The difference between propaganda and art
I’m certain that the only definition of art is that it must cause change. But, if that’s the case, then doesn’t advertising qualify as art? After all, ads do cause some fairly important changes—in our wallets if nowhere else.
The difference, to my mind, lies in intent. Though an art object may be for sale, its sole purpose isn’t (usually) to sell the viewer something. To put it another way: art causes change in viewers by inspiring them to think, while the anti-revolution that ads push carefully avoids inspiring thought. And that understanding of advertising includes propaganda, an integral part of the political promotional machine.
This World War II poster was not created to provide women with a positive image of what it was to be at work. Well before the War, many women were working outside of the home. The need for a double income was already a fact of American life in the late 19th century. Rosie was about making factory work more acceptable to homemakers and women who would otherwise be in clerical positions.* She wasn’t asking women to rethink their place in society: that’s a purely modern interpretation of this image. In 1942, Rosie just wanted women to participate in the less glamorous aspects of war production.
Raha has a good deal more on her plate than Rosie ever did. She forgoes the original meaning (and gesture) and embraces the modern understanding of Rosie while also taking it a step further, from female identity to national identity.
This image manages to insert itself into the viewer’s consciousness, but only as the embodiment of the the United States. Yesterday’s message (Army recruitment) has lost out to this old white man’s imposing and memorable finger and expression. This Uncle Sam now represents how we see our government, like a demanding old codger of Western European descent who wants a cut of our earnings every April. Like a parental figure of sorts…? Definitely keeping an eye on us.
This painting hijacks the attributes of Uncle Sam along with his name—Chú Xam means Uncle Sam in Vietnamese—without taking up his stated request for your life or (his implied one for) your money. Though the text in the resulting image is an order of sorts, this version of Uncle Sam isn’t telling you what to do so much as flirting with you.
These days, propaganda posters in the US are focused around the promotion of a real person, Barack Obama. Without getting into the politics of this year’s Presidential race, I would like to note that these images have seared the likeness of the candidate juxtaposed with words like “hope” and “change” into our secular (and sometimes otherwise) souls with little attempt to engage us as thinking beings.
The proliferation of these images fascinates me. I wonder whether or not future generations will even remember our Obam-olatry (I suppose that depends, in part, on the outcome of the election). And, if they do, I can’t wait to see how they will elevate our hypnotic brain trash to the level art.
*For more information about the history of women in the workforce and the Rosie The Riveter effect, see Shauna B. Gluck’s Rosie The Riveter Revisited from 1987.