproduction of reality, with the minimum of artistic
mediations, then the outcome will have certain stylistic similarities.
Hence the original article's observation that:

>>>>>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.

This also helps to explain - in aesthetic rather than political terms -
some of the subsequent controversy.  Maybe in the 1930s >>>>>>>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.<<<<<<<<<<  Yet
this 'plainspoken approach' also meant that some of the consequences of the
Great Depression were institutionalised in FSA photography (and federal
art).  This encouraged conservative attacks on federal cultural policies
(regardless of the absence of a subversive agenda behind such schemes).
Moreover, cultural policy was more or less extraneous to New Deal recovery
policies, unlike the more explicitly economic schemes of the NRA etc.
Congressional conservatives and the Hearst press were happier attacking
cultural targets because they lacked an economic alternative to the New
Deal.  When the Federal Theater Project was closed down in 1937, director
Hallie Flanagan called it a 'hanging in effigy' for the New Deal as a

If documentary style institutionalised the consequences of the Great
Depression, this impacted upon the controversies of the 1950s. Perhaps what
we could loosely call the documentary forms of the 1930s - the proletarian
novel, realist art - continued to be a 'straw man' target because it was
'off-message' in the 50s, when prosperity played a key role in national
identity (the Kitchen debate etc.)

Hence >>>>>>>>>>>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.

Six years ago I authored a paper on this topic.  It now resides on the web

Today I would approach the issue somewhat differently - a book is on the
way …

Graham Barnfield

PS.  As a general point, the posting started off ahistorically .  It says
>>>>>> They [governments -GB] 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.<<<<<<<

Fair comment perhaps, but the two of the latest public monuments in Britain
stress modesty and meekness.  The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, empty
throughout living memory - now has a life-size beardless Christ figure,
symbolising man's inhumanity to man.  Meanwhile the Millennium Dome - great
architecture, duff content so far - has to be comprehensible to a 10 year
old and celebrates subjects that are mundane in a public art context - like
the human body.

Graham Barnfield
Editor, Culture Matters CMCRC strand:

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